THIS TEACHING CENTER STRIVES TO MAKE
+, -, x , UNDERSTANDABLE, EVEN ENJOYABLE


The National Center for Elementary School Teachers of Mathematics at the University can count a number of achievements to its credit. First, it is one of only six centers in Israel set up by the Ministry of Education’s Project Tomorrow 98 to develop the teaching of science and technology in Israeli schools. The center’s specialty was not a random factor. It was the result of the University’s having an existing center that had been established by a member of the Faculty of Education who is considered one of the foremost figures in the country in the field of elementary mathematics education.

Another achievement, this one perhaps unique, is the center’s work in translating into Arabic math texts from abroad for the K-6 grades for use in Israeli-Arab schools. The center also “stocks” math texts from Jordan. As a further aid, the center sends Arabic-speaking advisers to work with teachers in the Arab schools.

The center, which is an adjunct of the Faculty of Education, acquires original textbooks as well as other materials for the teaching of math in the elementary school, much of which comes from the United States, for the teaching of math in the elementary school. It translates some of the written works into Hebrew for perusal by teachers who come to the center for knowledge, advice, and inspiration.

Day-to-day charge of the center lies in the hands of Dr. Michal Sukenik, a specialist in the psychology of math education. Sukenik did her doctoral work in the field under Prof. Pearla Nesher, who had set up the center’s predecessor some 20 years ago and who recently completed a stint as Chief Scientist for the Ministry of Education.

Focus talked with Sukenik, a mother of three, whose half-time position with the center enables her to travel to Tel Aviv and another part-time position: being part of a team developing a series of math textbooks for the Israeli elementary-school system.

The purpose of the center, she explained, is to expose teachers to new ideas, teaching methods, and materials and to update them on what is available on the market. She pointed around the room to the shelves of pamphlets, journals, and books and cases of teaching aids and what the field calls “manipulatives.” Asked about the usefulness of texts that were more than five years old, the math educator said, “Old programs are now returning and are relevant. They’re in the spirit of today’s theoreticians. Acceptances seem to go in cycles. They may be old, but they are not obsolete.”

Teachers, she continued, can visit the center and, free of charge, read journals and even borrow games, texts, and computer programs. There are also piles of workbook pages that they can photocopy to take back with them. Student teachers utilize the reference works to prepare lesson plans. To help both experienced and future teachers cope with this mass of material, the center’s holdings are being computerized as a database by subject.

The idea of changing math teaching in Israel, the educator pointed out, is in accord with a manual, “Standards for School Mathematics,” which was developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in the United States. The new emphasis is placed on understanding, with less stress on techniques. The idea, she said, was to develop in children a “number sense,” so that pupils could criticize their own answers. In a matter of speaking, out went the old mathematics table and in came analysis, reflection, and verbalization on what was being done.

Sukenik would like to transform the teacher into a teacher-researcher, or an “action researcher” as the jargon terms it. This means having the teacher design a curriculum specifically for each of his or her classes in accordance with the pupils’ reactions. Her dream is to take a group of teachers to develop this notion further by having them select a subject for research with the purpose of improving both their teaching and the pupils’ learning.

The psychologist-math educator is well positioned to implement her dream. She always liked math and computers, even when she researching reading difficulties after her obtaining an M.A. in cognitive psychology. To combine interests, she took time off to learn the subject of computers in education at Long Island University in New York. It was when she became a research assistant to Pearla Nesher, however, that Sukenik began to study the process of learning mathematics. She went on to do her doctorate in mathematics education under Nesher and, while her biologist husband was on sabbatical in the United States, to take advantage of their California setting to pursue further studies in the area of teachers’ professional development in math education.

Upon Sukenik’s return to Israel a year later in 1994, Nesher thought her the right person to direct and revitalize the center. The Ministry of Education, which wanted ties to be established between school teachers and academics, meanwhile chose the facility for one of its Project Tomorrow centers. The Ministry sought, in part, to put teachers in closer touch with academics and to give them easier access to academic advantages like computers and a good library.

Indeed, the center draws teachers to the University by offering a steady stream of in-service courses for their professional development. Every week, two groups of some 20 teachers come for continuing education. In addition, 20 teachers attend once a month for a special course. Twenty is not a magic number, but the maximum number that the center’s one room can comfortably seat. Individual teachers can visit any time they wish, but fewer do than Sukenik would like. She and her staff of 6, some of whom are graduate students and all of whom are part-timers, also conduct a symposium once every other month either in the University or at an outside location.

In addition, the center publishes a quarterly informational newsletter for math educators about conferences and new curricula, and is joint publisher of Strong Number, a professional quarterly on mathematics for the elementary school.

Sukenik would like to develop computer communication between the center and the schools if she had the budget to do so. Now, educational software is installed in the center’s 20 laptop computers, and teachers can borrow one of these computers to take to their schools. Here it will be available for the class the whole day (instead of the normally limited access to the school’s single computer room according to a set schedule). A modem hook-up of these portable computers to the center, she believes, would greatly expand the center’s effectiveness.

Back to Table of Contents