School & District Management

New Images of Teaching

By Millicent Lawton — April 09, 1997 10 min read
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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.

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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A version of this article appeared in the April 09, 1997 edition of Education Week

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