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Topic: TIMSS - Questons/Answers at a Conference
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
TIMSS - Questons/Answers at a Conference
Posted: Aug 4, 1998 7:58 PM
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From the TIMSS-Forum and the American Federation of Teachers ...


The following are excerpts from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) -
National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) TIMSS conference that was
held after the 8th grade results were released. It is rich in observations.

The complete transcript (25 pages) of this question and
answer period following Dr. James Stigler's presentation of his
Videotape Classroom Study is posted on the AFT web page .

It can now be downloaded as a doc or pdf file.

Q=Question from audience; JS=Dr. James Stigler; HS=Dr. Harold Stevenson
Q: My question is...First of all it looks like the NCTM standards
are alive and well but in Japan. My question is since a lot of this is
very highly polished but since we have open-ended or inquiry-based
teaching-that's what it's called in this country--how specific are the
Japanese content guidelines or whatever you were calling them for each
grade level? In other words, how do they describe what the curricular
goals are for the year? We feel a tendency, in part it seems to me from
the AFT sense, to try to nail down content standards. Are we not
specific enough? We tend to want to go from one extreme to the other.
What do these guidelines look like?

JS: Sure. That's a great question-a comment and a question. The
first comment was that it looks like the NCTM standards are alive and
well. And I want to play out that that's not strictly true. There's
actually been a lot of conversation going around the country on my
e-mail about that issue. Yes, in some senses, yes, it looks like the
NCTM standards because there's problem solving at the center of the
lesson. There's alternative solution methods. There is discussion,
explanation, justification and so on. All these things map very directly
onto some of the processes described, for example, by the NCTM
standards. On the other hand, they're more teacher directed than you
get the sense of from the NCTM standards. These are lessons that are
clearly highly controlled by the teacher. There's much more lecturing
done by the teacher. And I think its very important to know that this
isn't really the NCTM standards though they may be largely consistent
with them. But it's really Japanese. It's a different system.

The second question is about curriculum and how specified it is
and I think this is a really interesting question. But it's not how
specified the curriculum is but it's the kind of things that are in the
curriculum. We've done some analysis of the course of study ourselves
and as Harold said earlier, it's not strictly limited. I mean there are
many textbooks that could be written to conform with the standards.
However, they are grade-level specific and they are math specific. So,
for example, there might be a standard that says students should
understand the relationship between fractions and division. That is in
the fourth grade course of study. That's highly specific. However,
there's something else you notice about that. It has the word
"understanding" and this to me is a very large difference.
Q: The lesson. The students, when they stood up to give their own
explanations of their solutions-they seemed to be listening-even when
one student got a little silly or maybe he wasn't sure he was explaining
it correctly, the other students--the whole class--listened. Was that
because the video was on or was that the general way?

JS: No. I think that's generally true and I think that the reason
for that is because teachers work very actively, again, to not let
themselves be seen as the authority in the classroom. In some of the
work we've done in elementary schools I know we have videotape examples.
I remember one that's so vivid to me. I think it was a problem adding
fractions with different denominators and the student was putting the
solution on the board and he had added the denominators. And we're not
supposed to do that, right?

American teachers usually cut that right off; they say,
"Remember the cardinal rule of fractions. Do not add the denominators."
The Japanese teacher let the student go on for eleven minutes explaining
and every now and then the teacher would say, "Well this is very
complicated. Wait-Can you explain why you did that again?" And then when
the student was finished the teacher never said, "That's wrong." He
said, "Okay. Mmmm. That's interesting. Did anyone do it another way?"
And the student sat down and another student came up who had done it
correctly. The teacher never said "That's wrong" because I think
teachers actively work to not be seen as the authority.

Then we went and looked at the teacher manual that went with
this lesson. (Okay. This was part of the elementary study.) And right
there in the teachers manual it said the most common error students will
make in this lesson is they will add the denominators. And then it had a
box and it said, "Caution! Do not correct this error. Students must be
allowed to make this error and discover the problems that it leads them
into. And even if it takes days, you must not prematurely correct this
error." So this is the kind of support the teacher has going into the
lesson. They know students are gonna do this and they've been informed
that research has shown don't correct this too quickly because you want
them to follow it out and see what are the logical consequences of that.
Q: A couple of things. First of all, I got really engaged in this
lesson and...I mean I feel as if I just had this same lesson myself, so
it worked!

JS: You understood the explanation at the end. It was very clear,
wasn't it?

Q. Yeah. Also the way he used the computer. The computer gave a
certain elasticity to the figures that let him...without having to go
through everything that was on the board. In the end he used that to
demonstrate but he wasn't dependent throughout the whole lesson on
it...and that was very interesting to me.

JS: Yes. That's usually the way we saw computers used-- as an object
of discussion-do some demonstration and then have people talk about it
or use it to explain a concept. We...I think they had one lesson where
individual little groups of students interacted with it.
Q: Two comments. One, I'm struck by the difference what you just
said a while ago about allowing the student to make the mistake of
adding the denominators and how that contrasts with many places in the
United States where we have evaluation systems of a checklist type where
we evaluate teachers and if you don't give corrective feedback
immediately, you know you're somehow marked down on your evaluation. So
I think that's a real interesting comment. The other thing I wanted to
comment on in the lesson is I was struck by, at the end when he pulled
it together, the way he did it. It seems to me then that in terms of
retaining that information that students would retain that concept much
longer having struggled with it the way they did than if the
presentation had been at the beginning, which we typically do, with
practice afterwards.

JS: Yes. I think that's true. I think that struggling with the
problem prepares you to hear how somebody else has solved it. And even
if you didn't solve it, or even if you didn't even come close to solving
it, if you made any progress at all, then you're very interested. I
think that's why the kids are so interested to hear how other students
solved it. They're genuinely interested to know what those other
students did. The other point that you brought up reminds me of a very
important--this idea-the American teachers are very uncomfortable with
confusion-or errors. They're very uncomfortable. They rush over to
correct it even if they really want the kids to work on it. They say
this is a hard problem and as soon as the kids have trouble-- they say
Uh-- let me show you how to do it. And I think American teachers want to
do that because they think the students are supposed to learn how to do
it and this is where they have to learn it.

Japanese teachers, you can have kids say, "Waaaah...I don't
understand." They don't rush over to correct because they're not worried
but -and this strikes upon something Harold said earlier. If you ask the
Japanese teacher about this lesson, "Do you think all the kids in the
class understand what you were teaching them?" they go "Of course not!
No, they don't understand, you know, but they did make progress." That's
what they're looking for is an environment in which the kids can
increase their understanding. But they do not believe you get this
lesson and you suddenly know. And that 's why they don't worry to go
over and give corrective feedback. Now they think learning takes time.
And that's really their theory of how people learn. You don't (snap
fingers) learn like that, you learn by struggling and reflecting on what
you've done.
Q. Your comments to the last person really pertain to my
question. I found it interesting that the teacher was constantly
soliciting feedback from the students. Is this okay? Do you understand
this? But I didn't really see too many students who raised their hands
saying no, they didn't understand. that and I wondered what happened to
the students who didn't understand. Over time, I know you said learning
takes time in the Japanese culture, but what happens to the students who
didn't understand it. Were there other methods used before or after
school and, if so, how does that compare to the United States?

JS: Well, in general...I would actually like Harold to say something
about that. But the question. Students who really can't keep up, now
they will have -uh- the teacher will work with them individually after
school. They're never pulled out of regular class. Their parents might
be advised to hire them a tutor. That's another possibility. But they're
never held back. Contrary to President Clinton's recommendation, they're
always promoted to the next grade level. And I'd like Harold then to say
more about how kids who get really far behind are handled. Do you have
anything to say about that?

HS: Yes.
Well, they don't expect the children are all going to be kept
up. Whether in elementary school they have these techniques, the famed
juku where kids go and get help from organized classes in these special
after school groups-and I emphasize special-I think the teachers take a
great deal of time in reviewing with these kids. But by the time they're
through with elementary school and entering junior high school they're
already beginning to see the development of different pathways. So
that if they go into a vocational school, it's going to be quite a
different process. So it isn't something that continues throughout all
their education. The worst problem then is in the elementary school.

There are a couple of other things I want to say and I think
then to reemphasize what Jim said, I think the confidence of these
teachers is fantastic. That they really know their subject and they
really know how to teach it, so they really are confident. Another thing
I'd emphasize is don't think of this as just a Japanese mode of
teaching. It is an East Asian mode of teaching.
Well, it isn't that they spontaneously do this in every
situation, but in this one classroom I saw this one teacher had on her
clipboard a set of notes. What they were, were boxes up here indicating
the kinds of mistakes that children commonly make in that problem and
then down below were suggestions as to how to handle them. The point is
it is so highly articulated, so well developed, it's unbelievable...
The last point is not only do high school teachers have a major
in mathematics, but elementary schoolteachers also have a specialty in
some subject whether it's mathematics or gym.
Q: Would we see something similar or very different to this if in
fact the lesson we were watching were in literature or social studies,
because math does lend itself a little bit more than some other
curriculum areas do to this type of instruction?

HS: Science is a little different because in science you have to
have laboratory equipment and that's one of the problems they have. But
I can tell you very briefly about teaching reading and teaching social
studies. In social studies for example, I visited a class when they were
learning about Iceland. And it was the same kind of thing. That is
the teacher wasn't standing up there telling them all the derivatives of
the questions that might be raised about Iceland. But by the time they
ended the lesson which lasted three days, they had created the geography
of Iceland, the products of Iceland and Iceland and so on and so on. The
main thing I think... is the goal is not to transmit information from
this authority figure of the teacher to the child. The goal is to elicit
reactions from the child, which the teacher can then integrate and it's
a production. The successful lesson is not one that everybody has come
up with the same predetermined correct answer but it is one in which the
children have really thought about Iceland and what it is like to live
there and most likely they've thought about the volcanoes and so on.

Q: I have a couple of tentative observations. I'd be interested in
your comments on them. First, the stgructure of the math lesson
seemed to me to be very much like the structure of lessons given by
really terrific English teachers that I had and that I've observed. It's
tantamount to... The difference is that initially there's a shared task.
So you'd have an English teacher saying, "Why was Hamlet unable to act?"
That's the posing of the problem. The kids have read the text and they
all contribute to that. They all have different ideas and there's sort
of an interplay. It's not just a matter of opinion. Again, using my own
observations. And then at the end the teacher sort of adds something to
it but using various things that the students have used. I've also
observed that in really good history classes that you know I had- and
just in observing - and so I'm curious about your observation because
these were American teachers, but in a very different humanities area.

Then the other observation that I have is--well we really saw
that it was mostly one student going up to the board and sort of working
with the problem and the student was struggling a little bit. And no
one was jeering at the student whereas observations again, my own
observations from my own experience just being in schools where students
don't necessarily volunteer to come to the board, and even for some who
do, there's generally a tremendous fear of humiliation. And there seemed
to be no fear of humiliation here either from the teacher or commonly
here from other students. So I'm curious about what you think about
these observations.

JS: I think your observations about English classes are very
interesting and I think that a lot of the way American teachers teach
math is all tied up with their whole theory of what mathematics is.
And I think that they see mathematics- Americans perceive
mathematics as a collection of procedures you're just supposed to learn
how to execute. And Japanese teachers don't see mathematics that way.
They see it as a series of ideas that are all interconnected and you're
trying to understand how they're interconnected. So I think that
American English teachers probably see literature more like that or like
a series of ideas that are interconnected and you're trying to
understand how they're interconnected. That's what it means to
understand a plot. That's a very good observation...
Q: I was wondering whether part of your study was interviewing the
teachers to see how reflective they were about their teaching and
whether there was any difference in terms of how much they thought about
their teaching or how they could describe their goals? And related to
that is a question about whether this difference in teaching style
arises out of a different cultural context or whether there's a
different research base. For example, there are some high achieving
countries in Central and Eastern Europe which have some very different

JS: Yes. ... I think we're discovering something very interesting
about teachers. That is, I think Japanese teachers have a very different
way of thinking about "the lesson" than American teachers. I'd describe
it this way.

American teachers, I think, tend to think in terms of features.
They have a list of things that are good and a list of things that are
bad. And these are things they might learn in graduate school. And who
knows what they actually do, but they go: that's hands-on, that's good;
Oh, that's not hands-on, that's bad; or, that's not a real world
problem, that's bad. The teacher's talking too much, that's bad; the
teacher's not moving fast enough, that's not good. Or, the teacher's
moving too slow...whatever. Whereas Japanese teachers have a more, a
much more theoretical approach to the lesson. They go: That's
interesting. I think he explained that too quickly; he should have
waited longer because-Japanese teachers say "because" more-because
students needed more time to think about that before they were provided
an explanation. If I were teaching, I think I would have saved that
'til the next day. I wouldn't have brought it up at the end of this
Q: I think there's an amazing difference between the two
classrooms. In the Japanese classroom, even I learned some math. In the
American lesson, there was something about the pace and a lack of focus.
I felt a lot of pressure and it wasn't interesting. I really did learn
something, I really did learn something in the Japanese lesson - I'm
talking me, personally. My comment is in American schools we have a
variety of teaching styles. And I know we have teachers out there who do
exactly what the Japanese math teachers do. And it seems that the
difference might be that we have the variety of teaching styles and
perhaps the variety doesn't exist in the Japanese schools because there
is a buy in, a commitment, perhaps, to a particular teaching style. I
just want to know...

JS: You know what? I used to believe exactly that before I started
this study. And I now really I no longer believe it. I don't think
there's very much variability. And I think this is very typical. The
other lesson I have on this videotape is also very typical, but they're
kind of different. So in a sense you're right. There's another style of
lesson. We don't have time to watch it now, but the other style of
lesson is basically almost all seatwork with the teacher going around
and every now and then stopping to do explanations. But between these
two lessons, this is really very typical. Now we only have a small
sample, but we have a national sample.
Q. Did you perceive any difference between the way Asian societies
view the goals of education and the way western societies view the goals
of education?

HS: The goal of, if you ask different people you
get different things. One guy, we asked one administrator in a Japanese
school and he said that the goal of education in Japan is to reduce
individual differences. I thought that was interesting. Another goal of
education is to develop good human beings. So there's a great emphasis
upon the development of positive moral values. They teach moral
education-"Let's be kind," not religious and not political-but positive
values. So I think those are the kinds of emphases you get.

I want to say one thing, though, that Jim hasn't mentioned.
That is, what you see here is very typical. It isn't just that he has
his hundred subjects. I mean if you were to read the 200-some
observations that we have -but written, not filmed-- you will find few
exceptions from that. And also we've done in the past a study of kids in
China, Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. which involved hundreds of children
in first grade and fifth grade, and again, it's very coherent with what
you're seeing here. So it isn't just... you're not just seeing something
that is derived from this particular sample. It's derived from a lot
of data which is very consistent. And I think that's very important. And
I think that this theory about the theory of teaching that you start
with a problem, you demonstrate alternative solutions, you evaluate the
degree to which those solutions are effective and, that is the kind of
script that you get over and over and over again. But the way that is
executed is very, very different among different teachers.

My example, my metaphor or whatever it is, for something like
this is someone playing a violin sonata. You recognize it as a a particular composer's piece but you have many
interpretations of it. And you certainly didn't expect that that person
would have made up this sonata. Another thing that hasn't been brought
out yet is the expectation that every lesson shall be novel and unique
to that teacher. That is not possible. You just can't do that. I think
their point is that every lesson should be an interesting representation
of the content, which they want to get across.
JS: ... Actually, I don't think it's very meaningful to say,
to talk about is this or is this not a traditional lesson or is this or
is it not a reform lesson? One of the things I've learned is that
because our discussions of teaching take place outside of any context of
examples we come up with these caricatures of different styles of
teaching that don't really exist and we sharpen the differences between
them and it becomes politicized-like in California right now. People
will argue and have emotional debates over how you should teach and the
alternatives that they stake out don't really relate to any way anybody
really teaches. It becomes a forum in which you can have ideological
debates. It becomes a liberal and conservative issue. It's amazing to
think that the method you use for teaching math can be liberal or
conservative. I think this is a huge problem. You've got to stop
looking at teaching outside the context of examples. Let's look at
examples and let's say what exactly is it about this that you'd like to
see changed? And that's how we come to understand what good teaching is.
We haven't had this conversation in this country.
HS: I want to say one thing, though, about how do they buy in?
I think this is really important. We think of ourselves as a democratic,
representative country. We think of ourselves a little bit differently
in education, I think. If you ask what is the relationship between the
teachers and the principal and teachers among teachers in these three
countries. The principal in Japan, as I said is this elderly man. I've
never seen a woman (this was challenged from the floor by a Japanese
guest). Anyhow the relationship-- so that what happens is-as a teacher
in a Japanese school, you are a member of your grade level committee.
All first grade teachers will get together. You may be a member of a
subject committee. And all math teachers get together. You may be a
member of another committee that has to do with improving the counseling
of students. Another committee, one will do the execution of athletics
day. So that the school is all divided up into multitudinous committees.
They're the ones who come up with the ideas. They're the ones who come
up with the governance of the school. The principal is the executor of
the things which have been developed by these committees. So he is not
their boss. He is simply the person who does what the teachers in the
school want to have executed.
Q. ...The other thing that I would like to say is that every single
time I begin a seminar in THINKING MATHEMATICS, I always get the same
question. Well, yeah. But what about the test at the end of the year.
These tests that they have to take really I think inhibit in a sense
some of the changes that we want to see...

JS: ...I have an undergraduate student who actually did a little
analysis of how many of our lessons there were where the word test was
actually mentioned. I don't remember how many but I know it was a huge
percentage of our lessons where they actually talk about tests. You know
they'd say like this is going to be on the test, or anybody who gets all
of these right doesn't have to take the test or whatever. They'd talk
about the test. Yes...and the kids ask about the tests and we never
heard them mention-ever-the word test in the Japanese classroom. In
Japan, the test isn't what this teacher's doing, what they're working on
in this classroom. And again we know this is a society where they're all
very focused on the test. But it's not the test that this teacher's
going to be focusing on. They're trying to learn mathematics. I'm sure
that next year they'll talk about the test. Or maybe they'll only talk
about that in their atmosphere.
SF: ...we're so smart at AFT. I was reminded by Eugenia that we
gave them the AFT QuEST AWARD in 1995 because we predicted how important
the work that they were doing would be and I want them to know that we
appreciate it today. Thank you very, very much.

Other questions concern teacher evaluation, teacher preparation, study
groups and professional development, and differing expectations. The
issue of humiliation is also addressed.


Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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