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Teaching the History of Mathematics.

**Why should educators teach about the history of Mathematics?
**

Traditionally, the subject of mathematics is taught as a set of rules,

or truths, and then students are given problems to solve by applying

their knowledge of the truths. Mathematics can be seen as a subject

with no interesting background stories, and students sometimes

struggle to relate the concepts that they learn into relevant

functions used in day-to-day life.

**A historic analysis, or a “depiction of the past and all that it
**

encompasses”

(Southgate, 2005) can be relevant to students to educate them on

why mathematics has developed throughout the ages. Mathematics

today serves the same fundamental purposes that it did centuries

ago. Mathematics was chiefly developed to fulfil the needs of the

time, the same reason that mathematics is relevant today.

“Exposing students to some of the development of mathematics has

the potential to enliven the subject and to humanize it for

them.”(Swetz, 2002).

**Students can be encouraged to persevere with mathematics that
**

may seem difficult or irrelevant if they are taught how the concepts

began, and what they were used for. If a student should ask “Why

should we learn Pythagoras theorem? Who was Pythagoras anyway?

“ A teacher may keep the student interested and engaged longer, if

they were able to answer “Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician

that lived hundreds of years ago, he developed his theorem about

right angles, primarily so that people could make square corners on

buildings. He probably learned the general idea from the Egyptians

who used a similar theorem to build their pyramids…this is how we

apply his theorem today.” “In construction, this theorem is one of

the methods builders use to lay the foundation for the corners of a

building. This special triangle is useful when they do not have a

carpenter’s square, which is a tool for constructing right

angles”("How is the Pythagorean theorem used today?", n.d.) Collins

wrote that he hoped “A better knowledge of the History of

Mathematics, will hopefully secure a better knowledge and teaching

of the subject. “(Collins, 1894)

**History should be shared. It is written so that children of today can
**

learn much about perseverance and determination when we teach

them about the trials and successes of the past. Heiede noted that

teaching the history of a subject was important ”because it is a part

of a common heritage and must not be held from new generations”

(Heiede 1992) Teaching the historical story of a subject can help

students to connect culturally with the relevance of a subject.

**Indigenous Australians have no form of written mathematics in their
**

culture, so how do we find ways to introduce mathematics so that

they are relevant to these students. A mathematics program being

implemented in Queensland called ‘YuMi Deadly Maths’ “is based on

a realisation that mathematics is an abstraction of everyday life

which empowers people to solve their problems. This unique

program presents mathematics in a new way that views

mathematics as a living, growing creative act in which Aboriginal

and Torres Strait Islander students can excel through active

participation and valuing of Indigenous communities.” (Sarra, 2011)

Again, we are teaching children that we need to learn mathematical

skills so that we can use them to solve every day problems, just like

the ancient Greeks and other mathematicians. All of their

mathematical concepts were created so that they could use them to

solve everyday problems.

**“In recent years there has been growing interest in the role of
**

history of mathematics in improving the teaching and learning of

mathematics.” (Fauvel & Maanen, 1997). Educators today have

become more aware that students will become disengaged if they

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fail to see the relevance of a subject. Teaching mathematical history

to educators gives a broader understanding of the topic, and it gives

the children a different perspective on how the fundamentals of

basic mathematics were initially formed, and gradually built on to

become what they are today. Children will gain a better

understanding of how mathematical principles were derived through

the needs. Each culture had it’s own needs, and they therefore

excelled in that area of mathematics.

**Mathematics today should still be taught as a subject that students
**

understand as a way of solving problems that they need to know the

outcomes for. The teaching of Mathematical history will only serve

to highlight this observation. Maths is not just a boring set of rules

that students have to learn, it is a series of assumptions borne over

centuries of development by various individuals to help them build

things like pyramids and temples, (Yet can still used today to build a

garden shed) trade with other people, (Or buy the groceries at the

shop), pay their taxes, study the stars, planets and seasons or to

help solve complex equations required in advanced Physics or

Engineering. Swertz observed “Educating mathematic teachers in

the use history of can make their instruction more meaningful to

students.”(Swetz, 2002)

**Advances in mathematics have been gradual and have taken many
**

thousands of years. Each small idea was built upon to eventually

create a more complex one. If students understand the historical

aspects of this, then they will know that learning mathematics

begins with learning small fundamentals, and building on them until

they are more complicated equations. The fundamentals of the

modern computers and calculators that we use today were

developed by many different individuals over many hundreds of

years. (Grabianowski, 2013) Again, the principles were the same as

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the ancient mathematicians; big ideas were built upon the

knowledge of small ideas.

**Educational facilities all over the world are beginning to understand
**

the importance of teaching mathematical history. The National

Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the largest mathematics

education organization, rates the teaching of historical perspectives

in mathematics as very important. They have set new goals for

students in their Curriculum, and the first one listed is “learning to

value mathematics’, it specifies: students should have numerous

and varied experiences related to the cultural, historical and

scientific evolution of mathematics so that they can appreciate the

role of mathematics in the development of our contemporary

society and explore relationships among mathematics and the

disciplines it serves.” ("Principles and Standards", 2017)

**Jankvist, commented “history is used to raise student awareness of
**

the human and cultural aspects of mathematics and show how

these shape its development.” (Jankvist, 2009) Any tools that can

encourage children to become more engaged with, more interested

in, and helps them to understand the relevance of a subject, should

be exploited by educators. Do we not learn the most about things

that interest us? Engaging students with interesting curriculum is

the most successful way to teach concepts and ideas to them.

Teaching mathematical history can only enhance the current

curriculum and make it so much more interesting for students.

**As educators, we should be striving to make our lessons interesting.
**

We should be purposefully motivated to awaken students’ curiosity,

stimulate their imagination and arouse their thirst for knowledge.

Most importantly we need to show them the importance of their

learning, and how they will apply their new skills to everyday

situations today and in the future. We need to teach children about

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the struggles and trials of the scholars before them so that they

learn that the smallest of fundamental building blocks can be used

to lay the foundations for great achievements. Incorporating the

teaching of mathematical history into the curriculum will become a

vital instrument in achieving these goals.

**I personally implemented this notion to my Primary School
**

mathematics class, and I immediately noticed increased curiosity

and engagement in the lesson. The students appeared to be more

focussed, and more intent on learning principles that they knew the

Historical aspects of. Building on the initial student response, I will

certainly be incorporating more mathematical history into my

mathematics lessons.

References

**Bütüner, S. (2016). The use of concrete learning objects taken from
**

the history of mathematics in mathematics

education. International Journal Of Mathematical Education In

Science And Technology, 47(8), 1156-1178.

doi:10.1080/0020739x.2016.1184336

Collins, J. (1894). PLEA FOR TEACHING THE HISTORY OF

MATHEMATICS. Science, ns-23(573), 44-44.

doi:10.1126/science.ns-23.573.44

Fauvel, J. & Maanen, J. (1997). The role of the history of mathematics

in the teaching and learning of mathematics. ZDM, 29(4), 138-

140. doi:10.1007/s11858-997-0019-2

Grabianowski, E. (2013). 10 Inventions That Changed the

World. Stuff of Genius. Retrieved 20 February 2017, from

http://www.geniusstuff.com/blogs/10-inventions-changed-

world9.htm

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Heiede, T. (1992). Why Teach History of Mathematics?. The

Mathematical Gazette, 76(475), 151. doi:10.2307/3620388

**How is the Pythagorean theorem used today?. Reference. Retrieved
**

19 February 2017, from

https://www.reference.com/math/pythagorean-theorem-used-

today-fbc5c2df5470cfa3#

Jankvist, U. (2009). A categorization of the “whys” and “hows” of

using history in mathematics education. Educational Studies In

Mathematics, 71(3), 235-261. doi:10.1007/s10649-008-9174-9

Principles and Standards. (2017). Nctm.org. Retrieved 21 February

2017, from http://www.nctm.org/Search/?ky=National

%20Council%20of%20Teachers%20of%20Mathematics.

%20Historical%20topics%20for%20the%20mathematics

%20classroom.%20Reston%20(VA):

Sarra, G. (2011). Indigenous mathematics: Creating an equitable

learning environment. In Indigenous Education: Pathways to

success. Retrieved from

http://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?

article=1118&context=research_conference

Southgate, B. (2005). What is History for? Oxon, UK: Routledge

**Swetz, F. (2002). Learn from the masters!. Washington, DC:
**

Mathematical Association of America.

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