Evolution of the definition of function

By | December 14, 2009

How do you define function? Do you teach relation first before teaching function?  Does knowing about relation a pre-requisite to function understanding?

The concept of function “was born as a result of a long search after a mathematical model for physical phenomena involving variable quantities” (Sfard, 1991, p. 14). In 1755, Euler (1707-1783) elaborated on this conception of function as a dependence relation. He proposed that, “a quantity should be called a function only if it depends on another quantity in such a way that if the latter is changed the former undergoes change itself” (p. 15). Seventy-five years later, Dirichlet (1805-1859) introduced the notion of function as an arbitrary correspondence between real numbers. About a hundred years later in 1932, with the rise of abstract algebra, the Bourbaki generalised Dirichlet’s definition. Thus, function came to be defined as a correspondence between two sets (Kieran, 1992). This formal set-theoretic definition is very different from its original definition. Function is no longer associated with numbers only and the notion of dependence between two varying quantities is now only implied (Markovits, Eylon, & Bruckheimer, 1986). The Direchlet-Bourbaki definition allows function to be conceived as a mathematical object, which is the weakness of the early definition. However, the set-theoretic definition is too abstract for an initial introduction to students and is inconsistent with their experiences in the real world (Freudenthal, 1973; Leinhardt, Zaslavsky, & Stein, 1990; Sfard, 1992).

Textbooks, which often define function as a set of ordered pairs usually start the discussion with relation and introduce function as a special kind of relation. But relation is more abstract than function. Thus the supposed pedagogical value of having to learn relation first before one understands function is, in the opinion of Thorpe (1989), wrong. Freudenthal (1973) also expressed strongly that “to introduce function, relations can be dismissed” (p. 392). Thorpe went on to say that the use of the set-theoretic definition which defines function as a set of ordered pairs “was certainly one of the errors of the sixties and it is time that it were laid to rest” (p. 13). Amen to that.

My references:

Freudenthal, H. (1973). Mathematics as an educational task.  Dordrecht-Holland:  Reidel.

Leinhardt, G., Zaslavsky, O., & Stein, M. K. (1990). Functions, graphs, and graphing: Tasks, learning and teaching. Review of Educational Research, 60(1), 1-64.

Markovits, Z., Eylon B. A., & Bruckheimer, M. (1986). Function today and yesterday. For the Learning of Mathematics,6(2) 18-28.

Sfard, A. (1992). Operational origins of mathematical objects and the quandary of reification: The case of function. In G. Harel & E. Dubinsky (Eds.), The concept of function: Aspects of epistemology and pedagogy (pp. 59-84). (MAA Notes no. 25) Washington DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Thorpe, J. (1989). Algebra: What should we teach and how should we teach it? In S. Wagner & C. Kieran (Eds.) Research issues in the learning and teaching of algebra (pp. 11-24). Reston, VA: NCTM.

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11 thoughts on “Evolution of the definition of function

  1. Pingback: Introducing the concept of function « keeping math simple

  2. moi gonowon

    do you have suggestions as to how to introduce the concept of functions?

  3. Mohammad Elsheimy

    thank u prof. i’m a newbie in math. can u recommend a book for me?
    i need a good book that discusses math from the ground up.

    thank u in advance



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