Realistic Mathematics Education
* Realistisch_reken-wiskundeonderwijs (dutch)
Realistic Mathematics Education (RME) is a teaching and learning theory in mathematics education that was first introduced and developed by the Freudenthal Institute in the Netherlands. This theory has been adopted by a large number of countries all over the world such as England, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Brazil, USA, Japan, and Malaysia (de Lange, 1996).
The present form of RME is mostly determined by Freudenthal's view on mathematics (Freudenthal, 1991). Two of his important points of views are mathematics must be connected to reality and mathematics as human activity. First, mathematics must be close to children and be relevant to every day life situations. However, the word ‘realistic’, refers not just to the connection with the real-world, but also refers to problem situations which are real in students' minds. For the problems to be presented to the students this means that the context can be a real-world context but this is not always necessary. De Lange (1996) stated that problem situations can also be seen as applications or modeling.
Second, the idea of mathematics as a human activity is stressed. Mathematics education organized as a process of Guided Reinvention, where students can experience a similar process compared to the process by which mathematics was invented. The meaning of invention is steps in learning processes while the meaning of guided is the instructional environment of the learning process. For example, the history of mathematics can be used as a source of inspiration for course design. Moreover, the reinvention principle can also be inspired by informal solution procedures. Informal strategies of students can often be interpreted as anticipating more formal procedures. In this case, the reinvention process uses concepts of mathematization as a guide.
Two types of mathematization which were formulated explicitly in an educational context by Treffers (1987) are horizontal and vertical mathematization. In horizontal mathematization, the students come up with mathematical tools which can help to organize and solve a problem located in a real-life situation. The following activities are examples of horizontal mathematization: identifying or describing the specific mathematics in a general context, schematizing, formulating and visualizing a problem in different ways, discovering relations, discovering regularities, recognizing isomorphic aspect in different problems, transferring a real world problem to a mathematical problem, and transferring a real world problem to a known mathematical problem. On the other hand, vertical mathematization is the process of reorganization within the mathematical system itself. The following activities are examples of vertical mathematization: representing a relation in a formula, proving regularities, refining and adjusting models, using different models, combining and integrating models, formulating a mathematical model, and generalizing.
Treffers (1987) describes five characteristics of RME:
- The use of contexts
- The use of models
- The use of students’ own productions and constructions
- The interactive character of the teaching process
- The intertwinement of various learning strands
The realistic approach versus the mechanistic approach
The use of context problems is very significant in RME. This is in contrast with the traditional, mechanistic approach to mathematics education, which contains mostly bare, "with no closes" problems. If context problems are used in the mechanistic approach, they are mostly used to conclude the learning process. The context problems function only as a field of application. By solving context problems the students can apply what was learned earlier in the bare situation. In RME this is different; Context problems function also as a source for the learning process. In other words, in RME, contexts problems and real-life situations are used both to constitute and to apply mathematical concepts. While working on context problems the students can develop mathematical tools and understanding. First, they develop strategies closely connected to the context. Later on, certain aspects of the context situation can become more general which means that the context can get more or less the character of a model and as such can give support for solving other but related problems. Eventually, the models give the students access to more formal mathematical knowledge. In order to fulfil the bridging function between the informal and the formal level, models have to shift from a model of to a model for. Talking about this shift is not possible without thinking about our colleague Leen Streefland, who died in April 1998. It was he who in 1985 (Streefland, 1985) detected this crucial mechanism in the growth of understanding. His death means a great loss for the world of mathematics education. Another notable difference between RME and the traditional approach to mathematics education is the rejection of the mechanistic, procedure-focused way of teaching in which the learning content is split up in meaningless small parts and where the students are offered fixed solving procedures to be trained by exercises, often to be done individually. RME, on the contrary, has a more complex and meaningful conceptualization of learning. The students, instead of being the receivers of ready-made mathematics, are considered as active participants in the teaching-learning process, in which they develop mathematical tools and insights. In this respect RME has a lot in common with socio-constructivist based mathematics education. Another similarity between the two approaches to mathematics education is that it is crucial for the RME teaching methods that opportunities are offered to students to share their experiences with others.
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