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October 26, 2000 In Memoriam: David Wheeler



Professor Emeritus David H. Wheeler died in Vancouver on October 7 at the age of 75.

He was appointed full professor of mathematics at Concordia University in 1976 after a distinguished career in England in mathematics education and as the editor of Mathematics Teaching, the journal of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics in the United Kingdom.

As soon as he arrived, he helped create the first national forum for discussing mathematics education at all levels of instruction. This initiative resulted in the formation of the Canadian Mathematics Education Study Group, presently planning its twenty-second annual meeting. As a longtime president of the organization, Professor Wheeler provided the initiative, imagination, drive and leadership critical to its growth.

For over a decade, he was Canada’s representative to the International Commission on Mathematics Instruction, a role that led to a successful submission to hold the Seventh International Congress of Mathematics Education in 1992 at Université Laval. Professor Wheeler was then elected chair of the international program committee. He was also a frequent invited speaker at national and international meetings, where his presentations always showed the breadth of his thinking, and his ability to connect mathematical, psychological and historical aspects to pedagogical problems.

He created a personal legacy for the discipline in the form of the international journal For the Learning of Mathematics, of which he was editor for its first 50 volumes. It is now one of the mostly widely read journals in the field.

When he joined Concordia, he brought a wider perspective to the Master’s in the Teaching of Mathematics program, introducing faculty and students to Piaget’s work in developmental psychology, Polya’s classical writing on heuristics and problem solving, and Lakatos’ perceptive insights of the process of mathematization and proof. He brought the international mathematics education community to Concordia by attracting visiting scholars and lecturers, and helped launch the research aspect of the mathematics education group.

Professor Wheeler often challenged mathematicians to unravel the genetic development of mathematical ideas and to objectify and describe the mental processes that produce mathematics, an activity he called “mathematization.” He expressed these ideas in his talk at the 1982 International Congress of Mathematics in Helsinki:

“The formal face of mathematics generally hides, rather than reveals, the inner life - at least, until one has enough experience to be able to read its expression,” he said. “A definition, for example, often covers up the real source of the awareness that ‘this will be worth pursuing,’ and a proof can mask the source of conviction that a result is actually valid.

“In looking at mathematization, we are, it seems to me, trying to get as close as we can to the phenomenology of the awareness and convictions that we experience when we are doing mathematics and which power the movement of our mathematical thoughts. We can try to raise this awareness and convictions into consciousness - become aware of our awareness, if you like - and then we may be able to find a way of talking about them that will make sense of these experiences.”

David Wheeler earned the respect and the affection of his peers and his students, and Concordia University has been a much richer institution for his presence.

- Joel Hillel, Chair, Mathematics and Statistics