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Math class around the world

A couple of years ago, I had an interesting chat with an eighth-grade math teacher in Tokyo. I had just finished watching his class (among others), curious as I was about the methods Japanese math teachers used to produce powerhouse academic performance.

Sure enough, from the moment I walked into his room, it was obvious that his teaching style was different from what I had experienced as a student in the US.

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The class came to mind as I read "The Teaching Gap" (Free Press), a concise and engaging new book by UCLA psychologist James Stigler and University of Delaware education professor James Hiebert. They're diving into the furious debate over how to improve US public schools - and they're zeroing in on teaching.

Teaching - not teachers. Armed with an extensive video study done for the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMMS), the authors want to change the culture of US schools to one that supports more-effective practices - the kinds they found to varying degrees in two standouts: Germany and Japan. Standards and tests are important, they say, but a successful future lies in a culture shift to one that includes collaborative lesson-crafting and plan development.

Back in that Tokyo public school - a highly competitive one - it was clear that results had nothing to do with the facility, which was dingy and held the cold of a rainy November morning. But in class, things were moving fast as 40 students measured angles and proved that lines were parallel. The teacher coached, but put the burden of discovery on students. They compared notes, came to the board, scribbled at their desks. Complaints brought no sympathy. Finally, a student's solution prompted murmers of admiration.

It's just the kind of practice that Stigler and Hiebert highlight as they walk readers through typical lessons, offering a fascinating glimpse of "best practices" that spring from distinct teaching cultures. Japanese teachers tended to present a problem and set students free to solve it in their way. German teachers gave more overt guidance, focusing on working with kids on development and execution of procedures. US teachers were most likely to intervene as soon as a student struggled with an answer. The US also stood out for giving more homework and devoting more class time to it - while covering less actual math content.

The teacher I talked with had visited schools in California. He questioned what he considered an eclectic curriculum, teachers' lower expectations, inadequate teaching methods, and the dearth of professional exchange among educators. These issues - and more - crop up in "The Teaching Gap." Its focus on the culture of teaching is enlightening,, and the authors detail the significance of everything from overhead-projector use to interruptions over the public-address system.

A warning: Americans may be left feeling a bit glum. But the authors offer six principles to improve teaching, and press for a willingness to abandon "dramatic leaps" of reform in favor of "small steps." Whether such a culture shift is possible for Americans, who like things to change quickly, remains to be seen.

*An occasional look at new education books. E-mail comments to

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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