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Primitives Article

February 29th, 2008

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Cover of Mathematics Teacher 207

In this month’s Mathematics Teacher magazine is an article about prime factorisation by me. It discusses an idea for teaching and learning about prime factorisation that minimises ‘telling’ and maximises students mathematical exploration.

Dave Hewitt, a lecturer in Mathematics Education from the University of Birmingham (and my PGCE mentor a few years ago), has written a series of articles about separating the arbitrary (or contingent) and the necessary and mathematics, and teaching by ‘telling’ only those things which are arbitrary. The idea is that students need to engage and discover for themselves the necessary connections and patterns in mathematics, but the arbitrary are not discoverable in the same way, and so need to be told to people.

This position has influenced my thinking about mathematics education, particularly with respect to algorithms. My conjecture is that using an algorithm involves no mathematical thought; at best, it is an exercise in arithmetic. However, where an algorithm exists there is likely to be a kernel of really interesting mathematics, and creating an algorithm to perform a particular function involves a great deal of mathematical thought. The goal of the investigation was to capture the interesting maths in an interesting way, that the students can engage with, and which they can learn from.

The accompanying software can be found in the primitives section of this website.