It is with envy that some mathematics educators in England look to our colleagues in the Netherlands where the Freudenthal institute has generated a rich, coherent research debate which has been widely implemented in schools. Realistic Mathematics Education offered the antidote to the formalism of the New Maths based on Hans Freudethal’s view that mathematics was not pre-formed. He said; “… the global structure of mathematics to be taught should be understood: it is not a rigid skeleton, but it rises and perishes with the mathematics that develops in the learning process. Is it not the same with the adult mathematician’s mathematics?” So it is very sad to hear that the Commission for Examinations in the Netherlands is considering banning graphing calculators from public examinations. What is it that a calculator does that could be damaging to mathematics developing in the learning process? A machine can do only what a machine can do. If mathematicians continue to fulfill an important role, then clearly they must be able to things that machines cannot do. In his 2001 novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture, Doxiadis’ eponymous mathematician dismisses any process a machine could do as ‘shopping maths’. That of course includes anything a computer algebra system (CAS) could do.
So, learners of Freudenthal’s mathematics should have access to the tools to do the shopping maths, to free up the thinking space to engage with real mathematics; solving problems, generating conjectures, developing proof. These are the art of mathematics, not the mechanical grind. Godfrey Hardy acted as the foil to Ramanujan’s genius, but in the ‘apology’ he makes clear how well he understood that Ramajan’s ability for finding extraordinary new relationships that only he could see, was the real mathematical gift. Getting it into a publishable state was the routine work for afterwards.
The excellent Project Euler takes as it’s premise that mathematicians will have access to a high level programming language (Python, which naturally has a powerful CAS) to engage with problems in number theory. The wonderfully named https://brilliant.org/ designed for potential International Maths Olympiad candidates has a whole section of problem solving requiring programming (and hence CAS) available.
Having a machine capable of high level mathematics available in a public examination in mathematics forces examiners to take a considered view of what the maths is that they are examining. It prevents them from asking students to replicate what machines can do and focuses their thinking on the maths that matters. The maths that Hans Freudenthal was so keen to preserve in the Netherlands, against the onslaught of formalism.
This sad situation was brought to my attention through the English translation of a response by Erik Korthof to an advert for the new HP Prime graphing calculator. He suggests that the absence of graphing calculators in the past allowed the construction of ‘proper exams’. The task of mathematics education should not be to make the lives of examiners easy. Clearly, asking a student to complete a mechanical task that would be simply done by a machine is very simple. To construct a question knowing that the student has access to such a machine is hard. Specifically so, because the question must demand genuine mathematical thinking and that puts great demands on examiners. In the UK, the most progressive mathematics education project (MEI) for A Level students (age 18) have just had their first cohort complete an examination module with a CAS calculator available. The result is thoughtful, highly mathematical questions of exactly the type University maths courses are excited to see. The link will take you to their answer to Erik Korthof’s question: “Is secondary education served with a Computer Algebra System?”. Clearly they answer a resounding yes and MEI are major players in the future of maths education in England.
As I’ve said elsewhere the existence of tools like HP Prime which allow access to powerful mathematical visualization and calculation tools in the classroom liberates students from the mechanical processes that prevent them thinking deeply about the mathematics. Certainly there will be many lessons where the calculators are put firmly away and students will learn and practice these mechanical processes, like drawing graphs and manipulating algebra, not only because they need to see how they work, but also to give them a better feel for the outcomes. Happily teachers are sophisticated enough to manage this. They can also find secure ways to use exam modes to ensure devices adhere to local regulations. Schools are expert in this. These logistical issues should not be used as an excuse for not allowing students the tools that professionals have access to and reducing what is called maths in schools to a collection of mechanical processes. Especially not from the birthplace of RME and the beautiful, powerful view of mathematics presented to the world by Hans Freudenthal.