When I was a student I probably asked the question why? too many times in a day. Sometimes, in math especially, the teacher could give me the answer to that question and I would still not understand (I’m looking at you, π, who decided what you were?) But there is an important tool teachers have at their fingertips to answer some of these questions.
- Why is a circle 360 degrees? Because the Babylonians and other ancient cultures used a number system based on 60, and degrees is left over from that mathematical tradition.
- Why does the Pythagorean Theorem work, and…who was Pythagoras? Well, Pythagoras was a Greek mathematician, and his proof using geometry proves this algebraic equation in a different way than showing them the equation does.
- Why do we need math? There’s so many historical answers to this question. Point to the computer scientists and mathematicians that made it possible to go to the moon and have the computers we have today. Point to any of the many discoveries that have allowed us to advance as a society.
- Why do we have to do constructions? Well, other than constructions are an important tool for students to understand Geometry, point to the fact that mathematicians such as Euclid wrote entire books talking about and using constructions hundreds of years ago, and those books have been used and examined by mathematicians for centuries. It’s not just teachers trying to make Geometry harder- its teachers showing students where many of the rules in Geometry come from.
Combining history and mathematics gives teachers a unique opportunity. You get to cross disciplines (always a bonus!) and answer the students’ questions of why? It gives teachers the opportunity to show that math is not a stagnant, boring subject, but a subject that has been growing and changing for thousands of years. Combining these subjects also gives teachers the opportunity to show students that all their education is intertwined with each other. Showing students this gives them an opportunity to have a more well-balanced and well-rounded education. It allows students with strengths in different areas to find a way to connect their interests with classes they may not enjoy quite as much. If a teacher can show a student who loves history that mathematics is connected to history, and put what they are learning in that context, they’ve just opened a door for that student that may never have been opened.
Give that little background on Pythagoras at the beginning of class. Tell students about Babylonian number systems and about Hypatia and how she was killed for her work in mathematics. Cross the line that seems to divide subjects and give students the context that for some may connect ideas and bring a whole new understanding. And if it doesn’t help them understand the concept better, they’ve at least learned a fun fact, and one more fun fact never hurt anybody.