Published Online: April 9, 1997

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Using videotapes of more than 200 math classes in Germany, Japan, and the U.S., UCLA researchers find striking differences in the way teachers do their jobs.

For months, almost 50 research assistants abandoned the sunshine to sit in windowless rooms full of television and computer equipment at the University of California, Los Angeles. They watched videotapes of more than 200 8th grade math lessons from the United States, Germany, and Japan--over and over again.

They translated the German and Japanese lessons into English and created transcripts for each of the taped lessons. Natives of each country kept detailed records of what kind of math was being studied, when new topics were introduced, and when the students worked quietly at their seats. The research team analyzed and studied and discussed.

What they discovered represents the first cross-cultural study to examine in exhaustive detail what teachers tell their 8th graders about math and how they go about teaching it.

The results were striking, notably in the vast differences they revealed between the teaching styles of U.S. teachers and their counterparts in Japan.

In Japan, math lessons are coherent packages, focused tightly on one mathematical concept, said James W. Stigler, the UCLA psychology professor who directed the federally funded study. In the United States, teachers often toss many pieces of information to their students in one class period.

In a recent speech in Washington, Mr. Stigler summed up the results of the study with a devastating analogy: In Japan, the math classroom is like a church. In the United States, it's like a supermarket.

Those findings have important implications for math teachers in this country, especially as educators seek to make their instruction mesh with higher academic standards.

The videotape study can help teachers improve their techniques, Mr. Stigler said, because they can now see for themselves some of the alternative models of teaching that exist elsewhere.

The 'Typical' Teacher

The UCLA team's research was part of the massive Third International Mathematics and Science Study. The 41-nation assessment found that 8th graders in this country scored about average in math and science compared with their peers worldwide. In the results released in November, Japan's 8th graders ranked in the top three countries in both subjects.

Mr. Stigler's smaller three-year study was designed to help provide context for those test results.

His findings have generated widespread interest since their release in November. That has put Mr. Stigler on the road, jetting from one speaking engagement to another, sometimes for so brief a stay that it isn't even worth resetting his watch.

Educators are buzzing because there's never been anything quite like this videotape study before.

In an interview in his modest office on the sprawling UCLA campus, Mr. Stigler said the $2 million study, paid for by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation, is a "mixed breed."

On the one hand, it is survey research. It looked at 231 math classrooms in three countries--81 in the United States, 100 in Germany, and 50 in Japan. But the survey was essentially done on videotape, a medium that until now has been used almost exclusively for case studies.

"People hadn't thought about using video as a survey" before, Mr. Stigler said. "No one had ever taken a national sample and videotaped it."

'The videotape study can help teachers improve their techniques because they can now see for themselves some of the alternative models of teaching that exist elsewhere.'

James W. Stigler
UCLA pyschology professor

The study combines the comprehensive collection of taped lessons with new computer technology that makes them easily accessible to researchers. By transferring the lessons to CD-roms, which also display the written transcripts, users of the research can bypass the cumbersome process that would be needed to view the hundreds of individual tapes on videocassette machines. (See story, this page.)

As a result, Mr. Stigler's study turned up some fresh insights. "Now, for the first time," he said, "we can actually say, 'That's a typical teacher.'"

Mr. Stigler, who has studied East Asian schools extensively, said he expected to find that most Japanese teachers teach in the same way. "I didn't expect all of the American teachers to teach alike, but they do."

Along the way, he added, the researchers also came up with some other interesting tidbits. Though nonmathematical topics may come up during math class in this country, for example, that doesn't happen elsewhere.

And, confirming what should come as no surprise to many U.S. teachers, the videotapes revealed that math classes here are interrupted much more often than those in other countries by visitors or announcements over the public-address system.

Intimate Portrait

When it comes to groundbreaking cross-cultural studies, Mr. Stigler has been there before. He and University of Michigan psychologist Harold W. Stevenson were the authors of the 1992 book The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education (Simon & Schuster).

The book built on years of research by both men in Asia and the United States. In it, they said U.S. elementary schools should consider a variety of policy alternatives as they strive for better achievement. Among those options are lighter instructional loads for teachers, no tracking, and more recess periods for students.

In issuing contracts for work related to the TIMSS project, the Education Department was eager to collect different kinds of information to gain certainty, depth, and breadth beyond the achievement-test results, said Lois Peak, the U.S. project director at the NCES. The kind of intimate portrait of instruction provided by the videotape study has been missing from past international assessments.

In addition to the video study, the Education Department commissioned case studies of Japan, Germany, and the United States. That research was done separately by Mr. Stevenson.

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