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Educ Stud Math (2014) 87:16

DOI 10.1007/s10649-014-9569-8

The role of concrete materials in Emma Castelnuovos

view of mathematics teaching
Fulvia Furinghetti & Marta Menghini
Published online: 12 July 2014
# Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Abstract Emma Castelnuovo (19132014) was an Italian mathematics teacher of grades 6 to 8 in

secondary school. During the crucial period of the 1950s and 1960s, when important reforms were
proposed, she was involved in significant events such as the first CIEAEM meetings and the
Royaumont Seminar. She was an active contributor to the development of international cooperation
in mathematics education and was one of the first authors in the journal Educational Studies in
Mathematics. Thanks to pioneers such as Emma, the figure of teacher-researcher took shape and
the milieu of mathematics education was forever changed. The main aim of Emmas work as an
innovative teacher was to actively involve learners. In outlining Emmas action as a mathematics
educator, we will pay particular attention to the use of concrete materials as this was a favorite
means by which she pursued her aims.
Keywords EmmaCastelnuovo . Concretematerials . Intuition . Exploration . CIEAEM . Real life
and mathematics . Teacher-researcher

F. Furinghetti
Department of Mathematics, University of Genoa, Genoa, Italy
M. Menghini
Department of Mathematics, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
e-mail: marta.menghini@uniroma1.it
F. Furinghetti (*)
Dipartimento di Matematica, Universit di Genova, via Dodecaneso 35, 16146 Genoa, Italy
e-mail: furinghe@dima.unige.it

F. Furinghetti, M. Menghini

1 Introduction
Emma Castelnuovo was born in Rome on the 12th of December 1913 and died in Rome on the
13th of April 2014. In the year of her 100th birthday, many Italian and international events
celebrated her life and work: conferences, publications, awards. In particular, the
International Commission on Mathematical Instruction (ICMI) established the Emma
Castelnuovo Award for excellence in the practice of mathematics education (see ICMI website
URL at the end of this article).
The Italian Mathematical Union (UMI) has published a special issue of its journal La
Matematica nella Societ e nella Cultura (Mathematics in society and culture, 2013, s.1, 6)
dedicated to Emma, in which various authors illustrate different aspects of her life and work.
An annotated list of her main publications is in Menghini with collaborators (see website URL at
the end of this article). The website by Fontanari gives access to many of Emmas publications.

2 Biographical notes: a special family, special times, and a special teacher

Emma grew up in a very significant mathematical family and milieu (see Gario, 2013;
Menghini, 2013). Her father Guido and her uncle Federigo Enriques (brother of her mother
Elbina) were paramount mathematicians and founders of the Italian school of algebraic
geometry. They were both engaged in the development of mathematical instruction (see
Furinghetti & Giacardi, website). At an international level, in 1908, Guido chaired the
International Congress of Mathematicians in Rome when the Commission from which ICMI
sprung was founded and later on in 19121920 and 19281932 served the Commission as a
vice-president; Enriques was awarded honorary membership of ICMI during the International
Congress of Mathematicians in Oslo (1936) for his special activity in mathematics education.
At the national level, they were presidents of the Italian association of mathematics teachers
and directed didactic journals.
Emma graduated in 1936, but due to the Italian racial laws of 1938, she did not gain a
permanent position as a mathematics teacher until after the Second World War. From 1939 to
1943, she taught in the Jewish School in Rome, which was attended by Jewish students who
had been expelled from the state schools due to the racial laws. At the end of the Second World
War, Emma along with several colleagues put her enthusiasm into organizing very successful
conferences for teachers. In 1945 she started to teach in a middle school with pupils aged 11
14 in Rome, where she worked until her retirement in 1979.
In 1946 Emma published a paper that is a kind of manifesto of her view of mathematics
teaching (see Castelnuovo, 1946). The paper shows how she grasps the changing needs of
society by asking for a unique stream of middle school against the different streams existing in
Italy at that time: one stream for the pupils who continued their career possibly until university
and others for those who stopped at 14 or continued in vocational schools. She also claims the
need for taking into account students psychology. She advocates a teaching path that goes
from concrete to abstract, from particular to general. She defines her method as continuous
(because it develops from the students previous knowledge) and active (because the students
themselves experiment and their discoveries and actions contribute to the construction of
mathematical knowledge). She describes the simple tools that she uses for teaching geometry
in her classroom such as folding cardboard and strings. According to Emmas own words, the
inspiration for her method, which was innovative at the time especially in the old fashioned
school world of Italy, originated from reading the treatise of geometry by Alexis-Claude
Clairaut, published in Paris in 1741 and translated into Italian since 1751. This book was

Concrete materials in Castelnuovos mathematics teaching

written with didactic intentions, proposing problems to be solved and trying to guide students
in discovery. Even if the pedagogical value of Clairauts book has been questioned (see
Glaeser, 1983), it gave Emma the right inspiration for finding her personal way of teaching.
She referred to Clairaut in the talk delivered at ICME 6 in Budapest during the special
afternoon devoted to mathematics, education, and society (see Castelnuovo, 1989). Her feeling
about the history of mathematics in the classroom echoes the guided reinvention proposed by
Hans Freudenthal (1973).
After her encounter with Clairauts treatise, Emma suddenly changed her teaching style and
2 years later, in 1948, she published a textbook on intuitive geometry (Castelnuovo, 1948).
With this textbook, she revitalized the teaching of intuitive or practical geometry, which had
been earlier introduced at the beginning of the twentieth century (see Menghini, 2009).
Emmas innovative views on teaching are stressed in Caleb Gattegnos (1953) review where
she is presented as an enthusiast for active methods in geometry. The international circulation of this beautiful book gave her a remarkable visibility outside Italy. It entered school
practice through translations into Spanish and, later, English (see references), and also fostered
contacts with contemporary prominent figures in the field of mathematics education. In 1949
Emma met a group of Belgian teachers working at the innovative cole Decroly of Brussels,
where she again encountered Paul Libois. He had previously been her fathers student in Rome
in 193435 and by then was professor at the Universit Libre of Brussels, where he was
cooperating with the cole.
In the methods of the cole Decroly, Emma recognized a way of opening the minds of
Italian teachers and young students, and to this end she promoted, through grants, study trips to
Brussels (Menghini, to appear). The pedagogical methods of the cole were characteristic: the
teacher guided the students, encouraging them to build upon their understanding and mathematics was connected to reality. There was not a program, but various centers of interest that
connected all the subjects.
From Libois, Emma also took the idea of using mathematical exhibitions as an important
educational tool, not only for the pupils who prepared them, but also for the young teachers
who collaborated. She organized exhibitions in Italy (in Rome and also in other cities) and
abroad. The 1974 exhibition in her school in Rome gave rise to the book Matematica nella
realt (Mathematics in reality, Castelnuovo & Barra, 1976), which was translated into many
languages (see references).
In the 1950s Emma was among the founding members of the Commission Internationale pour
ltude et lAmlioration de lEnseignement des Mathmatiques, the International Commission
for the Study and Improvement of Mathematics Teaching, in which she played an important role
and which she chaired from 1979 to 1981 (see the contributions by Emma, Flix, and Valenti on
the CIEAEM website; Bernet & Jaquet, 1998). In its first years, CIEAEM fostered reflection in
the field of mathematics education by gathering together important people (mathematicians,
epistemologists, mathematics teachers, and mathematics educationalists such as Piaget,
Freundenthal, and Gattegno). Emma contributed to the promotion of ideas elaborated inside
CIEAEM, such as the use of concrete materials in teaching. She designed and carried out a
complete program for the middle school (ages 1114 years) based on the use of concrete
materials, and wrote a chapter in the second of the two books produced by CIEAEM. While
the first was mainly centered on mathematical content (most authors were leading mathematicians, see Piaget et al., 1955), this second book was strongly oriented towards classroom practices
by presenting concrete materials for mathematics teaching (see Gattegno et al., 1958). In 1958
Emma was one of the two Italian participants at the Conference of Royaumont where members of
ICMI, CIEAEM, and national representatives met to discuss curricular reforms in relation to the
movement of modern mathematics (see Furinghetti, Menghini, Arzarello, & Giacardi, 2008).

F. Furinghetti, M. Menghini

In 1963 Emma published the book La didattica della matematica (Didactic of mathematics),
where she describes, besides her method, the main achievements and cultural references of
European mathematics education (Castelnuovo, 1963). This book was translated into Spanish
and German (see references).
In the 1960s and 1970s, the period in which the field of mathematics education was shaped
around new dimensions and became an academic discipline, Emma was involved in important
initiatives. In 1969 she was invited by Freudenthal to deliver a talk at the first ICME in Lyon.
At ICME-3 in Karlsruhe (1976) she was also invited to present an exhibition (comprising more
than 100 posters) prepared with her middle school pupils on the theme Mathematics in real
life. Emma was a member at large of ICMI from 1975 to 1978 (see Furinghetti & Giacardi,
website). In 1968 Freudenthal founded Educational Studies in Mathematics and Emma
published eight papers in this journal from the first volume until 1979 (volumes 1, 2, 5, 7,
8, 10). These years also saw international cooperation in mathematics education realized
through actual initiatives (see Furinghetti, 2014). Invited first by IREM and then by
UNESCO (which was collaborating with ICMI), Emma went to Niger four times, from
1977 to 1982, to teach in classes that corresponded to our middle school (see Bert, website).
On these occasions, her method of intuitive teaching of geometry proved very successful. All
these aspects make Emma a pioneer woman in mathematics education (see Furinghetti, 2008).
Emmas international fame grew particularly in Hispanic countries, where many of her
books were translated. In Spain, the still very active Sociedad Madrilea de Profesores de
Matemticas (SMPM) Emma Castelnuovo was founded in 1991 (see Sociedad Madrilea
de Profesores de Matemticas, website). Besides the many papers and books left by Emma, her
major legacy consists in the motivation she was able to transmit to the teachers she worked
with and inspired. They have learnt in her classroom, through her books, and in the frequent
meetings she used to hold at her home, where everybody was free to go and discuss ideas with
her. Examples of Emmas legacy may be found in the residential courses for teachers of the
Officina matematica (see Castelnuovo, 2008) in Italy, in the activities carried out in Spain
(see Casalderrey & Ramellini, 2004), and possibly in many other countries.

3 Emmas teaching method and the use of concrete materials

Emma lived during a period of ferment in the mathematics education environment and had the
capacity to grasp the spirit of the time. Her commitment to the social aspects of teaching
allowed her to perceive the new requests coming to education from society and to understand
that the problem was not only in updating content, but in identifying suitable methods to face
the new phenomenon of the school for all. As discussed in Furinghetti, Matos, and Menghini
(2013), until the first half of the twentieth century mathematics education was mainly the
business of professional mathematicians, but after the Second World War a need emerged for
new professional expertise featuring a new kind of research. This acknowledged mathematics
education as a scientific discipline: from the 1960s mathematics education had specialized
journals and conferences, and chairs in universities. In this milieu, the active participation of
teachers was important and a new figure of teacher-researcher was emerging. This context
created an environment charged with possibility and suitable for the development of new
teaching methods, like those pioneered by Emma. The use of concrete materials was the
landmark of her method. The experimental work of psychologists and educators such as Ovide
Decroly and Maria Montessori, new teaching aids, and the reform movements of the early
twentieth century had fostered interest among mathematicians in mathematics laboratories,
where students actively used drawing instruments, calculating machines, and manipulatives

Concrete materials in Castelnuovos mathematics teaching

(see Barbin & Menghini, 2014). After the Second World War, the use of concrete materials
was taken up again in many contexts. In 1945 an NCTM yearbook was devoted to measuring
and drawing instruments and to the creation of three-dimensional physical models. Gattegno,
as well as the mathematician and psychologist Zoltan Dienes, strongly supported the use of
manipulatives, such as Cuisenaire rods and logic blocks, in classroom activities. Libois used
concrete materials at the cole Decroly in Brussels, and in the UK the Association of Teachers
of Mathematics (ATM) sustained Gattegnos initiative in promoting the use of manipulatives
(see Rogers, to appear).
As mentioned before, Emma was first attracted by Clairauts practical approach to teaching
geometry. But she also realized that the construction of a figure with a ruler and a compass
limits freedom of thought, because you can consider only a finite number of cases: drawing is
static and does not stimulate observation nor lead to new discoveries. She understood that it is
better to construct geometric figures with concrete materials that can be handled, doing and
undoing them (Castelnuovo, 2008). Already by 1948 her book on intuitive geometry refers to
many examples of the use of simple materials such as meccano or elastic strings, and the
consideration of limit cases leads the pupil to imagine moving these objects.
At its best, Emmas approach utilizes concrete materials and hints at new potentialities:
through experiments she fosters explorations, the production of conjectures, examples, and
counterexamples. Children are free to build their knowledge by using direct observation and
imagination (see Lanciano, website). This activity allows the birth of a critical spirit as a main
component of logical thinking. Allowing students to make errors is a fundamental component
of Emmas teaching. Errors have an educational value and also a social one: everyone can
make mistakes, and to analyze them collectively can bring about new discoveries (Arbarello,
2014). In Emmas method, we recognize the seeds of the ideas inspiring subsequent innovations with technology that happened some decades later.

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