Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elementary Teachers and Math

Liping Ma, in the seminal work Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, made the not-so-surprising statement that American elementary teachers don't have a "profound understanding of fundamental mathematics", or at least lack it to a much greater degree than their (often non-college-educated) colleagues in China. This doesn't mean that elementary teachers should know calculus, but they should, for example, not only know how to divide fractions--invert and multiply--but should also know why the invert and multiply process works.

So when Teachers College at Columbia University, a school often excoriated as an example of everything wrong with teacher education, says something similar, I'm bound to take note.

For the past 20 years, studies of math achievement have shown that Chinese (and other East Asian) children consistently outperform their American counterparts in almost every area. Explanations have focused on differences ranging from number-word systems and parental expectations to student motivation and curriculum content.

Now a study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology by Teachers College Professor Stephen Peverly and former TC students Zheng Zhou of St. John's University and Tao Xin of Beijing Normal University suggests that Asian teachers simply know more about math. In a comparison of 162 third-grade mathematics teachers in the US and the People's Republic of China, the researchers found that while American teachers were more knowledgeable about general educational theories and classroom skills, Chinese teachers had stronger knowledge of the subject matter they were teaching, as well as a better understanding of the overall elementary curriculum that their students had covered and would cover in later years.

And listen to this!

Most of the American teachers in the study, when asked to about their teaching methods, rarely mentioned content. Chinese teachers, on the other hand, spoke in great detail about the content they present to students, and that content demonstrated a deep understanding of the subject matter as well as knowledge of the entire elementary mathematics curriculum.

So far the Teachers College gang seems to be on the right track. But like Radar hearing the choppers before everyone else did, I know that trouble's coming. It came several paragraphs later.

American teachers, on the other hand, were more knowledgeable than Chinese teachers about concepts covered in educational psychology texts.

Yes, because that's apparently important. Our TIMSS scores certainly show how important that is. Not. But this wasn't the biggie; I knew there had to be more.

Researchers summarized that while Chinese teachers were effective in providing instruction based on how well they knew the subject matter, their limited understanding of underlying psychological aspects of learning could be problematic. This limitation could possibly lead to problems related to student motivation, spontaneity, and creativity among other things.

I'll be honest. Student spontaneity and creativity are way overrated (at least in math), and academic motivation is almost always present in students who are actually capable of doing the work. In other words, teach them well when they're young, and they won't have to struggle so much when they're older. Whether you like less struggling because it means the students are learning better or because you think that it will lead to less psychological damage (or whatever), I don't see an argument against better elementary math teaching.

I guess I should give Teachers College some credit for at least acknowledging a problem in elementary teacher education. I wonder what they're going to do to fix the "content knowledge" part of the problem.


Darren said...

George, effective teaching is effective teaching. What we in California call SDAIE, or Structured English Instruction, is a valuable technique for all students--especially if you believe the theories about visual/auditory/etc learners.

Technique absolutely is important. I don't think it's as important as content knowledge, though. We've probably all had one of those stereotypical professors who knew the material but didn't teach, but we all learned *something* from the boring lectures. I doubt you could learn much from someone who isn't strong in the material.

I'm all for beefing up both content knowledge and technique for our teachers. The more professional we make our teaching corps, the more justified are our desires for pay raises!

Dean Baird said...

Mark the calendar so we can celebrate it annually, Darren: I agree!