The Freudenthal Award, with which ICMI honors innovative, consistent, highly influential and still ongoing programs of research in mathematics education, is being awarded in 2017 to Professor Terezinha Nunes, University of Oxford, UK, for her outstanding contribution to our understanding of mathematical thinking, its origins and development.
For more than 35 years now Terezinha Nunes has been researching children’s mathematical learning, as it takes place in formal and informal settings. The results of her numerous, exemplarily designed studies combine into an insightful, consistent, and comprehensive story of the emergence and evolution of mathematical thinking. This constantly developing account has been inspiring the work of mathematics education researchers and informing mathematics teachers’ practices all over the world. It has had a major impact on both what we know about children’s learning of mathematics and on how we know and think about it.
Terezinha Nunes’ research has been immensely innovative and influential from its earliest stages. In one of her first studies, she documented the mathematical skills of young Brazilian street vendors who, although almost unschooled and incapable of executing paper-and-pencil arithmetic tasks, proved impressively proficient in complex money transactions. Understandings gained through this research have echoed throughout the mathematics education literature ever since the project’s completion, for almost three decades now. It was one of those studies that, in the last quarter of the 20th century, revolutionized our thinking about learning—about its nature, origins and development. Conducted with David Carraher and Analucia Schliemann and summarized in their seminal book Street Mathematics (1993), this research made a decisive contribution to what is now known as the “situative turn” in the learning sciences at large, and in mathematics education in particular. Terezinha Nunes’ contribution to this conceptual revolution has been evidenced, among others, by the widespread use of the term street mathematics and by the large number of cross-situational and cross-cultural studies on mathematics learning inspired by her work.
Terezinha Nunes’ later research on the development of mathematical thinking, conducted in Brazil and the UK, spans multiple mathematical topics, from additive and multiplicative reasoning to fractions, variables, randomness and probability. She has studied children’s logical reasoning and its role in the learning of mathematics, as well as problem solving and the way mathematics is being used in science. A special place in her work has been reserved for research on the mathematics learning of deaf children and for developing and testing innovative intervention programs based on insights thus gained. In parallel to the work of scrutinizing different types of mathematical thinking and their development, Terezinha Nunes has also systematically constructed a big picture of this development. As research findings have accumulated, she has been adjusting and refining her syntheses. Different versions of these cumulative, integrative accounts have been disseminated, among others, through her 2000 ICME plenary address, her 1996 book written with Peter Bryant Children Doing Mathematics, and the 2016 ICME monograph Teaching and Learning about Numbers in Primary School, which she co-authored with colleagues.
While forging her stories on children’s thinking about numbers, Terezinha Nunes has been transforming her own thinking as a researcher. She has come a long way from being a traditionally trained clinical psychologist, whose research was firmly grounded in Piaget’s ideas about human development, to being inspired by cultural psychology and the work of Vygotsky and his followers to at least the same extent. Hers is a special type of synthesis between cognitivist and sociocultural approaches. Today, she speaks about “mathematics learning as the socialization of the mind” and claims the utmost importance of cultural shaping. At the same time, she asserts the existence of cross-cultural invariants in children’s mathematical thinking. If these two tenets may sometimes appear incompatible, she argues, it is only because different cultures build on the common elements to produce forms of mathematical competences diverse enough to make the cross-cultural invariants almost invisible. Another basic tenet of her work is that children’s quantitative reasoning may and should be developed independently of, and possibly prior to, their numerical skills. These and many other of her research-generated insights on mathematics learning were novel to the mathematics education community when first announced. Careful to notice phenomena that have escaped the attention of investigators wedded to the "deficit model" of research, she portrayed children’s mathematics in unprecedented detail and depth.
Terezinha Nunes’ tendency for bridging apparent opposites and bringing the separate together finds its expression also in her attempts to improve the practice of teaching mathematics. Not a typical dweller of the ivory tower of academia, she has always made sure that her work finds its way to those for whom it was meant in the first place – educators, parents, and anybody interested in promoting children’s learning. She has been consistently translating her research-generated insights into innovative pedagogies.
Trained as a psychologist, Terezinha Nunes began investigating children’s mathematical thinking because of her professional interest in human development. Her studies soon began to attract the attention of mathematics education researchers, leading to her membership in the International Committee of PME (1986-1990; in 1989-1990 she served as Vice-President of PME) and on editorial boards of major mathematics education journals, Educational Studies in Mathematics (1989-1995) and For the learning of mathematics (2000-2004). Since then, she has been one of the most widely recognized members of the community of research in mathematics education. This, however, was not her only professional membership. An interdisciplinary thinker, who has been investigating children’s evolving reading and writing skills in parallel to her work on mathematical thinking, Terezinha has enjoyed a prominent status also among developmental and cultural psychologists. Her insights about numeracy and about literacy constantly informed and enriched each other and combined together into a major advancement in our understanding of human development and learning in general.
Terezinha Nunes began her studies in psychology in her native Brazil and earned her masters and PhD degrees at City University of New York (1975, 1976, respectively). She began her academic career in Brazil at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and the University of Pernambuco. Later, she moved to the United Kingdom, where she taught at the Institute of Education, University of London, Oxford Brookes University and, since 2005, at the University of Oxford. She is now Professor Emerita at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford. Throughout her career, she has completed tens, if not hundreds of studies, most of which were conducted in Brazil and in the UK. An exceptionally prolific writer, she has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books and almost two hundred journal papers, book chapters and encyclopedia entries in English and Portuguese. An ardent team player and highly appreciated teacher, Terezinha Nunes has been an inspiration to her colleagues and to her many students.
As an outstanding researcher driven by an insatiable passion for knowing, one who has made a paramount contribution to mathematics education and is likely to continue adding substantial insights for years to come, Terezinha Nunes is an eminently deserving recipient of the Hans Freudenthal Award for 2017.