Math history is something we don't often think about when we talk about math. Math learning in Canada today is radically different from what it was like thousands of years ago, thanks to the development of public education and universities and shifting trends in math teaching strategies.

Children today use video games, toys, YouTube videos, and digital applications to learn math, often focused on problem solving and collaboration. Learning math is no longer about getting the 'right' answer or rapidly answering a sheet of questions, leaving parents, educators, and scholars in constant debate over how to teach math.

Whatever your take is on math education, nearly everyone will agree that math is an essential skill we should all have some proficiency in. We can probably concur that math practice and learning should take place every day in schools, and that we need as many successful math scholars as possible. Through math, some of the greatest advances in technology have been made, and in order to support innovation we need strong math students in Canada.

So how did we get here? Did ancient societies value math as much as we do? What’s the history of math instruction? Let’s take a closer look at how math was taught from Ancient Greece to Modern Canada.

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What was Math like in Ancient Greece?

In ancient Greece, education varied widely between states. The Spartans focused on morality, while the people of Athens emphasized the perfection of the physical and mental forms. Math was taught much differently than today because Geometry and Arithmetic were considered separate subjects. Arithmetic was essentially a study of calculations taught to artisans and middle class people. If you had time, financial resources, and interest, you could further pursue a study into mathematics.

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Boys started their math education at home under the watchful eye of a parent or math tutor. Early education included letters, Music, and Gymnastics, but v ery little arithmetic or geometry. At the age of twelve, students were enrolled in math lessons, where they would also continue learning in Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric. 

Much of our understanding of geometry is owed to Pythagoras, who founded a school in 514 BCE. Ask any Canadian student in secondary school about the Pythagorean theorem and they will surely give you a quick lesson - it’s one of the key concepts in most math curricula across the country.

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Much of today's math learning comes from findings made in ancient times. Source: Unsplash.

In contrast, Plato’s Academy had a far more limited view on mathematics and a much larger focus on developing future statesmen. Plato acknowledged that mathematical instruction led to clear, logical thinking - a prized attribute by politicians of the time. He supported the idea that a student should study math during the first ten years of education so they could become rational, philosophical thinkers ready to succeed in politics. In his famed text of “The Republic”, he suggests that Mathematics is necessary learning at the elementary level. Plato’s academy was shut down by Emperor Justinian in 529 CE: considered a ‘pagan’ establishment, its teachings were considered illicit.

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Was Math Learned in Ancient Rome?

Like the Greeks, Romans practiced early education at home for males only. Students started formal math learning around the age of 12 and also studied Letters, Music, and basic Arithmetic, using manipulatives like hands or an abacus. Unless required by one’s work or social status, learners in ancient Rome did not study math outside what they learned from home. Mathematics masters provided lessons to those who could continue, though such scholarship was quite rare. Documents from the period suggest that math instruction wasn’t typical, but seen as necessary in some cases. 

Ancient Rome held more esteem for professions requiring Logic, Rhetoric or Oratio than those involving numbers and sciences. Those who had careers requiring an extensive math education were known as ‘illiberals’ and held lower social status. This attitude meant that math instruction stalled for centuries in the West. Education advocates like Cassiodorus, a 6th century Roman statesman, put forth his arguments to the Roman Catholic Church. He split learning into two areas: 

  • Trivium: the areas of speaking and languages
  • Quadrivium: Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy

Cassiodorus’ notion of education still exists with the different labels of Humanities and the Sciences - with the obvious exception of Music, which is considered an area of arts and culture rather than science. In the 9th century, schools became part of monasteries, and budding priests received education. Math and sciences were only taught at the highest levels of instruction. The Church became the centre of education in Western Europe. Math instruction was uncommon: the school attached to the famed Cathedral of York was one of a few places in England that taught math.

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Math teaching re-entered education when the mathematical writings of Boethius were discovered by Gerbert D’Aurillac, who would become Pope in 999 CE. Thanks to his influence, math teaching remained a core requirement in schools for 500 years. During that time, the study of numbers flourished with the development of algebra, complex computation, and differential calculus.

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Who Studied Math During the Renaissance Period?

With the Renaissance, new ways of thinking about education emerged as thinkers emphasized life skills and looked at the world with a new perspective. The printing press, newly discovered, enabled texts like Euclid’s elements to be disseminated across Europe. Scholars in Germany, France, and Italy used the same text to study independently or with teachers. Modern math texts were also printed and shared: England’s Robert Recorde wrote one of the first math textbooks. Recorde created the “=” symbol, reasoning that nothing could be more equal than two parallel lines of the same length.

Thinkers like Ramus also wrote textbooks on Math that awakened an interest in the subject among the middle class. With so many people wanting to learn mathematics, private math tutors emerged and earned a steady income

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How Did Students Learn Math in the 19th Century?

By the 19th century, math studies became more pervasive with the industrial revolution introducing a new city lifestyle where the ability to perform operations and tell time became essential. Public school systems made math a core component of the curriculum, and universities started to prioritize and elevate the study of math.

In Canada, mass schooling took hold as school promoters argued that education was needed to instill “appropriate” behaviours and thinking in children. It’s important to note that public schooling was intended to be an antidote for many of the social ills brought about by the industrial revolution.

Eventually, parents saw education and math learning as a means through which their children could secure their futures and obtain credentials. However, school enrolment often declined in areas where industrial jobs were plentiful.

math learning in the 19th century a school house
In the 19th century, public education became more common with the rise of industrialization. Source: Unsplash.

What is Math Education like in Canada Today?

Math instruction had gone through seismic shifts in Canada despite the fact that mandatory schooling for children has only been enforced over the last 100 years. Traditional math study for kids has often revolved around memorizing basic math facts, measurement, and textbook style practice. Shifts in thinking about math over the last 20 years has transformed math classrooms into places where kids collaboratively problem solve, experiment with manipulatives, and focus on understanding over memorization. Some common areas of math curriculum across the provinces include:

  • Number Sense and Computation
  • Algebra
  • Data Management
  • Geometry 
  • Measurement
  • Calculus
  • Accounting Math
  • Trigonometry

Technology has also had a huge impact on math learning, with so many electronic games focused on teaching math facts and coding even becoming a recognized part of math learning. Standardized testing in math has also become an integral part of math education, with scores used as a barometer to check the numeracy of communities.  

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With so many changes, it’s not hard to see why good math tutors are always in high demand. Math is a prerequisite for some of the most sought after university programs like Business, Architecture, Medicine and Engineering, and without strong math skills many parents worry about their kids’ opportunities for future careers. 

coding on a computer screen
Coding is one of the newest additions to modern math learning. Source: Unsplash.

From past to present, math teachers, advocates, thinkers and tutors have played an essential role in cultivating the next generation of innovators and healers. Remember that when you study math, you are carrying on the work that started a millennia ago!

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How do I Get Started as a Math Tutor?

If you happen to be interested in joining the ages old tradition of math instruction because you love the subject and have a knack for explaining math to others, why not get started as a math tutor?

Aspiring math tutors can visit Superprof.ca to quickly set up a profile and start advertising to clients. The site is set up to connect prospective clients with a vast choice of tutors that can help them in whatever subject they choose. The site is streamlined, easy to use, and lets you browse tutors with ease. As one might imagine, math is one of the most popular subjects for people to seek tutoring in, whether it is for themselves or for their kids. Why not post your own profile and see what happens? Check out Superprof today!

 

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Colleen

Colleen is a Toronto-based educator, mom and freelance writer who believes in lifelong learning and strong coffee.