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Mathematics Teachers Must Know - Wu - 2008

Mathematics Teachers Must Know - Wu - 2008

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Published by Dennis Ashendorf
Professor Wu of UC Berkeley identifies the key knowledge needed to teach elementary mathematics.
Professor Wu of UC Berkeley identifies the key knowledge needed to teach elementary mathematics.

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Published by: Dennis Ashendorf on Sep 24, 2009
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The Mathematics K-12 Teachers Need to Know
H. Wu
December 19, 2008
ContentsPrologue (p. 1)Mathematics for K–12 Teaching (p. 2)Part I: Some Examples (p. 7)Part II: The Mathematics for Teachers of K–8 (p. 22)Prologue
In 2001, the Conference Board for Mathematical Sciences published a volumeto describe the mathematics that institutions of higher learning should be teach-ing prospective school teachers ([MET]). It recommends that the mathematicalcourse work for elementary and middle school teachers should be at least 9 and21 semester-hours, respectively, and for high school teachers it should be theequivalent of a math major plus a 6-hour capstone course connecting collegemathematics with school mathematics. The major part of the volume is devotedto a fairly detailed description of the mathematics that elementary, middle, andhigh school teachers need to know.Given the state of mathematics education in 2008, the recommendation onthe course work for teachers by the [MET] volume is very sound, in my opinion.As to the description of the mathematics that teachers need to know, it is sucha complicated subject that one would not expect what is in [MET] to be
definitive statement. At the very least, one would want an alternative view fromthe mathematical perspective. Certain essential features about mathematicstend to be slighted in general education discussions of school mathematics, but
here is one occasion when these features need to be brought to the forefront.Mathematical integrity is important where
is concerned, and thisis especially true about school mathematics.This paper begins with a general survey of the basic characteristics of mathe-matics (pp. 2–7). Some examples are then given to illustrate the general discus-sion (Part I). The bulk of the paper is devoted to a description of the mathematicsthat teachers of K–8 should know (Part II, pp. 22–69). The omission of whathigh school teachers should know is partly explained by the fact that a textbookis being written about the mathematics of grades 8-12 for prospective teachers([Wu 2010]).
Mathematics for K–12 Teaching
This is the name we give to the body of mathematical knowledge a teacherneeds for teaching in schools. At the very least, it includes a slightly moresophisticated version of 
school mathematics
, i.e., all the standard topics inthe school mathematics curriculum. In Part II of this article (pp. 22–68), therewill be a brief but systematic discussion of what teachers of K–8 need to knowabout school mathematics. In other words, we will try to quantify as much aspossible what this extra bit of “sophistication” is all about.The need for teachers to know school mathematics at a slightly more advancedlevel than what is found in school textbooks is probably not controversial. Afterall, if they have to answer students’ questions, some of which can be unexpect-edly sophisticated, and make up exam problems, a minimal knowledge of schoolmathematics would not suffice to do either of these activities justice. Perhapsequally non-controversial is the fact that, even within mathematics proper, thereis a little bit more beyond the standard skills and concepts in the school cur-riculum that teachers need to know in order to be successful in the classroom.Teachers have to tell a story when they approach a topic, and the story line,while it is about mathematics, is not part of the normal school mathematicscurriculum. They have to motivate their students by explaining why the topicin question is worth learning, and such motivation also does not usually findits way to the school curriculum. To the extent that mathematics is not a col-lection of tricks to be memorized but a coherent body of knowledge, teachershave to know enough about the discipline to provide continuity from day to day
and from lesson to lesson. These connecting currents within mathematics arelikewise not part of the school curriculum. Teachers cannot put equal weight oneach and every topics in the curriculum because not all topics are created equal;they need to differentiate between the truly basic and the relatively peripheralones. Teachers cannot make that distinction without an in-depth knowledge of the structure of mathematics. And so on. All this is without a doubt part of the
knowledge that should be part of every teacher’s intellectualarsenal, but the various strands of this component of the mathematics for K–12teaching have so far not been well articulated in the education literature. In thefirst part of this article, we will attempt such an articulation. To this end, wefind it necessary to step back and examine the nature of mathematics education.Beyond the crude realization that mathematics education is about both math-ematics and education, we posit that mathematics education is
, in the sense that it is the customization of basic mathematicalprinciples for the consumption of school students ([Wu] 2006). Here we under-stand “engineering” to be the art or science of customizing scientific theory tomeet human needs. Thus chemical engineering is the science of customizingabstract principles in chemistry to help solve day-to-day problems, or electri-cal engineering is the science of customizing electromagnetic theory to designall the nice gadgets that we have come to consider indispensable. Acceptingthis proposal that mathematics education
mathematical engineering, we seethat
school mathematics
is the product of the engineering process that convertsabstract mathematics into usable lessons in the school classroom, and schoolmathematics teachers are therefore
mathematical engineering technicians
in charge of helping the consumers (i.e., the school students) to use this productefficiently and to do repairs when needed.Just as technicians in any kind of engineering must have a “feel” for theirprofession in order to avert disasters in the myriad unexpected situations theyare thrust into, mathematics teachers need to know something about the essenceof mathematics in order to successfully carry out their duties in the classroom.To take a simple example, would a teacher be able to tell students that there isno point debating whether a square is a rectangle because it all depends on howone defines a rectangle, and that mathematicians choose to define rectangles toinclude squares because this inclusion makes more sense in various
settings, such as the discussion of area and volume formulas? This would be a

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