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ZDM Mathematics Education (2007) 39:301314

DOI 10.1007/s11858-007-0033-4

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics


teaching and learning
Ngai-Ying Wong

Accepted: 2 May 2007 / Published online: 25 May 2007


 FIZ Karlsruhe 2007

Abstract Twelve experienced mathematics teachers in


Hong Kong were invited to face-to-face semi-structured
interviews to express their views about mathematics, about
mathematics learning and about the teacher and teaching.
Mathematics was generally regarded as a subject that is
practical, logical, useful and involves thinking. In view of
the abstract nature of the subject, the teachers took abstract
thinking as the goal of mathematics learning. They reflected that it is not just a matter of how and when,
but one should build a path so that students can proceed
from the concrete to the abstract. Their conceptions of
mathematics understanding were tapped. Furthermore, the
roles of memorisation, practices and concrete experiences
were discussed, in relation with understanding. Teaching
for understanding is unanimously supported and along this
line, the characteristics of an effective mathematics lesson
and of an effective mathematics teacher were discussed.
Though many of the participants realize that there is no
fixed rule for good practices, some of the indicators were
put forth. To arrive at an effective mathematics lesson,
good preparation, basic teaching skills and good relationship with the students are prerequisite.

1 A brief description of mathematics education in Hong


Kong
The first elementary mathematics curriculum was issued by
the Education Department in 1967, which was influenced
N.-Y. Wong (&)
Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Faculty of Education,
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin 852, Hong Kong
e-mail: nywong@cuhk.edu.hk

by the UK Nuffield mathematics. While the activity approach was introduced in the 1970s, the Target Oriented
Curriculum was put forth in the early 1990s. The intention of the latter was to provide clear learning targets to
help teachers and schools develop more lively and effective
approaches to teaching, learning and assessment (Education Department 1994, p. 26). The five dimensions of
number, measure, algebra, shape and space, and data
handling were identified. These five strands were incorporated with process abilities of mathematical conceptualization, inquiry, reasoning, communication, application
and problem solving (Curriculum Development Council
1992, p. 12). The Target Oriented Curriculum brought
about heated debates and the mathematics curriculum
underwent a holistic review in the late 1990s. As a result,
the new elementary mathematics curriculum was published
in 1999. The government launched for the holistic educational reform at the turn of the millennium, in which
learning to learn and higher ordered thinking skills
were emphasized (Curriculum Development Council
2001). It does not change the contents of the elementary
and junior secondary mathematics curricula, while the
mathematics curriculum at the senior secondary level will
be restructured according to the new 6334 system
(Curriculum Development Council and the Hong Kong
Examinations and Assessment Authority 2006). New initiatives like projects, generic skills, standard-based
assessment, and school-based assessment are introduced
too.
Previously, most of the elementary school teachers are
non-degree holders. On the other hand, those who obtain a
first degree (in mathematics or related topics) are eligible
to teach (mainly secondary) school mathematics. The situation is greatly improved starting from the mid-1990s. At
present, around 90% of school teachers are degree holders

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302
Table 1 The participants of the
study

N.-Y. Wong

Name Gender Academic


qualification

Teaching
Other qualification
experience
(years)

HK1

Male

17

Member of the editorial board of a local


mathematics education periodical

HK2

Female Teacher Cert., B.Ed.

Council member of a local mathematics


education professional body; served at the
government Education Department as
seconded teacher for a year

HK3

Female Teacher Cert., B.Ed.

10+

Council member of a local mathematics


education professional body

HK4

Female Teacher Cert., B.Ed., M.Ed. 10

Council member of a local mathematics


education professional body

HK5
HK6

Female Teacher Cert.


Male
B.Sc., PGDE

25
5

Teaching practice supervisor of a university


Head mathematics teacher in school

HK7

Female Teacher Cert.

22

Curriculum leader in school; team member of


a university project on students
motivation of learning

HK8

Male

Teacher Cert., B.Ed.

15

Principal; member of the governments


Curriculum Development council
(mathematics)

HK9

Female Teacher Cert., B.Ed.

15

Head mathematics teacher in school; team


member of a university project on
students motivation of learning

Teacher Cert., B.Ed.

HK10 Female Teacher Cert., B.Ed., M.Ed. 17


HK11 Male

B.Sc., PGDE

HK12 Female B.Ed., M.Ed.

and most of them went through teacher education programs


(i.e., Teacher Cert., PGDE or PDCE1). The idea of having
(mathematics) subject specialists teaching the subject
(mathematics) was also put forth. It is envisaged that all
teachers teaching mathematics would have a considerable
qualification in mathematics in the future.

2 The participants
Our target informants are experienced elementary mathematics teachers because novice teachers may not have
formulated a stable conception of effective mathematics
learning and teaching. Twelve such teachers were invited
to participate in the face-to-face semi-structured interview.
Table 1 shows the brief descriptions of them. To prevent
their identity from disclosure, pseudonyms were used in
this chapter.

Member of the governments Curriculum


development council (mathematics)

10+

Senior teacher in school

12

Member of the editorial board of a local


mathematics education periodical;
teaching practice supervisor of a university

3 Results
The interviews were then transcribed and analysed. The
results were then categorised into the teachers views about
mathematics, about mathematics learning and about the
teacher and teaching. The results are presented as follows.
3.1 Teachers view about mathematics
The participants expressed their opinions on what is
mathematics. It was generally agreed that mathematics is
practical, logical, useful and involves thinking. Mathematics
is language and a set of rules. In particular, much deliberations were made on the abstract nature of mathematics as
they unanimously took abstract thinking as the goal of
mathematics learning. They reflected that it is not just a
matter of how and when, but one should build a path
so that students can proceed from the concrete to the abstract.
3.1.1 What is mathematics?

Teacher Certs. stands for Teacher Certificate, PGDE stands for


Postgraduate Diploma in Education, and PDCE stands for Postgraduate Certificate in Education.

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The practical significance of mathematics constituted a


salient theme in the teachers responses. Seven out of the

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

twelve participants explicitly mentioned that mathematics is


practical. Help solving daily life problem is one: we
apply mathematics when we solve problems in our real life
(HK10; similar response: HK5). Another teacher elaborated:
For instance, you could use number to solve problems. In daily life, child may face problems in books.
When they grow old, they use it in buying house. I
think that we learned some skills and method of
calculation, then apply them in life to solve problems
continually (HK11).
One teacher saw the application of mathematics in other
disciplines, something that helps explain natural phenomena (HK10). Another made a fuller account:
Mathematics is the beginning of science. After you
understand mathematics, you can apply the mathematics knowledge. Mathematics also has logic and it
has its pattern. After you understand the logic and
pattern, you can solve other problems (HK7).
Mathematics is logic or is logical constituted another
salient theme. Five teachers expressed such a view.
Mathematics being a science of pattern was seen to have
close relationship with the logical nature of mathematics.
As one teacher said: [mathematics is] something that has
logic and pattern (HK7), and another said: [mathematics] includes logical thinking and proofs (HK2). Mathematics is seen as a logical language that helps us
communicate patterns and phenomena in nature. This is
clear from the following response: we have to use the
numbers, symbols to communicate, to construct with logic,
to create with reasons (HK5).
So, mathematics is seen to be useful, applicable to other
disciplines (science in particular), and is a logical language
that explains natural phenomena. Though whether there is a
causal relationship between the two was not explicit from the
interview, many did mention that mathematics is a kind of
language, a worldwide language (HK4) and a language,
but different from Chinese and English [language] (HK2).
Not only that, mathematics is perceived as a subject that
is highly related with thinking, including logical thinking.
We had similar responses like Mathematics is a thinking
method, in which you could follow (HK11); Mathematics is a way to nurture students intelligence. Students
not only learn the mathematics knowledge, but also get an
opportunity to think (HK8; HK12).
We also found responses that describe mathematics by its
content or terminologies concerned: [Mathematics as a
discipline is] arithmetic, algebra, measurement and statistics2 (HK3). We got similar responses like [Mathematics
2
These are actually the classification (learning dimensions) found in
the curriculum document.

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concerns] relationship between measurements, characteristics of shapes, and many others (HK1; HK12).
Mathematics is also seen as something universal, not
affected by the regions [countries] (HK4); it is something
abstract (HK1), that can use simple number or symbol to
represent our ideas (HK4). A teacher even viewed it as a
game: We can manipulate numbers like playing games
(HK3). In fact, David Hilbert once said that Mathematics
is a game played according to certain simple rules with
meaningless marks on paper (Rose 1988). Mathematics
is some rules discovered or created by human beings
(HK10) is yet another response. Another teacher saw the
artistic nature of mathematics. She said: [as] I also teach
art [in school] and learned design [myself]. They [art and
design] also involve a lot of mathematics (HK3).
When participants were confronted with the statement
Some people believe: A lot of things in mathematics must
simply be accepted as true and remembered and there
really isnt any explanation for them, most of them made
no comments on whether mathematics is really a set of
truths. However, a majority of them did not agree that just
remembering such facts is a good way of learning. Most of
the responses argued that the process of learning is of vital
importance. Inevitably, their arguments were very much in
line with their perceptions of mathematics and their perceptions of the value of learning mathematics. For instance,
mathematics facts should not be just remembered since
one of the goals of Mathematics is to train ones thinking (HK4). Also, We expect the student to get the
knowledge from the process of learning. They are not only
memorizing the thing, but also discovering some new thing
or think about the mathematics concept (HK8). Another
pointed out that This [the arrival of mathematics facts] is
only the final step but students may encounter many
problems in the process. So, I think we cannot just ask
them to memorize the result but we should let them
experience (HK2).
The above findings basically are in concordance with
those found in previous studies on student and teacher
conceptions of mathematics conducted in the Chinese
mainland and in Hong Kong. Previous research reviewed
that students associated mathematics with its terminologies
and content, and that mathematics was often perceived as a
set of rules. Wider aspects of mathematics such as visual
sense and decision making were only seen as tangential to
mathematics. In particular, mathematics is seen as a subject
of calculable. Students also recognized mathematics as
closely related to thinking. We obtained similar results
with teachers from Hong Kong though teachers conceptions were more refined (Wong 2000, 2002; Wong, Marton,
Wong, & Lam 2002). As found in the present study,
seemingly contradictory themes emerged: mathematics is
both abstract and practical; it is artistic and logical.

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Besides, it is a game and it involves thinking. However,


these facets of teachers conception of mathematics may
not necessarily be conflicting. Mathematics is often said to
be widely applicable since it has a high level of abstraction
and the game of logical reasoning is coupled with
inspection and induction in the course of mathematical
invention. As DeMorgan has said, The moving power of
mathematical invention is not reasoning but imagination
(Moritz, 1914).

N.-Y. Wong

should be developed using students prior knowledge as the


foundation (HK7).
While some reflected that primary level (lower primary
in particular) is too early for abstract notions, some others
felt that abstraction, or the teaching of abstract thinking, is
a gradual path (though the two views may not be conflicting). For instance, one of the participants opined that:
It [the teaching of abstract thinking] is one of the
[curriculum] aims and it is true for higher grade
levels. But I am afraid that this may not be the case in
lower grade levels. It depends on the age group. We
have to consider what the students should learn at
each age group.... I think it begins from ages of 12 to
13. It is sure that there was already some training
since they were 10. However, if it is for them to learn
more, get more and imagine more, I think the [suitable] time is when they are in Secondary 2 or Secondary 33 (HK2).

3.1.2 Abstract and abstraction in mathematics learning


When the participants were asked whether we should teach
students abstract thinking through the study of mathematics, most of them responded that this is one of the goals of
mathematics education (HK6; HK3). However, many of
them pointed out that it should be done gradually according
to students ability, developmental stage and age (HK2;
HK5; HK4). So it is not a matter of should or should
not, but a matter of when and how.
One of them illustrated with the topic of speed: one
can progress from the idea of fast and slow, which is
concrete and easy to understand, to speed, which is an
abstract notion. Finally, we end up with the measurement
of speed (HK1). It was repeatedly pointed out that the
teaching of abstract thinking should be built upon experience with concrete objects:
For example, introducing a cube through 2D [objects]. First, you can give them a pile of papers. Then,
you increase the number of piles. Finally, you can get
a 3D object. In fact, many Primary 1 and 2 students
have already learned the idea of 3D objects, but I
would like to introduce the relationship between the
2D and 3D objects (HK4).
Another elaborated:
I think students have to see, try, touch, and then their
abstract thinking can be enhanced.... At present, I am
taking a [certain] course... on the teaching of algebra
and students think it is really abstract. They [the
lecturers] are using real objects... and the original
question [can be transformed into one for what is] left
are just blanks for the student to fill in.... Or this can
even be a story [the abstract algebra question is
presented as a story).... Those which are abstract are
made concrete as they have been embedded in the
story line (HK5).
By establishing [such] a habit [of linking the abstract with
the concrete], they [the students] could learn abstract
thinking (HK1). The notion of concrete is, however,
not confined to real objects. Less abstract concepts can help
building up more abstract ones (HK6). Abstract notions

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Others also said that there are fewer (or scarcely any) abstract mathematics in junior classes and there are more in
senior ones (HK7; HK3). Another held the view that I
think most of the things they learnt are concrete and involve daily examples (HK6). Yet some others even
mentioned that:
According to educational psychology, if one has not
reached certain stage, early learning may not be good
to him/her and she/he would only memorize [the facts
involved]. As they grow older, we start to teach some
abstract idea. In fact, even in the senior classes, not
all the students can understand (HK4; Betty).
Not only that, concrete objects are often deliberately used
to scale down abstract notions, if there are, in primary
mathematics: We make use of some concrete matter to
explain some abstract Mathematics; in a sense, not much
abstract notions would the student come across in primary
level (HK11; HK5).
Though many of the teachers interviewed held the view
that there is hardly anything abstract at junior levels and we
should not start the teaching of abstract thinking too early,
they saw the need of a gradual development of it:
I believe there are levels of abstract mind [thinking].
There may be some basic level of abstract mind at the
junior level. I think the level of abstract mind will rise
as the children grow (HK8).
When they are promoted to a higher form, they get
more experience, they will then develop a mathematical sense in their minds and they can then accept

Secondary 2 is equivalent to Grade 8.

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

the abstract things more easily, they can think of that


[understand] (HK12).
Nevertheless, the abstract and the concrete are sometimes
relative notions:
I think my explanation is concrete. The students may
not think so, although they may not use the word
abstract. For instance if I say folding from left to
right without pointing the picture and its motion, to
the students, probably almost all of them would be
unable to distinguish left and right (HK11)!
For instance, one of the teachers said [what we] have to
teach is that 1 km equals to 1,000 m, but its hard to make
them grasp the idea of 1,000 m.... One kilometre is very
concrete and down to earth, but it is very abstract in the
mind of children (HK9).
Most of the teachers in the study agreed that abstract
thinking/abstraction is one of the central goals of mathematics learning. Again this coincides with what was found
in previous studies (Wong 2000, 2002; Wong, Marton et al.
2002). Yet when such an abstraction should be started
varies among these informants. However, most of them see
that the road of abstraction is a long path and mathematization is basically a path from the concrete to the abstract.
3.2 Teachers view about mathematics learning
During the interviews, participants expressed their conceptions of mathematics understanding. The roles of
memorisation, practices and concrete experiences were also
discussed. As for mathematics understanding, knowing how
and the ability to transferred knowledge to a new area are
some of the criteria. However, memorisation was not seen
as necessarily an obstacle to the enhancement of understanding. In fact, rote-memorisation and memorisation with
understanding (keep something in mind) could refer to quite
different things. Yet it was generally agreed that if one
possesses a deep understanding, rote-memorisation is not
necessary. Practices are valued among participants. In
particular, to them, practices help memorisation and familiarisation. Certainly, both quality and quantity count.
Likewise, though concrete experience and manipulatives
could be helpful, it was pointed out that the effect really
depends if they are used wisely.
3.2.1 What is mathematics understanding?
The participants almost unanimously agreed that understanding is of utmost importance. It helps recalling the
facts (HK9) and problems can be worked out more
smoothly. Understanding is not something difficult but is in
fact a source of interest (HK7). It builds a firm foundation

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for future studies so that Later when s/he [the student]


faces some more complicated cases, when they are in a
higher grade levels, s/he can still manage (HK5).
There were various criteria to judge whether students
understand. Students can explain what they have learned
and know why is a major one: The most traditional one
[to test if one understands] in school is test and examination. In fact, we can know whether they understand or not
through their oral presentations (HK4; HK8). Creating a
variety of contexts and requiring the students to explain is
one good way:
We should create more situations and ask students to
explain, and we can see whether they can do it. For
instance, if we have given them the area and ask them
for the height, we can then ask them to explain why
we can find the height in this case (HK2; HK12;
HK10; HK3).
Though getting the answer correctly is still a dominating
requirement (HK6; HK11), certainly teachers are looking
for more to see if students really understand:
Finishing some exercises is one of the determinants,
but according to my experience, that is not sufficient
to say that they understood. That they could get right
answer does not mean they understood.... My standard is that they will not have great difficulties in
doing homework. Or they could accurately express
their learning that I have expected, during class discussion (HK11).
Knowing the rationale of every step certainly involves
meta-cognition among the students:
If that is addition and subtraction of fraction, s/he [the
student] should be able to tell why we have to convert
the fractions [involved] into the common denominator, and [in solving word problems] s/he should be
able to explain why that is a problem of addition and
subtraction of fraction, but not any other topics in
Mathematics (HK1).
The ability of transferring ones knowledge and skill to
other problems is another important indication of genuine
understanding (HK6; HK3). This can be tested by using
questions that they [the students] dont frequently come
across (HK10). If a student understands one thing, s/he
should know the different sides of it (HK1), which is very
much in line with Confucius famous saying of
responding to the other three corner when only one corner
is shown. Another participant gave a yet clearer explanation:
For understanding, I think the first is they can accept
the rule as a fact.... Second, when the rule appears in

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another format, s/he can still think in the reverse


manner.4 And I think this is understanding. On the
other hand, if s/he can only apply the rule in one way
or use it in just one direction, I do not think s/he
[really] understands (HK2).
It is generally believed that the use of daily life examples
and various activities would enhance understanding
(HK10; HK3; HK6). Here is a concrete example:
For measuring capacity, we can do some practical
activities. For instance, students usually confuse
about 1 L with 1 mL. When we drink, do we drink
200 L, or 200 mL? We can just take one real drink
out [and everything becomes clear].... To teach the
concept that [vessels of] different shapes can have the
same capacity, I would buy different drinks. Then I
asked them to estimate the capacity of the drinks. But
some of them have the same capacity. At first, they
may think the capacity of the taller drink is larger.
But they finally find that taller in shape may not mean
larger in capacity, since it may be smaller in other
dimensions.... Therefore, for some topics, we should
make teaching as concrete as we can (HK11).
Other means include letting students know the thinking
process, guiding students to observe (HK8), and questioning (HK9). However, it was also pointed out that a good
foundation is prerequisite to understanding (HK11). The
issue may be related to the issue of content (or
product) and process abilities (Wong, Han, & Lee
2004). Preparatory knowledge is important in understanding subsequent contents:
For example, in the teaching of fractions, they [the
students] must understand integer. Decimal comes
from fraction and there are many levels [of complexity of these numbers]. Another example is that
triangle comes from rectangle or parallelogram
(HK7).

N.-Y. Wong

getting the correct answer, they do realize that understanding mathematics may mean the ability to solve
problems, the knowledge of underlying principles, the
clarification of concepts, and the flexible use of formulas
(Wong & Watkins 2001). Not only that, even if one is
confined to getting the correct answer, understanding is the
royal path. This is also realized by the students as
found in previous studies (Wong, Lam, Leung, Mok, &
Wong 1999). Probably this cannot be attained through
rote-learning and it was repeatedly found that CHC5 students have stronger preference and deeper approaches to
learning, which is the opposite to rote learning, than do
Western students (Wong 2004).
3.2.2 The role of memorization in mathematics learning
Probably to the astonishment of many, memorization was
not very highly regarded by the participants (e.g., HK3).
One of them even said that someone can also learn
Mathematics even they have poor memory (HK6). It is
less important in the learning of languages (HK7). Memorization does not help students learning if they dont
understand (HK3). In brief, memorization may have some
effect on mathematics learning, but it is not an important
component (HK4; HK12). One of the participants said that
I will not ask students to memorize anything (HK12),
while another pointed out that we simply dont have too
many things that need to be memorized in the curriculum
[only up to] 2030%, I guess (HK1). To these teachers,
rote memorization is just a better-than-nothing substitute when understanding is not readily at hand (HK2).
Smart students need only to memorize a few facts and
those who do not understand have to rote-memorize
everything. If there is something we really cannot
understand, we should memorize it first as to tackle the
examination (HK9). Here are two examples that help
explain their opinions:

Teaching mathematics for understanding is one of the


hallmarks of current mathematics education. While previous research on the conception of mathematical understanding among Hong Kong students revealed that
getting the correct answer is still the most salient
indicator of understanding in the mind of the students
(Wong & Watkins 2001), teachers in the present study
possess a wider perspective of mathematics understanding.
Knowing why, transferal of knowledge, and flexible use
are stressed. In fact, though students look high upon

When a student can get hold of the meaning, even


though s/he does not memorize the formula, s/he will
have that in mind.... Take an example, when we are
calculating the area of parallelogram and triangle, it
does not matter if s/he cannot remember the formula,
if s/he knows where the formula come from [was
derived... since] s/he actually experienced how the
area of parallelograms was derived from the area of
rectangles; though s/he could not get the formula
directly and quickly, but s/he really understands
(HK12).

4
Just like what the same participant mentioned: given the area (of a
rectangle, together with the width), one is able to find the height,
though the original formula is to find the area with the width and
height given.

5
CHC is Confucian Heritage Culture, and generally refers to regions
like the Chinese mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and
Korea.

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Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

If students understand the meaning of speed, it is


not necessary to have the three formulas,6 but [what
one needs is] just applying the concept.... Why cannot
we just use one of the formulas and derive the other
two from it (HK9)?
So what was indicated in the second quotation is in fact a
flexible use of the formulas.
Though many teachers opined that memorization should
not play a central role, it is yet indispensable, especially
when one needs to work out problems quickly (HK8). After
all, deriving the formulas from conceptual understanding
each time is too slow, for instance the identification of
prime numbers within 100 (HK6; HK7). This could be in
line with what Kerkman and Siegel (1997) spoke of fastest
strategy and backup strategy. Inevitably, the multiplication table is a prototype of the need for memorization.
Something like multiplication table is something that we
must memorizes.... We cannot just explain to them that 2
times 6 is the sum of six 2s adding together by not asking
them to memorize (HK2; HK1). As the speed of completing mathematics problems is one of the major concern
in the Hong Kong mathematics classroom, memorization
(and quick retrieval) of formulas become important:
For example, sometimes mathematics formulas or
rules are involved, like square numbers. If you list out
the square of the number within 20 [certainly] they
understand what a square number is. However, if the
student can remember all these square numbers, the
speed will be increased when they were asked to
calculated questions involving square number. Apart
from motivation, confidence is also important in
mathematics learning. If they can remember the
things they learned, their confidence in calculation
will also be increased (HK8).
In that sense, memorization could be seen as more
important for the abler students when there is a high
expectation that they should solve problems quickly and in
automation. The fault does not lie in memorization, but in
memorization without understanding (HK1). It is also
perceived that the need is stronger at junior levels in which
conceptual understanding cannot go too far (HK11).
There had been some opinions that memorization should
go after understanding (HK8); it is a kind of consolidation
(HK10). As one said: There is something you must
memorize after you understand. For instance, I think it is
not a must to memorize the formulas as long as you get the
concept and you can write it out [again] (HK5). A teacher
made it more explicit: After the students understand, then
memorization is important. It would be useful if s/he has a
6
Speed = distance/time; distance = speed time; time = distance/
speed.

307

good memory. In fact, if s/he understands, memory would


be useful to future application (HK8).
Yet there are some who suggested a route of the reversed direction: remembering the facts first, applying with
them, and through such applications achieving understanding. It would cultivate students interest (for deeper
understanding) when students find themselves successful in
solving problem through these memorized facts (HK11).
Before discussing teachers conceptions of memorization and its relationship with understanding, we would like
to draw the attention that there could be at least two facets
of memorization: keeping something in mind (being
memorized) and memorizing something, which includes
recitation. Obviously, while the latter refers to rote-memorization, the former is closely related to understanding,
without which something cannot be efficiently stored and
retrieved. The fact that students regarded understanding
and memorization as something not segregated but understanding helps memorizing facts better was actually
revealed in previous studies (Wong & Watkins 2001).
Research also supported the hypothesis that excellent
academic performance of CHC learners may be due to a
synthesis of memorizing and understanding which is not
commonly found in Western students (Dahlin & Watkins
2000; Marton, Tse, & dallAlba 1996; Marton, Watkins, &
Tang 1997). We obtained similar findings among teachers
in the present study. Once one understands, there are not
too many things one needs to (take the effort to) memorize
(they are automatically kept in the mind: memorized!).
There had been discussions among our informants on
whether one should memorize rules first and then try to
understand the principals behind later or vise versa. If one
looks at the dual nature of mathematics (Sfard 1991), the
two could be enhanced reciprocally: one starts off with a
brief understanding, and through practices and other
means, one begins to memorize the rules behind and arrive
at a deeper understanding; with such a deeper understanding, the rules are more firmly memorized. The situation is made more complicated when student performance
is stressed (in high-stake assessments) in which automation
and speed are required. That could be the major cause of
requesting students to memorize facts and rules first (so
that one can implement such rules in the tests), leaving
aside genuine understanding.
3.2.3 The role of practices in learning mathematics
The importance of practices varies among the participants.
Some took it as something not only important but indispensable. Students have to do exercises (HK10) constitutes the most straightforward response (also HK8; HK5;
HK2). Practice makes perfect (HK3) was also quoted as a
ground for practices. However, there are some who thought

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that they are important, but not very important (HK7).


Another said: There is a need for the exercises ... [but] I
dont have a very high regard on them (HK4). Some also
put forth the argument that one only needs enough practices
for understanding: They do not need a lot of exercises, but
[just] one in each type. If you understand, you just have to
have a quick glance [to understand] and do not need to do a
lot (HK7). Another even said: If someone understand, but
s/he still do exercises that are at the same level as his/her
level, I think s/he is wasting his/her time and s/he should do
some challenging exercises (HK3). Certainly it is not easy
to judge how much is enough and what is too much. For
instance, some teacher asked for fluency and accuracy in
problem solving and not just conceptual understanding:
The criterion is that the student has to calculate accurately
and fast (HK10), and too much refers to monotonous
mechanical calculation rather than actual quantity. This is
clear from the following response:
Yes, they [exercises] are important but I do not agree
on letting students doing the same kind of exercises
too much unless there are variations. The worst case
is that students do not think over the questions after
doing massive exercises. I do not agree with
mechanical training (HK5).
One of them pointed out that the role of exercises may vary
with topics: [exercises are essential] in the topics which
involve arithmetic more. I think it would be relatively less
important in topics like statistics (HK2). It varies with
grade levels too: For Primary One or Two students, I
suggest a number of 810 exercises are already enough
(HK9).
Despite the difference in opinion on the importance of
exercises, a number of learning effects of doing exercises
was put forth. Helping understanding, memorization,
familiarization and consolidation of what is learned
(deepening the imprint, so to speak) are some (HK7;
HK6; HK8; HK4; HK12; HK10; HK2). It can also serve as
interactive and diagnostic means, I will teach and let the
students understand. Then, test the students how much they
know and want to consolidate the students learning by
asking them to do exercises (HK3; HK2). Exercises can
also serve dual purposes: For the average students, we
can give them more drilling exercise, hoping they can
familiarize themselves [with the underlying concepts or
skills]. For smart students, we train them how to avoid
making mistakes (HK11).
The above results reveal that teachers views on memorization and on practices have a lot in common. As for
memorization, practices are indispensable but too much
could hamper students interest in learning. However, welldesigned practices enhance understanding. In fact, problem
sets with systematic variations has a long tradition in the

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N.-Y. Wong

Chinese mainland (Sun, Wong, & Lam 2005; Wong 2007;


Wong, Lam, & Sun 2006). Such a curriculum design (based
on problem sets with variations) offers repetition with
variations and has a much deeper pedagogical meaning than
mere drillings.
3.2.4 How concrete experience and manipulatives help
in mathematics learning
Most of the participants took high regard on student
activities and the use of manipulates: After they experience the process, most of them can learn (HK3); it makes
learning student-centered (HK4). Learning by doing is
deep-rooted in the teachers mind: Yes, students have to
do, and [learning] should be actually done by themselves
[and not just be told by the teacher] (HK9). Another said:
For example when teaching pyramid, it is impossible that
you only talk without showing them how to make a pyramid (HK6). Making learning pleasurable is another reason for use: Moreover, they may find it interesting [We
let students realize that]. There is not only arithmetic in the
lesson. I think that having something interesting in class
would make students happy (HK9). Some of them actually related some activities they conducted:
To demonstrate, I made a 10-m paper strip. How long
is 10 km? May be they even do not know how long is
10 m. I stretched the paper strip and place around the
frame of the classroom. May be it surrounded half of
the classroom. Then I used this to teach them how
long 1 km is. I asked them how many 10-m paper
strips can add up to 1 km? Also, I asked them to think
if there is a 1,000-m paper strip, how many classrooms can it surround? Let them imagine how long
1 km is [by] just sitting inside their classroom (HK9).
However, there are arguments that the use depends on
grade-levels and time. Yet there were conflicting views on
whether lower or upper grade levels need more activities.
On the one hand, some teachers thought that the use is
more essential in junior grade levels: I agree we should
provide lower primary school students with more of these
activities (HK2; HK7). Some others opined that these
activities are most useful when a topic is first introduced:
Yes and this also depends on what grade level they
[students] are in.... Ah, no, it is not the grade level but
whether it is their first time to learn the topic. For
example, they learn the place value in Primary One; it
is meaningless for you to tell them which is the tenth
value, etc.... However, it would be much better if you
teach them by asking them to pack ten things
together. It is better for them to learn through experience (HK10).

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

Another elaborated:
I think for those sell-and-buy practices, having
experience is better. For example, they can have the
experience of giving changes.... I think it is those
involving more calculations. Students gain experience after they practiced with the calculations (HK5).
On the other hand, some said that the use is more important
in upper grade levels:
Very important in the senior classes. In general, it is
especially important when talking about the concepts,
like 3D objects.... But the most important thing is
how to incorporate these teaching aids into the
teachers plan and teaching strategies (HK8; HK12).
Some other said that it really depends on topics:
Teaching aids have different significance in different
topics and concepts. They are very important in some
topics, but in some other topics, they are not useful at
all (HK1). For some topics like algebraic symbols, it is
not easy to have concrete representations (HK6). However, we got counter-arguments: just because these topics
are so abstract, we need to create manipulatives so that
students can comprehend better (HK7). Though many of
them agreed that activities are helpful, whether it is
indispensable is another matter: Some people say there
should be many activities and adequate teaching aid, but
I think its not a must (HK1). There are some others
who expressed the exogenous constraints like the extensive time in preparation and the limited time in each
class period.
As pointed out earlier, since teachers see learning
mathematics as a path that goes from the concrete to the
abstract, concrete objects or manipulatives can offer a lot
of learning opportunities, especially at the elementary
school level. With the curriculum reform that takes place in
recent years, hands-on experience is repeatedly stressed,
though the notion of activity approach was already
introduced into the Hong Kong mathematics curriculum
early in the 1960s (Tang, Wong, Fok, Ngan, & Wong
2006).
3.3 Teachers view about the teacher and teaching
The characteristics of an effective mathematics lesson and
of an effective mathematics teacher were expressed.
Though many of the participants realize that there is no
fixed rule for good practices, they pointed to some indicators like having the goal achieved, understanding the
students, enhancing student participation and provoking
thinking among the students. To achieve these, good
preparation, basic teaching skills and good relationship
with the students are prerequisite.

309

3.3.1 Characteristics of an effective mathematics lesson


The responses ranged from outcome to process,
from objective to interest. First of all, as for meeting
the pre-set teaching objectives (curriculum goals), at least
some of the objectives were deemed importance as said by
one of the teachers: May be we can only achieve one out
of the three teaching objectives, but I still think this is a
good lesson (HK3). Five other teachers regarded the
meeting of teaching objectives as one of the criteria of a
good lesson. It seems that, by doing so, they know they
have performed their (teaching) duties.
Certainly, students demonstration of understanding is a
key indicator of whether the teaching objectives are
achieved. The same teacher said: If you can achieve all
the teaching goals and are able to make the students
understand, then this scenario is the best (HK3). Another
said: Students should get some new knowledge after your
lesson (HK6). In such a case, We [can] see that students response change from not understanding to having
understood (HK1). Yet another commented:
For me, a good lesson is one in which students can
master the teaching aims, the theme [of the lesson],...
students should feel that they can grasp what I have
taught in that lesson. If the students are able to do
that, then I think that lesson is successful (HK5).
That understanding could be actualized by performance in
class and yet that performance may also mean a long-term
one, as argued by one of the respondents: If the students
have a deep understanding, they can handle and tackle
[mathematics problems] better, especially when they were
promoted to higher grade levels (HK12).
Students participation is another key area to judge an
effective lesson. Students should be deeply engaged and
pay attention (HK8). It [a mathematics lesson] is successful if the students participate fully in the lesson and the
teaching aim is also achieved (HK10). In such a case,
they [the students] should realize they have learned a lot
and feel very happy (HK6). From these responses, we see
that, in the view of the respondents, participation and
involvement are the keys for understanding (and for
achieving the teaching objectives) and also the source of
satisfaction in learning. Interest and academic success also
demonstrate a reciprocal relationship. In fact, interest
was repeatedly mentioned. It is both a means and an end to
a good mathematics lesson (e.g., HK3; HK5). For instance,
one participant talked about the criteria of good lessons:
[It is one that] I can achieve the teaching goals. Also, I
can stimulate the students and arouse their interest. In
addition, students feel this is an interesting lesson and
enjoy this lesson. Then, I think this is a successful lesson
(HK4). Another said: If students learned and learned

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310

interestingly, it is considered to be good (HK1). Not only


that, once the student has interest, all else become easy
(HK4).
Very much in line with teachers conception that
mathematics involves thinking, whether student thinking is
provoked is another major criterion for a good mathematics
lesson. It should be one in which students will think
continuously (HK8) and there are some good questions
to stimulate the students to think (HK7). Not only that,
In the class, they [the students] can generate some new
idea in their mind and after discussion, the problem can
[thus] be solved (HK7).
However, there is no fixed script of a good lesson. It all
depends on the situation. So I have to change my method
[to test which is appropriate for that particular group of
students] (HK12). One can test by observing students
responses: If students can answer your questions well,
then I know they understand and sometimes I will ask
students to do rather than answering my questions (HK5).
Like many Asian countries, there is a long tradition that
Hong Kong follows a central curriculum and it is customary for teachers to follow the curriculum closely,
especially when the central curriculum leads to public
examinations, which have high regard among the public
(Wong, Han, & Lee 2004). Thus, one of the prominent
factors of effective mathematics lesson, in the eyes of the
teachers, is to have the objectives of the lesson (which is
closely coherent with the curriculum objectives) attained.
An effective lesson is also one that students understood the
teaching contents. Student participation and interest are
also looked high upon. This resembles of what was found
in previous studies on students, in which they look for
teaching liveliness, student involvement, and rapport in the
mathematics classroom (Wong 1993). Again, similar to the
students preference, an effective mathematics lesson is
one in which thought-provoking tasks and exercises are
provided (Wong, Lam, Leung, et al. 1999). Obviously,
deep learning is looked for. It is interesting to note that the
teachers reflected that there is no fixed rule in conducting an effective mathematics lesson, which is probably
a common belief in Chinese culture (Wong 1998).
3.3.2 What lead to an effective mathematics lesson?
It seems that a teacher-led run-down is a typical script
in the CHC mathematics classroom, particularly in Hong
Kong. Having clear objectives is the prerequisite and
having the lessons well-prepared is thus indispensable
(HK4; HK1; HK2). One should think about what one is
going to teach before a lesson, but should not pack too
many objectives into a single lesson (HK5). So, another
important point is the flow of the lesson [well-designed]
(HK5). As another teacher put it: I think an effective

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N.-Y. Wong

lesson usually has good preparation, having thought about


the flow of it, and also with my teaching pointing to childrens weaknesses (HK11).
Having everything well-prepared, the contents should be
systematically delivered and clearly explained, as said by
one of the participants: Our teaching plan must start from
the basic idea, then proceed to the difficult ones (HK3).
Teaching skills, as a mode of delivery, is also seen as of
vital importance (HK12). For instance, one should teach
the contents step by step (HK5) and [you] should have a
little pause after you have mentioned a key point (HK5).
One should also make a good start because: For the
students, the first impression is very important. If they get
the wrong message at the beginning, they need long time to
correct (HK9). A right control of time (Effective means
finishing teaching in presumed time) (HK11) and the
teaching pace (HK1) are important too, the latter of which
will be discussed in the next section.
Very much in line with Ausubels (1963, 1968) notion
of teacher-led yet student-centred, though teachers
stressed the importance of a well-designed lesson with its
objectives clearly laid down, the awareness of students
situation and the consideration of their responses were once
again emphasized. The use of pauses (as raised in the last
paragraph) was further elaborated: For those teachers
with no much experience, I would advise them to pause to
see students responses (HK5). In general, students response should be considered and the pace of teaching
should be so adjusted (HK2). The particular participant
(HK2) made it clear:
The teaching aim of that lesson should at least be
clear. The teacher should teach according to what the
students should learn. The teacher should not let other
things override the main theme. Secondly, it is the
explanation of the teacher. The teacher should explain clearly, not to use ambiguous words like this
and that, and the students do not know what
this and that are. The teaching pace should be
adjusted with the response of the students in the
lesson. The teacher should not just blindly follow the
lesson plan and let the lesson go on without considering students response (HK2).
A good understanding of students is thus crucial: They
should know students need and inclination (HK12; HK6;
HK8). The teacher should know what students need when
they learn Mathematics (HK9) and one should consider
the difficulties that may be encountered by students
when planning the lesson (HK1). One of the participants
elaborated: I know which common problems would be
found by most students when I become more and more
experienced. It helps me to take preventive measures and I
know how to remind students in the next academic year

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

(HK9). One should understand students learning differences and gear the teaching pace to them (HK5; HK4;
HK8). A good teacher-student relationship through which
one can understand well the characteristics of students is
extremely useful to gear ones teaching to their needs
(HK1). To this end, the teacher should be patient, willing
to listen to students learning difficulties and help solve
them (HK5; HK3). S/he should encourage the students,
especially those who lag behind (HK8).
As students participation and interest were seen to be so
important for an effective mathematics lesson, naturally,
cultivation of interest becomes a prominent element leading to an effective lesson. Teaching aids, games, real-life
examples, introducing them various activities and outside
readers (HK8) were various means suggested by some of
the participants. The connection with real-life situations
was seen as a major source of interest (HK5). The use of
cartoon is yet another means: For example I framed the
question with a cartoon character, Digimon [Digital Monsters], the kids like the questions more (HK6). Connecting to other concepts within the syllabus would arouse
students interest too: They would feel surprised and this
would initiate their thinking [too] (HK7). However, one
of the participants pointed out that teacher-student relationship is the key to all these: First, it is the students
impressions of the teacher [that counts]. This affects their
interests towards learning.... If students are interested in the
teacher, then no matter what teaching method the teacher
uses, students will all be interested to learn (HK12). This
echoes the findings of previous studies that most students
identify a mathematics class with the mathematics teacher
(Wong 1993). This will be discussed further in the next
section.
Whether a lesson could lead to students involvement in
thinking is another criterion of effective mathematics lessons. Inevitably, teachers skill in initiating that to happen
is also a major factor leading to such an effective lesson.
This is attained, as seen by a participant, by good questioning skills [One has to] ask questions, from which can
inspire students to further imagine.... [One should ask] how
can we make use of questions to guide students to think
something new, deeper, and those things they have never
thought about before (HK1).
The qualities of a good mathematics teacher as perceived by students were repeatedly investigated in previous
studies in Hong Kong. In one of them, it was found that:
A good mathematics teacher as perceived by the
students is one who explains clearly, shows concern
towards the students, treats them as friends, makes
sure that they understand, teaches in a lively way, is
conscientious, well-prepared and answers students
queries.... A good mathematics teacher should also

311

provide more exercises and should generate a lively


atmosphere but keep good order; and a good learning
environment is one which is not boring, quiet, with
classmates engaged in learning, where order is observed but discussion with classmates after lesson is
possible (Wong 1993, p. 304).
Similar findings were obtained in Wong, Lam, Leung, et al.
(1999) and are echoed among the teachers as found in the
present study. Clear explanation via a well-prepared and
organized lesson comes first. On the other hand, one needs
to know the students so that one can gear ones teaching
according to the needs of students. Inevitably, this demands
good teaching skills. If we refer to the students preference,
they too prefer the teacher to treat them as friends and
shows concern toward the students. Also, it is a high demand on teaching skills for a teacher who can generate a
lively atmosphere but at the same time keeping good order,
and can get the students involved yet keeping them quiet.
From the above discussions, one should get a scenario of
the typical CHC classroom: teacher-led yet student-centered (Leung 2004). While Huang and Leung (2006) described the CHC mathematics classroom as having
teacher dominance and student active engagement, Gao
and Watkins (2001) put it more precisely as learning
centred. In fact, in the eyes of the students, teachers are
seen as the crucial factor of the mathematics classroom; the
mathematics class is often identified by the teacher (Wong
1993).
3.3.3 What makes a good teacher
Naturally, fluency in mathematics is repeatedly taken as a
criterion of a good mathematics teacher. Five of the participants explicitly mentioned that. We heard similar factors like mathematical sensitivity (HK12) and confidence
in solving mathematics problems (HK8). A considerably
number of them even raised the concern that the teachers
themselves should have an interest in mathematics (HK12;
HK3; HK4), which is more important than fluency (HK9).
Does it reflect that many mathematics teachers whom they
met are not keen in mathematics? This could be related to
the particular situation in Hong Kong that a considerable
portion of primary mathematics teachers are not brought up
with a strong mathematics background. Mathematics
teaching could just be considered as a secondary duty in
some schools (Tang et al. 2006). However, some raised the
point that fluency in mathematics is just one factor (HK9);
deep understanding of the curriculum content (HK1) and of
the curriculum structure (HK5) are also mentioned by
others.
Besides, a good mathematics teacher, as perceived by
the teachers themselves, is one who knows how to use

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312

appropriate/effective teaching methods (HK5; HK8). The


mathematics teacher should make clear and systematic
explanation, using concrete example to explain abstract
concepts (HK3), and let students progress gradually in the
course of learning, from the simple to the hard (HK8).
The teacher should be able to conduct questioning that
provokes thinking (HK9; HK6), rather than presenting
everything to the students (HK6). However, it does not
only mean conforming to a best way of teaching, so to
speak, but also processing a variety of teaching methods
(HK4). S/he should be creative in teaching too (HK6;
HK8).
The participants in this study talked a lot on the personal
caliber a good mathematics teacher should possess. S/he is
portrayed as one who loves teaching (HK9), who like to
explore mathematics problems (HK12; HK8), who possesses a loving heart (HK8), and who has a sense of humor
(HK12). S/he should be objective, fair, looking into problems from multiple perspectives (HK3); be flexible in
handling problems (HK3), and accept different points of
views from the students (HK3). Also, s/he is attractive
to students, in terms of both physical appearance and
mathematical fluency (HK6). As for his/her relationship
with students, s/he should have a sharp mind but can tolerate students failures at the same time (HK9, HK6); s/he
should be strict to students, yet reasonable (HK6), and
impose high expectations on the students (HK8). If we look
other factors of preferred classroom environment as perceived by the students, the above portrayal is not at all
surprising.
The participated teachers repeatedly pointed to the criterion that a good mathematics teacher should be one who
always strives to improve oneself. S/he should reflect
preferably after every lesson (HK4), willing to learn
(HK12), adventurous, and receptive to new things (HK3;
HK9). S/he is seen to be one who always takes part in
continuous learning, through reading books and journals,
attending seminar and courses, and surfing through the
Internet (HK5; HK4; HK9). S/he is willing to take part in
collegiate exchange within and outside the school (HK5;
HK4; HK8), and knows the current trend of mathematics
(HK5; HK8) and of mathematics teaching (HK4).
With the ideal effective mathematics lesson we portrayed above from our findings, the image of a good
mathematics teacher is more than obvious. Strong professional knowledge, including subject and pedagogical
knowledge, is fundamental. The personality of the teacher
is another key element since it is expected that teachers
should show personal concern toward the students. Not
only that, setting a role model so as to conduct moral
education has always been taken as one of the duties of the
teacher in CHC regions (Leu & Wu 2006; Ho 2001).

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N.-Y. Wong

4 Discussions
The above results reveal that, to our participants, mathematics was generally regarded as a subject that is practical,
logical, useful and involves thinking. Abstract thinking is
regarded as one of the goals of mathematics learning and
teachers should build a path so that students can proceed
from the concrete to the abstract. Learning and teaching for
understanding is treasured but the participants find a role of
memorisation, practices and concrete experiences in the
enhancement of mathematics understanding rather than
seeing them as something solely good or bad. Good
teaching practices are exactly precisely those that make full
use of these means and let leaning for understanding to
happen. Though many of the participants realize that there
is no fixed rule to this, good practices, basic teaching skills
and good relationship with the students are major indicators.
This echo with the results in previous research studies
on students conception of mathematics, in which students,
too, find mathematics as a subject of calculables, involves thinking and is useful (Wong 2002). This is not at
all surprising since they were all brought up from the same
culture! Very much in line with the students conceptions,
teachers see the dual nature of mathematicsit is useful
and involves thinking. Though the conception that mathematics as a subject of calculable is not that salient as
among the students, some teachers did identify mathematics by its content and terminologies (Wong 2002).
Being abstract is not only seen as the nature of mathematics, abstraction is also perceived as one of the major
goals of learning mathematics. Thus the path of mathematization of going from the concrete to the abstract is the
course of mathematics learning, which could be continued
from the elementary up to the secondary levels. Though
there are not too many abstract notions at the elementary
level, the route of abstraction has already been started. To
this end, the use of concrete objects has its particular role
as it helps grasping the abstract.
Learning for understanding is unanimously agreed. To
most of the informants, understanding means flexible use
of rules. This is in concordance with previous research on
Hong Kong students. There had been discussions on
whether understanding or memorization should go first.
Yet we can look at the issue from another viewpoint that
there could be at least two aspects of memorization: rote
memorization (recitation, so to speak) and having something memorized (kept in mind). If something (whether it is
a rule or a concept) is being remembered with rich connections with other rules or concepts via a variation of
learning activities, in a sense, isnt it precisely that something is being understood (Hiebert & Carpenter 1992)?

Hong Kong teachers views of effective mathematics teaching and learning

One of the possibilities is the careful arrangement of


tasks or practices with variation systematically introduced.
In this way, practices may not necessarily be seen as a
bunch of drilling exercises or meaningless repetitions but a
scaffolding that leads from the basics to higher-order
thinking skills (Wong, Lam, & Sun 2006). In fact, both the
teachers and students (in previous research) reflected the
importance of thought-provoking exercises. Of course, too
much emphasis on the speed of calculation (especially as
required by high-stake assessments) makes it difficult to
turn the above into reality.
The above discussions have painted a picture that the
teacher needs to be the central figure of the mathematics
classroom. It is the teacher who designs such learning
activities, which are the key to understanding. The need for
the teacher to lead the classroom and its learning activities
was reflected in the present research and in previous
studies. Teacher-led, yet student-centred (or learningcentred) is seen as the characteristics of the CHC classroom (Leung 2004; Wong 2006).
So, having a series of learning activities, including
practices, carefully arranged (by the teacher) so that students can move from the concrete to the abstract and have
the rules/concepts firmly put to heart (memorized) could be
the image of a effective mathematics lesson as perceived
by the teachers in Hong Kong. Teacher-led, yet studentcentred, a scaffolding from the basics to higher-order
thinking is constructed in such a way. To have this realized,
teacher professionalism comes first place. Teachers must
have a strong professional knowledge, including the mastery of teaching skills and the ability to understand the
students.

5 Conclusions and implications


With such an in depth investigation with experienced
mathematics teachers in Hong Kong, we came up with a
portrait of teachers views of effective mathematics
teaching and learning. The different aspects of mathematics, that it is practical, logical, useful and involves thinking,
precisely reflect the dual nature of mathematics. This
leads to the complexity of its acquisition. In particular, the
participants did not see memorisation, practices and concrete experiences in the enhancement of mathematics
understanding. It is not just a matter of using these means
or avoiding these means. It is how they are used that
counts. Good teaching practices are exactly precisely those
that these means are used to their full potential so as to
make learning for understanding to happen. All these have
their cultural assumptions. So, first of all, teachers have to
create a suitable (psycho-social and cultural) classroom
environment for the above to take place; and secondly

313

teacher professionalism is of utmost importance so that


teachers could have a professional judgment in every section of classroom learning and teaching. Thus, teacher
professionalism should be the heart of all educational reforms.

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