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The history of math

Math History Should Be a Part of The Math Equity Solution

Author: Sunil Singh | Publish on November 23, 2018

My favorite teacher in high school was Mr. Scott, my history teacher. He was the one that inspired me to see mathematics through the colourful lens of history–which really, in the end, is about storytelling.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to communicate. As such, it lends itself perfectly to teaching, which itself is all about the power of communication. Yet, everyday, hundreds of math stories go untold in classrooms all around the world. Which means, so many ideas and topics that our students learn go unauthored–especially by those who are not white males.

The equity issue in math education is a vast and complicated terrain, and squarely addressing the general white, eurocentric curriculum experience of most students is one of the urgent goals of contemporary math education in North America.

Many barriers have been identified in ensuring that all students receive the same, high-quality resources and instruction in mathematics. However, one solution that seems to be a consensus from all stakeholders in education is that math history needs to be inextricably woven into the K to 12 math curriculum.

Including math history goes beyond just being a beneficial pedagogical idea–it helps build a narrative for mathematics that is filled with emotionally compelling stories.

Junaid Mubeen, who is the Director of Education at Whizz Education, and one of my co-editors at Q.E.D, an online community of math bloggers, wrote a stellar piece on math history a few years back.

Math history has been the foundational piece of our platform since the beginning. It hasn’t been a footnote in the margins. It has been the shining star of our platform, through the idea of “Missions”.

In Netmath, students are rewarded by demonstrating mastery in the Grades 3 to 8 curriculum by given more challenging math–which intersects math history!

The 10 Missions go in chronological order, and can only be unlocked by accumulating Gold Stars, which are obtained by completing curriculum-aligned activities in the platform. Each Mission requires 5 Gold Stars. A single Gold Star is obtained by completing an entire activity correctly.

The first mathematician that ALL students will encounter is Aryabhata, one of the great early mathematicians in history. He did seminal work with place value/zero, pi, trigonometry, and algebra. It is critical that students see that some of the roots of mathematics comes from other cultures besides Greece.

While there are stories about hundreds of mathematicians, we also felt it was important to tell the stories of female mathematicians, who until recently, rarely were included in the history of mathematics. That is why two of our Missions contain female mathematicians, Sophie Germain and Ada Lovelace.

Inspired to promote the work of more female mathematicians, our in-house illustrator, Mathieu Beaulieu created an avatar of mathematician, Katherine Johnson, from the movie Hidden Figures. Katherine Johnson, who spent 35 years at NASA, was instrumental in the success of the first and subsequent manned space flights with her mathematical knowledge in orbital mechanics.

The responsibility of addressing math equity belongs to everyone who is connected to math education. Whether you are a teacher, administrator, textbook publishing company, or a digital resource, it is morally incumbent to identify barriers to learning mathematics and provide solutions to eliminate them and other biases.

We here at Netmath are excited about how we can constantly improve the learning experience of all students, and paying homage to math history and recognizing mathematicians of all backgrounds, color, and gender is a small way of challenging the larger math communities to do the same. To emphasize and expand our dedication to math history, we have created “quiz cards” with our historical figures. These will be unveiled at SXSWEDU 2019!

The future of math education lies is addressing equity with creativity and empathy–and the future is now!

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