The Teaching Gap

In the fall of 1994, after several months of watching tapes, the project staff met to present some preliminary impressions and interpretations. We invited distinguished researchers and educators from Germany, Japan, and the United States to attend, and we listened intently to what they had to say. We were ready for a fresh perspective. It came late on the last day of the meeting. One of the participants, a professor of mathematics education, had been relatively silent throughout the day. We asked him if he had any observations he would like to share.

"Actually," he began, "I believe I can summarize the main differences among the teaching styles of the three countries." Everyone perked up at this, and here is what he had to say: "In Japanese lessons, there is the mathematics on one hand, and the students on the other. The students engage with the mathematics, and the teacher mediates the relationship between the two. In Germany, there is the mathematics as well, but the teacher owns the mathematics and parcels it out to students as he sees fit, giving facts and explanations at just the right time. In U.S. lessons, there are the students and there is the teacher. I have trouble finding the mathematics. I just see interactions between students and teachers." (James Stigler and James Hiebert, The Teaching Gap, 1999, p25-26)

The Teaching Gap is a synthesis of the research done during the TIMSS video study. This study was an effort to randomly sample classrooms from Japan, Germany, and the United States, and videotape randomly selected lessons from those classrooms. From those lessons, another randomly subset of lessons was chosen, and carefully analyzed and coded by researchers. The objective of the study was to attempt to determine if there are cultural differences in how mathematics is taught in different countries.

The conclusion of the researchers is that although the classrooms look very similar in many ways, there are vast cultural differences in how mathematics is taught, on average, in the different countries. They also concluded that these differences far outshadow the relatively-minor-by-comparison differences between individual teachers in each of the countries. In other words, the difference in teaching methods between a typical Japanese teacher and a typical U.S. teacher are greater than the average differences in teaching between randomly selected U.S. teachers.

The quote above does not quite accurately capture the U.S. classrooms. The researchers concluded that there is mathematics being taught in U.S. classrooms, but that the mathematics content of a typical U.S. classroom is less than that of the other two countries.

A couple of pages later in the book, there is a table comparing typical lessons for German, U.S., and Japanese classrooms. One footnote was particularly interesting to me. In the U.S. classroom, it is "[t]ypical for teacher to intervene at first sign of confusion or struggle," and in the Japanese classroom, it is "[t]ypical for students to struggle with task [sic] before teacher intervenes." (The Teaching Gap, 1999, p30).

Japan currently ranks 5th in the world in an international comparison of mathematics achievement worldwide. The U.S. currently ranks 9th in the world using the same comparison.

Is this data (from nearly 20 years ago) still relevant? If it is, should U.S. teachers adopt the style of Japanese lesson plans? How much do other factors in culture from outside the classroom influence these findings?

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One Comment

  • I’ve been in the field observing K-12 math teaching on and off since 1992. I see very little that suggests a sea change in US math teaching from what was in the TIMSS videos and have commented on that point in the past. In 2004, Jim Hiebert said to me at the NCTM Research Presession in Philadelphia that you could drop a pin on a map of the USA and the probability that you’d find progressive, “NCTM-style” teaching going on in the closest community was effectively 0. I don’t think the intervening 9 years would move that estimate up, and I seriously doubt that the Common Core Practice Standards for math will do any better in that regard than did the NCTM Process Standards upon which they are based from 1989 to 2004.

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