Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Teaching Gap

    Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom

    By James W. Stigler and James Hiebert

    New York: Free Press, 1999. 210 pp. $23.00

    The Teaching Gap by James Stigler and James Hiebert is a must read for anyone interested in improving education and, more specifically, classroom practice. The authors argue that most educational reforms in the United States fail because they do not alter deeply embedded cultural models of teaching. Teaching, they argue, is a cultural activity, and understanding this is essential. Stigler and Hiebert arrived at this conclusion that teaching is a cultural activity after collecting and analyzing videotaped eighth-grade mathematics lessons from three countries (the United States, Germany, and Japan) as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS). The authors were struck by “how much teaching varied across cultures and how little it varied within cultures” (p. 11). There are, they argue, distinctly American, German, and Japanese ways of teaching. Moreover, the American way of teaching mathematics consisted of a relatively limited repertoire of methods that focused on helping students acquire isolated skills through repeated practice. In contrast, Japanese teaching focused on teaching for conceptual understanding, and Japanese teachers participated in the ongoing, incremental, and continuous improvement of their teaching. The example of Japanese lesson study, described in this book, is a powerful one for teachers, administrators, professional developers, and policymakers in the United States.

    In chapter one, Stigler and Hiebert set the stage for their argument and introduce the idea of the teaching gap. They coin the term teaching gap to describe differences in commonly used teaching methods across cultures. They argue that improving overall student achievement does not involve finding more extraordinary teachers but, rather, raising the average performance of teachers. To do this, the United States needs “a system for developing professional knowledge and giving teachers the opportunity to learn about teaching” (p. 13). Rather than searching for silver-bullet approaches, U.S. schools need to commit to the long-term, continuous improvement of teaching.

    Chapter two presents the methods that Stigler and Hiebert used to study teaching in the United States, Japan, and Germany. The TIMMS video study used a complex sampling plan to randomly select classrooms in the three countries for videotaping. The final sample included 231 eighth-grade mathematics classrooms. In addition to videotaping lessons, the researchers asked teachers to fill out questionnaires and collected supplementary materials such as textbook pages and worksheets.

    In chapter three, the authors present portraits of mathematics lessons from the three countries. They use these portraits to give readers an understanding of the differences in the ways lessons are typically designed and implemented. The German lesson presented in the chapter focuses on developing advanced mathematics procedures; for most of the class period, the teacher leads the class through a challenging problem (a geometric proof). The Japanese lesson focuses on structured problem-solving. Most of the class time is spent working on the problem for the day, but the Japanese teacher has students work individually, in small groups, and with the entire class. Finally, the U.S. lesson focuses on learning terms and practicing discrete (and rather disconnected) procedures.

    After presenting individual images of teaching in Germany, Japan, and the United States, Stigler and Hiebert contrast mathematics teaching in the three countries in chapter four. They find that “students in the United States encounter a different kind of mathematics from that encountered by their peers in Germany and Japan. The content appears to be less advanced and is presented in a more piecemeal and prescriptive way” (p. 56). In their cross-national comparison of lessons, Stigler and Hiebert consider the level of content, the nature of content, content elaboration, content coherence, and overall content quality (i.e., the lessons’ potential for helping students understand important mathematics concepts). They also examine the extent to which the lessons engage students in mathematics: How are the lessons organized? Who does the work? What kind of work is expected?

    In chapter five, the authors argue that teaching is a system with distinct patterns rather than a loose collection of individual features cobbled together by teachers. Teaching is not only a system, they argue; it is a cultural system.

    In chapter six, Stigler and Hiebert describe how teaching consists of cultural scripts that are “learned implicitly, through observation and participation, and not by deliberate study” (p. 86). In each country, these scripts “appear to rest on a relatively small and tacit set of core beliefs about the nature of the subject, about how students learn, and about the role that a teacher should play in the classroom” (p. 87). The authors devote most of the chapter to exploring the implications of teaching as a cultural activity for the improvement of teaching. They argue that cultural activities tend to be highly stable over time and are not easily changed. Most educational reforms fail because they do not alter teachers’ widely shared beliefs and mental models of teaching. In order to change and improve the cultural scripts teachers are using, we need to give teachers opportunities to compare scripts, to see that other scripts are possible, and to notice things about their own scripts that they had never seen before. In chapter seven, Stigler and Hiebert present Japan’s approach for improving classroom teaching that does just this.

    In Japan, teachers participate in lesson study (jugyou kenkyuu), in which groups of teachers meet regularly over long periods of time to work on the design, implementation, testing, and improvement of a specific lesson. With lesson study, improving teaching takes place in the context of a classroom lesson. Teachers meet together to develop “research lessons.” They define a problem to guide their work, plan a lesson, have one teacher teach the lesson while the others observe it, evaluate and reflect on the lesson as a group, revise the lesson, teach the revised lesson, evaluate and reflect once again, and share the results. What is striking about lesson study is that it is based on a long-term, continuous improvement model. Moreover, it maintains a constant focus on student learning. In evaluating and redesigning a lesson, teachers take note of students’ responses to the lesson — the types of questions they asked, the full or partial understanding they demonstrated, the solutions they offered to specific math problems, the types of mistakes they made, etc. Importantly, lesson study focuses on the direct improvement of teaching within specific classroom contexts and is collaborative.

    In chapters seven and eight, Stigler and Hiebert discuss how to implement a continuous improvement system for improving teaching with U.S. schools. They are optimistic that this can be done and that lesson study can be adapted to the United States, despite several differences between the Japanese and U.S. educational systems — Japanese education, for instance, is more centrally organized and has a national curriculum. The authors conclude the book with a call to action in chapter ten. It is time, they argue, to make teaching a true profession in which teachers play a central role in developing and disseminating professional knowledge.

    James Stigler and James Hiebert have written a cogent and thought-provoking book. Their observation that teaching is a cultural activity harkens back to, and builds upon, the earlier works of Dan Lortie and Seymour Sarason. At a time when policymakers and the public unrealistically expect immediate results and search for silver-bullet solutions to educational challenges, their argument for focusing on long-term, continuous improvement is a wise one. Anyone who cares about improving teaching and learning should read this book.

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