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A Historical Sketch of ICMI

The International Commission on Mathematical Instruction was established at the Fourth International Congress of Mathematicians held in Rome in 1908.  It was initiated to support a then widespread interest among mathematicians in school education.  The Rome Congress adopted a resolution, submitted on the initiative of the American mathematician, teacher educator and historian of mathematics, David Eugene Smith (1860-1944), creating an International Commission with the initial mandate of making a comparative study on the methods and plans of teaching mathematics at secondary schools.  The idea of such an international commission had in fact been formulated by Smith himself three years earlier in the newly-established international journal L'Enseignement Mathématique, in his response to a survey proposed by the Editors on the "conditions to be satisfied by a complete  theoretical and practical  teaching of mathematics in higher institutions".  The initial ICMI mandate, an international comparative study, ultimately became a massive six-year project producing 187 volumes, containing 310 reports from eighteen countries.

The founding President of ICMI was the distinguished German mathematician Felix Klein (1849-1925), for whom mathematics education was a deep and career-long interest, while the first Secretary-General was Henri Fehr from Switzerland, one of the co-founders of L'Enseignement Mathématique.  From the very beginning of ICMI, L'EM was adopted as its official organ, which is still the case today.  Later ICMI presidents include such eminent mathematicians as Jacques Hadamard (from 1932 to the War), Marshall H. Stone (1959-1962), André Lichnerowicz (1963-1966), Hans Freudenthal (1967-1970), Jean-Pierre Kahane (1983-1990), Miguel de Guzmán (1991-1998) or Hyman Bass (1999-2006), to name a few.  So the interest and productive engagement of serious research mathematicians with school mathematics education, even at the international level, has a long and substantial, albeit uneven, history.

After interruptions of activity around the two World Wars, ICMI was reconstituted in 1952.  It was a time when the international mathematical community was being reorganized and ICMI then became an official commission of the International Mathematical Union (IMU).

A small but significant place for mathematics education was reserved at the International Congresses of Mathematicians, in a section initially called "Teaching and History of Mathematics"  it was in this section at the 1900 ICM in Paris that David Hilbert gave the talk "Mathematical problems" that shaped much of twentieth-century mathematics.  As the history of mathematics later acquired a section of its own, the name changed to "Teaching and Popularization of Mathematics" and most recently to "Mathematics Education and Popularization of Mathematics", reflecting the broader nature of the field.

Over time, as the mission of general education expanded (more advanced knowledge, for more people), the needs and complexity of mathematics education grew as well, leading to the development in due course of corresponding communities of both practicing professionals and scholars.  The small venue afforded by the one section of the ICM's became inadequate for the communication of problems and ideas in this expanded domain.  This led ICMI President Hans Freudenthal to organize the first International Congress on Mathematical Education (ICME) in Lyon, in 1969.  These ICME's have since evolved into quadrennial congresses, in years divisible by four.  They represent nowadays an important ingredient in the programme of activities of ICMI  but far from the sole one, as can be seen from the various pages of this website.


More basic historical information on ICMI can be found in the book

Olli Lehto, Mathematics Without Borders: A History of the International
Mathematical Union
, Springer-Verlag, 1998.

as well as in the papers available on the page "Publications about ICMI" on this website.



A website on the history of ICMI

On the occasion of the Symposium held in Rome in March 2008 to celebrate the centennial of ICMI, a website on the history of the Commission was launched, under the direction of Fulvia Furinghetti and Livia Giacardi.  The aim of the History of ICMI website is to offer elements that allow to delineate the full history and some important features of ICMI.

Components of this historical website are:

  • the Timeline, listing moments in the history of ICMI together with the references to the sources of information
  • the section devoted to Documents, providing direct access to historical documents and people
  • the section Interviews and Film Clips, where opinions and memories of important chief characters in the life of ICMI are videotaped.
  • the Portrait Gallery, containing the biographic cameos of the ICMI officers and of the honorary members who have passed away in the first hundred years.  Some officers were professional mathematicians, members of the ICMI Executive Committee, others were researchers in pure mathematics with a strong interest in mathematics education evidenced by their activity in school milieu and by specific publications concerning aspects of mathematical instruction.  When possible the authors of the cameos were chosen in the countries of the officer treated in the cameo; this allowed to involve colleagues of different countries and to share with them the spirit of the enterprise of constructing a historical website about ICMI.
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