Realistic Mathematics Education in the Nedherlands 1980-1990

This is a summary from the article “Realistic Mathematics Education in the Nedherlands 1980-1990” written by A.Treffers

Realism in Textbooks 1980-1990

A revolution in mathematics education happened in The Nedherland in the period 1980-1990. Although it was a silent revolution where not a single innovation expert is heard speaking or writing about it, there is change in the distribution of textbooks for mathematics in primary school. In 1980 stands for mathematics textbook was 95 % and stands for realistic textbook was 5 %. In 1990 stands for mathematics textbook was 25 % and stands for realistic textbook was 75 %. This change influenced change of the whole didactical approach, for example, in which year or grade a material for student in elementary school will be taught, how operational was on the Dutch textbook market, etc.

Explanation for the Shift

Revolution on the textbook market on the eighties was influenced by the developments of the seventies. In that time, contrary to most other countries in the Western World, New Math did not get an opportunity to manifest itself in Dutch primary school. Then, the schools Inspectorate held back the introduction of New Math textbooks. Besides Inspectorate, there was Wiskobas which already there before the founding of the IOWO and before Freudenthal became involved with Wiscobas.

Generally, there are three factors related to development of the revolution on the textbook market, namely:

  1. The desired direction of mathematics instruction where Freudenthal show the way to exit New Math.
  2. Development which the Wiskobas group set into motion within the IOWO, which led to mathematics instruction of own signature that at the end of the seventies was named realistic instruction.
  3. The simple fact that the ideas, the reasoning and the products of Wiskobas proved to catch on.

In the Netherland the development of curriculum and textbook did not primarily go top-down, but sooner the other way around. The fact that this proved possible is due to the factors mentioned in the foregoing, namely:

  1. The timely stemming of the influences of New Math
  2. Being quick to offer a realistic alternative
  3. The catching on of the realistic education concept for math as a human activity, and the concrete elaborations thereof
  4. The consensus regarding the direction to be chosen within the close knit informal infrastructure in the area of mathematics instruction in primary schools

Realism with Textbooks

The foregoing about textbook does not say everything about realistic instruction. In the final assessment of the National Assessment Institute (CITO) no overall differences can be found between mechanics and realistic methods. The outcome of the study about material of the CITO shows that the method does indeed make a difference. Although comparison of the two leading textbook series shows that the realistic textbooks score significantly higher in various areas, no general conclusion may be drawn from a supposed higher quality of the realistic methods as opposed to the mechanistic method, judging from the achievements. What is clear, among other from observations from the More-project, that to achieve a broad innovation and a profound didactical change, more is required than changing textbooks. ‘More’ are for examples in the form of information, in-service training, courses and research.  Therefore, this brings to the formal educational provider system, a formal structure where the activities of curriculum development, test development, training, innovation and research are strictly separated. This is where the limits of innovation opportunities come into view.

Limits of Innovation

Government had created In-Service Training Spearhead Mathematics for children with arithmetic problems in regular mathematics education. However, before that become effective educational material must be developed. Something for the curriculum developers (SLO) might be expected and then in co-operation with others. In fact, the developers of SLO, CITO and other institutions succeeded in giving a first impulse for a sound in-service training program. Unfortunately, the government was not in favor of continuing the Spearhead policy and revoked the original facilities for course participants. This now is precisely the research that must supervise the new realistic program development, but this is not allowed because development research does contain a component of development and that must be done elsewhere according to the interpretation in the Educational Provider Act. In consequence, subject specific didactics cannot develop sufficiently.

The formal and the informal are more interwoven with each other in the education provider system than might appear from the foregoing. The solution lies to better the development of textbooks and the required information, in serving training, teacher training, counseling, developing and research.


Freudenthal is the founder of realistic mathematics education. He was the one to put Wiskobas on the right track: away from formalistic New Math, directed at reality. His ideas emphasize rich thematic contexts, integration of mathematics with other subjects and areas of reality, differentiation within individual learning process and the importance of working together. Besides the great role of Frudenthal, in the eighties, the OW&OC also emphasis shifted to the importance of elemtary context problems, to the alignment of learning strands and the steering task of teachers. From the shift in emphasis one can get am idea of the direction of developmental research that the OW&OC followed and that the Freudental Institute will pursue.


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