Class time spent providing context to math and science is time well spent.
I have some questions I want you to think about, and since this is a blog, if you end up singing out loud that’s probably okay because I’m not there to hear it.
Can you remember the theme song from your favorite childhood cartoon?
Who was the main character(s) in that cartoon?
Where did they live?
What was the defining feature of that character’s personality?
Who did that character like?
Who did that character have conflict with?
What do you know about the backstory for that character either implied, or developed as the show progressed?
Now for an easy question
Tell me absolutely everything you can about the history of mathematics. Feel free to include any key figures, dates, context, or literally anything else you can remember about the history of math.
To be fair mathematics has never had a catchy theme song, but it did indeed have a three-dimensional pop-up book of Euclid’s elements published in Britain 100 years after the printing press was invented.
The questions above are the same questions I gave to my high school math classes, and needless to say that a pineapple that lives under the sea was far more popular then the guy that made the triangle theorem that every student had been taught three times before they had arrived in my classroom (hint that’s Pythagoras about 600 BC).
Now I can hear both non-math teachers and math teachers alike asking the question; “Why would anybody care about the history of mathematics?” There are a couple reasons that I think it’s important.
#1 It gives context to what we’re learning and why it was even developed in the first place as it still solves the same problems today that it’s solved when it was developed.
#2 The greater reason for me, is to share with my high-school students that at literally any level of high school, they know more about what we consider mathematics then 999 out of a thousand people only 800 years ago. They know more than ninety-nine out of a hundred people 500 years ago, and more than the people we consider great mathematicians just 200 years ago. The idea that we can plot points on an x y axis and use those points to form equations that allow us to solve for unknown values and interpret those values geometrically is something no one could do 250 years ago. People of most age groups are guilty of assuming that what is the status quo during their lifetime has always been the status quo. This is particularly true of teenagers who believe that what “is” is what has always been.
There is value in understanding the historical context and the very real problems that math was developed to solve. It is also valuable, in my opinion, to know upon whose shoulders we stand as we shuffle in and out of what might be considered basic high school math classes today. This is particularly important when we consider the diverse sources and cultures that were required to create, preserve, reintroduce, and grow the study of our world through mathematics. If we are to prepare students for a global economy connected by a web of technology, we need them to understand that mathematics has always been a diverse human affair for which no one segment, group, or civilization can claim sole responsibility. Therefore as they move into their futures, they also, in spite of present privilege, have no birthright or monopolistic claim on future discoveries, economic growth, or scientific leadership.
To me as a math teacher, this is worth an hour of my students time outside of class, along with even a couple hours inside of my classroom, before digging into the “real” math. I believe it is important to give students context, not just of historical figures, but of their personal place in the mathematical historical continuum.
In the next blog I will talk specifically about what we did with math history and some student responses to it.
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