You are on page 1of 6

Tara McCarthy EMA 300 Assignment 2 s270531

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

2
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

3
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

4
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

5
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.

6