What Value is History to Teaching and Learning Mathematics?
by Ioanna Georgiou, author Mathematical Adventures
Mathematics is interlinked with life in more ways than just the numerical applications or geometrical constructions we might directly encounter in our everyday life. It dictates how technology progresses, how we understand the universe, how we describe all sorts of phenomena around us, how we coordinate our lives with one another.
Unfortunately, the rudimentary mathematics taught in school does not allow for even a glimpse of that fascinating world of applications. And how could it? The mathematics required for all this progress is of such a sophisticated level that often only specialists in those branches can follow it.
So, as teachers, how do we convince our students that studying algebra and trigonometry is worthwhile? How do we show them the methods with the conviction that these are the building blocks of something ever greater, dynamic and full of magnificent promise?
We turn to the time that that mathematics was it - the latest thing, the cutting edge!
We turn to the time when counting days and understanding primes was actually making a difference to survival. At a time when certainty whether all triangles have the same sum of angles was precarious and could compromise constructions. At a time when coming up with something as concise as using symbols was revolutionary. Solving that and its variations with a finite set of steps, paved the way towards bigger and more impressive algorithms.
Mathematical Adventures! was created from the need to explain to students why. When the symbols get complex and the purpose blurry, where better to turn than the time when that was the top mathematics of its time? What we do progressively in school builds a stronger and stronger base for the more modern mathematics that underpins the world our students live in. But since contemporary mathematics is essentially inaccessible to school students, seeing the concepts emerging in lively stories through time is a compelling way to show the fascinating journey mathematics has been on all these centuries or thousands of years. And maybe some lucky readers will be able to contribute to this journey someday themselves.
The material included in the book is a careful selection of items thoroughly elaborated through many years of presentations (alongside my teaching). I have been delivering workshops and masterclasses for the Royal Institution and also independently. The attendees, usually young secondary school students, have been interacting with this material, asking questions or offering insightful answers to my questions. Therefore this book was created through all this interchange and understanding of what really worked for the students. And they mostly departed at the end of the events with a smile, being a bit more in the know, as to “why” than before.
How to make mathematics as attractive as possible, so justice is done to its power and beauty? Who knows for sure, but in Mathematical Adventures we've got a different approach - easy to read and rich in content, combined with Anime-style figures. The Japanese art form that many children will know from Manga comics and similar adds a different dimension to the book - see Euclid, Euler, Cantor and many more in Anime form and the ideas are that bit closer to the cartoons of t.v., movies and the internet.
Mathematical Adventures is an unusual book at it is ideal for gifted children at the young end of the age spectrum (10 or so). And it is also great for high school/secondary school students where the "why do we study this?" question starts to become an obstacle to learning. Teachers, tutors and parents will find great material to help answer this question.
And for all both groups, this is a great book for a school library or as a school prize - let children discover the wonder of mathematics over the ages for themselves!
See more on Mathematical Adventures including sample pages HERE. We also publish posters on Roman Numerals, Greek Thinking and Egyptian Fractions - great talking points for introducing history into maths - see more HERE