Prof. Dr. Hans Freudenthal (1905 - 1990)


Hans Freudenthal was born in 1905 in the German town of Luckenwalde, the son of a Jewish teacher. Even at a young age he was interested in differential equations and integration, but by the age of 13 he had also read all the works of Goethe and Schiller. In 1923 he went to Berlin and Paris to study mathematics. After gaining his doctorate he moved to Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, where he became assistant to L.E.J. Brouwer, the famous mathematician, in 1930. Shortly after, he married Suus Lutter, who was a pedagogue. Thanks to his marriage to a non-Jewish Dutch woman and a certain amount of luck, Freudenthal was able to survive the Second World War.
In 1946 Freudenthal became a professor in Utrecht, appointed to a chair in pure and applied mathematics and the principles of mathematics. In his time Freudenthal was an accomplished and well-known mathematician, and he made substantial contributions to topology, geometry and the theory of Lie groups.

As a teacher he acquired international fame and significance as the founder of realistic mathematics education, which is based on problems taken from day-to-day experiences rather than on abstract math rules. Single-handedly Freudenthal saved Dutch education from the American teaching method of New Math, which was introduced in many countries from 1960 onwards. This formal, logic-based method turned out to be unsuitable for most students.

Freudenthal preferred to send his students on a tour of discovery. His motto was that you learn mathematics best by re-inventing it. His students were not given abstract bare problems to do but well chosen practical problems from daily life, and in solving these they gradually developed mathematical understanding. In addition, Freudenthal thought the recognizability of the problems would lead to the students automatically becoming more interested in mathematics.

Hans Freudenthal in 1987
Foto: Werry Crone, TROUW (1987)

In 1971 Freudenthal set up the IOWO (Instituut Ontwikkeling Wiskundeonderwijs, Institute for Development of Mathematics education), now called the Freudenthal Institute (FI). The FI continues to be one of the driving forces in the renewing of mathematics education, both in the Netherlands and abroad.

Deep at heart Freudenthal was really a writer. He wrote countless columns over many years for Dutch quality papers, such as De Groene Amsterdammer and NRC Handelsblad, on topics which included language, history and politics. In addition, after his death many unpublished works - poems, plays and novels - were found in his estate.

Hans Freudenthal, the education reformer, died on 13 October 1990. He was found on a park bench by children playing there. For more information about Hans Freudenthal, see: Freudenthal