Scientific article
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The role of formalism in the teaching of the theory of vector spaces

ContributorsDorier, Jean-Lucorcid
Published inLinear algebra and its applications, vol. 275-276, p. 141-160
Publication date1998

In the French tradition of Bourbaki, the theory of vector spaces is usually presented in a very formal setting, which causes severe difficulties to many students. The aim of this paper is to analyze the underlying reasons of these difficulties and to suggest some ways to make the first teaching of the theory of vector spaces less unefficient for many students. We do not reject the necessity for formalism. On the contrary, on the basis of a historical analysis we can explain the specific meaning it has in the theory. From this mathematical analysis with a historical perspective, we analyze the teaching and the apprehension of vector space theory in a new approach. For instance, we will show that mistakes made by many students can be interpreted as a result of a lack of connection between the new formal concepts and their conceptions previously acquired in more restricted, but more intuitively based areas. Our conclusions will not plead for avoiding formalism but for a better positionning of the formal concepts with regard to previous knowledge of the students as well as special care to be given in making the role and the meaning of formalism in linear algebra explicit to the students.

  • Mathematics education
  • history of mathematics
  • linear dependence
  • rank
  • Euler
  • Frobenius
Affiliation Not a UNIGE publication
Citation (ISO format)
DORIER, Jean-Luc. The role of formalism in the teaching of the theory of vector spaces. In: Linear algebra and its applications, 1998, vol. 275-276, p. 141–160. doi: 10.1016/S0024-3795(97)10061-1
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Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal0024-3795

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