Aug 132011

As a result of her research, Liping Ma developed the notion of profound understanding of fundamental mathematics (PUFM) as the kind of mathematical knowledge teachers should possess. She discusses this kind of knowledge in her book Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States (Studies in Mathematical Thinking and Learning Series). This book is now considered a classic by many mathematics educators. The ‘elementary’ in the title does not mean the book will be valuable to elementary teachers only or those engage in the training of prospective elementary teachers. The book is for all mathematics teachers, trainers, and educators. This book is a must-read to all that has to do with the teaching of mathematics.

Here’s what Liping Ma says in the introduction:

Chinese students typically outperform U.S. students on international comparisons of mathematics competency. Paradoxically, Chinese teachers seem far less mathematically educated than U.S. teachers. Most Chinese teachers have had 11 to 12 years of schooling – they complete ninth grade and attend normal school for two or three years. In contrast, most U.S. teachers have received between 16 and 18 years of formal schooling-a bachelor’s degree in college and often one or two years of further study.

In this book I suggest an explanation for the paradox, at least at the elementary school level. My data suggest that Chinese teachers begin their teaching careers with a better understanding of elementary mathematics than that of most U.S. elementary teachers. Their understanding of the mathematics they teach and -equally important – of the ways elementary mathematics can be presented to students continues to grow throughout their professional lives. Indeed about 10% of those Chinese teachers, despite their lack of forma education, display a depth of understanding which is extraordinarily rare in the United States….

Why the word ‘profound’? Profound has three related meanings – deep, vast and thorough – and profound understanding reflects all three. From the paper delivered by Liping Ma and Cathy Kessel in the Proceedings of the Workshop on Knowing and Learning Mathematics for Teaching conference, Liping and Cathy offered the following explanation:

  • A deep understanding of fundamental mathematics is defined to be one that connects topics with ideas of greater conceptual power.
  • A vast or broad understanding connects topic of similar conceptual power.
  • Thoroughness is the capacity to weave all parts of the subject into a coherent whole.

A teacher should see a ‘knowledge package’ when they are teaching a piece of knowledge. They should know the role of the current concept they are teaching in that package and how that concept is supported by which ideas or procedures.

To further explain the kind of mathematics knowledge a teachers should possess, Liping and Cathy used the analogy of a taxi driver  who knows the road system well. The teachers should know many connections so that they are able to guide students from their current understandings to further learning.

I think this is how designers of curriculum, writers of curriculum materials, and teachers should interpret the standard “Making connections”.  It is not simply linking.


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