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Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ understanding

of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States

Liping Ma, Knowing and teaching elementary mathematics: Teachers’ un-

derstanding of fundamental mathematics in China and the United States,
Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, xxv + 166 pp. ISBN
0-8050-2909-1 (pb) $19.95.
I first came across Ma’s Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics
advertised on the Internet with what seemed to me a bit of eye-catching
hyperbole: The only book I know that has won high praise from people on
both sides of the ‘Math Wars’ ( Nonetheless, it
piqued my interest. After all, what kind of book could appeal across these
two ‘camps’? As it turns out, I agree that this one should. Throughout the
last decade, debate has swelled over the present reform of mathematics
education curriculum espoused by the National Teacher of Mathematics
(NCTM). In crude strokes, the controversy pits the ‘reform’ curriculum
and methods against more ‘traditional’ curriculum and methods. A less
public, but no less important aspect of the dispute, has been concerned
with the role of teachers’ content knowledge in instruction: Does it play a
substantive role in elementary instruction? Furthermore, if teachers’ level
of content knowledge is an issue, should teachers be taking further univer-
sity level courses as a means of ameliorating this purported deficit? Ma’s
substantive and detailed work weighs in on all of these issues; it is research
that will be hard to ignore.
Ma interviewed 23 American teachers (all with a Bachelor of Arts
degree and a minimum further one year of study in education) and 72
Chinese teachers (with the equivalent of grade nine education and two to
three years of teacher education at a normal school). The core of the book
is the extended documentation of the responses of these two groups to
four well designed problems of elementary mathematical instruction. The
book is divided into seven chapters. The first four address the teachers’
responses to an interview question covering one teaching concept each:
1. subtraction with regrouping;
2. double-digit multiplication;

Educational Studies in Mathematics 42: 101–106, 2000.

© 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

3. division of fractions; and

4. area and perimeter.
These chapters take a parallel form: an outline of the teaching problem,
qualitative and quantitative results of the interviews, and finally, analysis of
the implications for mathematics education. The fifth chapter is an analysis
of the nature of ‘Profound Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics,’
or PUFM, a term Ma coined to describe the knowledge she considers to be
at the heart of good instruction. In Chapter 6, Ma develops a thesis about
how she believes PUFM is learned and, in the final chapter, Ma concludes
with recommendations for the reform of American instruction.
Ma makes the case that American teachers, despite a minimum of four
years in higher education, have a limited and indeed sometimes faulty
understanding of mathematics content and, consequently, of appropriate
pedagogy. This contention and the evidence to support it are not new in
the mathematics education literature. What is new, and highly informative,
is the comparison of this limited understanding with that of a group of
Chinese teachers who demonstrate a wider and deeper understanding of
these concepts.
As the problem already has some history in the research literature (Ball,
1990; Simon, 1993), I turn first to her documentation and discussion of
the problem addressed in Chapter 3, which deals with division of frac-
tions. This chapter serves as a useful point of comparison with the existing
literature, demonstrating the new light that Ma’s work sheds through the
addition of a cross-cultural comparison. She asked both groups of teachers
the following:
How would you solve the problem 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2 =? Imagine that you are teaching division
with fractions. To make this meaningful for kids, something that many teachers try to
do is relate mathematics to other things. Sometimes they try to come up with real-world
situations or story-problems to show the application of some particular piece of content.
What would you say would be a good story or model for 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2 ? (p. 55)

Not unexpectedly, only 9 out of the 23 American teachers were able to

perform the calculation. The American teachers who could not perform
this calculation made statements such as, “. . . it is in the back of my mind
that you invert one of the fractions. Either 7/4 becomes 4/7, or 1/2 becomes
2/1. I’m not sure.” Most of them could not remember the rule. The ones
who could, universally used the traditional North American algorithm of
‘invert and multiply’ to perform the calculation. The Chinese teachers on
the other hand, all carried out the calculation correctly and did so using a
variety of methods: employing the distributive law; converting to decimals;
and, given these specific numbers, simply dividing across numerators and
denominators. Furthermore, the Chinese teachers spoke about the import-