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China has a uniﬁed national curriculum. In the early
1950s, the China adopted the Soviet mathematics curriculum.
Thus, the curriculum paid more attention to mathematical
deductions using formal and rigorous mathematical
language, just like Soviet mathematics curriculum. Then,
in the late 1970s, the Chinese syllabus of mathematics
teaching for elementary and secondary schools required
students to apply mathematical knowledge to solve real-life
problems (Chinese National Ministry of Education, 1978).
The syllabus in 1988 explicitly stated that students should
not only be able to calculate correctly, but also be able to
understand the principles of mathematical operations, and
use appropriate strategies to solve problems (Chinese State
Education Commission, 1988).

China has a uniﬁed national curriculum. In the early
1950s, the China adopted the Soviet mathematics curriculum.
Thus, the curriculum paid more attention to mathematical
deductions using formal and rigorous mathematical
language, just like Soviet mathematics curriculum. Then,
in the late 1970s, the Chinese syllabus of mathematics
teaching for elementary and secondary schools required
students to apply mathematical knowledge to solve real-life
problems (Chinese National Ministry of Education, 1978).
The syllabus in 1988 explicitly stated that students should
not only be able to calculate correctly, but also be able to
understand the principles of mathematical operations, and
use appropriate strategies to solve problems (Chinese State
Education Commission, 1988).

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DOI 10.1007/s11858-007-0030-7

ORIGINAL ARTICLE

teaching and learning

Tao Wang Jinfa Cai

FIZ Karlsruhe 2007

Abstract This study investigates Chinese teachers cultural beliefs concerning effective mathematics teaching

through semi-structured interview with nine experienced

teachers. For the Chinese teachers, an effective teacher

should always be passionate and committed to the teaching

profession. She should not only understand the knowledge

in the textbook thoroughly but also be able to carefully

craft the knowledge from the textbook for teaching by

predicting possible students difficulties. Although Chinese

teachers emphasize student participation and flexible

teaching, they tend to see the teachers ability to design and

lead coherent lessons as the key for facilitating students

understanding. The result of this study helps researchers

and educators understand the teacher-designed and content-oriented teaching model in Chinese classrooms.

in Mainland China

We start with a brief description of mathematics education

in China to situate our presentation of the findings about

teachers beliefs (see Cai & Nie, in press; Fan, Wong, Cai,

& Li, 2004 for more information about mathematics education in China). For years, China had 6-3-3 educational

system (6 years elementary school, 3 years in junior high

school, and 3 years in senior high school). In recent years,

T. Wang

The University of Tulsa, Tulsa, OK, USA

J. Cai (&)

Department of Mathematical Sciences, University of Delaware,

532 Ewing Hall, Newark, DE 19716, USA

e-mail: jcai@math.udel.edu

it has experimented with a 5-4-3 system. After graduating from senior high school, students can enter colleges

or universities after passing a college/university entrance

examination. China is one of the countries where, to a great

extent, the examination scores can determine a students

opportunity for additional education and even future

careers (Cai & Nie, in press). The vast majority of problems

in any examinations are related to basic knowledge and

basic skills. Thus, the principal purpose of mathematics

instruction is to help students grasp basic knowledge and

skills, so they can earn higher scores in examinations. Because of their competitive nature, problems on examinations are usually very challenging, and they also include a

large quantity of problems (Cai & Nie, in press).

China has a unified national curriculum. In the early

1950s, the China adopted the Soviet mathematics curriculum. Thus, the curriculum paid more attention to mathematical deductions using formal and rigorous mathematical

language, just like Soviet mathematics curriculum. Then,

in the late 1970s, the Chinese syllabus of mathematics

teaching for elementary and secondary schools required

students to apply mathematical knowledge to solve real-life

problems (Chinese National Ministry of Education, 1978).

The syllabus in 1988 explicitly stated that students should

not only be able to calculate correctly, but also be able to

understand the principles of mathematical operations, and

use appropriate strategies to solve problems (Chinese State

Education Commission, 1988). In 2001, Curriculum Standards for 9-year compulsory education were issued, representing the newest wave of the curriculum reform (Basic

Education Curriculum Material Development Centre,

2001). Instead of one set of national unified textbooks,

multiple sets of textbooks and instructional materials have

been developed and published according the National

Curriculum Standards. Besides the basic knowledge and

123

288

T. Wang, J. Cai

mathematics to real-life, thereby nurturing students interest and creativity in mathematics.

In China, teachers are trained in normal schools or

normal universities. Each province has also Educational

Colleges to provide in-service trainings so that teachers can

receive advanced degrees. For example, a normal school is

usually 23 years for training elementary school mathematics teachers. After entering an educational college for

an advanced training in mathematics and mathematics

education, a teacher can receive a bachelors degree.

teachers are invited to observe the lesson. After the lesson, the teachers discuss the features of the lesson for

other teachers to model. In China, there are many national

and local teaching journals, and teachers can contribute

articles to share their experience. Many of the participating teachers have given model lessons and wrote articles for local teaching journals. All of the participating

teachers have taken or are taking additional mathematics

and mathematics education courses (Table 1).

2 The participants

normal schools (2 or 3 years), the remaining participating

teacher graduated from a normal university (4 years).

They are distinguished because they were actively participating in instructional improvement projects, writing

articles to share their teaching experience in local teaching journals, becoming teacher researchers, and giving

model lessons to other teachers. A teacher researcher is

the one who helps other teachers analyze textbooks,

identifies essential and important points in textbooks, and

provides instructional guidance. Becoming a teacher researcher itself is an honor. Only those who have been

widely recognized can be promoted to serve as a teacher

researcher (Paine, 1990). In China, one of the common inservice activities is called model lessons. An experienced teacher is invited to teach a lesson, and other

Table 2 shows how Chinese teachers think about mathematics. When asked about the nature of mathematics, the

Chinese teachers tend to answer the question by explaining

the relationship between mathematics and real life problems from three perspectives. First, the teachers tend to

think that mathematics knowledge comes from real life

problems with numbers. Second, they differentiate between

mathematics knowledge and concrete real life problems in

that mathematics is an abstract and coherent knowledge

system. Third, they see mathematics as a useful tool to help

solve real life problems efficiently.

3 Results

All nine Chinese teachers agree that mathematics knowledge comes from real life. For example, CH7 argues that

Code

Sex

Qualifications

Years of

teaching

CH1

19

CH2

bachelors degree through advanced training

25

gave model lessons

CH3

mathematics and mathematics education

22

gave many model lessons for other teachers

CH4

mathematics and mathematics education

30

Gave model lessons for other teachers, wrote articles for a local

teaching journal

CH5

mathematics courses in another normal university

19

class, but helps other teachers to teach

CH6

mathematics courses from a university

23

CH7

another university and received a bachelors

degree

34

class, but helps other teachers to teach, gave many model

lessons for other teachers

CH8

from a university

21

teaching competition

CH9

additional courses in math and math education

courses from a normal university

20

local teaching journal

123

Table 2 Chinese teachers views about mathematics

CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Knowledge from daily life

+ + + + + + + +

A language

+ +

Rational thinking

Unable to articulate

following example to illustrate this process.

We first can see many [shapes of] angles in real life.

Then you can draw angles on a piece of paper. And

finally you describe the general features of an angle

and shape the concept of angle that is more abstract

and general than those real life angles.

+ + +

+ + +

+

+

+

+ + + + + + + +

+

mathematics is from real life. CH3 specifies that mathematics is to understand concepts of number in daily life.

Consequently the teachers tend to see that learning and

teaching mathematics should connect mathematics

knowledge with concrete, real life problems (more detailed

discussions can be found in the sections on mathematics

learning and teaching). However, CH1 points out that the

relationship between mathematics and real life situations

has been highlighted only recently in the new national

unified curriculum in China.

Recently the new curriculum requires teachers to pay

attention to connecting mathematics with real life

situations. There is clearly an increasing emphasis on

the practicality [in the curriculum] of mathematics.

With the enactment of the new curriculum, we feel

that it is more and more important to connect mathematics with real life. The new textbook is also closer

to real life [than the old textbook].

3.1.2 Mathematical knowledge is abstract and connected

All nine teachers differentiate mathematics knowledge

from real life problems in that mathematics is an abstract

and generalized knowledge system refined from real life

problems. For example, CH3 says:

Mathematics stems from real life...but it is the

knowledge refined [tilian] from real life. Once our

ancestors help us get the knowledge, we can directly

apply the general knowledge without considering

some unnecessary features of each specific real life

problems.

Here Chinese word tilian used by CH3 has three basic

meanings. It can mean extracting, refining, and purifying. It

seems that for CH3, the real life problems provide only raw

materials that should be purified and abstracted as mathematics knowledge by discarding some unnecessary fea-

289

word tilian to exemplify the process of generating mathematics knowledge from real life problems.

I think we need to elevate [our knowledge]. For

example, the relationship between unit price, quantity, and whole cost can be understood first through

using a simple example of how much you spend to

buy a certain amount of pencils and how much for

each pencil. Then you can generate (tilian) the concepts of unit price and total cost.

In addition to the nature of abstractness, another important

feature mentioned by all the Chinese teachers is that

mathematical knowledge is interconnected. The comments

from CH7 are quite typical:

Mathematics itself is a coherent and logic knowledge

system. To have students think logically, the teacher

should use formal and precise mathematics language.

Two other teachers (CH1 and CH3) also argue that

mathematics is a special language system with its own

symbols, terms, and rules that can reshape our thinking.

CH1 uses an example to illustrate that being unfamiliar

with mathematical symbols or language can cause problems when transferring life knowledge to mathematical

knowledge. CH1 states that some young students can

understand one cigarette plus another equal two cigarettes.1 But they still have problems understanding the

equation of 1 + 1 = 2.

This view of mathematics as an abstract and coherent

knowledge system is more directly reflected in the teachers response to mathematics learning and understanding

where they claim that the crucial task for mathematics

learning is to build a bridge from the concrete to the abstract (see the discussion related to mathematics understanding).

Because of the abstract nature of mathematics, some

teachers (CH1, CH2, CH3, and CH7) explicitly mention

that mathematics is an art and a game of abstract entities.

It is thinking gymnastics and students can refine their skills

through repeated practice.

1

cigarette becomes a frequently used word in classroom.

123

290

believe that learning mathematics trains students thinking

in an abstract and logical way. Therefore, learning

mathematics is not only learning certain concepts but also

developing a way of thinking, which five Chinese teachers

(CH1, 3, 4, 5, and 7) label as lixing siwei (rational

thinking) (see the discussion related to mathematics

learning).

3.1.3 Mathematics as a tool to solve problems

Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 2, 7, 8, and 9) comment that

mathematics knowledge is practical in daily life and can

help people solve real life problems in an efficient way. For

example, CH8 argues that mathematics is a science as well

as a necessary tool for life.

These teachers further argue that mathematics knowledge should be applied to solve real life problems. These

Chinese teachers see the ability of applying mathematics knowledge into real life problems not only as a

fundamental aim of learning mathematics but also as

an indication of a higher level of mathematics understanding (more detailed discussion can be found in the

section on mathematics learning).

It should be noted that not all nine teachers were able

to clearly articulate their beliefs about mathematics right

after they heard the question. Instead, three of them

(CH1, 7, and 9) first responded that they had never

thought about the question explicitly and carefully before.

After a short hesitation, they gradually came up with

some ideas about the nature of mathematics. This type of

hesitation in their responses confirms Thompsons (1992)

argument that many mathematics teachers beliefs about

this issue are often subconscious because they are often

shaped implicitly through their learning and teaching

experience.

In general, even though Chinese teachers believe that

mathematics comes from real life problems and needs to

apply back to real life, they tend to emphasize that mathematics itself is an abstract and coherent knowledge system. Consequently they believe that the critical issue in

mathematics learning is to help students construct a

coherent knowledge system and think logically. As a result,

they believe that the critical issue in mathematics learning

is helping students construct a coherent knowledge system

(see the discussion in the next section). Therefore, Chinese

teachers tend to hold a Platonist view with a focus on the

structural feature of the knowledge itself. The emphasis on

the abstract nature of mathematics can well explain why

Chinese teachers consistently encourage students to solve

problems using more abstract and generalized approaches

and represent the solution processes symbolically (Cai,

2004).

123

T. Wang, J. Cai

learning

3.2.1 The nature of understanding

Table 3 specifies the Chinese teachers views about the

learning of mathematics. There is a consensus from the

nine teachers that the ultimate goal of learning mathematics is to understand mathematics. Their responses

indicate that they see mathematics understanding through

three interrelated levels: understanding abstract concept by

using real life examples, understanding by connecting

concepts together, and understanding by applying concepts.

At the same time, they tend to see memorizing and practice

as an indispensable step to develop the latter two aspects of

understanding (Table 3).

Understanding is to develop abstract concept from concrete examples As discussed in the previous section, the

Chinese teachers tend to view mathematics as an abstract

knowledge system that comes from real life problems.

Almost all the Chinese teachers (except CH6), on the one

hand, insist that a teacher should use concrete examples or

teaching tools to help students, especially low-level students, understand mathematics. But, on the other hand,

most teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8) argue that

understanding some concrete cases does not guarantee an

understanding on the abstract level. Recall that CH1 uses

an example that some young students can understand one

cigarette plus another equal two cigarettes but not the

equation of 1 + 1 = 2. CH1 also remembers vividly that

one fifth-grade boy who could manage the complex family

daily expenses but who had very poor mathematics grade

in school. CH1 explains this:

Once the knowledge is abstracted as mathematical

knowledge, some young students have difficulties to

understanding.

CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Understanding as the ultimate goal of +

learning mathematics

+ + + + + + + +

content and students age

+ + + +

+ + +

formulas

+ +

+ +

+ + +

+ + + + + + + +

+ + +

terms of ganxing siwei (sensory thinking) and lixing siwei

(logical thinking) to describe the two levels of understanding. Ganxing in Chinese means direct, concrete, and

not systematic; in contrast, lixing means indirect, interlogic and systematic. For example, CH5 explains the differences between the two concepts:

[At the beginning] knowing is a sensory (ganxing)

phenomenon. This is a primitive stage of knowledge.

Understanding is a requirement at a logical (lixing)

level. At this level, students can understand the

mathematics connotations of concepts.

The five teachers believe that learning mathematics is a

process that elevates sensory knowing to logical understanding. For example, CH3 argues:

Learning should gradually transfer from sensory

(ganxing) understanding to logical (lixing) understandingTeachers should use some educational

tools to enhance students sensory knowledge and

then elevate it to logical (lixing) thinking.

CH1 expresses a similar idea.

When children just start to learn mathematics, concrete examples and materials are often necessary. But

later, we should teach them to infer new knowledge

from previously learned mathematics knowledge.

Four teachers further (CH2, 4, 7, and 8) suggest that students should be encouraged and guided to make observations and then to facilitate their acquisition of abstract

knowledge from concrete examples. For example, CH8

says:

After using some concrete examples, [teachers] guide

students to observe, compare, discuss, re-observe,

and generalize [what they find]...For example, to

shape a concept of rectangular prism, I let students

observe [a real object] and ask them to find its features. And then, I ask them to think all kinds of

rectangular objects they have seen. Finally I help

them to shape the abstract concept of rectangular in

their mind by capturing some common features of

these rectangular shapes.

Sometimes, says CH8:

I will have students touch and observe the object.

Then they can sense something. For example, how

many faces or edges it has. Then I ask them to close

their eyes to think about those features with a concrete representation in their mind space. Then they

can gradually capture those features of the concept

and finally learn to think abstractly.

291

typical process of internalizing and appropriating a concrete representation into an abstract and mental representation.

Understanding is to connect abstract concept together Seven teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8) mention

that students should deepen their understanding by connecting concepts. For example, CH5 says:

Deep understanding happens when students can

connect concepts by seeing their inter-relationships.

CH1 also claims:

Sometimes new concepts could be understood by

inducing them from previously learned concepts.

Five teachers (CH2, 4, 5, 7, and 8) view deriving a formula

from previously learned mathematics concepts and formulas as an important approach toward establishing conceptual connections. For example, CH2 claims it is a

popular approach for Chinese teachers.

I observed many classes. Many teachers take pains to

help students derive formulae (from previously

learned concepts). Although students will not be required to derive formulas in their tests, we put a lot of

energy in that.

Both CH2 and CH4 use an example of learning the formula

of the area of a rectangle to illustrate the process of

deriving one formula from another. They say that students

should understand that the product of length and width

gives the number of small squares, each of which has an

area of one square unit. Through this, the students can

connect the knowledge of different formulas together.

In a previous study (see Cai & Wang, 2006), where we

studied these nine Chinese teachers lesson plans for

teaching the concept of ratio, one of the main features of

the lesson plans was that all the Chinese teachers emphasized the connection between the new knowledge of ratio

and the previously learned knowledge about division and

fractions.

CH7 uses another example to demonstrate the importance of connecting knowledge in helping students understand abstract knowledge. She explains that when students

learn the formula for the area of a triangle (base times

height, then divided by 2), they should understand that:

What can we get with base times height? This is the

area of a parallelogram. Then they should understand

why the product should be divided by 2.

In addition to deriving formulas from each other, CH1

raises another way to construct an abstract mathematics

123

292

shaping some super ordinate concepts. CH1 encourage his

students to shape two super ordinate concepts, he (combining) and fen (separating) after they learned four basic

operations:

[The students] should understand that the four operations are two fundamental processes: combining and

separating. Addition and multiplication are the combining, and subtraction and division are the separating. Also they should know the difference between

subtraction and division in that they are separating in

different ways. Subtraction is to separate the whole

into groups with different or the same amount of

portions while division is to separate the whole into

some portions with the same numbers. Once they

understand it, they can quickly learn how to separate

the whole in a specific word problem.

For CH1, students understanding is deepened when they

can re-construct a conceptual system by establishing a

hierarchical relationship between abstract knowledge pieces. This idea of organizing a higher level of abstraction,

generality, and inclusiveness is very close to Ausubels

well-known concept of advanced organizer (Ausubel

1963, 1978).

Although all the Chinese teachers emphasize the significance of understanding on this abstract level, most of

them claim that the highest level of understanding is using

abstract knowledge to solving new problems flexibly.

Understanding is to apply abstract knowledge flexibly Five teachers (CH1, 2, 7, 8, and 9) see flexibly

applying abstract mathematics knowledge as the highest

level of understanding. Three teachers (CH7, 8, and 9) use

flexibility as the keyword to describe understanding on

this level. For example, CH7 says:

What is real understanding? It is when students can

apply knowledge flexibly that they have real understanding.

CH8 expresses the similar idea from an opposite perspective.

If students cannot apply knowledge flexibly, then

they dont really understand knowledge yet because

their knowledge is not flexible enough to transfer.

Although CH1 does not use the word flexible, he explains that applying means solving variations of problems, which cannot be solved by directly applying a

formula:

...for most students, word problems could cause some

special difficulties. They cannot directly use symbolic

123

T. Wang, J. Cai

mathematics knowledge. Instead, they should understand the relationship between abstract knowledge

and special conditions provided by the word problem.

They should construct the relationship [between their

knowledge and new situation] by themselves, based

on their understanding.

It is quite clear that the Chinese teachers views of the three

levels of understanding (understanding abstract concept by

using real life examples; understanding by to connecting

concepts together; and understanding by applying the

concepts flexibly) are related to their views of the nature of

mathematics. Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 5, and 8)

even argue that the three levels of understanding are hierarchical and sequential. For example, CH1 says:

Start with concrete examples, then help students

make abstract mathematical concepts. But finally

they need to apply knowledge back to solving problems... A student has real understanding when he can

juyifansan.2

3.2.2 Memorizing and understanding

In terms of the role of memorization in learning, Chinese

teachers tend to differentiate two kinds of memorization:

memorization after understanding and memorization before understanding. All nine teachers agree that memorizing after understanding is important for it can help students

retain knowledge and apply their knowledge efficiently

when solving problems. For example, CH1 explains that

memorizing formulas is necessary.

Although we often encourage students to understand

a formula by deriving it from learned knowledge, you

cannot derive it every time you need it to solve

problems. Therefore, memorize it after understanding

it. Then you can apply it in new contexts and deepen

your understanding. Without the memorizing process,

you must have trouble applying it.

CH7 uses an example to illustrate the importance of

memorizing mathematical knowledge after understanding.

Memorizing is important. But memorizing is based

on understanding. For example, the multiplication

tables should be memorized after students understand

how they are created so that they can apply it efficiently.

It should be noted that all nine Chinese teachers strongly

object to mere mechanical memorization, but some of them

2

A Chinese idiom with meaning of knowing one concept and

applying into three situations.

mechanical rote learning without any understanding happens in the classroom. That is, memorization can come

before understanding. These teachers see it as an intermediate step, especially for some lower level students as

they start their learning. However, they believe that this

kind of memorizing is only a transitional strategy, not the

final goal. Chinese teachers believe that when students start

with rote memorization (without understanding), they

should be able to gradually come to understanding by

practicing. Otherwise, if they cannot move beyond rote

memorization, their knowledge is dead knowledge in that it

can not last long and is difficult to be applied and transferred into a new situation according to CH8. CH3 further

points out that sometimes rote memorization can lead to

deeper understanding. One of the most common approaches to memorization and understanding is through

practicing.

3.2.3 Role of practice

In general, Chinese teachers believe that practice has two

basic functions. First, they see practice as a necessary

process to consolidate knowledge and facilitate understanding. Second, they see practice as a means to get

feedback from students so that teachers can adjust their

later teaching. The second function will be discussed in the

next section discussing teachers views of teacher and

teaching (Table 4).

All nine Chinese teachers see practicing as a key to

consolidating knowledge and facilitate understanding. For

example, CH8 argues:

Practice provides an opportunity for students to

experience applying mathematics knowledge by

themselves... Through this process, students can

experience and uncover their own mistakes, both of

which are so valuable both for the students learning

and the teachers later teaching.

Five Chinese teachers (CH1, 5, 7, 8, 9) believe that practice

can help students apply knowledge into new situations

CH1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Deepening understanding

knowledge

+ + + + + + + +

+

+ + +

293

students deepen their understanding and turn a concept into

live knowledge, which is easy to transfer into solving

new problems.

Four Chinese teachers (CH3, 4, 7, and 8) mention that

mastering a concept sometimes requires much practice. For

example, CH4 argues:

It is through repeated practicing students come to

consolidate their mathematical understanding.

CH3 also agree about having multiple times to practice.

But she points out that each round of practice has its unique

pedagogical function in helping understanding.

The goal of the first practice right after learning the

new content is to have students try [to apply their]

primary understanding. Then both the teacher and

students could find insufficiency [of understanding].

Then the second practice is to consolidate knowledge

by correcting these mistakes.

Another interesting topic about practice from the teachers

response deals with Chinese students overload of homework. For example CH7 notes:

On average a sixth-grade student needs to spend more

than one hour [each day], even two hours to finish

mathematics homework. It has been a salient problem

in Chinese mathematics education... Some students

told me that they even cannot finish the homework

before 11 pm or midnight.

According to CH4, there is a new policy that sixth-grade

teachers should assign lighter homework so that students

can finish it within 1 h every day. Almost all the Chinese

teachers say that they have reduced student homework

dramatically since the new policy. However, CH8 argues

that reducing homework should not be at an expense of

student understanding. Instead she argues that the new

policy requires a teacher to design homework carefully and

to understand students understanding status, based on the

feedback from homework. As a result, she argues, it (the

new policy) does reduce students load but increase

teachers load. In any case, for Chinese teachers, no matter

how much homework they can assign, it is for understanding.

3.3 Chinese teachers views about the teacher

and teaching

3.3.1 Characteristics of an effective teacher

flexibly

+ + + + + + + +

mathematics teacher from three perspectives. Some are

about a teachers personal traits (e.g., caring about kids),

123

294

others are related to instructional skills.

Chinese teachers mention the following personal traits

of the effective teacher.

Commitment to teaching Six teachers (CH1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and

7) point out that an effective teacher should have a commitment to teaching itself. Commitment embodies both

passion and responsibility. In terms of the passion, CH1

says that an effective teacher is always passionate in caring

about students both in and out of the classroom. CH2

further argues that this kind of passion builds a positive

rapport between the teacher and students which can directly impact a students learning itself, since some students love mathematics because they love their

mathematics teacher. Therefore, she insists that, to a great

extent, a teachers commitment and passion are even more

important than her mathematics knowledge.

Commitment to teaching also means being responsible

for the students. CH3 argues that a good teacher should be

responsible for teaching and caring for students. CH7

elaborates what a highly responsible teacher acts like.

Feeling great responsibility, she will do this: If she

finds that one student get lost [in their learning], she

will give some extra help to the student to catch up.

No one is left behind. On the other hand, the great

responsibility means that she studies the textbook

hard and provides provoking and flexible lessons for

her students.

CH5 also realizes that the great responsibility is especially

important for elementary teachers because young students

can be easily influenced by the teachers. But as a teacher

researcher, she admits:

Due to teachers low social and economic status,

some teachers do not have great responsibilities. One

goal of teacher training programs is to enhance their

responsibility.

Cultivating student interest in learning Five teachers

(CH1, 2, 3, 4, and 8) argue that an effective teacher is the

one who can cultivate student interest in learning, primarily

through two approaches. The first approach is that students

love mathematics because they have a good personal

relationship with the mathematics teacher, as we discussed

in the previous section. These teachers believe that the

teachers passion and rapport with students are especially

important for students at the beginning of their mathematics learning. As learning progresses, these teachers argue, an effective teacher should build the students interest

in knowledge itself. For example, CH3 suggests that a good

teacher should further intrigue students interest by asking

123

T. Wang, J. Cai

are successful. CH8 describes the process of the change in

students interest in mathematics.

At the beginning, they can learn some mathematics,

and then they are willing to learn more mathematics.

Finally, they enjoy mathematics.

Passion and responsibility are necessary but not enough to

be an effective teacher. All nine teachers argue that an

effective mathematics teacher should have solid mathematics knowledge.

Solid mathematics knowledge Although two teachers

(CH1 and 2) note that advanced mathematics knowledge

can help in understanding elementary level mathematics,

seven teachers (all except CH1 and 7) put extreme

emphasis on understanding and studying textbooks thoroughly. For example, CH4 says:

I believe an effective teacher should have a thorough

understanding of the textbook and the contents.

CH5 explains the thoroughness means that the teacher

should understand not only the content itself but also why

the content is organized in a particular order and presented

in a particular way in the textbook. Through this way, CH5

argues,

An effective teacher can understand the connections

between different knowledge pieces in the textbook.

However, understanding the textbook thoroughly is not the

end for an effective teacher. According to six Chinese

teachers (CH2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 9), an effective teacher

should capture some essential points (zhongdian) and

difficult points (nandian). Essential points refer to the

important concepts and knowledge. Difficult points refer to

some knowledge that could cause particular difficulties for

students because of the complexity of the knowledge itself

and the learners cognitive features (Paine, 1990). In other

words, they believe that an effective mathematics teacher

should explore and study textbooks intensively and precisely predict the potentially difficult concepts for their

students so that they can devise instructional strategies to

overcome the difficulties.

Solid mathematics knowledge and a thorough understanding of textbooks do not guarantee a teacher to be

effective in teaching. Instead, the Chinese teachers argue

that the effective teacher should also have following

instructional skills.

A good planner An effective teacher should be a good

planner. With clear essential points and difficult points in

mind after studying the textbook thoroughly, seven teachers (CH1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 9) point out, an effective teacher

argues that an effective teacher should highlight essential

points (tuchu zhongdian) and design approaches to help

students overcome difficult points (tupo nandian). CH3

summarizes that a good lesson plan should always provide

a coherent lesson structure by considering steps of how to

introduce new knowledge [daoru], explain, ask [question],

and summarize the lesson.

An effective teacher can precisely predict students

possible difficulties and then design corresponding approaches to help students break through difficult points

(nandian). CH9 uses the following example to illustrate

how to predict difficult points:

An effective teacher first should be able to predict

places where students are likely to make mistakes...

For example in teaching multiplication, the teacher

tells students that the zero at the end of the number

could be omitted first. But you should predict that

students would omit a zero in the middle as well.

Therefore, you should design a number like 3040 to

ask your students to observe and pay particular

attention to the two zeros.

Three teachers (CH3, 7 and 8) suggest designing questions

appropriate to students mathematical levels as a way to

help overcome students learning difficulties. CH8 further

points out that an effective teacher should consider the

diversity of student understanding levels and design

appropriate questions for students with different levels of

understanding.

Indeed, in a previous study (Cai, 2005; Cai & Wang,

2006) we found that the lesson plans written by these nine

Chinese teachers often have clear target content and a

coherent structure for the lesson. They explicitly write

down what the essential points and difficult points are.

Most of them even provide detailed information about

when to ask which specific question to help students realize

where the difficult points are and how to break through

them step by step.

Writing a lesson plan for a Chinese teacher is just like

writing script for a stage play for a play author, in that all

the details of the process should be carefully considered

and written out. CH8 mentions that there is often a critical

moment in your class, if you can capture student attention

at this period, your class is successful. Chinese teachers

state that when writing a lesson plan, the teacher should

consider what physical tools can be used, when to use them

and how to use them, possibly even pre-designing some of

the teachers actions, dialogues between the teacher and

students, including a blackboard design.

Even with a good lesson plan, some teachers might still

have difficulty in enacting the planned lesson in a successful way. One crucial trait for an effective teacher who

295

communication skills.

Good communicative skills Five teachers (CH1, 3, 4, 7,

and 8) note that an effective teacher should have good

communicative skills, but they mention different aspects of

communicative skills. For example, CH3 argues, the teacher can use lively language to activate students interests

for learning and establish a good atmosphere in classroom.

CH3 also points out that, just like a good actor or actress, a

good teacher should have good performing skills to communicate with the audience. CH4, CH7, and CH8 point out

that an effective teachers language should be concise and

accurate. CH7 argues that an effective teacher should always use standardized mathematics terms instead of daily

casual language.

Communication generally includes two essential parts,

giving information to others and getting information from

them. It seems that what these teachers emphasize about an

effective teachers communication skill is more about the

skills to pass along information than listening skills, which

allow the teacher to listen to and understand students

questions or responses carefully. This teacher-centered

argument about effective communication is even clearer in

their responses about effective lessons. For example, they

argue that to have an effective lesson, the teacher should

have good questioning skills and use contagious language

to attract students attention. In contrast, they do not

mention much about how the teacher should pay attention

to students questions and responses (see the discussion

about features of effective lessons).

In summary, according to the Chinese teachers, the

characteristics of effective mathematics teachers include

the following: commitment to teaching, cultivating students interests, possessing solid math knowledge, studying

textbooks carefully and thoroughly, planning lesson carefully, knowing essential and difficult points, and having

good communication skills. All these characteristics are

external in nature, in the sense that through training one

can develop these characteristics.

3.3.2 Characteristics of an effective lesson

There is a general consensus among the nine teachers that

in an effective lesson students should understand mathematics concepts through active participation. Table 6 lists

a number of aspects of a lesson to encourage students

participation and finally enhance their understanding

(Table 6).

Coherence All nine Chinese teachers maintain that an

effective lesson should be coherent through highlighting an

essential teaching point. For example, CH2 say: first of all

123

296

T. Wang, J. Cai

teacher

T1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Personal traits

Commitment to teaching

+ +

+ + +

+ + +

+ + + + + + + +

+ +

+ +

Mathematics knowledge

Strong mathematical knowledge

Thorough understanding of textbooks

+ + + + +

+ +

+ + +

+ +

Instructional skills

Good lesson planner

Clear explanation

Designing good questions

+ + +

mathematical language

Fostering students mathematical

thinking and understanding through

concrete examples

+ + +

+ + +

+

+ + +

+ +

+

+

+ + +

+ +

teacher

T1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Coherence

+ + + + + + + +

Contagious language

Good questioning

Student participation

Flexible teaching

+ + + + + + + +

concrete example

Highlighting essential points

+ + + +

+

+ +

+ +

+ + +

+ + + +

+

+

+ + +

+ +

+ +

+

+ +

further argues that the theme of each activity should be

closely related to the essential point. In a previous study

(Cai & Wang, 2006), we found that Chinese teachers designed the following eight relevant activities to foster

understanding a new concept about ratio (see Fig. 1).

CH4 explains that highlighting essential points helps

students closely follow the teachers teaching. In addition

to the thematic coherence of the activities, CH3 further

points out that the effective lesson should also have a

coherent structure, which includes following consecutive

processes: introducing (daoru), explaining, questioning,

123

content and previously learned content. You should

study extremely carefully when you design the review because this review paves road for teaching the

new content.

Four teachers (CH3, 6, 7, and 8) see the last step of summarizing as important. CH7s response is quite concrete on

this issue.

The teacher may have students summarize what they

have learned. And the teacher can see who need

improvement at which aspect. Then the students are

clear what they learned today which is helpful for

their reading the textbook after the class.

+ +

Chinese word daoru in the first step is to get something

into an existing container. The word described a process

of introducing a new concept into students existing

knowledge structure. Three teachers (CH3, 5, and 8)

explicitly mention that this beginning step is extremely

important for an effective lesson because it is a process to

connect old and new knowledge pieces. For example CH8

explains:

clear steps (see a sample lesson plan in Cai and Wang

2006). The lesson structure looks like a drama which

develops a coherent story with a clear beginning, crescendo, peak, climax, and end. CH8s following description might provide a sense of what the peak and climax

look like in a lesson drama.

The critical moment of the lesson is when you are to

break though the difficult points and highlight the

essential point. The critical moment might have only

10 minutes. If the students can completely concentrate on the teaching at this moment, Bingo, you are

successful. And then, you may relax and do some

practice.

While it is a teachers responsibility to design and develop

the coherent lesson, the following response from CH8

indicates that Chinese students also contribute to the

coherence of the lesson by reviewing the content before the

class.

The students have been used to that [to reading

textbook before class]. They highlight the essential

points in their textbooks with D [to mark highlighted passages]... Sometimes, they come to the class

with some questions already.

Although CH8 is the only teacher who mentions the

requirement of students preparation, she believes that at

least 80% to 90% of mathematics teachers have this

297

activities for highlighting an

essential learning point about

the concept of ratio in the nine

Chinese teachers lesson plans

merely an audience but active players who need special

preparation.

Covering sufficient content and practice Six teachers

(CH1, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8) claim that an effective lesson

should have a broad content coverage. For example, CH2

says:

By highlighting essential points and difficult points,

an effective lesson should cover all planed contents

and activities.

CH5 argues that in an effective lesson, students should have

a fast pace to fulfill many activities. CH7 see enough

practice to consolidate students knowledge as part of

sufficient content mastery. CH7 suggests the teacher design

different practices and provide different forms of help each

time.

An effective lesson should have at least two to three

times for practice. After teaching the new content,

you must have students give sufficient practice. The

teacher needs to give different forms of help at different times. First let students rely on your help. Then

let them try by themselves. Then give them practice

with more variations.

Indeed, we find that all the nine teachers designed various

practices and activities to help students get familiar with

the new concept of ratio by connecting various old

knowledge pieces (fractions and division). Each activity

includes practice and intensive discussion. These activities

can be fulfilled only at a fast pace (Cai & Wang, 2006).

CH1 and CH7 further point out that in reality not covering planned lesson content is a scary result. For

example, CH1 argues:

it will affect your teaching pace later. We have specific content to cover for every class. If you cannot do

this, it is very scary [for a teacher].

Other researchers (Wong, Han, & Lee, 2004, Wang 2006)

also look at Chinese teachers concern about fulfilling the

lesson plan. They attribute this to the Chinese unified

mathematics curriculum that has detailed prescriptions for

learning content, learning outcomes, and teaching activities

for each lesson. In order to help students achieve high

performance in examinations, Chinese teachers have to try

their best to teach the content in the textbook both inclusively and intensively.

Good questioning and answering process Five teachers

(CH1, 2, 3, 8, and 9) pay their particular attention to

designing this communication process. CH1 argues that a

good question should have an appropriate difficulty level

corresponding to students current developmental level.

Therefore, a too easy or too difficult question will fail to

facilitate student learning. CH2 further argues that the level

of a question should correspond to different students

levels. She argues:

In order to broaden student participation, the teacher

should design questions with different levels of difficulty to take care of good students, average students,

and slow students. Therefore, in my class, I never

invite one student to answer a question more than

three times so that more students can have chances to

answer questions.

This response also shows that the Chinese teachers try hard

to have as many students as possible to directly participate

in the question and answer process. CH8 argues a good

123

298

also their classmates interest as they observe, compare,

infer, and even raise their own questions. This kind of

student participation with active verbal and thinking exchange is crucial for constructing a dynamic classroom

atmosphere. Five teachers (CH1, 5, 6, 7 and 8) explicitly

point out the importance of creating this kind of lively

atmosphere. With this dynamic, the classroom process is

student centered, although the teacher is the determining force. CH1 further imagines that the students can even

challenge the teacher academically.

The students could argue against their teachers by

raising their counter argument. This is the best indication of their active participation in their thinking.

Even sometimes when the teacher cannot convince

them during the class and has to study students

questions after class. I will still feel happy about that

communication.

However, CH1 adds with disappointment:

I never had a chance to have this kind of situation

where students argue against their teacher on mathematics problems during the class but only after class

occasionally.

The phenomena of not challenging the teacher during the

class may reveal a dilemma many Chinese students face. On

the one hand, they do think actively with many good ideas.

On the other hand, they still feel uncomfortable about

challenging the teacher publicly during the class. Instead

they wait and ask questions after class. This also reflects the

high level of authority Chinese teachers have in classrooms.

Flexible teaching Five teachers argue that the process

should be flexible, according to spontaneous classroom

situations (CH1, 2, 4, 7, and 8). For example, CH2 comments:

In terms of how to unfold a planned lesson, the teacher should always flexibly adjust his path according

to student status. After a student answered a question,

[I can find] what is still not understood by him. Then I

will continue explain it carefully. Therefore, I cannot

just rigorously follow the plan.

CH4 argues that the teacher should be sensitive to the

students puzzlement during the class and flexibly and

quickly solve problems. CH7 and 8 argue that the teacher

should design diversified classroom activities. They state

that learning through play is an effective way for young

students in the elementary level. This view expressed by

Chinese teachers is similar to what Ball viewed as teaching

a dilemma management (Ball, 1993).

123

T. Wang, J. Cai

importance of teaching flexibly, the degree of their

adjustment in the process is often constrained by required

content coverage and large classroom size. For example,

CH1 explicitly expressed the concern on these two aspects.

The advantage of it [teaching flexibly according to

students responses] is that the students can well

follow your [the teachers] mind and respond you

actively... However, it can make you lose control. If

you cannot control the class [to fulfill the plan], then

it will affect your teaching pace later. We have specific content to cover for every class. If you cannot do

this, it is very scary [for a teacher]...[in addition] we

often have more than 50 or 60 students in a class. You

cannot take care of each individual students need.

As a result, CH2 argues:

An effective lesson often has at least 85% of the

students understanding the concepts in the class.

To the remaining 15% of the students who do not understand in class, many Chinese teachers often give some

extra help after class (Wang, 2006).

Appropriately using concrete mathematics examples All

nine teachers recognize the critical role of using concrete

examples and tools in teaching elementary mathematics.

However, they have different views about whether students

should physically manipulate the tools and objects during

the process. CH7 argues that in order to understand a

concept clearly, students should physically operate the

concrete examples and tools. However, due to constraints

of time and class size, CH1, CH4 and CH6 argue that, in

real teaching, a teacher often just demonstrates the process

without having students manipulate the tools. Regardless of

whether the students should physically operate the concrete

tools and objects, these teachers recognize that a fundamental aim of using these tools is to facilitate student

understanding to transform concrete cognition into conceptual knowledge. Therefore they emphasize the crucial

role of teachers guidance and supervision during the

process of using tools.

In fact, three teachers (CH1, 4 and 6) point out that

when using the tools, the teacher should invite students to

think, compare, and infer what they observed. Although

CH7 believes that having students physically operating

tools is important, she also highlights students mathematical understanding through the teachers careful guidance during the physical operation. She uses an example to

illustrate how she guides students to understand the concept of the center of a circle and radius through the activity

of drawing a circle.

piece of string, and a pencil. Let them try to draw a

circle by themselves. But some students might have a

problem drawing a good circle. Then I will invite

students to pay attention to two critical steps, keeping

the nailed point stationary and tightening the thread.

Then I can ask them to look at the textbook to

understand corresponding mathematics concepts of

the unmoved point [center of a circle] and the

tightened thread [radius].

It is quite clear in this example, even when students

physically operate the tool, the teacher should consider

how physical participation might help understand the

mathematics concept instead of merely having fun.

Therefore, it is done for understanding.

In summary, Chinese teachers often have detailed and

well-structured lesson plans covering sufficient mathematical contents. Although an effective lesson is by no

means a process to read written lesson plan, the teachers do

see following a well designed and structured lesson plan as

a main feature of effective lesson. It seems that the teachers

tend to believe that the coherent lesson structure and sufficient practice are crucial in facilitating students understanding. In addition they also see teachers asking good

questions and appropriately using concrete tools and objects as effective approaches to provoke young students

deep thinking.

4 Discussion

Overall, Chinese teachers tend to view mathematics as an

abstract and coherent knowledge system that is refined

from real life mathematics problems. Therefore, on the one

hand they realize that mathematics comes from and should

be applied back to solving real issues; on the other hand,

they see mathematics is different from real life problems in

that it is abstract and coherent. Consequently, they believe

that the critical issue in mathematics learning is helping

students construct a coherent knowledge system. Recall

Ernests (1989) defined teachers views of mathematics

from two perspectives: the functional and structural perspectives, or the instrumental view and Platonist view.

While the instrumentalists pay more attention to the

functions of mathematics knowledge in the external world,

Platonists emphasize the complexity of the internal structure of the knowledge itself. It seems that although Chinese

teachers see pragmatic functions of mathematics, they tend

to emphasize more the structural feature of the knowledge

itself, especially when they discuss the mathematics

knowledge learned in classrooms. From this perspective,

Chinese teachers beliefs about the nature of mathematics

are close to the Platonist view in the Ernests dichotomy.

299

mathematics can well explain why Chinese teachers consistently encourage students to solve problems using more

abstract and generalized approaches and represent the

solution processes symbolically (Cai, 2004).

In accordance with their view on the nature of mathematics, Chinese teachers see constructing a coherent

knowledge system as the key to mathematics understanding. Using Skemps (1978) terms of relational mathematics and instrumental mathematics, the knowledge

that Chinese teachers emphasize is obviously more relational than instrumental. For example, they see three

gradually developing sequential levels of mathematics: (1)

understanding-acquiring an abstract concept from real life

and concrete examples, (2) connecting conceptual knowledge pieces into a coherent structure, and (3) applying

knowledge flexibly to solve different problems. However,

they tend to emphasize student understanding on the second levelthe abstract level. They tend to see the first

level of understanding (concrete level) as a temporal and

transitional stage for the second level, and the third level

(flexibly applying knowledge) as a result of the second

level. Thus, these teachers emphasize that both learning

and teaching should help students to understand abstract

mathematics knowledge in a rational and coherent way.

Chinese teachers believe that practice and memorizing

are indispensable for mathematics learning. They believe

practice deepens understanding and consolidates knowledge. Chinese teachers emphasize that memorizing should

not be separated from understanding, but they believe that

memorization could come after or before-but-for understanding. This confirms the previous finding that Chinese

teachers believe that memorization does not necessarily

lead to rote learning; instead, it can be used to deepen

understanding.

Chinese teachers claim that effective lessons are largely

well planned before the class. Just like a good director and

performer of a stage play, an effective teacher in China

should be a virtuoso (Paine, 1990), who should be always passionate and have a clear commitment to his or her

profession. In preparing a lesson, the teacher should not

only understand the knowledge in the textbook thoroughly

but also design the details of classroom activities in a very

careful way. Although the teachers believe that good

teaching should be student centered, with this kind of finely

crafted script, usually there is not much room left for students to initiate questions in the classroom process. As a

result, the students have learned to follow closely what the

teacher has designed. This teacher-designed teaching

model does not necessarily mean that Chinese teachers do

not consider the students needs at all. In contrast, in preparing a lesson, Chinese teachers often consider carefully

what the difficult points are for the students, and the lesson

123

300

through the difficult points. However, the difficult points

that Chinese teachers carefully consider often reflect some

general needs of students at certain ages instead of particular needs of specific individuals. This confirms what

Wang and Murphy (2004) found that in Chinese mathematics classrooms the achieving of high coherence is often

at an expense of student individual voices.

This study confirms two important theoretical points

raised by Ernest in regard to mathematical teachers

belief system. First, this study confirms Ernests argument that teachers beliefs about the nature of mathematics provide a basis for the teachers mental models of

the teaching and learning of mathematics. The current

study shows Chinese teachers belief of mathematics as a

coherent and abstract knowledge system has a clear impact on their mental models of teaching and learning

mathematics. For example, they tend to emphasize

understanding of conceptual relationships, designing

coherent lessons, and leading the class through the lesson

plan. Second, this study confirms Ernests argument that

the teachers views about mathematics learning and

teaching are impacted by certain constraints and opportunities provided by the social context of teaching. It is

clear that there are often two different voices in the

teachers responses about effective teacher and teaching.

One is about ideal teaching and the other is about realistic teaching in Chinese classrooms. For example, most

Chinese teachers realize the importance of studentcentered teaching. However, due to the large classroom

size and broad coverage of content required by the national curriculum, the Chinese teachers often take into

consideration the general needs of students instead of

particular needs of individual students.

Acknowledgments The research discussed in this paper was supported by grants from the Spencer Foundation. Any opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily

represent the views of the Spencer Foundation. We gratefully

acknowledge the valuable assistance of Chunghan Lu and Bingyi

Wang for data collection.

References

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critics. Review of Educational Research, 48, 251257.

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Basic Education Curriculum Material Development Center, National

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