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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
tory becomes clearer as one explores outstanding teaching in other disciplines.
As is the case in history, most people believe that they know what mathematics is about—computation. Most people are familiar with only the computational aspects of mathematics and so are likely to argue for its place in the school curriculum and for traditional methods of instructing children in computation. In contrast, mathematicians see computation as merely a tool in the real stuff of mathematics, which includes problem solving, and characterizing and understanding structure and patterns. The current debate concerning what students should learn in mathematics seems to set proponents of teaching computational skills against the advocates of fostering conceptual understanding and reflects the wide range of beliefs about what aspects of mathematics are important to know. A growing body of research provides convincing evidence that what teachers know and believe about mathematics is closely linked to their instructional decisions and actions (Brown, 1985; National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989; Wilson, 1990a, b; Brophy, 1990; Thompson, 1992).
Teachers’ ideas about mathematics, mathematics teaching, and mathematics learning directly influence their notions about what to teach and how to teach it—an interdependence of beliefs and knowledge about pedagogy and subject matter (e.g., Gamoran, 1994; Stein et al., 1990). It shows that teachers’ goals for instruction are, to a large extent, a reflection of what they think is important in mathematics and how they think students best learn it. Thus, as we examine mathematics instruction, we need to pay attention to the subject-matter knowledge of teachers, their pedagogical knowledge (general and content specific), and their knowledge of children as learners of mathematics. Paying attention to these domains of knowledge also leads us to examine teachers’ goals for instruction.
If students in mathematics classes are to learn mathematics with understanding—a goal that is accepted by almost everyone in the current debate over the role of computational skills in mathematics classrooms—then it is important to examine examples of teaching for understanding and to analyze the roles of the teacher and the knowledge that underlies the teacher’s enactments of those roles. In this section, we examine three cases of mathematics instruction that are viewed as being close to the current vision of exemplary instruction and discuss the knowledge base on which the teacher is drawing, as well as the beliefs and goals which guide his or her instructional decisions.