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'In these numbers we use no fractions': A Classroom Module on Stevin's Decimal Fractions - Element I. Identifying a Strategy for Using History

Kathleen M. Clark (The Florida State University)

Prior to studying Stevin’s decimal fractions, I assigned the article, “Who? How? What? A Strategy for Using History to Teach Mathematics” (Wilson & Chauvot, 2000). The authors argue that one way to successfully include history in teaching mathematics – without feeling the need to become an expert historian in order to do so – is to use a strategy in which the following questions are addressed:

  1. Who does mathematics? Since many students perceive mathematics as something done by “others” rather than people like themselves, describing who is doing mathematics and “the way that mathematical ideas are shared also influences our perceptions of who does mathematics” (Wilson & Chauvot, p. 644).
  2. How is mathematics done? Many tools have been used not just by mathematicians, but also by those who use and contribute to the development of mathematics: different numeration systems, mathematical and scientific instruments, calculating machines and computers. Consequently, “each method of doing mathematics made a difference in how mathematics was viewed” (Wilson & Chauvot, p. 644).

  3. What is mathematics? Finally, history enables us to “view mathematics as not only a combination of … mathematical topics…but also a human endeavor that has spanned centuries and cultures” (Wilson & Chauvot, p. 644). Indeed, “who does the mathematics and how it is done influence what is considered to be mathematics” (Wilson & Chauvot, p. 644, emphasis in original).

Quick Reflection I

The Wilson and Chauvot (2000) article became the guide for introducing my PSMTs to thinking deeply about a mathematical topic, using a historical perspective to ground not only their own mathematical knowledge but possibly that of their future students as well.