Published Online: April 9, 1997

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What the tapes revealed so vividly is how different the typical U.S. 8th grade math lesson is from one in Japan.

The two studies are complementary, Mr. Stevenson said recently, because the videotape study offers specific information on teachers, while the case studies provide background on those countries' education systems and cultures--the context in which the teaching takes place. The department expects to release the case-study work in about six months, Ms. Peak said.

Mr. Stevenson noted that Mr. Stigler's study builds on earlier work in the field. "The video studies are the natural culmination--in a technological era--of observations made in classrooms for a very long time."

They add vitality, Mr. Stevenson added, to what could have been simply a written account of classroom activities, and they permit more detailed analysis.

Thinking vs. Skills

The classrooms taped for the study were chosen from schools that were also taking part in the TIMSS testing. The sample was designed to be representative of instruction received by 8th graders in the three countries.

Videographers spent seven months traveling in the three countries. They taped one day's lesson in each of the selected classrooms.

Though the teachers knew in advance they would be taped, the researchers instructed them to conduct the same lesson they would have done without the cameras.

What the tapes revealed so vividly is how different the typical U.S. 8th grade math lesson is from one in Japan. They also showed that American math teachers are very much like their German counterparts in some ways and very different in others. Germany did about the same as the United States on the TIMSS math and science tests.

The instructional goals of teachers in Japan differ from those of educators in Germany and the United States, the researchers concluded.

When Mr. Stigler's team asked teachers on questionnaires what they wanted students to learn from the lessons that were taped, 55 percent of the German teachers and 61 percent of the U.S. teachers answered "skill building": that students should be able to perform a procedure or solve a specific type of problem.

Only 25 percent of Japanese teachers responded that way. Instead, 73 percent said that having the students understand a mathematical concept was the lesson's primary aim.

The Struggle

Those different goals shape both the structure and delivery of lessons in the three countries.

As the tapes reveal, teachers in Japan typically have students begin with an unfamiliar problem. The children wrestle with it individually, without help from the teacher, then troop to the blackboard to offer different ways of solving it.

The time when students try to work out a new problem on their own is routine in Japan and even has its own term, jiriki kaiketsu: to solve under one's own power.

In the United States and Germany, teachers typically show how to solve an example problem, then the students practice solving similar problems while the teacher helps those who are having difficulty.

One of the most striking things about watching the videotapes is how actively the Japanese students participate in presenting varied, but equally acceptable, versions of solving the same problem.

The German and American students spent portions of their class time collectively sharing the homework they'd already done, while Japanese students rarely did so. And only American students, the study found, spent time in class actually working on the next day's homework.

When the researchers looked at the mathematical concepts presented in a lesson, they found similarities between Germany and Japan, and significant differences between those two countries and the United States.

For example, more than three-quarters of German and Japanese teachers took time to explain a concept such as the Pythagorean theorem, rather than simply stating it. Fewer than 20 percent of American teachers did so.

Reform and Drill

According to the questionnaires, U.S. teachers thought they were implementing the latest reform thinking on math instruction, notably the standards issued in 1989 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Those voluntary standards are considered a model for national reform.

'The Japanese lessons have features recommended by the NCTM standards. ... It's not reform teaching and it's not anti-reform teaching; it's Japanese teaching.'

James W. Stigler
UCLA pyschology professor

Asked to evaluate the lesson they taught, almost three out of four of the American teachers who were taped said it was reasonably in accord with current ideas about the teaching and learning of math.

But when Japanese students solve problems, generate alternate solution methods, and explain their thinking, they're often closer to American reform than many Americans are.

"In certain respects," Mr. Stigler said, "the Japanese lessons have features recommended by the NCTM standards."

On the other hand, he pointed out, the Japanese seldom use real-world problems, a technique often recommended by reformers. They also rarely use calculators, their lessons are highly teacher directed, the teacher is completely in control, and Japanese teachers lecture more than U.S. teachers do.

"They have a whole mixture of elements" in their lessons, Mr. Stigler said of the Japanese. "It's not reform teaching and it's not anti-reform teaching; it's Japanese teaching."

Viewers of the videotapes should not jump to conclusions about Japanese education, said Mary Lindquist, a professor of mathematics education at Columbus State University in Columbus, Ga.

"If you don't see any drill in the Japanese classrooms, then a person could conclude [students] don't need any drill," said Ms. Lindquist, who is a member of the U.S. steering committee for TIMSS and a past president of the NCTM. But, she noted, Japanese students are drilled on math facts in after-school schools and at home.

Nevertheless, Mr. Stigler said, American educators can learn much from the study, with the video images adding a fresh and powerful dimension to the familiar litany of so-called best practices.

The American idea of how to change teaching has traditionally been to have some expert write it down, he said. "We desperately need to link all the words we use to talk about instruction with examples, because that's very, very rare."

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