Who Should Lead Mathematics Instruction at the Elementary School Level? A Case for Mathematics Specialists

By Reys, Barbara J.; Fennell, Francis | Teaching Children Mathematics, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Who Should Lead Mathematics Instruction at the Elementary School Level? A Case for Mathematics Specialists


Reys, Barbara J., Fennell, Francis, Teaching Children Mathematics


We frequently ask students in our preservice elementary mathematics methods courses if they realize that they are preparing to become mathematics teachers. Many, if not most, of the students are uncomfortable with thinking of themselves as "mathematics teachers," preferring to call themselves "elementary classroom teachers." They consider themselves to be teachers of children, rather than teachers of subjects such as mathematics. However, the mathematics instruction that most elementary school students receive is organized and delivered by their elementary classroom teachers. Therefore, elementary teachers also are mathematics teachers, as well as social studies teachers, science teachers, and, most prominently, reading teachers. It is essential that elementary teachers understand the nature and extent of the vital role that they play in teaching mathematics to their students. It is equally important that school systems explore ways to ensure that students receive mathematics instruction from teachers who und erstand mathematics content, know how students learn mathematics, and are able to use instructional and assessment strategies that help students learn mathematics.

Background

In recent years, an urgent call has sounded for a more challenging mathematics curriculum at all levels, including the elementary school level (NCTM 2000; National Research Council 1989; Schmidt et al. 1999). In the elementary grades, students learn number skills such as computing and estimating. They measure two- and three-dimensional objects, reason about geometric relationships, organize and analyze data, and explore basic notions of probability. They also form attitudes toward and beliefs about mathematics. A student's view of what it means to know and do mathematics is shaped during his or her elementary school years, and this view is difficult to change. Elementary students who experience a narrow mathematics curriculum that consists only of rules, facts, and procedures and who "learn" mathematics by memorizing and mimicking are unlikely to understand the power of mathematics or be interested in it in middle and high school.

In the United States, elementary classroom teachers are expected to be masters of many subjects. Most preservice teacher education programs for elementary education recognize this fact and prepare candidates to teach all subjects. Programs to prepare elementary teachers include content and method courses in reading, language arts, the social sciences, science, mathematics, art, and music, but they lack significant emphasis on subject area specialization. The mathematical preparation of elementary teachers varies; however, it typically includes six to nine credit hours in college mathematics.

These courses often do not provide adequate time to develop or focus on the substantive mathematical knowledge that Ball (1991) argues is needed for elementary teachers. Although increasing attention to the study of mathematics is necessary, Battista (1999) warns that simply taking more college-level mathematics courses may not adequately prepare elementary teachers for specialized roles:

The additional mathematics that teachers take must be taught properly. That is, it must be taught as sense-making. Unfortunately, most university mathematics courses reinforce rather than debunk the view of mathematics as a set of procedures to be memorized. Because such courses simply perpetuate the mathematical mis-education that occurs in grades K-12, requiring teachers to take more of them will do little to solve the problem. (p. 468)

The lack of attention to substantive mathematics preparation, coupled with the questionable quality or appropriateness of the mathematics courses taken by preservice elementary teachers, provides little chance of changing teachers' beliefs about mathematics or inspiring them to teach differently from the way they were taught. The mathematics component of preservice elementary education must be examined if real change is to occur at the elementary school level. …

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