How To Begin Bringing Rich and Inclusive Math History Resources Inside K to 12 Classrooms

Say their names:

Al-Khwarizmi. Aryabhata. Bhaskara. Germain. Agnesi. Galois. Zhenyi. Mirzakhani. Shijie. Al-Haytham. Nightingale. Hypatia. Pingala. Noether. Lovelace. Easley. Brahmagupta. Uhlenbeck.

Whether you realize it or not, simply reading and saying the names of the mathematicians in the thumbnail is an important process in cultivating identity and attribution. Each of those 18 people have a story to tell that contributes to the massive and seemingly endless braid of the history of mathematics. And yet, simultaneously — and paradoxically — they only represent a mere fraction of the lore of mathematics.

Regardless, individually and collectively, they represent potential spaces for connection, identity, and belonging for our students and teachers. The diversity of faces, clothing, customs, and religions not only contributes to the kaleidoscope of mathematics, it provides a powerful snapshot for students to quickly see the magnitude of time in the thematic development of mathematics.

Each of those 18 profile pictures were pulled from this beautiful “Timeline of Mathematics” found at Mathigon. The time line is populated with mathematicians and important artifacts of mathematics. But, more importantly, it is not a static resource. It is constantly being updated with more mathematicians, more stories, and just more magic. As you explore this free resource, you will notice that situating students immediately in some kind of rich, historical narrative — giving origin and purpose — is what anchors all the courses.

There is much mythology and mysticism in mathematics. That in itself is a tantalizing allure to dive deeply into the rich history of mathematics.

For the past few years, I have written extensively about an urgency in broadening our ongoing discussions in math equity with actual mathematics from various cultures, races, and civilizations.

My last four articles related to the topic can be found below:

This article is all about resources(I will continually update this article with them) And, regardless of what grade you teach, there is something here for any teacher to begin the long, but wonderful journey of bringing inclusiveness and more anti-racism ideas into our classrooms.

Here is a wonderful reflection piece by author and teacher, Alice Aspinall. It is a short, but powerful read, to firmly establish the vector that all of us need to move in the direction of for the future of math education.

We all know that when children first start school, they are enamoured with storytelling time. Just the idea of sitting on a floor, anticipating a story from your teacher, are some of our favorite memories of school.

With much gratitude to the people at Math Minds, a wonderful flip book is available for K-1 teachers, called Disappearing Moon, based on the oldest known math artefact, the Lebombo bone. Another story that has a historical element is Cubey Cake, a nod to how a young Gauss added up numbers.

For middle school, Buzzmath has been teaching students about math history for over 10 years, through their Missions, a gamefied part of their platform that not only immerses students in a historical context, but also promotes resilience with challenging problems. Free access to one of their Missions can be found here.

As well,a link to their math history cards can be found here.

What is important about math history is that serves the purpose of fostering deep curiosity. Storytelling plays a part in that cycle.

Amplify is a company that is working with this immersive process in bringing the power of narrative/storytelling to math classrooms.

A link to the math profile cards pictured above can be found here.

In addition, if you would like to read more about the importance of bringing math history inside our classrooms, an ebook that I authored can be found here.

I am working closely with Amplify to ensure that compelling mathematical stories are fixtures in the platform — that they are inextricably baked right into the curriculum. A complete sample unit can be found here. As well as a link to feedback and interest in participating in fields trials of these narrative-rich units.

What is also critical when using math history as a resource, are the multitude of unsolved — yes, unsolved — problems that can be shared with students to bring more context, relevance, and admiration for the work that mathematicians do. Thanks to Gord Hamilton(@gamesbygord), he has curated the small fraction which are accessible to our K to 12 students. Click on the link below.

There are, of course, some wonderful books that I would recommend to start adding to your library of math history/storytelling resources.

The Crest of the Peacock

This book(third edition) is the gold standard to find the roots of mathematics and correctly relay the trajectories of where we are today — especially with scholarly attribution of mathematical discoveries.

The Puzzle Universe

I was lucky to come across this book a few years ago, and it does a beautiful job of showing the history of mathematics through some well-known — and some others not as much — puzzles. There is a rich commentary in the opening of the book, and each puzzle has an answer with a detailed solution.

The Math Book

If this book were hardcover, you would put it on your coffee table! Absolutely gorgeous with rich illustrations, the book is a chronological tour of some of the most important discoveries in mathematics. Obviously not an all encompassing compendium, but has a nice balance in its time line of unpacking some of mathematics’ most major milestones.

Ying and the Magic Turtle

As always, where and how children get introduced to the imagination of mathematics lies is beautiful storytelling. As you can see, I was one of the reviewers of the above book, as were some highly respectable math educators from North America. If you are an elementary teacher, this one is definitely a must have.

One of our generation’s best storytellers in mathematics is Marcus du Sautoy, a world-renowned author and professor of mathematics at Oxford University. He narrated the brilliant 4 part series, The Story of Maths, which is a must watch.

Speaking of “must watches”, I would strongly recommend that you watch Keith Devlin, Stanford University, and his enthusiastic storytelling of Algebra. In a time where the debates regarding algebra as a school topic are distilled down to a tasteless arguments about usefulness, Devlin tells a rich and compelling story of its birth and migration, indirectly supporting the notion that algebra — taught in a rich, historical context — is an invaluable area of knowledge that not only progressed mathematics, but society as a whole.

As exhaustive as this article might seem with resources, it is meant only as an initial invite into our journey in this magic labyrinth of stories, that when braided together, rightfully color mathematics with magic, mysticism, and mythology.

To be continued…!

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Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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Sunil Singh

Sunil Singh

Author, porous educator, audiophile.

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