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Preservice Mathematics Teachers' Knowledge and Development

Preservice Mathematics Teachers’ Knowledge and Development

Jo�o Pedro da Ponte and Olive Chapman

1. Introduction

Preservice mathematics teacher education is a complex process in which many factors interact. These factors include the kinds of knowledge, competencies, attitudes and values that teacher candidates should acquire or develop, where learning takes place (university, school, and other settings), and the roles, interests and characteristics of the participants in the process (preservice teachers, university instructors, classroom teachers/mentors, and students). They also include program options and conditions such as pedagogical approaches, ways of working emphasized, relationship of preservice teachers and instructors, access to resources, and use of information and communication technology. Associated with these factors are complex relationships in terms of their nestedness, intersections and direct and indirect links. There is also the issue of transforming theory to practice and transforming identity from student to teacher. Other issues include conflicts between what is considered important for preservice teachers to learn and what they actually learn, between university and school contexts, and among the perspectives of the different participants in the teacher education process and other interested parties such as ministries of education, school administrators, parents, media, and the public. Research also adds a layer of complexity in understanding teacher education in that studies can put an emphasis on different aspects of the mathematics curriculum as well as of preservice teachers’ learning and related learning opportunities.

These layers of complexities of the preservice teacher education’s aims, processes and outputs offer many entry points in framing a paper on this field. However, in keeping with the theme of this section of the handbook, we have chosen to focus on particular aspects of preservice teachers’ knowledge and development, influenced by dominant themes from recent research of mathematics teacher education. Our intent is to highlight aspects of research on preservice mathematics teachers’ knowledge and development as a way of understanding current trends in the journey to establishing meaningful and effective preservice teacher education. We see this as a journey in the field of mathematics education research as preservice teacher education continues to be a major issue all around the world with the need to better understand the nature and development of preservice teachers’ knowledge and competency and the features and conditions of teacher education that favor or inhibit it.

The aspects of preservice teacher education research that we highlight relate to: (i) the mathematical preparation of teachers; (ii) the preparation of teachers regarding knowledge about mathematics teaching; and (iii) the development of teachers’ professional competency and identity. These three categories emerge as possible poles to discuss current work from our survey of several journals and books to identify research studies on preservice mathematics teacher education with emphasis on the period 1998-2005. We strived to include significant contributions from a wide range of regions and countries, some of which often are not considered in this kind of reviews. These papers cover a broad range of studies about preservice teachers’ knowledge of, and attitudes toward, mathematics and knowledge of teaching mathematics, prior to, during, and on exiting preservice teacher education.

We organize our discussion of these studies in four main sections. After this introduction, in section 2, we consider papers dealing with preservice teachers’ knowledge of mathematics, paying special attention to the way mathematical knowledge is conceptualized by researchers as well as to the processes through which such knowledge develops. In section 3, we consider papers dealing with preservice teachers’ knowledge of mathematics teaching, again, paying attention to the way this knowledge is conceptualized and to its processes of development. These studies consider preservice teacher learning in situations other than their practice teaching. In section 4, we consider papers related to development of a preservice teacher’s identity and competence. These studies consider preservice teacher learning in situations involving their practice teaching and include how they reflect on their practice and on their role as teachers and how they start assuming a professional identity. They also deal with how to assist the preservice teachers in developing as beginning professionals. In section 5, we provide an overview of the theoretical frameworks and empirical research methodological features of these studies. Finally, we conclude with a section that offers a reflective summary of preservice teachers’ learning and discusses general issues about the state of research of preservice mathematics teachers’ knowledge and development.


3. Preservice Teachers’ Knowledge of Mathematics Teaching

In order to teach mathematics, teachers need to know not only mathematics but also about mathematics teaching. If we take knowledge to refer to a wide network of concepts, images, and intelligent abilities possessed by human beings, including beliefs and conceptions, then knowledge of mathematics and knowledge of mathematics teaching may have something in common. However, knowledge of mathematics has a referent in the academic discipline of mathematics – one of the most formalized and sophisticated fields of human thought –, whereas knowledge of mathematics teaching is in the realm of professional knowledge – a field highly dependent of evolving social and educational conditions and values, curriculum orientations and technological resources. In this section, we discuss studies related to knowledge of mathematics teaching in preservice teacher education, focusing on the nature of this knowledge and on approaches used to facilitate its development in preservice mathematics teachers.

3.1 Nature of Knowledge of Mathematics Teaching

Knowledge of mathematics teaching has long been the focus of “mathematics methods” courses at teacher education institutions, usually organized under the topics of “curriculum” and “instruction”. It involves the general goals of mathematics teaching, the nature of tasks and materials to use in the classroom, lesson planning, ways of organizing students, classroom communication, and assessment. The development of research in mathematics education since the 1970s made clear the need for teachers to take into account students’ thinking and learning processes. In recent years, the growth and consolidation of curriculum reform ideas in many countries has led many preservice teacher education programs to use such perspectives and materials as a major source for their organization and activity.

However, the nature and status of knowledge of mathematics teaching is a controversial matter. Is it an outgrowth of the “wisdom of practice”? Is it a direct application of results of research in mathematics education? Is it something more special, as Shulman (1986) suggested when he coined the term “pedagogical content knowledge” (PCK) to mean a special blend of mathematical and pedagogical knowledge? Shulman’s notion of PCK gave special emphasis to “the most useful forms of representation (…) the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations and demonstrations – in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others” (1986, p. 9). Associated with this notion, Ball, Thames, and Phelps (2005) suggest a model for thinking about teacher mathematical knowledge for teaching in terms of two components:

  • Knowledge of content and students. This knowledge is associated with teachers having to anticipate student errors and common misconceptions, interpret students’ incomplete thinking, and predict what students are likely to do with specific tasks and what they will find interesting or challenging.
  • Knowledge of content and teaching. This knowledge is associated with teachers having to sequence content for instruction, recognize instructional pros and cons of difficult representations, and size up mathematical issues in responding to students’ novel approaches.

Similarly, Kilpatrick et al. (2001) suggest two categories of this knowledge. First, knowledge of students, that is, knowing who they are, what they know, and how they view learning, mathematics and themselves; the mathematical skills, abilities, and dispositions that students bring to the lesson; the unique ways of learning, thinking about, and doing mathematics that students have developed; their common conceptions and misconceptions, and the likely sources of those ideas. Second, knowledge of practice, that is, knowing what is to be taught and how to plan, conduct, and assess effective lessons on that mathematical content, organizing one’s class to create a community of learners and in managing classroom discourse and learning activities to engage students in substantive mathematical work.

Our review of recent studies of preservice mathematics teachers suggest that there is some level of consistency between these proposed items of knowledge of mathematics teaching and on what researchers have focused. Specific examples of what this knowledge looks like in such studies are: beliefs about the means and purposes of mathematics teaching (Cotti & Schiro, 2004); the nature of tasks to present to students for functions (S�nchez & Llinares, 2003) and statistical investigations (Heaton & Mickelson, 2002); working with different representations, such as iconic and symbolic representations of fractions (Llinares & S�nchez, 1998) and algebraic and graphical representations of functions (S�nchez & Llinares, 2003); using teaching materials, especially ICT (Bowers & Doerr, 2001; Gorev, Gurevich, & Barabash, 2004; Kurz, Middleton, & Yanik, 2004); knowledge of students’ processes (Nicol & Crespo, 2004; Tirosh, 2000); teacher-student interaction, focused on the orchestration of class discussions (Blanton, Berenson, & Norwood, 2001), on instructional explanations (Kinach, 2002), or on forms of communication (Brendefur & Frykholm, 2000); and assessing students (Azc�rate, Serrad�, & Carde�oso, 2005; Doig & Groves, 2004; Herrington, Herrington, Sparov, & Oliver, 1998; Santos, 2005; Zevenbergen, 2001).

Shulman’s notion of PCK is rather appealing to mathematics educators since it points to important issues of professional practice and offers the perspective of combining knowledge of content and pedagogy. However, this notion has been the subject of serious criticisms (e.g., Fenstermacher, 1994), especially regarding the epistemological status of such knowledge. Is it formal and declarative knowledge that may be learnt and assessed in a verbal way? Is it practical knowledge that only can be seen implicitly in teaching? Another important issue is how such knowledge develops. Does it only develop in contexts of practice, or may it also develop during university mathematics methods courses? What are the conditions regarding contexts of practice that best support its development? As we point out in Ponte and Chapman (2006), Shulman himself has become a critic of his model. In his own view, it should have more emphasis on the level of action, should consider issues of affect, motivation or passion, should pay attention to the role of the community of teachers and not only the individual teacher, and its starting point should include students, community, and curriculum and not only content knowledge (See Boaler, 2003).

Despite all its shortcomings, Shulman’s notion of PCK has helped mathematics educators to make sense of important aspects of mathematics teaching practice. That practice, however, is changing and a major influence in such process is the emergence of curriculum reform movements. As Lampert and Ball (1998) noted, preparing preservice teachers to fit within existing school practices is by itself rather problematic and teacher education programs have been long criticized by its poor performance. Preparing them to assume innovative curriculum practices is surely much more problematic and presents a serious challenge to mathematics educators.

3.2 Preservice Teachers’ Knowledge of Mathematics Teaching

As we noted above, several recent studies have included various aspects of teachers’ knowledge of mathematics teaching as a focus of their investigations. These studies provide information on the nature of this knowledge prior to and/or during interventions. We next summarize a sample of these studies, some already mentioned in section 2, when we considered preservice teachers knowledge of mathematics.

Some studies addressed preservice teachers’ knowledge of children’s mathematics knowledge. For example, Tirosh (2000) conducted a study to enhance prospective elementary teachers’ knowledge of children’s conceptions of division of fractions. The findings indicate that before the course the participants mentioned only algorithmic or reading comprehension errors. After the course they discussed the attempt of students to apply the properties of whole numbers as distributing directly to rational numbers. Most of them had a naive belief about teaching and learning. Stacey et al. (2001) investigated preservice elementary teachers’ pedagogical knowledge focusing on understanding of decimals. They found that the preservice teachers had only moderate understanding of their errors as being consistent with that of the students. Those who made errors on the test were more aware of potential student errors than the other participants. The preservice teachers were good at identifying features of decimal comparisons that led to students’ errors but not good at explaining why. Klein and Tirosh (1997) aimed to evaluate prospective and inservice teachers’ knowledge of common difficulties that children’s experience with multiplication and division word problems involving rational numbers and their possible sources. The authors indicate that most inservice teachers provided correct expressions for the multiplication and division word problems (93% of correct responses), but this did not happen with the prospective teachers (only 69%). They summarize the findings saying that most prospective teachers exhibited dull knowledge of the difficulties that children's experience with word problems involving rational numbers and their possible sources. The researchers suggest that direct instruction related to students’ common ways of thinking could enhance the teachers’ PCK. Finally, Crespo (2004), using mathematics letter exchanges with school students, investigated how preservice teachers interpret their students’ work. The findings reveal that the preservice teachers initially tended to focus on the correctness of their students’ answers, but later focused on their mathematical abilities and attitudes, and were more analytical of the mathematics involved in the students’ responses. They showed greater attention towards the meaning of student’s mathematical thinking rather than to surface features.

Other studies addressed situations dealing with preservice teachers’ knowledge of communication and questioning. For example, Nicol (1999) in her study of learning to teach mathematics in terms of questioning, listening, and responding, highlights tensions prospective elementary teachers experienced in their efforts to engage students in mathematical thinking and communication. The findings suggest that the participants seemed to be drawn to asking questions which focused on getting students toward an answer and this seemed to be in tension with also posing questions that might elicit student thinking. However, they began to pose questions of their students, listen to their students, and respond to their students differently as the course progressed. Another study by Moyer and Milewicz (2002) examined the questioning strategies used by preservice elementary teachers during one-on-one diagnostic mathematics interviews with children and also engaged them in reflecting on their own questioning. The findings show several questioning strategies, such as check-listing with no recognition of students’ responses; teaching and telling as the interviewers moved from questioning children to teaching; probing and follow-up, which demonstrates the interviewer’s greater attention to the child’s thinking; questioning only the incorrect response, as preservice teachers only questioned children in this case; non-specific questioning, when interviewers consistently followed up children’s answers but did so with questions that lacked specificity; and competent questioning, when interviewers listened to children and used their responses to construct a specific probe to get more information about their thinking. The authors conclude that it is important for preservice teachers to recognize that there are various types of questioning that can be used to assess and understand children’s thinking in mathematics. Brendefur and Frykholm (2000) focused on conceptions and practices of two preservice teachers regarding communication in the classroom. They provided a framework of four constructs to analyze forms of classroom communication – uni-directional, contributive, reflective, and instructive – and used these constructs to consider two participants’ concepts of communication and their classroom practices. They found that the two teachers had quite different teaching approaches and their classrooms depicted quite different forms of communication. Finally, Blanton, Westbrook, and Carter (2005) used classroom discourse to identify what two preservice teachers allowed (zone of free movement) and promoted (zone of promoted action) as a way to know their potential for development. The authors claim that the teachers in some cases seemed to promote actions or events that in fact they did not allow pupils to experience and label this as an “illusionary zone”. In their view, these teachers have a limited capacity to carry out active sense making with their students. They suggest that active listening to students’ thinking could help them to move toward inquiry-based forms of practice.

Another focus of knowledge of mathematics teaching is linked to reform curriculum orientations as in Frykholm’s (1999) three-year study of six cohorts of 63 secondary mathematics student teachers, examining the ways in which their knowledge of the NCTM Standards contrasted with their teaching practices as beginning teachers. Most of the student teachers reported detailed knowledge of the reform movement, recognized what reform-based instruction should look like, and valued the Standards as an orientation document. However, such instruction “was seldom evidenced in their teaching practices” (p. 88) as beginning teachers. Steele (2001) conducted a four-year longitudinal study, from the time when the four participants were preservice primary teachers in a program incorporating a reform-based mathematics methods course until the end of their second year of teaching. The author found that only two of the four teachers sustained their cognitively based conceptions about mathematics teaching and learning, and implemented these conceptions into practice.

Our review suggests that in contrast to knowledge of mathematics, studies on preservice teachers’ knowledge of mathematics teaching are much less represented in the research literature. This may happen because this is a less developed domain and many studies may be integrated with other areas such as identity and competence that we discussed in section 4. However, these studies show that the development of preservice teachers’ knowledge of mathematics teaching beyond common sense level, regarding issues such as their knowledge of children’s mathematical thinking and communicating and questioning in the classroom is no easy task. Even more demanding is learning to plan and conduct teaching according to reform curriculum orientations, since this implies a high level of integration of knowledge of aims, tasks, materials, students’ thinking, background and interests, often in non-supportive environments.

3.3 Approaches for Developing Knowledge of Mathematics Teaching

How do we help teachers to develop meaningful knowledge of mathematics teaching? According to Dewey (1962), teacher education should aim at “making the professional student thoughtful about his work in the light of principles, rather than to induce in him a recognition that certain special methods are good, and certain other special methods are bad” (p. 22). While this is an aim that is conveyed in the intent of current perspectives of mathematics education, one of the challenges for teacher educators is dealing with preservice teachers who are likely to have developed their own sense of what special methods are good or bad and to use it to frame their learning in a way that stifles the thoughtful and flexible dispositions necessary to conduct meaningful classrooms. For example, preservice teachers not educated, as students, in the current reform perspective of mathematics and its teaching and learning are likely to bring a context to teacher education that limits their development of such dispositions. Jaworski and Gellert (2003) also discuss the issue of preservice mathematics teachers’ preconceptions. They indicate that when students enter initial mathematics teacher education they already have extensive knowledge about mathematics teaching and have views on the nature of mathematics. But this knowledge is limited because it is based mainly on their experience as students.

These views suggest the importance for programs to engage preservice teachers in learning opportunities that will allow them to re-construct their knowledge and understanding of mathematics teaching. However, many studies about preservice teachers, prior and during teacher education, have shown that their knowledge about mathematics teaching and learning developed before teacher education tend to resist change (Brown & Borko, 1992; Lampert & Ball, 1998). Thus, as Jaworski and Gellert (2003) suggest, without scrutiny of this previous knowledge, purposeful and ambitious teacher preparation is difficult. In general, then, an essential part of preservice teachers’ education is for them to become aware of their personal theories and preconceptions in order to make them explicit, to confront, clarify and extend them by subjecting them to the challenge of others or alternative theories. Reflection is a key process to create awareness of this knowledge. However, achieving effective reflection can be problematic depending on the way it is conceptualised and carried out. As Lerman (1997) noted, “Reflection on one’s own actions presumes a dialogical interaction in which a second voice observes and criticizes. In order to lead to learning it would seem that this must be more than the ongoing observation of one’s own actions” (p. 201).

Another important idea that has been proposed for teacher education, as helpful both to learning mathematics and learning how to teach mathematics, is that of integrating content and pedagogy, as much as possible. This may be achieved by focusing on a single course, side by side, on content and teaching issues, or in combining different kinds of experiences that run in parallel, sometimes even in different settings (university, school), and that feed each other. A further way of integrating content and pedagogy is through the “isomorphism” principle, that is, the idea that preservice teachers may be taught the same way they are expect to teach later as teachers. In different ways, these two ideas, of reflecting on personal theories and conceptions and integrating content and pedagogy can be traced in many studies.

One study, for example, that explicitly included a focus on reflection is by Cotti and Schiro (2004) who, concerned with foundational aspects of mathematics education, addressed teachers’ beliefs about the purposes and means of mathematics teaching. The participants included 109 preservice primary school teachers of two USA universities. The authors designed an instructional tool to highlight for teachers the different ways in which children’s literature may be used to teach mathematics and analyzed if it could stimulate teacher discussion and reflection. The examples of their instructional tool are related to four curriculum ideologies: (i) scholar academic, (ii) social efficiency, (iii) child study, and (iv) social reconstruction. Using a Mathematics and Children’s Literature Belief Inventory they indicate that most of the pre-service teachers (83%) identified the child study ideology as their primary position, consistent with the orientation of the education faculty at both institutions. The instructional tool stimulated teachers’ reflection about their own beliefs and the ideological nature of educational environments. The authors argue that if knowledge about teaching mathematics is not just technical knowledge but involves value choices and moral issues, preservice teachers need to deal with these in their professional preparation.

One study integrating learning of content and pedagogy was reported by Amato (2004). This is an action research study aimed at improving the understanding of, and attitudes toward, mathematics of two cohorts of 42 and 44 primary school preservice teachers enrolled in a mathematics teaching course component of a teacher education program in Brazil. The teaching strategies used in the course were similar to the ones suggested for the preservice teachers’ future use in teaching children. Theory related to the teaching of mathematics and strategies for teaching the content in the primary school curriculum were discussed in the course. However, the findings reported deal more with attitude of content and not knowledge of mathematics teaching, that is, some preservice teachers said that they had improved their liking for mathematics, whereas others indicated that their attitudes towards the subject had not changed much. Similarly, Presmeg (1998) describes a graduate course on ethnomathematics for prospective and practicing mathematics teachers that have the potential of indirectly modeling the use of cultural mathematics projects in their teaching. This course stresses as a key element the participants’ ownership or their individual and personally meaningful cultural mathematics projects. The participants choose personally their project and reported them orally to the class and in writing and in verbal presentation, together with activities suitable for school students. Selected examples of preservice teachers’ work show that such activities had a strong meaning to them.

Another way of integrating the learning of content and pedagogy and promoting reflection was through special emphasis on problem solving. In the reform curriculum, problem solving can be considered as both a mathematical process and a pedagogical process, that is, a way of teaching mathematics. Thus, as these studies imply, developing students’ understanding of problem solving could affect their knowledge of mathematics teaching about and through problem solving and other related issues. Reflection also plays an important role in these studies. For example, in a study by Roddick, Becker, and Pence (2000), preservice secondary teachers were provided with rich and varied problem solving experiences. The authors organized two courses aimed at improving prospective teachers’ problem solving abilities, learning ways to assess problem solving, broaden their views of problem solving and of mathematics, and enhance their understanding of equity issues in teaching mathematics. The ultimate purpose was to influence teaching practice toward implementation of the NCTM standards. The first course (24 participants) focused on problem posing and modeling and the second (20 participants) provided a model for reflecting on one’s problem solving and concentrated on specializing, generalizing, and justifying their work. Both courses included substantial time on group work on problems and giving presentations and justifications to the class. The results show that participants fell on a continuum ranging from not much discernible implementation to substantial integration of problem solving in their teaching, as in the case of one participant, described in detail, which experienced considerable growth in her views of problem solving and its role in instruction and incorporated such learning into her classroom practices.

Another study related to problem solving was conducted is by Chapman (1998) who investigated the effect of using metaphor as a tool in facilitating preservice teachers’ understanding of problem solving and its teaching. Two groups of preservice elementary mathematics education majors in a teacher education program in Canada were studied. The study was carried out during a one-term, post-practicum year with one group of eight who took the course following an “uncued-metaphor approach” (not requiring an explicit determination of a metaphor) and the other of seven, using a “cued-metaphor approach” (requiring an explicit determination of a metaphor). For each problem posed, teachers reflected first on an individual level, then on a group level, then again on an individual level, and wrote journals. Based on the participants’ written work, the author found that “cued metaphors” provided a meaningful way in helping the participants to enhance their interpretations regarding problem solving and its teaching. The uncued-metaphor group regarded problem solving as “a sequential process in which a successful solution depended on a clear, logical choice among alternative strategies [and] the teaching of problem solving was viewed as guiding students through these steps” (p. 180). The other group developed a more flexible view of problem solving and its teaching that reflected a learner-centered approach.

A further way of integrating the learning of content and pedagogy was through special emphasis on ICT or computers. For example, Ponte, Oliveira and Varandas (2002) focused explicitly on the use of computers in their study of work undertaken in a one semester ICT course in a preservice program for secondary school mathematics teachers. This course aimed to help pre-service teachers develop a positive attitude regarding ICT and use it confidently. It was based on project-work pedagogy and focused on the exploration of educational software and of the Internet’s potential as a means of researching and publishing educational material. Based on classroom observation, a questionnaire and analysis of participants’ products, the authors conclude that preservice teachers changed from an initial attitude of fear and suspicion towards ICT to a positive relationship with this technology that they were able to learn to use confidently. They were also able to grasp more connections among mathematics topics, their historical development, applications, and aspects of classroom learning processes and developed a general perspective about the uses of this technology in mathematics education. The authors suggest that teachers’ future professional identity will involve this kind of relationship with ICT, in which they are not only consumers of Internet contents but also producers and co-producers of web pages with their pupils, sharing their explorations of mathematics themes and their teaching-learning experiences.

Another technology study was carried out by Gorev et al. (2004), who studied the effects of use of computers in mathematics courses along their teacher education program at an Israeli university. Based on written responses by 70 primary and secondary preservice teachers at different stages of the program, findings indicate that most participants who studied various mathematical courses and experienced intensive work with the computer used it for better understanding of the problems (69%) and to find solutions (93%). On the other hand, only few of those who were only briefly acquainted with the computer admitted that they used it for the better understanding (12%) and even less used it to find solutions (3%). The participants indicated that mastering several mathematical packages was essential in their success and supported embedding computers in their learning process. The authors argue that all the computerized tools are to be learned and taught in context to be a meaningful way of study and that preservice teachers need to be able to lead enlightened mathematical discussions about the abilities of the tool.

Taken together, these studies point to important dimensions of professional practice that teacher education programs need to address and exemplify a variety of approaches. The value of integrating content and pedagogy, teaching in a way consistent with to proposed curriculum, and promoting reflection and ownership in learning seems to be well established. It is not so clear how much of this reflection addresses preservice teachers preconceptions and how much empowerment they develop to teach in their own classrooms. The reported studies tend to provide a global picture of success in the specific dimensions they attend to. However, mathematics teaching is a holistic activity and teacher education programs have to consider how the teacher, as a person, gets involved in it. That is what we consider in our next section.



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