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Topic: Books: Liping Ma; Stigler & Hiebert (LA Times Article)
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Carol Fry Bohlin

Posts: 89
Registered: 12/3/04
Books: Liping Ma; Stigler & Hiebert (LA Times Article)
Posted: Aug 11, 1999 12:51 PM
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Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, August 11, 1999

U.S. Could Take Lessons From Asian Teachers

To improve student learning, you have to improve teaching. That's pretty
obvious. But until recently, that common sense idea hadn't commanded much
attention from education reformers.

Congress is now debating what it can do to help make that happen. Among the
ideas are more tests of teachers, more classes in academic subjects, fewer
classes in education, and even a downplaying of licensing in favor of
practical experience.

Two insightful and provocative new books that compare teaching in America
to teaching in Asian countries where students far outperform our own do not
offer any easy solutions. But they do show how far we must go to catch up.

Both are about mathematics teaching, but offer lessons that go far beyond
math. Both consider how teachers learn their craft. Both analyze what it
would take to change, and finally, both conclude that improving teaching is
not a matter of getting different, smarter people to work in classrooms.


The title of Liping Ma's book, "Knowing and Teaching Elementary
Mathematics: Teachers' Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China
and the United States" (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, N.J.), will
not make it a bestseller. But it tells an intriguing tale and is already a
hit in math circles.

The reason, according to a foreword by Lee S. Shulman, who heads the
Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, is that it states
forcefully that teachers must know the subjects they teach.

But that is not enough, Ma says. They need to teach the "why" of math as
well as the "how." And they need to be able to explain important
mathematical ideas, such as that multiplication (assembling small
quantities to create larger ones) is the opposite of division (breaking big
quantities into smaller ones).

Ma, who is now a consultant for Shulman's organization, was a graduate
student in Michigan when she became interested in comparing math teaching
in the United States and in her native China. Researchers asked 23
accomplished American schoolteachers to perform some basic calculations and
then talk about how they would use them in a lesson.

The results were frightening. Asked to divide 1 3/4 by 1/2, only nine
teachers got the correct answer of 3 1/2. They proceeded to talk about ways
to use pizza or cookies to illustrate the problem. Only one made up a story
that was accurate and helpful for students.

Ma went to China and gave 72 teachers there the same task. Every teacher
got the right answer. Many said the problem could be done several ways, to
illustrate different concepts. In addition, 90% of them were able to
develop at least one story problem, and many suggested several.

The Chinese teachers were less well educated, with only 10 to 12 years of
formal schooling, including teacher training, compared with 16 to 18 years
for American teachers. But Chinese elementary school teachers are not only
more adept at the math they are expected to teach, they also know the
concepts and the best ways to teach them.

Much of Chinese teachers' expertise is learned on the job from master
teachers. Most also have the luxury of specializing in math and one other
subject even as elementary school teachers, whereas American elementary
school teachers teach all subjects. Finally, the Chinese teachers spend far
more time analyzing the textbooks, which focus on math, rather than on
glitzy illustrations.


Another book, due out this month, is based on an analysis of videotapes of
eighth-grade teachers in the United States, Japan and Germany.

"The Teaching Gap" (The Free Press, New York) by James W. Stigler, a UCLA
psychology professor, and James Hiebert, an education professor at the
University of Delaware, argues that those tapes show that, within each
nation, teaching is remarkably consistent.

U.S. teachers think of math as a set of inherently tedious skills. They
"pump up students' interest by increasing the pace of activities, by
praising students . . . by the cuteness or real-lifeness of tasks, and by
their own . . . enthusiasm, humor or 'coolness.' " But the American
lessons lacked any mathematical proofs and generally consisted of "learning
terms and practicing procedures" rather than concepts and ideas.

That contrasts most sharply with Japanese teachers, who treat math as a
series of connected and interesting ideas that will in and of themselves
motivate students to solve problems. They lead discussions, ask questions,
present and critique students' solutions, and weave together a lesson that
has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The point, the authors argue, is that teaching methods are deeply ingrained
in a culture. Teachers teach, in large measure, the way they were taught.
Tinkering with the cultural "script" is not only ineffective, it could

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved


Note from CB (8/11): Ma's book is backordered at It's available
from in both hardback (2-3 days shipping) and paperback
(3-5 weeks shipping). Stigler and Hiebert's book is available from both
sources (ships in 2-3 days).

Carol Fry Bohlin
California State University, Fresno

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