Professor David Harry Wheeler died in Vancouver (Canada) on October 7th, 2000, at the age of 75, after a long and wilful fight against throat cancer. He was born in UK on February 16, 1925. Through a career extending over 50 years and spent in three different countries (UK, USA, Canada), David Wheeler has made many important contributions to mathematical education at large. But he was also closely related for many years to various activities of ICMI: he was a member of the International Programme Committee for ICME-6 (Budapest, 1988), he chaired the IPC for ICME-7 (Québec, 1992), and he was also a key contributor to the report resulting from the second ICMI Study, School mathematics in the 1990s. From 1982 to 1996, he was the Canadian National Representative to ICMI.
A tribute was previously paid to him in the ICMI Bulletin No. 42 (June 1997), pp. 20-28, on the double occasion of his retirement as the editor of the journal he had founded two decades earlier, For the Learning of Mathematics, and of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of his remarkable career as a mathematics teacher. However ICMI is grateful that three colleagues that were close friends and collaborators of David Wheeler over the years have accepted to prepare personal reflections on the sad occasion of his passing.
(Further reflections on David Wheeler can be found in the editorial of For the Learning of Mathematics, 20(3) (2000), p. 2. The second issue of FLM in 2001, 21(2), will be dedicated to remembering this exceptional scholar and his work.)
Bernard R. Hodgson
Secretary of ICMI
Reflections by Trevor Fletcher presented at the symposium organised in Geneva in October 2000 on the occasion of the centennial of L'Enseignement mathématique
I first met David Wheeler early in the 1950s. We were both members of the Association for Teaching Aids in Mathematics, which was a group of enthusiasts anxious to improve our methods of teaching. This was before the advent of "new" or "modern" mathematics, but this was soon being talked about and our group quickly became involved. We did not accept ready-made the views of others on the new ideas, but set out to develop our own interpretation. At this time David also became the secretary of the Association.
Our group worked on a book called "Some Lessons in Mathematics". This was influential at the time, and was translated into a number of languages. David contributed a number of forward-looking sections, and worked with me editing the book into its final shape.
David moved from school teaching to teacher training at the University of Leicester, and he later became editor of "Mathematics Teaching", the journal of the Association, which by then had changed its name to the Association of Teachers of Mathematics. Under his guidance the journal enjoyed a number of years of development, and moved further towards its present style and influence.
Later David crossed the Atlantic and worked first in New York and then in Canada. These years were the summit of his career, but we were by then far apart and others who were closer to his work at that time must tell of this period.
David was a happy combination - he could work in a team with others, but he was always his own man. He mistrusted orthodoxy, he tested everything, and did not accept ideas until he had thought them through for himself and made them his own. Once he was convinced he was extremely loyal and committed.
Mathematics education was better for his presence; and we are poorer without him.
44 Cleveland Avenue,
Darlington, County Durham, UK
Reflections by Mogens Niss, former Secretary of ICMI
I have not known David Wheeler personally for more than about 15 years, although we had previously met from time to time at meetings and conferences. But I had certainly known of him much longer than that. He was already a veteran and a protagonist in mathematics education when I entered the field in the 70's.
A few years ago, in 1997, we published (in no. 42 of this Bulletin) a tribute to David Wheeler in celebration of his 50 years of contributions to mathematics education, as a mathematics teacher, a mathematics educator, a journal founder and editor, and a great humanist. That tribute gave a very convincing picture of what some have called one of the giants in mathematics education in the second half of the 20th century. It was a characteristic reflection of David's personality that he didn't quite know how to react to that tribute. In my capacity as the editor of the Bulletin at that time, I corresponded with him about it after the tribute had appeared. His first inclination was to feel uneasy and shy about being in the centre of several people's unreserved, positive attention in public. However, after a while he admitted that he was in fact very moved and happy about it. He did so by adding one of his characteristic self-ironic twists: It's a great privilege to be given the opportunity to read one's own obituary while still alive, in particular when it turns out not to be a complete massacre.
He was right, of course. Given his age and accomplishments, and the diseases he had suffered from throughout the years, he was approaching the end of his life span. I am glad he had an opportunity to become assured - if he ever doubted - how much his friends and colleagues appreciated him and his work.
In the spring of 2000 I was informed by close friends of David's that one of his old serious illnesses had caught up with him again, and that it didn't look as if it would lose its grip this time. I send him some letters of sympathy without, frankly speaking, expecting to ever be hearing from him again. Great, therefore, was my pleasure and surprise when in early August I learnt from common friends, who had visited David at his home, that he was doing rather well under the circumstances, that he was the same old David, who had even been away to concerts in town, and that he would like to receive letters. Thus encouraged, I sent him a message to which he responded almost immediately, exactly in the same spirit and style that I knew so well, and we took up a short exchange - mostly about music - which ended by the end of August. About a month later I learnt that David had died.
David Wheeler was a mathematics educator who never in a fraction of a moment forgot that, from his perspective, mathematics education ought to be provided to human beings, in order to serve their needs as human beings, and with due respect being paid to how human beings are different, and to how they live, feel, and think. Hence empathy, open- and broadmindedness, an unpompous sense of reality, and not the least silent humour, should permeate the way we deal with mathematics education. All of this permeated David himself. We have indeed lost a giant in mathematics education, and some of us a dear friend as well.
Mogens Niss, Former ICMI Secretary (1991-1998)
Roskilde University, P.O. Box 260
DK 4000 Roskilde, Denmark
Reflections by Sandy Dawson on the "Canadian Years" of David Wheeler
David Wheeler was in his mid forties and his career in mathematics education was in full flight when he landed in Canada at Concordia University in the early seventies. Well known and respected in the UK before his arrival in Canada, he ascended to even greater heights in the maths education world once settled in Montréal. It didn't take him long before he prodded and poked the Canadian mathematics education community into action, something he continued to do even after he retired and moved to Vancouver in 1990.
During the intervening twenty years, Wheeler was instrumental in the creation of CMESG/GCEDM (Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group / Groupe canadien d'étude en didactique des mathématiques), serving as its President for the first eight years of its almost twenty-five existence. His long time friend and colleague at Concordia, Joel Hillel, writing at the time of Wheeler's elevation in 1990 to Professor Emeritus status at Concordia, said this about Wheeler's role in the formation of the Study Group:
This organization (...) created the environment for the development of a strong intellectual community with representation from all parts of Canada. David Wheeler played the major role in the Study Group's development; he provided the initiative, the imagination, the drive and the leadership critical to the organization's growth. Without him, there would be no such community in Canada. When he stepped down (...) he left a tradition which enabled the Group to continue to flourish. For this endeavour alone, mathematics education in Canada owes him a great debt.
CMESG/GCEDM is indeed a great legacy that David Wheeler has left to the mathematics education community of Canada. Part of that legacy manifests itself in large part from Wheeler's personality. David 'pushed' us: the us being mathematics educators in Canada, but others in the remainder of the mathematics education world were not immune to his 'gentle' influence. He cajoled us. He harangued us. All of this was done with love - though he might not appreciate having that word attached to this description - because he cared deeply and sincerely and passionately about the teaching and learning of mathematics. He was a man of deeds and action, and when he felt that others could do more, or do better, or could stretch themselves, then he was not loath to tell them so - but he did so with love.
In the years after his retirement and move to Vancouver, Wheeler still attended the Annual Meetings of CMESG/GCEDM. Wheeler kept his 'hand in', as the saying goes, challenging the Group to respond to the times and changing demands on mathematics educators, to not be wedded to the way things were done in the past, but to move forward. Yet when changes were made, Wheeler was not always comfortable with them. As CMESG/GCEDM moved into the nineties, 'sharing' and 'reflecting' became a significant part of many sessions of the Group. I can vividly recall him muttering under his breathe - an action performed by whispering out the side of his mouth all the while rolling his eyes and screwing up his face - "If I have to 'share' one more thing, if I have to 'reflect' one more time, I think I shall scream!" Yet reflection was something highly valued by Wheeler. Reflection and the sharing of ideas was the foundation on which Wheeler based perhaps his greatest legacy to the mathematics education community world-wide, his journal.
In the late seventies, after he got CMESG/GCEDM up and running, Wheeler decided that the mathematics education world needed a new journal, one with a different focus and voice than those already in existence. So he gave birth to For the Learning of Mathematics. The inside cover of the first issue in July 1980 states that the Journal "...aims to stimulate reflection on and study of the practices and theories of mathematics education at all levels...". Wheeler lovingly brought the Journal through some difficult early years, guided it over a tumultuous adolescence, and then as it reached its seventeenth year (and fiftieth issue) he let it go on its own into the world. Just as he had done with CMESG/GCEDM, he stayed with his creations until he felt they could survive on their own. Then he stepped away satisfied with the job he had done. Never did I hear him say that he wished that he had done things differently, either for CMESG/GCEDM or for FLM. He did what he did; he did it as best as he could; and then he moved on.
One of the things that Wheeler moved onto after launching CMESG/GCEDM and FLM was work that carried him beyond Canadian borders. He was instrumental in leading Canada onto the international mathematics education stage. He was central to the Canadian bid to host the Seventh International Congress of Mathematics Education (ICME-7), held in 1992 at Université Laval in Québec. Moreover, he was selected to chair the International Programme Committee for this Congress, a great honour and huge responsibility. As Joel Hillel notes, being selected for this post was "...a fitting reflection of the highest confidence bestowed on Professor Wheeler by his international colleagues". The Congress actually occurred after Wheeler had retired. It was not until 1994, however, with the release of the Congress Proceedings that Wheeler finally began to withdraw from the mathematics education scene. Then in 1997 he passed ownership of FLM to CMESG/GCEDM. His offspring had joined forces. And Wheeler moved on.
He moved onto reading even more 'whodunits' than he had previously. He moved onto going to even more concerts than before retirement. He mastered, but not without a struggle, the computer and then moved into the world of e-mail. And he had lunches and dinners with anyone who would care to join him. Indeed, during the decade of the nineties sharing biweekly or tri-weekly lunches became a routine thing with Wheeler and me. We sampled many of the best places for beer and hamburgers or fish-n-chips in the lower mainland in and around Vancouver. He would also say that I managed to find a few of the worse ones as well. One pub in particular stood out for both of us as having the worse fish-n-chips we'd ever eaten. But we always laughed about our culinary noon time adventures that often included, as the years wore on, a leisurely drive around the Vancouver area. David loved to drive around and see the sights, something he didn't do any longer on his own. He very much liked to sit high in the front seat of my Toyota van from where he surveyed and commented on the passing tableau.
And then he moved on. After an eighteen month struggle with cancer, he died quietly in his sleep on October 7th. A month later, in Vancouver, we held a memorial service for him in the chapel of St. Paul's Hospital. Afterwards, a dozen or so of us headed off for a meal at one of his favourite fish-n-chips places. He would have smiled as we ate the greasy fish and a mountain of chips, but would have been chagrined by the lack of beer. Later that evening we walked to English Bay, the beach close to his apartment in the heart of west-end Vancouver, an area Wheeler dearly loved. There we spread his ashes on the waves of the Pacific ocean, perhaps to drift to you wherever you reside in the world.
Two pictures of Wheeler smile at me from the bulletin board above the desk in my Honolulu office. In one photo (taken by Marty Hoffman) Wheeler is sitting at a table during ICME-7 in Québec with Tom Kieren, Arthur Powell, Sandra (my wife) and me, a glass of beer and an empty plate are in front of him, and he is waving a fork about, no doubt 'sharing some thought' or 'reflecting on some event' from the Congress. That picture says so much about two passions in Wheeler's life, good food and good conversation. I am so pleased to have shared many a meal and many a conversation with him.
I miss him a lot.