Mathematics has an important role throughout the history of science. Students thrive when they can form meaningful connections across different areas of study and can find fresh inspiration in seeing how math interacts with other subject areas that they care about.
Mental calculator and writer, also known as the ‘Human Computer’ Shakuntala Devi has rightfully said, “Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.”
Combining Math & History?
Did you know that even before there were words to communicate orally or in writing, ancient humans were communicating with math? The Ishango bone, which is considered to be one of the earliest artifacts depicting math calculations, dates back to over 20,000 years ago. That wasn’t exactly yesterday! It was discovered in the Congo region of Africa, and it shows notches that indicate tallying or numerical grouping. This bone is evidence of the practice of arithmetic in early human history and demonstrates how math and history have intersected for thousands of years.
The idea of using the history of mathematics in education is not new. History of mathematics has been used in lessons since the 1960s and 1970s, but its importance has increased in the last 20 years. In fact, in 1995, The Institute on the History of Mathematics and Its Use in Teaching was established in the US to support learning mathematics through including historical sections in the teaching and learning processes in lessons. Exploring the history of mathematics shows us that math is very deeply connected to core questions and ideas that have shaped the way we think about and interact with our world.
Like someone’s said correctly, “I am sure that no subject loses more than mathematics by any attempt to dissociate it from its history.”
We all desire meaning, structure and agency, and we can see these desires driving mathematical discovery at every point in world history. Behind every key discovery, there lies either a How question or a Why question, some kind of puzzle that keeps mathematicians lying awake at night until that beautiful moment, Eureka! Studying the history of math is thus a great way for your student to feel inspired by these questions and puzzles, and to feel connected in their efforts to find answers for themselves.
Math History Provides Us With Meaningful Context
This allows us to connect facts together to form a meaningful web of learning. Our brains thrive on patterns, and the more we can connect one idea with another, the easier it is for us to remember everything that we are learning. This is all the more true when we engage with history through narrative, which can embed pertinent information in a memorable plot.
If we want to prepare children to be future scientists, we need to inform them about the past. By doing so, we demystify scientific advancements by revealing their chaotic historical reality; we show students how science is actually conducted; and we have the opportunity to spotlight scientists who have been written out of history—and thus invite more students into the world of science.
Math History Deepens Our Respect For Human Cultures And Collaboration Across Time
The story of math spans continents and centuries. For example, the insights of algebra and the numeral system we use today originated with the medieval Spanish Arabs. Initially, much of medieval Christian Europe was hostile to this new approach to abstract math because it came from an outside, foreign culture.
Math History Presents Us With Role Models
These role models are people who practiced mathematical reasoning with integrity and courage. One of the reasons that I love the story of Hippasus is that it reveals how destabilizing new discoveries can be to our view of the world. This is a theme seen throughout the history of mathematics and science, and often the men and women responsible for these discoveries were alienated or worse by the academic community around them. But part of being a good mathematician or scientist is being willing to follow the truth wherever it takes you, no matter how many cherished beliefs might need adjusting along the way. Think also about the integrity of Gerbert to accept the mathematical concepts that originated from outside his own circles, and the courage to advocate for them no matter how unpopular it may have been with his peers. By exploring these and other stories, we gain examples of how to conduct ourselves in our pursuit of truth.
Math workbooks are valuable, and the discipline of mathematics often requires methodological and rigorous learning that utilizes those workbooks. But sometimes it is worth putting the workbook aside and exploring math from a different vantage point. Digging into the history of math can be a fun break that still assists in math education.
I’d like to end with what Aristotle has said, “If you understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”