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International Reflections on the Netherlands Didactics of Mathematics: Visions on and Experiences with Realistic Mathematics Education

Marja van den Heuval-Panhuizen, editor
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
ICME-13 Monographs
[Reviewed by
Paul Christian Dawkins
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One of the curious aspects of mathematics education work is that, for all of the various records that appear in research journals, practitioner journals, and professional reports, it is heavily influenced by many elements that are less readily available to readers not directly involved in the work. International Reflections on the Netherlands Didactics of Mathematics provides the rare treat of collected accounts of the practical, personal, and idiosyncratic history of mathematics education products and policy. The various chapters were contributed by scholars from around the world who have drawn upon the Dutch tradition in shaping their own research, curriculum design, instruction, and teacher training. Because mathematics education is tied to the institution of education as well as the profession of teaching, which ebbs and flows under the influence of myriad factors from numerous stakeholders, there is often a vast, complex history behind the seemingly mundane realities of each local classroom. It may be surprising to those less familiar with Dutch mathematics education how this European country has yielded decades of ongoing influence on teaching and learning globally, often referred to under the name Realistic Mathematics Education (RME). 
The reflections on RME in this book share accounts from a very wide range of countries (e.g., Argentina, China, Denmark, England, Indonesia, Korea, Portugal, and the US). The chapters are somewhat heterogeneous in nature. Most of the chapters entailed a high-level, historical account of:
  • how RME was introduced to influential mathematics educators in a given country, 
  • how they learned about it from representatives of the Dutch educational group behind RME or other leaders in the tradition,
  • how the approach was adapted to local needs and opportunities through curriculum and/or teacher professional development, and 
  • challenges to RME’s perpetuation in a given country often intertwined with the critiques of the tradition. 
Some of the remaining chapters entailed personal reflections on how the author encountered RME, how they came to value it as an alternative to existing paradigms, and their experience using and disseminating products and principles of RME. There were also research reports comparing products of Dutch mathematics education to other products used in the local context, providing a more empirical aspect to the largely reflective book. 
As the reader may note, I have not provided a brief account of what RME entails for those who are less familiar. This reflects the fact that the book itself does not try to provide such an account. As a result, it seems that the book is written for those familiar with the RME tradition. I judge that is the audience who will find this volume of most interest. I can also see how this feature was functional and necessary for the book’s goals, which was to see RME for its breadth and adaptability to very diverse educational contexts. Also, inasmuch as RME reflects the tradition and influence of an entire system of mathematics instruction and curriculum design, it is dishonest to claim we can pin down the essence in some particular list of principles. As an “end-user” of RME for my own research, curriculum design, and teaching, I found it fascinating to see how each author team articulated what they take as central or most useful in RME for their own purposes. Accordingly, various accounts of the core principles of RME appear throughout the book, but they are not at all identical from chapter to chapter showing the wisdom of the editor in leaving this open to the various contributors. 
In what follows, I will attempt to summarize some account of the unique contextual factors that allowed this educational tradition to thrive and exert such global influence. This summary draws together what I have learned from multiple sources for the benefit of anyone who would read the book, but each theme I describe appears throughout the current text. This book allowed me a deeper insight into the historical and interpersonal reasons why RME has proven so influential and robust. 
First, RME grew out of the unique situation of a group of mathematicians and mathematics education researchers who gained a position of leadership and influence within the centralized education department of an entire country (hence the association of the tradition with the Netherlands in particular). In this context, these scholars conducted large-scale, nationally-funded experiments in how to re-envision and reorganize mathematics curricula and instruction. This backdrop seems crucial to the way that this approach was then imported and adopted at an impressive scale in other countries. Conducting research in tandem with overseeing a national education system also allowed Dutch mathematics educators to produce a very comprehensive set of tools that address the myriad challenges of changing educational traditions. 
Second, RME grew through the strength and hard work of some powerful personalities. This book bears a unique testament to the scholars from various countries who were instrumental in learning about RME and working to build on that tradition to help students and teachers in their home context. It is this local and very personal history that I referred to at the beginning of this review, which I found to be one of the joys of this volume. Often, these local scholars and educators were able to bring in RME experts from the Netherlands for extended periods of time to work in close collaboration. The Dutch education department supported these scholars to travel around the world and spend extended time working to foster local educational efforts. The amount of time, resources, and expertise shared in these visits is a testament to how the Dutch team worked hard to share and adapt their tradition at an impressive scale. Finally, the stories in this book demonstrate how Hans Freudenthal, RME’s feisty figurehead and leading voice, acted as an international diplomat for the movement for decades.
Third, RME emerged as a counterpoint to the New Math movement of the mid-20th Century, of which Freudenthal was a strong and vocal critic. This book provides an interesting account of how this same battle of traditions regarding how to think about mathematics teaching and learning recurred around the world. The so-called Math Wars played out in the US are only one example of conflicts over mathematics and its teaching that played out on many fronts around the world. Seeing this pattern repeated made me wonder about how this dynamic tension helped shape RME and build its contributions globally. 
As I mentioned above, I judge that this book will be of greatest interest and value to those who already have some experience with RME. If someone wants to learn about RME, there are other sources that will be better places to start. I have always found the writings of Freudenthal himself valuable, entertaining, and poignant. What this volume contributes more uniquely is the personal histories and comparative experiences of scholars working to build on the tradition. For instance, I now know more of the story behind why Freudenthal was providing lectures in China and who invited him to come, though I first enjoyed the “China Lectures” book years ago. Finally, this book helped me reflect more deeply on the sense in which all mathematics educators are on a journey of learning together about our shared endeavor. The personal reflections in the book share powerful moments of learning from teachers and researchers. These likely provide the most powerful endorsement of RME since they highlight its power to prompt such moments of insight and professional growth. 


Dr. Paul Christian Dawkins is a researcher in undergraduate mathematics education who focuses on the teaching and learning of proof-oriented mathematics, especially Transition to Proof, Real Analysis, and Geometry.