Delve Into the History of Math

By Sean Cavanagh — September 10, 2009 1 min read
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Would students take a stronger interest in math if they knew that an ancient African bone (from 20,000 B.C.) might be one of the world’s oldest known counting tools? Or that the work of Muslim mathematicians was essential to the advancement of algebra? How about if they knew that Descartes was captivated by math’s connections to science and philosophy? Or that he may have gained insight into applied math while serving in the army, as one historian I stumbled across suggests.

These questions came to mind when I saw a notice of a new scholarship that seeks to help math teachers who want to study the history of math at the college level and bring that knowledge back to their classrooms. Offered by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the scholarship will provide $3,000 to an interested educator. See this link for more details.

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of courses at schools of education that probe the history of math. What I’m less clear on is the extent to which these classes offer teachers practical guidance for blending these studies into their day-to-day lessons. A lot of people today argue that K-12 schools should be trying to find ways to make math seem more relevant to students by linking it to practical problem-solving situations in the workplace or in engineering. Could blending relevant examples of math’s uses throughout history, even on a very limited scale—such as when a teacher is introducing a new concept—inspire a student? A student who might say, “You’re telling me the Greeks used geometric shapes to solve algebraic problems?”

If you’ve seen examples of math history being used to make math content more interesting or clearer to students, let me know.

(Image of Descartes, courtesy of the Library of Congress)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.