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APRIL 2003

Educating Math Teachers
by Alfred S. Posamentier, Ph.D.

A well-known journalist was asked what major he would advise a college freshman, enthusiastic about embarking on a career in journalism. He replied, anything in the liberal arts, but don’t take any journalism courses. Strange advice that is perhaps unexpected. This sort of response reflects a growing trend back to liberal arts. This theme is nobly touted in James O. Freedman’s new book Liberal Education and the Public Interest (University of Iowa Press, 2003). The basic argument bandied about is that a well-rounded individual is more valuable than a narrow specialist—the specialized training can come later. It is well known that many large companies prefer to train their own employees in ways that not only familiarize them with the latest technology, but also reflect the company’s culture. It is easier to train an educated person, than to educate a trained person.

What might this tell us about how we ought to prepare young people for careers in education? There, too, the importance of having a proper liberal arts education is rapidly gaining in importance. The previous euphoria with specializing in teaching methods has taken a “back seat” to providing potential teachers with a well-rounded liberal arts education. Recently it has become the rule rather than the exception that majoring in education as an undergraduate has become less desirable than majoring in an area of the liberal arts and sciences and minoring in education as the ideal preparation for the teaching profession. Those with a background in, or at least some moderate exposure to, subjects like history, science, political science, philosophy, psychology, and sociology will have a marked advantage in understanding human behavior, understanding ways of thinking, and benefiting from what has happened in the past and knowing ways to analyze current events. In short, teaching is first knowing content—and, at that, broadly—to be able to make connections and comparisons to properly enrich the instruction.

Teachers should not only be familiar with the latest thinking about effective methods of instruction, but also with the infusion of technology, done appropriately and without the often-distracting flare that can accompany these initiatives. Care must be taken that the technological glitz can overshadow the subject. The key areas in education today, especially from a political standpoint, are the “three R’s”—reading, writing and arithmetic. These are the areas on which schools are judged. A case in point is the recent listing of the 200 most effective New York City schools—based on their performance on these subjects.

It is expected that anyone who is university educated has mastered the first two. It is usually the third, arithmetic (or more accurately mathematics) that is lacking in the arsenal of skills for most lower grade teachers. Why is mathematics competence reserved for the few? To add insult to injury, why are so many adults proud to admit their weakness in mathematics? Is it because of the perception that the majority of the well educated are weak in mathematics, and so being amongst the majority is popular? Or is it that we do not see the direct importance of mathematics as compared to literacy? Perhaps an effort ought to be made to show the multifaceted usefulness of mathematics beyond just some quantitative applications.

In this rapidly progressing technological era competence in mathematics is becoming ever more essential, not as a vehicle to be able to do arithmetic computations more quickly (for that we have the ubiquitous calculator), rather to understand mathematical concepts, reasoning, and above all genuine problems-solving skills. We must better prepare our elementary school teachers, not only in the content of mathematics, but also in the ways they can motivate their classes to begin to appreciate the subject, or its beauty as well as its application. There is an inherent beauty in mathematics that unfortunately stays hidden from most students today because of a lack of properly trained math teachers in our schools. The early years—when youngsters’ interests are being developed are most essential for excellent mathematic instruction. Yet this is where we find to most math-phobic teachers. This must come to an end. Pre- and in-service instruction must do more than show effective teaching methods. Not only should a teacher come to the position with a well-rounded liberal arts education, but it must include a strong component in mathematics— one that stresses its beauty and motivates the learner.

The training of new secondary school math teachers must now focus not only on the basic content underlying that, which is to be taught, but also on ways that the subject matter can demonstrate its attractiveness. This requires (obviously) a good command of the mathematics beyond that which is to be taught, as well as a broad background of the liberal arts. To make mathematics instruction interesting it must be brought into the broader context of the liberal arts. Teachers must be exposed to these “new” ways to view the subject matter. They must be shown ways to motivate youngsters, and they must recognize the powerful new ways that our technological advances enable a deeper and more genuine understanding of mathematical concepts. Early favorable experiences with mathematics will surely increase chances for success in college in this important subject.

How many math teachers today are resourceful enough to know the constant interplay between geometry and algebra, or the astonishing illustrations where various probabilities cause us to reassess our natural intuition, or beautiful geometric relationships that can be easily exhibited in a variety of ways, not to mention the role mathematics plays in the arts? Unfortunately too few. Perhaps most important about mathematics instruction is that it provides a wonderful training ground for developing life-long problem-solving skills that can be used in everyday life as well as to solve math problems.

It is well known that there is a math teacher shortage of crisis proportions in many areas of the country. This is not different here. New York City is still facing a teacher shortage, particularly in mathematics, special education, and bilingual education. Incredibly, New York schools will need about 1000 mathematics teachers in September 2003. Shortages of any commodity tend to reduce the quality of the product available. There is a crying need for more intensive training of math teachers, especially for many who will be asked to teach the uniform curriculum being imposed on about 1000 schools this fall.

At The City College of New York, we have played a major role in the Department of Education’s efforts to stem the shortage crisis with an alternative teacher certification program that provides a quick route to the teaching profession. We hope these newly trained teachers, coming to the profession with a rich liberal arts background, will be able to provide effective mathematics instruction while at the same time further enrich the liberal arts education for the next generation of students.#

Dr. Alfred S. Posamentier is Dean, School of Education, The City College of New York-C.U.N.Y.




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