Celebrate Africa’s proud maths history in curricula

The mathematics curriculum in higher education in Mozambique has not changed in decades and has failed to acknowledge African mathematicians’ influences in the science, according to Paulus Gerdes, director of the Ethnomathematics Research Centre and a maths professor at Universidade Pedagógica.

Delivering a keynote address during the recent 7th Annual Teaching and Learning Higher Education Conference, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Gerdes chastised universities for not recognising some of the mathematical history uncovered in the past two decades.

It showed that African mathematicians had made advances in the science often centuries before their European counterparts.

A proud maths history

Demonstrating his point, Gerdes cited Pascal's Triangle, the triangular array of binomial coefficients named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-62), as still being part of the curriculum.

However, Arabic scripts discovered 20 years ago reflect that North African mathematician Ibn MunCim (of the Maghreb region) designed the 'Triangle of Ibn MunCim' in the 13th century and authored work on mathematical linguistics and applied mathematics.

The earliest known use of mathematical symbols and notations – fractions, addition and subtraction signs – is found in 12th century Arabic scripts written by Moroccan mathematician, poet and professor Ibn al-Yasamin (died 1204). He used poetry to teach mathematics at university, a method that was still employed four centuries after his death.

“This knowledge is changing the view of mathematics, particularly in Africa. The question thus arises about the challenges in teaching mathematics – does it match the current findings and does mathematical teaching need to be rethought in light of the culture defining it?” asked Gerdes.

He called on universities to shift their curricula to honour Africa’a heritage in mathematics, specifically placing mathematics into an African historical and cultural context.

The Blombos Cave in the Western Cape boasts the world's oldest geometric designs, believed to be between 100,000 and 70,000 years old, while a historical dig in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa uncovered the world's oldest counting rod, believed to be about 32,000 years old.

“It is critically important to present every course in the world within its cultural and historical context. We have to be proud of our own history,” Gerdes said.

Maths post-independence

After Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975, Gerdes was part of a team recruited to establish a mathematics teacher education programme, as the country had no mathematics teachers. The 21 recruits were coerced into their new careers, but none wanted to teach, especially mathematics.

In questioning why the recruits disliked mathematics, Gerdes said the answers ranged from mathematics being ‘violent’ to being ‘useless and alien’.

The perceptions came from the recruits being beaten in class when they did not know their times tables, having no recognition of mathematics' value in professions like law and medicine, and not relating to the subject as its ‘roots were not African’.

Their answer was that should newly independent Mozambique require mathematical skills, these could be ‘imported’ from their place of origin.

Changing that perception required visiting a local brewery to demonstrate the role applied mathematics played in daily life. Consequently, the course material was based on those applications and the original recruits went on to further their mathematical education, obtaining doctorates and working as applied mathematicians in medical fields.

“The bottom line was the importance in showing mathematics was not foreign or alien, but something inherent in daily functioning,” Gerdes said.

Adapt the curriculum to motivate students

Returning to higher education curricula, he said the topics currently taught were not useless or irrelevant, but universities had to adapt programmes to motivate students and combat Eurocentrism.

That meant engaging with the history of mathematics and placing value in the cultural background of the students being taught. The outcome would be translating culture into teaching mathematics effectively.

The question raised was at which level of mathematics these principles and experiences should be introduced – undergraduate, postgraduate or even at school?

Gerdes countered that there should be space for incorporating topics covering the history, sociology and politics of mathematics that essentially introduced critical thinking to the subject matter and broadened students' exposure to mathematics. Consequently, it was not a topic "just for postgraduate consideration".

"It is the teachers' approach to the subject matter that will make the difference into the future," Gerdes said.