Some Reflections on Teaching Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers

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  • Some Reflections on Teaching Mathematics for Elementary School TeachersAuthor(s): Lowell LeakeSource: The Arithmetic Teacher, Vol. 28, No. 3 (November 1980), pp. 42-44Published by: National Council of Teachers of MathematicsStable URL: .Accessed: 14/06/2014 07:37

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  • Some Reflections on Teaching Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers By Lowell Leake

    Virtually every college or university training elementary school teachers of- fers a course in mathematics content with a title similar to "Mathematics for the Elementary School Teacher", the title we use at the University of Cincin- nati. The course is usually a year long and in most states it is a certification requirement for grades kindergarten through eight; it evolved from the rec- ommendations of the Committee on the Undergraduate Program in Mathe- matics (CUPM) of the Mathematical Association of America in the early 1960s. Little, however, has appeared in journals such as the Arithmetic Teacher about the experiences various universi- ties or instructors have had with this course. This paper describes some as- pects of such a course at the University of Cincinnati, and 1 have had two ma- jor purposes in mind in writing it. One is to communicate some successful ideas to others who teach similar courses, and the other is to encourage others to submit their ideas, experi- ences, and suggestions so that all of us can share and profit from each other's successes and failures. A third possi- bility is to generate some comments from teachers in elementary and middle schools who once took such a course and now, in retrospect, have suggestions to make to those of us who teach it.

    Lowell Leake is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Cin- cinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to his university teaching, he taught in the junior and senior high school. He was one of the translators of The Ori- gin of the Idea of Chance in Children by Piaget and Inhelder and recently served a three-year term as a review editor for the Mathematics Teacher.

    One of the most successful ideas I have used is to require that my stu- dents read articles in the Arithmetic Teacher related to the content we are studying that quarter. In each of the three quarters of my section of our course, students who want to receive an A must, in addition to meeting the standards required on tests, and so on, read three articles from recent issues of the Arithmetic Teacher. For each article I require a one- or two-page "reaction paper" to be handed in any time prior to the last day of class for that quarter. I ask students to include both a short summary of the article and their own personal reaction to it in terms of their perception of the article's quality and the reasons for their assessment. I do not grade the papers but I read all of them carefully. To get a B two such re- ports must be handed in, and C and D students must hand in one paper.

    For several years I superimposed on this requirement the option of reading up to five articles each quarter (with reaction papers) for anyone, and I added one point per paper to the over- all numerical average of the student. I abandoned this approach as too gener- ous since it inflated a number of grades that I felt should not have been raised.

    The students' response to this read- ing requirement, once they get over the initial shock on hearing about it, has been totally positive. Not only do their comments in the reaction papers in- dicate curiosity and enthusiasm, but they also indicate clearly that the read- ings help them relate the course con- tent to their future careers in the class- room. It has done a great deal to relate content to methodology without taking

    any time from classroom instruction. The other clear benefit is that when these students graduate they have a personal acquaintance with a journal that may turn out to be their best friend in the classroom.

    In Cincinnati we have an active group, the Mathematics Club of Greater Cincinnati, which holds fre- quent meetings. We are also, from time to time, the host city for an NCTM convention. When these meetings oc- cur I encourage my students to attend, and I allow them to substitute a report on the attendance at a section meeting for elementary teachers for one of the reaction papers. A few students have done this, but not very many.

    An alternative to assigning readings in the Arithmetic Teacher itself is to re- quire that the students purchase a good book of readings, which would of course include articles from many other journals. An excellent choice for this would be a book such as Activity Oriented Mathematics, edited by Schall (1976). The advantage of this approach is that the students become exposed to the idea that many good journals exist that can help the elementary classroom teacher become a better mathematics teacher. The disadvantages are the ex- pense to the student and the fact that students do not actually see any partic- ular journal and what it has to offer on an issue-by-issue basis.

    Another aspect of my experience that has been quite successful, but for relatively few students, has been an ar- rangement to match bright, able stu- dents on a one-to-one tutoring basis with students who are struggling to pass. This is strictly an optional ar-

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  • rangement. After the first hour-long examination, students who received an A may volunteer to be a tutor for any students who want help. Both those who want to tutor and those who want to be tutored let me know about this in writing and I try to match them up. Students who tutor are excused from the final examination, but they must take the other hour-long examinations (a total of three each quarter) and they must do the readings described earlier. They also are required to attend class, to meet with the student or students they tutor at least twice a week, and to turn in a written summary (3-5 pages) of the tutoring experience. I explain at the outset that this is a very difficult way to earn an A; it would be far easier to take the final. On the other hand, I point out that they will learn much more if they have to teach the material, both about the content and about the learning problems others face, and that they will gain a good deal of satisfac- tion from helping fellow students. On the average, about 10 percent of the A students volunteer for this experience. Sometimes they have to tutor two stu- dents (if they agree) since I can't guar- antee a one-to-one correspondence be- tween those helping and those needing help. The students who get the help have the advantage of free tutoring from someone who actually sits in on the lectures and takes the tests. I am toying with the idea of requiring this tutoring experience for anyone who wants an A, but I am not sure this would be a wise step.

    A third extremely successful experi- ment of the things I have tried has been to have each student buy a calcu- lator. Most buy inexpensive but ade- quate four-function calculators. Some have better machines, with keys for square roots, squares, reciprocals, and so on, and some have very good scien- tific calculators. Before they buy - only about 25 percent do not already own one - I suggest what they should look for.

    The students use the calculators for homework, classwork, and on most tests. When I first announce this re- quirement a few students grumble, but these expressions of dissatisfaction evaporate almost immediately. To sat- isfy my own curiosity I always ask the

    class, when I first announce this re- quirement, how many of them dis- approve the use of calculators in ele- mentary school. The vast majority do not approve, but at the end of the year, when I repeat the same question, al- most no one disapproves. Of course, during the year I make sure that in- struction on when to use calculators, how to use them, and the pros and cons of their use are an integral part of the course. As most readers realize, calcu- lators not only help with complicated calculations, but they also allow the use of more realistic data in problems. Furthermore, they definitely help to teach concepts. For example, in study- ing square roots, my students are asked to find square roots without using the square root key - by guessing and ad- justing the guess. The same idea works for cube roots. If you want to discuss this method more formally, using what is known as Newton's method, the calculator makes it possible to do the it- erations for the third and fourth approx- imations (and beyond), whereas paper- and-pencil techniques bog down at the third approximation because of the messy arithmetic. Another example is in studying the distinction between re- peating and terminating decimals; cal- culators are a great help with this idea. Most important, perhaps, calculators allow students to concentrate on what to do in solving a mathematics prob- lem, rather than on the details of time- consuming arithmetic.

    My classes have been using calcu- lators since 1975-76, and I feel so strongly about this idea that I believe anyone who writes a text for the con- tent course in elementary school mathematics should include a chapter or units on the calculator and have some exercises in almost every section keyed for calculator solutions. And anyone who teaches this course with- out calculators is missing the best op- portunity there is to provide the kind of instruction relating to calculators that every preservice teacher needs. The calculator should be part of the in- structional strategy for every instructor teaching this course.

    Another idea we have tried and still use at Cincinnati is our eligibility test (20 simple items) for students to pass at the beginning of the year on basic

    skills with whole numbers, common fractions, decimals, and percents. If they do not pass this test (at least 14 correct), which is given on the second day of class, after announcing it the first day, they must drop the course and enter a special course in remedial arithmetic. This latter course is taught on an individualized basis and students may pass it quickly if they work hard. Then they can re-enter the main course in a trailer section during the winter quarter.

    Most of these remedial students, about 90 percent over the past five years, have eventually become certi- fied, and that has caused me some gen- uine concern. Is our remedial course so good that the students suddenly blos- som into adequate mathematics stu- dents? Or, is our main course too easy and are we letting very marginal stu- dents become teachers? This has led me to think that we ought to have an exit test on basic skills (minimum com- pentencies?) for all students before they receive their grade for the final quarter of our course. What do other universities do? It also makes me think that even if our course covers the con- tent in a method that stresses intuition rather than rigor, we ought to demand a high degree of mastery in this course for a passing grade.

    Another thought is this. We have seen a significant decline in enroll- ments in elementary education over the past few years, and I assume this is a common experience for most schools. I have a sinking feeling that the drop in enrollments has largely been among the most able students - for two rea- sons. One, the more able students are more alert to the economics of the la- bor market and know that teaching may be a poor choice of careers in terms of opportunities and economic gain. Second, these students, being bright, have much more flexibility and opportunity concerning the choice of alternate careers. For example, oppor- tunities are good in business adminis- tration and this is particularly true at present for women. Are we, then, not only training fewer teachers but are we possibly training proportionally more marginal teachers than in the past? Does anyone have any hard data on this subject? It certainly seems to be a

    November 1980 43

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  • question that lends itself to statistical analysis.

    Two other ideas that have proved successful and popular with students relate to the teaching of units on prob- ability and statistics, and geometry. In probability, although I cover whatever the text has to offer, I concentrate on a Monte Carlo approach for approximat- ing probabilities. We start with dice, cards, and coins but eventually we turn to random-digit tables. This seems to be far more successful and exciting than a more formal approach stressing formulas for combinations and per- mutations (although I discuss these, too, after Monte Carlo techniques). Piaget and Inhelder (1975) have told us that true understanding of probability comes after the acquisition of formal, logical operations. Some of our pre- service teachers have not, unfortu- nately, reached that stage of cognitive development. Therefore, it makes sense to keep our instruction in proba- bility tied to concrete operational tech- niques, and the Monte Carlo approach certainly does this. Besides, and per- haps just as important, a Monte Carlo approach gives our students specific experience on methodology in the con- tent course on how to teach probability in the upper grades. This gives us an unusual chance to teach methodology by example imbedded in the content course being covered.

    In geometry, I feel the study of iso- metric transformations should be a major part of the material covered. This can be done very successfully with an activity approach via tracing techniques. The ideas are beautifully described by Phillips and Zwoyer (1969) in Motion Geometry. The stu- dents are...


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