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Using Problems from the History of Mathematics

Author(s): 
Frank Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Many teachers believe that the history of mathematics, if incorporated into school lessons, can do much to enrich its teaching. If this enrichment is just the inclusion of more factual knowledge in an already crowded curriculum, the utility and appeal of historical materials for the classroom teacher is limited. Thus, to include a historical note in a student's text on the life or work of a particular mathematician may shed a historical perspective on the content, but does it actually encourage learning or illuminate the concept being taught? The benefits of this practice can be debated.

A more direct approach to historically enriching mathematics instruction and the learning of mathematics is to have students solve some of the problems that interested early mathematicians. Such problems offer case studies of many contemporary topics encountered by students in class. They transport the reader back to the age when the problems were posed and illustrate the mathematical concerns of the period. Often, these same concerns occupy modern-day mathematics students. This simple realization, namely, the continuity of mathematical concepts and processes over past centuries, can help motivate learning. Students can experience a certain thrill and satisfaction in solving problems that originated centuries ago. In a sense, these problems allow the students to touch the past.

Frank Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Using Problems from the History of Mathematics," Loci (June 2010), DOI:10.4169/loci002055

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