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The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom Hardcover – September 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

In a time when educators and politicians in the United States are fumbling for a fix--from vouchers to smaller class sizes--for ailing public schools, it's refreshing to read the more sophisticated take on what can be done to improve American education found in The Teaching Gap, a straightforward analysis of approaches towards teaching around the world. James W. Stigler, a UCLA psychology professor, and James Hiebert, an education professor at the University of Delaware, argue that America's culture of teaching needs to be changed before we see any real change in student achievement--and they're not simply talking about higher pay and more respect.

The bulk of The Teaching Gap examines the cultural differences among teaching methods, with detailed accounts of video observations of eighth-grade math teachers that were part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS (which Stigler directed). American teachers in the videos tend to emphasize terms and procedures, thinking of math as a set of tedious skills. They try to interest students with praise and real-life problems. In contrast, Japanese teachers are more likely to emphasize ideas, expecting the concepts alone to stir students' natural curiosity. They weave together lessons that have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Teachers in the other countries are more likely to share lessons on what works in the classroom and receive more sophisticated training, the authors found. Only seven out of 41 nations scored lower than the U.S. in TIMSS, placing American eighth-graders with those from Cyprus, Portugal, South Africa, Kuwait, Iran, and Colombia. Without falling into teacher-bashing mode, Stigler and Hiebert insist that reform efforts need to originate with teachers, not university researchers. They call for overhauling the teaching profession with stricter requirements, better peer review, and more demanding academic standards, as well as improved interaction between teachers. Their detailed examination of the study's video observations gets to the heart of the matter and should be worthwhile reading for educators, policymakers, and anyone interested in the condition of today's education system. --Jodi Mailander Farrell

From Publishers Weekly

Offering a detailed comparison of the educational methods of Germany, Japan and the U.S., the authors dissect the information gleaned from a pioneering effort to videotape instruction in a representative sample of 231 eighth-grade math classrooms in the three countries, as a part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Stigler, a professor of psychology at UCLA, and Hiebert, a professor of education at the University of Delaware, found that, overall, the international samples emphasize weaknesses in the American educational process that may not be overcome by reducing class size or adding school choice and vouchers, more technology or charter schools. Only seven countries out of the 41 nations surveyed in the TIMSS study scored lower than the U.S.: Cyprus, Portugal, South Africa, Kuwait, Iran and Colombia. Using simple graphs and sample data, they reveal that Japanese teachers stress understanding and thinking while German and American teachers emphasize skills. Despite a wealth of complex information, the book never lapses into academic jargon or trite conclusions. Especially illuminating are the recommendations in its final chapters, which call for overhauling the teaching profession with higher status, greater pay, stricter certification requirements, more accountability, better peer review and more demanding academic standards. For anyone interested in the quality of American education, this impressive book is a critical resource. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684852748
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684852744
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #899,997 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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53 of 53 people found the following review helpful By psychephile on May 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
From several cross-national comparisons of math achievement, we've learned that elementary school students from the worst Japanese schools routinely outperform students from the best American schools. Why? According to Stigler and Hiebert, the cause is a difference--not in teachers--but in teaching.
In Japan, mathematics teaching is a method that aims to develop students' understanding of mathematical relationships and properties. This system of mathematical knowledge is taught to children in lessons that are highly coherent, hierarchically linear, and based on teachers' own research of what lessons promote student learning. Further, these lessons typically involve "structured problem-solving," where math concepts are induced from challenging problems, where these concepts are concretized through well-considered examples, and where mathematical relationships are proven as following necessarily from given premises.
In contrast, mathematics teaching in the U.S. seeks to train students in mathematical procedures. These procedures are taught to students by demonstrating one correct procedure for solving an easy problem, and then students are asked to imitate that procedure for many highly similar problems. More often than not, the lessons for imparting these skills are incoherent--with many non-mathematical discursions and interruptions. Further, lessons almost never involve math inductions and proofs; rather, teachers state math relationships explicitly and immediately tell students how the relationship should be used to solve simple problems. Last, lessons are developed by education researchers not only without the collaboration of teachers, but specifically so that the lessons are "teacher-proof".
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49 of 52 people found the following review helpful By Barry McGhan (Center for Public School Renewal) ( on October 17, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The Teaching Gap is an easy read about an important educational issue. The insights that come from the cross-cultural studies in this book should become part of the understanding of all U.S. educators and supporters of education. If I could establish Japanese-style lesson study in every school in the country I would do it, because I believe it will improve educational practice in just the way the authors say it will.
But, The Teaching Gap has hard messages for those who hope to reform American education. One is that improvements cannot be expected to take hold quickly. Even a ten-year time frame would be too short. The arguments that support this proposition are compelling-that the superior system of the Japanese has taken 50 years to develop; that the history of short-term reform in the U.S. is replete with failures. Another hard message is that improvements have to be realized by ordinary classroom teachers--who essentially have to fix their own work--rather than be fixed by the vast army of experts who currently claim dibs on school reform.
The authors argue that Americans have to shift their thinking from fixing teachers, to fixing teaching. They ground this view on their belief that teaching is a cultural activity, based on the norms and expectations of the society in which it is found. Their cross-cultural research shows that differences in teaching between cultures are much greater than differences in teaching within a given culture. Such a finding might, for example, lead one to conclude that the controversies that rage back and forth within American education should be likened to arguing about the arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic. The education reform industry is not likely to appreciate these conclusions.
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59 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Michael J Matuschka on June 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book is informative and hits the point insofar as it highlights the need for teachers and school management to empower themselves with enough skills to change their school model so that it leads to school development, not just school efficiency. This books points out the positives of the Japanese model (for 8th grade math), but it would not draw the same conclusions it it had addressed other parts of the Japanese education system. I have worked in the Japanese school system for 4 years and recently finished a master's degree comparing Japan's junior high system with Australia's. My analysis is that while the Japanese do a good job with math, they do an average job with science and a poor job with languages and the social sciences. Environmental education is not even addressed, while technology studies are just starting to be taught in schools. Essentially, while math students might be encouraged to think around the concepts, this does not apply to other areas of learning. Further, the term collaboration is often used to describe Japanese teacher interaction, but be careful. It is a one directional application of the term. Debate rarely exists in Japanese learning or teaching situations. The system is overwhelmingly hierarchical. Like most things when we compare culture, we should be careful not to elevate other cultural practices too high without addressing the benefits and weaknesses of comparing approaches. The book is interesting and important, but I have become very skeptical of authors who see only strength in Japan's model. It is not at all some ways it may even be dangerous.
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