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.