Beyond the Formulas - Mathematics Education for Prospective Elementary School Teachers

By Cuff, Carol K. | Education, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Formulas - Mathematics Education for Prospective Elementary School Teachers


Cuff, Carol K., Education


Mathematicians have started to recognize their responsibility in the mathematical education of pre-service elementary teachers. In the last decade, math courses have been developed specifically for elementary education majors. Unfortunately, these courses have often been viewed by the community of mathematicians as remedial. As a result, the courses have sought to remedy content deficiencies at the expense of addressing the more pressing issue of math anxiety. As mathematicians we often do not understand those students paralyzed by this anxiety. Consequently we tend, therefore, to ignore the problem and continue to teach the familiar and easy to teach area - the content. Teaching content is not necessarily addressing the needs of the pre-service teacher. This article recommends reinforcing the strengths of the elementary education major as a means of overcoming math anxiety.

Consider the typical elementary education major. S/he has probably enjoyed school in general, has been influenced by a model teacher, wants to work with young children, is enthusiastic, energetic, has gotten satisfactory grades and may dread the math course required as part of his/her teacher preparation. S/he has been in the college prep track in high school and probably taken at least algebra, maybe geometry and possibly trigonometry. While proficiency in certain content areas (e.g. probability and statistics) of the NCTM Standards may be absent, the greatest obstacle some of these students may need to overcome is a poor attitude towards mathematics. If we continue to simply teach the math that fills in the content gaps, we have not taught towards their strengths but rather affirmed their weaknesses. The student, likely as not, will leave the class with the same view of mathematics as when s/he entered the class. The result may be that the prospective elementary school teacher is a little more academically prepared to teach elementary school math but no more enthusiastic about the subject. We should be seeking to change the attitude rather than cramming more facts into the prospective teacher's head. The teacher's manuals are well written, have the "correct" answers, and many even detail the major points that the teacher should discuss. However, the pre-service elementary education teacher does not know this. Until s/he is willing to delve into the new teacher's manual with confidence and search for appropriate supplemental material, the elementary school children will be left with "drill and kill" arithmetic and we could lose another generation to math anxiety and/or poor attitude.

There are several ways in which we can teach towards the strengths of the elementary education major. First, most elementary education majors hold traditional values. They belong to sororities, clubs, and athletic teams. They will seek out classmates to share experiences and stories; except in mathematics. Mathematics is more likely to be viewed as an individual endeavor - just one student, with one pencil, an eraser, and lots of tedious problems. Yet, mathematics as practiced in academia or industry is rarely done by an individual. The elementary education course for pre-service teachers typically conveys both mathematical content and information about mathematics. We do a disservice when we promote the idea that success of a singly individual is the ultimate goal. Rather, teaching methods that emphasize group learning must be employed. One such means is cooperative and active learning. Here students work together to learn and teach each other material. These groups, which can be used during class time, should also be utilized for the homework. Students that are already sharing experiences need to be encouraged to share mathematical ideas, problem solving approaches, and frustrations. Traditionally, homework has been used to reinforce and extend ideas presented in class. The opportunity for immediate positive feedback and the chance to gain confidence in one's knowledge and understanding is multiplied when students work together and without the acknowledged expert. …

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