The Calculus Bottleneck

What if someone told you that learners in high-school don’t actually need calculus as a compulsory subject for a career in STEM? Surely I would disagree. After all, without calculus how will they understand many of the topics in the STEM. For example basic Newtonian mechanics? Another line of thought that might be put forth is that calculus allows learners to develop an interest in mathematics and pursue it as a career. But swell, nothing could be farther from truth. From what I have experienced there are two major categories of students who take calculus in high school. The first category would be students who are just out of wits about calculus, its purpose and meaning. They just see it as another infliction upon them without any significance. They struggle with remembering the formulae and will just barely pass the course (and many times don’t). These students hate mathematics, calculus makes it worse. Integration is opposite of differentiation: but why teach it to us?

The other major category of students is the one who take on calculus but with a caveat. They are the ones who will score in the 80s and 90s in the examination, but they have cracked the exam system per se. And might not have any foundational knowledge of calculus. But someone might ask how can one score 95/100 and still not have foundational knowledge of the subject matter? This is the way to beat the system. These learners are usually drilled in solving problems of a particular type. It is no different than chug and slug. They see a particular problem – they apply a rote learned method to solve it and bingo there is a solution. I have seen students labour “problem sets” — typically hundreds of problems of a given type — to score in the 90s in the papers. This just gives them the ability to solve typical problems which are usually asked in the examinations. Since the examination does not ask for questions based on conceptual knowledge – it never gets tested. Perhaps even their teachers if asked conceptual questions will not be able to handle them — it will be treated like a radioactive waste and thrown out — since it will be out of syllabus.

There is a third minority (a real minority, and may not be real!, this might just be wishful thinking) who will actually understand the meaning and significance of the conceptual knowledge, and they might not score in the 90s. They might take a fancy for the subject due to calculus but the way syllabus is structured it is astonishing that any students have any fascination left for mathematics. Like someone had said: the fascination for mathematics cannot be taught it must be caught. And this is exactly what MAA and NCTM have said in their statement about dropping calculus from high-school.

What the members of the mathematical community—especially those in the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)—have known for a long time is that the pump that is pushing more students into more advanced mathematics ever earlier is not just ineffective: It is counter-productive. Too many students are moving too fast through preliminary courses so that they can get calculus onto their high school transcripts. The result is that even if they are able to pass high school calculus, they have established an inadequate foundation on which to build the mathematical knowledge required for a STEM career. (emphasis added)

The problem stems from the fact that the foundational topics which are prerequisites for calculus are on shaky grounds. No wonder anything build on top of them is not solid. I remember having very rudimentary calculus in college chemistry, when it was not needed and high-flying into physical meaning of derivatives in physics which was not covered enough earlier. There is a certain mismatch between the expectations from the students and their actual knowledge of the discipline as they come to college from high-school.

Too many students are being accelerated, short-changing their preparation in and knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and other precalculus topics. Too many students experience a secondary school calculus course that drills on the techniques and procedures that will enable them to successfully answer standard problems, but are never challenged to encounter and understand the conceptual foundations of calculus. Too many students arrive at college Calculus I and see a course that looks like a review of what they learned the year before. By the time they realize that the expectations of this course are very different from what they had previously experienced, it is often too late to get up to speed.

Though they conclude that with enough solid conceptual background in these prerequisites it might be beneficial for the students to have a calculus course in the highschool.

The logician, the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer

The logician, the mathematician, the physicist, and the engineer. “Look at this mathematician,” said the logician. “He observes that the first ninety-nine numbers are less than hundred and infers hence, by what he calls induction, that all numbers are less than a hundred.”

“A physicist believes,” said the mathematician, “that 60 is divisible by all numbers. He observes that 60 is divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. He examines a few more cases, as 10, 20, and 30, taken at random as he says. Since 60 is divisible also by these, he considers the experimental evidence sufficient.”

“Yes, but look at the engineers,” said the physicist. “An engineer suspected that all odd numbers are prime numbers. At any rate, 1 can be considered as a prime number, he argued. Then there come 3, 5, and 7, all indubitably primes. Then there comes 9; an awkward case, it does not seem to be a prime number. Yet 11 and 13 are certainly primes. ‘Coming back to 9’ he said, ‘I conclude that 9 must be an experimental error.'”

George Polya (Induction and Analogy – Mathematics of Plausible Reasoning – Vol. 1, 1954)

On mathematics

Mathematics is regarded as a demonstrative science. Yet this is only one of its aspects. Finished mathematics presented in a finished form appears as purely demonstrative, consisting of proofs only. Yet mathematics in the making resembles any other human knowledge in the making. You have to guess a mathematical theorem before you prove it; you have to guess the idea of the proof before you carry through the details. You have to combine observations and follow analogies; you have to try and try again. The result of the mathematician’s creative work is demonstrative reasoning, a proof; but the proof is discovered by plausible reasoning, by guessing. If the learning of mathematics reflects to any degree the invention of mathematics, it must have a place for guessing, for plausible inference.

George Polya (Induction and Analogy – Mathematics of Plausible Reasoning – Vol. 1, 1954)

Unreal and Useless Problems

We had previously talked about problem with contexts given in mathematics problems. This is not new, Thorndike in 1926 made similar observations.

Unreal and Useless Problems

In a previous chapter it was shown that about half of the verbal problems given in standard courses were not genuine, since in real life the answer would not be needed. Obviously we should not, except for reasons of weight, thus connect algebraic work with futility. Similarly we should not teach the pupil to solve by algebra problems which in reality are better solved otherwise, for example, by actual counting or measuring. Similarly we should not set him to solve problems which are silly or trivial, connecting algebra in his mind with pettiness and folly, unless there is some clear, counterbalancing gain.
This may seem beside the point to some teachers, ”A problem is just a problem to the children,” they will say,

“The children don’t know or care whether it is about men or fairies, ball games or consecutive numbers.” This may be largely true in some classes, but it strengthens our criticism. For, if pupils^do not know what the problem is about, they are forming the extremely bad habit of solving problems by considering only the numbers, conjunctions, etc., regardless of the situation described. If they do not care what it is about, it is probably because the problems encountered have not on the average been worth caring about save as corpora vilia for practice in thinking.

Another objection to our criticism may be that great mathematicians have been interested in problems which are admittedly silly or trivial. So Bhaskara addresses a young woman as follows: ”The square root of half the number of a swarm of bees is gone to a shrub of jasmine; and so are eight-ninths of the swarm: a female is buzzing to one remaining male that is humming within a lotus, in which he is confined, having been allured to it by its fragrance at night. Say, lovely woman, the number of bees.” Euclid is the reputed author of: ”A mule and a donkey were going to market laden with wheat. The mule said,’If you gave me one measure I should carry twice as much as you, but if I gave you one we should bear equal burdens.’ Tell me, learned geometrician, what were their burdens.” Diophantus is said to have included in his preparations for death the composition of this for his epitaph : ” Diophantus passed one-sixth of his life in childhood one-twelfth in youth, and one-seventh more as a bachelor. Five years after his marriage was born a son, who died four years before his father at half his father’s age.”

My answer to this is that pupils of great mathematical interest and ability to whom the mathematical aspects of these problems outweigh all else about them will also be interested in such problems, but the rank and file of pupils will react primarily to the silliness and triviality. If all they experience of algebra is that it solves such problems they will think it a folly; if all they know of Euclid or Diophantus is that he put such problems, they will think him a fool. Such enjoyment of these problems as they do have is indeed compounded in part of a feeling of superiority.

– From Thorndike et al. The Psychology of Algebra 1926

On not learning or con in the context

We will, we will, fail you by testing what you do not know…

We live in a rather strange world. Or is it that we assume the world
to be non-strange in a normative way, but the descriptive world has
always been strange? Anyways, why I say this is to start a rant to
about some obviously missed points in the area of my work. Namely,
educational research, particularly science and mathematics education
research.

In many cases the zeal to show that the students have
‘misunderstandings’ or are simply wrong, and then do a hair-splitting
(micro-genetic) exercise on the test the students were inflicted
with. Using terse jargon and unconsequential statistics, making the
study reports as impossible to read as possible, seem to be the norm.

But I have seen another pattern in many of the studies, particularly
in mathematics education. The so-called researchers spent countless
nights in order to dream up situations as abstract as possible (the
further far away from real-life scenarios the better), then devise
problems around them. Now, these problems are put in research studies,
which aim to reveal (almost in evangelical sense) the problems that
plague our education. Unsuspecting students are rounded, with
appropriate backgrounds. As a general rule, the weaker socio-economic
background your students come from, the more exotic is your study. So
choose wisely. Then these problems are inflicted upon these poor,
mathematically challenged students. The problems will be in situations
that the students were never in or never will be. The unreal nature of
these problems (for example, 6 packets of milk in a cup of coffee! I
mean who in real life does that? The milk will just spill over, the
problem isn’t there. This is just a pseudo-problem created for satisfying the research question of the researcher. There is no context, but only con.

Or finding out a real-life example for some weird fractions) puts many off. The fewer students perform correctly happier the researcher is. It just adds to the data statistic that so many % students cannot perform even this elementary task well. Elementary for
that age group, so to speak. The situation is hopeless. We need a
remedy, they say. And remedy they have. Using some revised strategy,
which they will now inflict on students. Then either they will observe
a few students as if they are some exotic specimens from an
uncontacted tribe as they go on explaining what they are doing or why
they are doing it. Or the researcher will inflict a test (or is it
taste) in wholesale on the lot. This gives another data
statistic. This is then analysed within a ‘framework’, (of course it
needs support) of theoretical constructs!

Then the researcher armed with this data will do a hair-splitting
analysis on why, why on Earth student did what they did (or didn’t
do). In this analysis, they will use the work of other researchers before
them who did almost the same thing. Unwieldy, exotic and esoteric
jargons will be used profusely, to persuade any untrained person to
giveup on reading it immediately. (The mundane, exoteric and
understandable and humane is out of the box if you write in that
style it is not considered ‘academic’.) Of course writing this way,
supported by the statistics that are there will get it published in
the leading journals in the field. Getting a statistically significant
result is like getting a license to assert truthfulness of the
result. What is not clear in these mostly concocted and highly
artificial studies is that what does one make of this significance
outside of the experimental setup? As anyone in education research
would agree two setups cannot be the same, then what is t

Testing students in this way is akin to learners who are learning a
new language being subjected to and exotic and terse vocabulary
test. Of course, we are going to perform badly on such a test. The
point of a test should be to know what students know, not what they
don’t know. And if at all, they don’t know something, it is treated as
if is the fault of the individual student. After all, there would be
/some/ students in each study (with a sufficiently large sample) that
would perform as expected. In case the student does not perform as
expected we can have many possible causes. It might be the case that
the student is not able to cognitively process and solve the problem,
that is inspite of having sufficient background knowledge to solve the
problem at hand the student is unable to perform as expected. It might
be the case that the student is capable, but was never told about the
ways in which to solve the given problem (ZPD anyone?). In this case, it might be that the curricular materials that the student has access
to are simply not dealing with concepts in an amenable way. Or it
might be that the test itself is missing out on some crucial aspects
and is flawed, as we have seen in the example above. The problem is
systemic, yet we tend to focus on the individual. This is perhaps
because we have a normative structure to follow an ideal student at
that age group. This normative, ideal student is given by the so-called /standards of learning/. These standards decide, that at xx age
a student should be able to do multiplication of three digit
numbers. The entire curricula are based on these standards. Who and
what decides this? Most of the times, the standards are wayyy above
the actual level of the students. This apparent chasm between the
descriptive and the normative could not be more. We set unreal
expectations from the students, in the most de-contextualised and
uninteresting manner, and when they do not fulfil we lament the lack
of educational practices, resources and infrastructure.

The Textbook League

I came across this site while reading an article, there are interesting reviews of textbooks used in schools. And some of these reviews are gory, splitting out the blood and guts of the textbooks and their inaneness. Hopefully, many people will find it useful, though the latest book that is reviewed is from about 2002. Perhaps one should do a similar thing for books in the Indian context, basically performing a post-mortem on the zombiesque textbooks that flood our schools.

The Web site of The Textbook League is a resource for middle-school and high-school educators. It provides commentaries on some 200 items, including textbooks, curriculum manuals, videos and reference books. Most of the commentaries appeared originally in the League’s bulletin, The Textbook Letter.

http://www.textbookleague.org/ttlindex.htm

What is a mathematical proof?

A dialogue in The Mathematical Experience by Davis and Hersh on what is mathematical proof and who decides what a proof is?

Let’s see how our ideal mathematician (IM) made out with a student who came to him with a strange question.

Student: Sir, what is a mathematical proof?

I.M.: You don’t know that? What year are you in?

Student: Third-year graduate.

I.M.: Incredible! A proof is what you’ve been watching me do at the board three times a week for three years! That’s what a proof is.

Student: Sorry, sir, I should have explained. I’m in philosophy, not math. I’ve never taken your course.

I.M.: Oh! Well, in that case – you have taken some math, haven’t you? You know the proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus – or the fundamental theorem of algebra?

Student: I’ve seen arguments in geometry and algebra and calculus that were called proofs. What I’m asking you for isn’t examples of proof, it’s a definition of proof. Otherwise, how can I tell what examples are correct?

I.M.: Well, this whole thing was cleared up by the logician Tarski, I guess, and some others, maybe Russell or Peano. Anyhow, what you do is, you write down the axioms of your theory in a formal language with a given list of symbols or alphabet. Then you write down the hypothesis of your theorem in the same symbolism. Then you show that you can transform the hypothesis step by step, using the rules of logic, till you get the conclusion. That’s a proof.

Student: Really? That’s amazing! I’ve taken elementary and advanced calculus, basic algebra, and topology, and I’ve never seen that done.

I.M.: Oh, of course, no one ever really does it. It would take forever! You just show that you could do
it, that’s sufficient.

Student: But even that doesn’t sound like what was done in my courses and textbooks. So mathematicians don’t really do proofs, after all.

I.M.: Of course we do! If a theorem isn’t proved, it’s nothing.

Student: Then what is a proof? If it’s this thing with a formal language and transforming formulas, nobody ever proves anything. Do you have to know all about formal languages and formal logic before you can do a mathematical proof?

I.M.: Of course not! The less you know, the better. That stuff is all abstract nonsense anyway.

Student: Then really what is a proof?

I.M.: Well, it’s an argument that convinces someone who knows the subject.

Student: Someone who knows the subject? Then the definition of proof is subjective; it depends on particular persons.Before I can decide if something is a proof, I have to decide who the experts are. What does that have to do with proving things?

I.M.: No, no. There’s nothing subjective about it! Everybody knows what a proof is. Just read some books, take courses from a competent mathematician, and you’ll catch on.

Student: Are you sure?

I.M.: Well – it is possible that you won’t, if you don’t have any aptitude for it. That can happen, too.

Student: Then you decide what a proof is, and if I don’t learn to decide in the same way, you decide I don’t have any aptitude.

I.M.: If not me, then who?

Mathematical Literacy Goals for Students

National Council of Teachers for Mathematics NCTM proposed these five goals to cover the idea of mathematical literacy for students:

  1. Learning to value mathematics: Understanding its evolution and its role in society and the sciences.
  2. Becoming confident of one’s own ability: Coming to trust one’s own mathematical thinking, and having the ability to make sense of situations and solve problems.
  3. Becoming a mathematical problem solver: Essential to becoming a productive citizen, which requires experience in a variety of extended and non-routine problems.
  4. Learning to communicate mathematically:  Learning the signs, symbols, and terms of mathematics.
  5. Learning to reason mathematically: Making conjectures, gathering evidence, and building mathematical arguments.
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Commission on Standards for School Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and evaluation standards for school mathematics. Natl Council of Teachers of.

Reflections on Liping Ma’s Work

Liping Ma’s book Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics has been very influential in Mathematics Education circles. This is a short summary of the book and my reflections on it.

Introduction

Liping Ma in her work  compares the teaching of mathematics in the American and the Chinese schools. Typically it is found that the American students are out performed by their Chinese counterparts in mathematical exams. This fact would lead us to believe that the Chinese teachers are better `educated’ than the U.S. teachers and the better performance is a straight result of this fact. But when we see at the actual schooling the teachers undergo in the two countries we find a large difference. Whereas the U.S. teachers are typically graduates with 16-18 years of formal schooling, the typical Chinese maths teacher has about only 11-12 years of schooling. So how can a lower `educated’ teacher produce better results than a more educated one? This is sort of the gist of Ma’s work which has been described in the book. The book after exposing the in-competencies of the U.S. teachers also gives the remedies that can lift their performance.

In the course of her work Ma identifies the deeper mathematical and procedural understanding present, called the profound understanding of fundamental mathematics [PUFM] in the Chinese teachers, which is mostly absent in the American teachers. Also the “pedagogical content knowledge” of the Chinese teachers is different and better than that of the U.S. teachers. A teacher with PUFM “is not only aware of the conceptual structure and the basic attitudes of mathematics inherent in elementary mathematics, but is able to teach them to students.” The situation of the two teacher is that the U.S. teachers have a shallow understanding of a large number of mathematical structures including the advanced ones, but the Chinese teachers have a deeper understanding of the elementary concepts involved in mathematics. The point where the PUFM is attained in the Chinese teachers is addressed. this Also the Chinese education system so structured that it allows cooperation and interaction among the junior and senior teachers.

Methodology

The study was conducted by using the interview questions in Teacher Education and Learning to Teach Study [TELT] developed by Deborah Ball. These questions were designed to probe teacher’s knowledge of mathematics in the context of common things that teachers do in course of teaching. The four common topics that were tested for by the TELT were: subtraction, multiplication, division by fractions and the relationship between area and perimeter. Due to these diverse topics in the questionnaire the teachers subject knowledge at both conceptual and procedural levels at the elementary level could be judged quite comprehensively. The teacher’s response to a particular question could be used to judge the level of understanding the teacher has on the given subject topic.

Sample

The sample for this study was composed of two set of teachers. One from the U.S., and another from China. There were 23 U.S. teachers, who were supposed to be above average. Out of these 23, 12 had an experience of 1 year of teaching, and the rest 11 had average teaching experience of 11 years. In China 72 teachers were selected, who came from diverse nature of schools.In these 72, 40 had experience of less than 5 years of teaching, 24 had more than 5 years of teaching experience, and the remaining 8 had taught for more than 18 years average. Each teacher was interviewed for the conceptual and procedural understanding for the four topics mentioned.

We now take a look at the various problems posed to the teachers and their typical responses.

Subtraction with Regrouping

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Lets spend some time thinking about one particular topic that you may work with when you teach, subtraction and regrouping. Look at these questions:
62
– 49
= 13

How would you approach these problems if you were teaching second grade? What would you say pupils would need to understand or be able to do before they could start learning subtraction with regrouping?

Response

Although this problem appears to be simple and very elementary not all teachers were aware of the conceptual scheme behind subtraction by regrouping. Seventy seven percent of the U.S. teachers and 14% of U.S. teacher had only the procedural knowledge of the topic. The understanding of these teachers was limited to just taking and changing steps. This limitation was evident in their capacity to promote conceptual learning in the class room. Also the various levels of conceptual understanding were also displayed. Whereas the U.S. teachers explained the procedure as regrouping the minuend and told that during the teaching they would point out the “exchanging” aspect underlying the “changing” step. On the other hand the Chinese teachers used subtraction in computations as decomposing a higher value unit, and many of them also used non-standard methods of regrouping and their relations with standard methods.

Also most of the Chinese teachers mentioned that after teaching this to students they would like to have a class discussion, so as to clarify the concepts.

Multidigit Multiplication

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Some sixth-grade teachers noticed that several of their students were making the same mistake in multiplying large numbers. In trying to calculate:
123
x 645
13

the students were forgetting to “move the numbers” (i.e. the partial products) over each line.}
They were doing this Instead of this
123 123
x 64 x 64
615 615
492 492
738 738
1845 79335

While these teachers agreed that this was a problem, they did not agree on what to do about it. What would you do if you were teaching the sixth grade and you noticed that several of your students were doing this?}

Response

Most of the teachers agreed that this was a genuine problem in students understanding than just careless shifting of digits, meant for addition. But different teachers had different views about the error made by the student. The problem in the students understanding as seen by the teachers were reflections of their own knowledge of the subject matter. For most of the U.S. teachers the knowledge was procedural, so they reflected on them on similar lines when they were asked to. On the other hand the Chinese teachers displayed a conceptual understanding of the multidigit multiplication. The explanation and the algorithm used by the Chinese teachers were thorough and many times novel.

Division by Fractions

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

People seem to have different approaches to solving problems involving division with fractions. How do you solve a problem like this one?

1/(3/4) / 1/2 = ??

Imagine that you are teaching division with fractions. To make this meaningful for kids, sometimes many teachers try to do is relate mathematics to other things. Sometimes they try to come up with real-world situations or story-problems to show the application of some particular piece of content. What would you say would be good story or model for 1/(3/4) / 1/2 ?

Response

As in the previous two cases the U.S. teachers had a very weak knowledge of the subject matter. Only 43% of the U.S. teachers were able to calculate the fraction correctly and none of them showed the understanding of the rationale underlying their calculations. Only one teacher was successful in generating an illustration for the correct representation of the given problem. On the other hand all the Chinese teachers did the computational part correctly, and a few teachers were also able to explain the rationale behind the calculations. Also in addition to this most of the Chinese teachers were able to generate at least one correct representation of the problem. In addition to this the Chinese teachers were able to generate representational problems with a variety of subjects and ideas, which in turn were based on their through understanding of the subject matter.

Division by Fractions

The problem posed to the teachers in this topic was:

Imagine that one of your students comes to the class very excited. She tells you that she has figured out a theory that you never told to the class. She explains that she has discovered the perimeter of a closed figure increases, the area also increases. She shows you a picture to prove what she is doing:

Example of the student:

How would you respond to this student?

Response

In this problem task there were two aspects of the subject matter knowledge which contributed substantially to successful approach; knowledge of topics related to the idea and mathematical attitudes. The absence or presence of attitudes was a major factor in success

The problems given to the teachers are of the elementary, but to understand them and explain them [what Ma is asking] one needs a profound understanding of basic principles that underly these elementary mathematical operations. This very fact is reflected in the response of the Chinese and the U.S. teachers. The same pattern of Chinese teachers outperforming U.S. teachers is repeated in all four topics. The reason for the better performance of the Chinese teachers is their profound understanding of fundamental mathematics or PUFM. We now turn to the topic of PUFM and explore what is meant by it and when it is attained.

PUFM

According to Ma PUFM is “more than a sound conceptual understanding of elementary mathematics — it is the awareness of the conceptual structure and the basic attitudes of mathematics inherent in elementary mathematics and the ability to provide a foundation for that conceptual structure and instill those basic attitudes in students. A profound understanding of mathematics has breadth, depth, and thoroughness. Breadth of understanding is the capacity to connect topic with topics of similar or less conceptual power. Depth of the understanding is the capacity to connect a topic with those of greater conceptual power. Thoroughness is the capacity to connect all these topics.”

The teacher who possesses PUFM has connectedness, knows multiple ways of expressing same thing, revisits and reinforces same ideas and has a longitudinal coherence. We will elaborate on these key ideas of PUFM in brief.

Connectedness: By connectedness being present in a teacher it is meant that there is an intention in the teacher to connect mathematical procedures and concepts. When this is used in teaching it will enable students to learn a unified body of knowledge, instead of learning isolated topics.

Multiple Perspectives: In order to have a flexible understanding of the concepts involved, one must be able to analyze and solve problems in multiple ways, and to provide explanations of various approaches to a problem. A teacher with PUFM will provide multiple ways to solve and understand a given problem, so that the understanding in the students is deeper.

Basic Ideas: The teachers having PUFM display mathematical attitudes and are particularly aware of the powerful and simple concepts of mathematics. By revisiting these ideas again and again they are reinforced. But focusing on this students are not merely encouraged to approach the problems, but are guided to conduct real mathematical activity.

Longitudinal Coherence: By longitudinal coherence in the teachers having PUFM it is meant that the teacher has a complete markup of the syllabus and the content for the various grades of the elementary mathematics. If one does have an idea of what the students have already learnt in the earlier grades, then that knowledge of the students can be used effectively. On the other hand if it is known what the students will be learning in the higher grades, the treatment in the lower grades can be such that it is suitable and effective later.

PUFM – Attainment

Since the presence of PUFM in the Chinese teachers makes them different from their U.S. counterparts, it is essential to have a knowledge of how the PUFM is developed and attained in the Chinese teachers. For this Ma did survey of two additional groups. One was ninth grade students, and the other was that of pre-service teachers. Both groups has conceptual understanding of the four problems. The preservice teachers also showed a concern for teaching and learning, but both groups did not show PUFM. Ma also interviewed the Chinese teachers who had PUFM, and explored their acquisition of mathematical knowledge. The teachers with PUFM mentioned several factors for their acquisition of mathematical knowledge. These factors include:

  • Learning from colleagues
  • Learning mathematics from students.
  • Learning mathematics by doing problems.
  • Teaching
  • Teaching round by round.
  • Studying teaching materials extensively.

The Chinese teachers during the summers and at the beginning of the school terms , studied the Teaching and Learning Framework document thoroughly. The text book to be followed is the most studied by the teachers. The text book is also studied and discussed during the school year. Comparatively little time is devoted to studying teacher’s manuals. So the conclusion of the study is that the Chinese teachers have a base for PUFM from their school education itself. But the PUFM matures and develops during their actual teaching driven by a concern of what to teach and how to teach it. This development of PUFM is well supported by their colleagues and the study materials that they have. Thus the cultural difference in the Chinese and U.S. educational systems also plays a part in this.

Conclusions

One of the most obvious outcomes of this study is the fact that the Chinese elementary teachers are much better equipped conceptually than their U.S. counterparts to teach mathematics at that level. The Chinese teachers show a deeper understanding of the subject matter and have a flexible understanding of the subject. But Ma has attempted to give the plausible explanations for this difference in terms of the PUFM, which is developed and matured in the Chinese teachers, but almost absent in the U.S. teachers. This difference in the respective teachers of the two countries is reflected in the performance of students at any given level. So that if one really wants to improve the mathematics learning for the students, the teachers also need to be well equipped with the knowledge of fundamental and elementary mathematics. The problems of teacher’s knowledge development and that of student learning are thus related.

In China when the perspective teachers are still students, they achieve the mathematical competence. When they attain the teacher learning programs, this mathematical competence is connected to primary concern about teaching and learning school mathematics. The final phase in this is when the teachers actually teach, it is here where they develop teacher’s subject knowledge.  Thus we see that good elementary education of the perspective teachers themselves heralds their growth as teachers with PUFM. Thus in China good teachers at the elementary level, make good students, who in turn can become good teachers themselves, and a cycle is formed. In case of U.S. it seems the opposite is true, poor elementary mathematics education, provided by low-quality teachers hinders likely development of mathematical competence in students at the elementary level. Also most of the teacher education programs in the U.S. focus on How to teach mathematics? rather than on the mathematics itself. After the training the teachers are expected to know how to teach and what to teach, they are also not expected to study anymore. All this leads to formation of a teacher who is bound in the given framework, not being able to develop PUFM as required.

Also the fact that is commonly believed that elementary mathematics is basic, superficial and commonly understood is denied by this study. The study definitively shows that elementary mathematics is not superficial at all, and anyone who teaches it has to study it in a comprehensive way. So for the attainment of PUFM in the U.S. teachers and to improve the mathematics education their Ma has given some suggestions which need to be implemented.

Ma suggests that the two problems of improving the teacher knowledge and student learning are interdependent, so that they both should be addressed simultaneously. This is a way to enter the cyclic process of development of mathematical competencies in the teachers. In the U.S. there is a lack of interaction between study of mathematics taught and study of how to teach it. The text books should be also read, studied and discussed by the teachers themselves as they will be using it in teaching in the class room. This will enable the U.S. teachers to have clear idea of what to teach and how to teach it thoughtfully. The perspective teachers can develop PUFM at the college level, and this can be used as the entry point in the cycle of developing the mathematical competency in them. Teachers should use text books and teachers manuals in an effective way. For this the teacher should recognize its significance and have time and energy for the careful study of manuals. The class room practice of the Chinese teachers is text book based, but not confined to text books. Again here the emphasis is laid on the teacher’s understanding of the subject matter. A teacher with PUFM will be able to choose materials from a text book and present them in intelligible ways in the class room. To put the conclusions in a compact form we can say that the content knowledge of the teachers makes the difference.

Reflections

The study done by Ma and its results have created a huge following in the U.S. Mathematics Education circles and has been termed as `enlightening’. The study diagnoses the problems in the U.S. treatment of elementary mathematics vis-a-vis Chinese one. In the work Ma glorifies the Chinese teachers and educational system as against `low quality’ American teachers and educational system. As said in the foreword of the book by Shulman the work is cited by the people on both sides of the math wars. This book has done the same thing to the U.S. Mathematics Education circles what the Sputnik in the late 1950’s to the U.S. policies on science education. During that time the Russians who were supposed to be technically inferior to the U.S. suddenly launched the Sputnik, there by creating a wave of disgust in the U.S. This was peaked in the Kennedy’s announcement of sending an American on moon before the 1970’s. The aftermath of this was to create `Scientific Americans’, with efforts directed at creating a scientific base in the U.S. right from the school. Similarly the case of Ma’s study is another expos\’e, this time in terms of elementary mathematics. It might not have mattered so much if the study was performed entirely with U.S. teachers [Have not studies of this kind ever done before?]. But the very fact that the Americans are apparently behind the Chinese is a matter of worry. This is a situation that needs to be rectified. This fame of this book is more about politics and funding about education than about math. So no wonder that all the people involved in Mathematics Education in the U.S. [and others elsewhere following them] are citing Ma’s work for changing the situation. Citing work of which shows the Americans on lower grounds may also be able to get you you funds which otherwise probably you would not have got. Now the guess is that the aim is to create `Mathematical Americans’ this time so as to overcome the Chinese challenge.

Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ understanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.