A recent study compared the videotaped teaching styles of 81 eighth-grade math teachers in the U.S. with those of teachers in Germany and Japan. What did educators learn from the study?
An April 27 Education World article (Math Wars!) reported that U.S. eighth graders scored below average in math on The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In the study, the most comprehensive international comparison of math and science achievement levels ever attempted, U.S. math students were outperformed by students in the countries of some of our closest economic allies -- and major economic rivals. Many people -- including parents, politicians, educators, and business leaders -- wanted to know why. The results of another component of TIMSS have been released -- and they may help answer the question.
In a cross-cultural study of educational philosophy and teaching style, researchers at the University of California (Los Angeles) compared the instructional methods of 8th grade math teachers in the U.S. with those of teachers in the countries of two of its most important economic competitors -- Germany and Japan. The study had among its goals to:
To accomplish those goals, the UCLA researchers videotaped 231 eighth grade math lessons -- 100 in Germany, 50 in Japan, and 81 in the United States -- as they were being taught. The researchers then spent months viewing, analyzing, and discussing those lessons. The results of The TIMSS Videotape Classroom Study revealed striking differences in the teaching styles and educational focus of math teachers in the United States and of their German and Japanese counterparts.
According to the research team, the videotapes revealed major international differences in:
James W. Stigler, the UCLA psychology professor who directed the TIMSS classroom study, warns against drawing simple conclusions from these observations, however. In an article in Phi Delta Kappan, Understanding and Improving Classroom Mathematics Instruction: An Overview of the TIMSS Video Study, Dr. Stigler and co-author James Hiebert stress that teaching is a cultural activity that affects, and is affected by, a variety of social, economic, and political forces. One culture's educational system, however successful, can rarely be successfully imported into another culture, they say.
What we should learn from the Japanese educational system is not their style of teaching, but their approach to improving education through professional development. Japanese teachers, the authors point out, continuously participate in a formal process of collaboration and cooperation geared toward the refinement of individual lessons and the cumulative improvement of the educational process. No such organized approach to professional development exists in the U.S. "Our biggest long-term problem," the article states, "is not how we teach now but that we have no way of getting better."
As Dr. Stigler told Education World, U.S. educators focus too much on the teacher and not enough on the teaching. "We strive," he said, "to find the exemplary teacher when the real key is to improve the teaching of the average teacher." Dr. Stigler adds, "In this country, we need to develop a mechanism to improve teaching incrementally over time and we need to find a way to professionalize teaching by making professional development a part of every teacher's work week."
The TIMSS Video Classroom Study has resulted in a number of recommendations intended to improve math instruction in this country by fostering opportunities for professional development. They include
For teachers themselves, however, perhaps the most useful result of the study is the availability of the TIMSS videotapes. These concrete instructional models provide teachers with the opportunity to view, assess, and compare alternative methods of teaching; to become aware of elements of their own teaching that may have become automatic and unquestioned; and to develop ways of improving the level of teaching in their own classrooms.
According to Dr. Stigler, "Efforts to improve student learning succeed or fail inside the classroom....We must study directly the processes that lead to learning in the classroom, for if we do not understand these processes, we will have little chance of improving them."
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Article by Linda Starr
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