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'The Teaching Gap:' UD professor says better teaching methods would enhance U.S. education

NEWARK, DE.--Dramatically different teaching styles exist between American teachers and their counterparts in top academic countries such as Japan. And, U.S. teachers need more time to collaborate on lessons and more professional development support if the country is to close this teaching gap, a University of Delaware Professor of Education says.

In the article, "A Proposal for Improving Classroom Teaching: Lessons from the TIMSS Video Study," soon to be published in The Elementary School Journal, UD’s James Hiebert and coauthor James W. Stigler, professor of psychology at UCLA, expand on teaching remedies first put forth in their book, "The Teaching Gap," published in August by the Free Press.

The researchers use the results of an unprecedented set of international classroom videotapes to support their idea that it is not teachers, but teaching methods, that have been keeping US students from scoring well on tests that compare their achievements with those of their peers in other countries. Specifically, they explore cultural variations that affect teaching styles in the U.S., Germany and Japan, and they advocate U.S. adoption of a Japanese program of career-long teacher development called "lesson study."

"In the U.S., every teacher is an island. They work alone, some develop effective ways of teaching but then they retire and new teachers come in and start all over. We don’t realize that it’s how effective a lesson is and not the individual teacher that matters. Great lessons can be passed along. Teachers come and go. It’s the system, not the teachers, that is the problem," Hiebert said.

The videotapes, showing eighth grade math teachers at work in the three countries, were made as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a comparative study of students’ math and science achievements in 41 countries. It was the first time videos were used for international comparative study.

"The general story is that U.S. students do quite well in mathematics relative to their international peers in fourth grade and then their relative standing drops. By eighth grade, they do about average and by 12th grade they are near the bottom," Hiebert said.

"As we looked at the tapes…we were struck by the homogeneity of teaching methods within each culture, compared with the marked differences in methods across cultures," he added.

"Although many of the American teachers we observed were highly competent in implementing American teaching methods, the methods themselves were severely limited," he explained. "We watched many examples of good teachers employing limited methods that, no matter how competently they were executed, could not lead to high levels of student achievement."

Additionally, the researchers note that while U.S. education is always in the process of reform, it is not always in the process of improving, and that the country has no built-in mechanism to improve teaching approaches.

"The U.S. needs to shift its orientation away from immediate reform to one of long-term improvement," Hiebert said. "In the U.S., we think we can change the way we do something one year and next year see results. That’s not always the way things work. Improvement is a long-term process—something that happens steadily over time.

"We also need to focus on the way we teach and not on who is teaching. We think we can improve our schools with better recruiting, smaller class size or a competitive voucher system when what we really need to improve are the average methods teachers use in a classroom.

"In Japan, small groups of teachers meet regularly, once a week for several hours, to collaboratively plan, implement, evaluate and revise lessons. Many groups focus on only a few lessons over the year with the aim of perfecting these," Hiebert said.

As explained in the book, a group of fourth-grade teachers in Japan, for example, might be dissatisfied with their current lessons on adding fractions with unlike denominators. They begin the process of improving them by reading about what other teachers have done, what ideas are recommended by various educational groups, what has been reported on students’ learning of this topic and so on.

They design several lessons, one group member tries them out while the others observe and evaluate what works and what doesn’t, and then they revise the lessons. They often base their changes on specific misunderstandings evidenced by students as the lesson progresses. Then, they try out the lessons again, perhaps with other teachers watching.

When the replacement lessons are ready, complete with development and test information, including expected students’ responses for each question and problem, they are shared with other teachers and other schools. The report of the group‘s effort contains descriptions of the learning goals, the rationale for the lesson design, descriptions of activities, anticipated responses of students and suggested responses by the teacher.

Japanese teachers see the lesson as the place where all relevant factors get woven together—goals for student learning, attention to student thinking, analyses of curriculum and pedagogy and more. Lesson study requires focusing on the interactions among these elements.

Lesson study reverses the relationship prevalent in the U.S. between improving teaching and improving teachers. Working on improving teaching yields teacher development, rather than vice versa. Designing and testing lessons provides a rich context in which teachers can improve their own knowledge and skills. While teachers are producing sharable work, they are engaged in exactly the kind of learning that they need to become more effective teachers. They must learn more about the subject, their students’ thinking and alternative pedagogies.

"Teachers need time to work together, to record information, to share information and to build up a base of information that can be shared," Hiebert said.

"That’s what’s so striking about the Japanese system—lesson improvement is systematically built in. Teachers see teaching improvement as part of their work—to them that’s what it means to be a teacher. It’s a high status profession. It just seems reasonable that teachers should somehow take the lead in improving teaching."

The researchers know cross-cultural comparisons are always tricky, and they say it would be foolish to think the lesson-development system could be imported and show immediate results. For one thing, Japan has a national curriculum. Things are much more decentralized in the U.S.

But, they argue, it is equally foolish to dismiss promising ideas because they work well in another culture.

With significant changes in the culture of U.S. schools, changes in the way teachers think about teaching and planning for teaching, they said they are hopeful that lesson study will fit in well with the current elements of the American landscape.

As individual schools and districts set priorities on improving teaching and on improving teacher’s opportunities to learn, they said they are optimistic about this approach. Teachers who have read their book are enthusiastic and energized by the proposal, and conditions for improving education in the U.S. are more favorable today than they have been in a generation, Hiebert said.

"We are witnessing waves of attention to education reform that appear to gain momentum with each passing year," he concluded.

Contact: Beth Thomas, (302) 831-8749,
April 3, 2000