The Teaching Gap

Paperback The Teaching Gap : Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom Book

Just read a fascinating book: The Teaching Gap by James Stigler and James Hiebert.  Originally published in 1999, this book was recommended by the late Grant Wiggins in an old blog post. When Grant Wiggins recommends a book, I try to read it.  He’d lauded it as something of a “modern” classic.  

The authors’ basic thesis is that we must improve teaching, not teachers.  Heroic or unique efforts by a handful of inspired or unorthodox educators — as well as the recommendations of educational researchers — are not enough to substantially improve teaching practices.  The reason, according to Stigler and Hiebert, is that teaching is largely a cultural practice, one whose methodologies are rooted in cultural understandings of both classroom instruction and conceptions of learning.

For example, the authors cite American educators’ belief that students learn by picking up smaller subdivisions of skills, packaged in smaller units that build off of each other — a legacy of the behaviorist movement from the early 20th century.  Therefore, much of learning is the mastery of smaller skills which build on each other sequentially.  This is entirely different than the cultural understanding of teaching involved in other countries, particularly in Japan, a finding the authors discovered following a lengthy and exhaustive video study of the two countries’ (plus Germany’s) approach to teaching math, back in 1995.

For example, Japanese math teachers frequently believe that students must begin by attempting to solve an unconventional problem, deriving various solutions on their own, and then discussing how each of the approaches relate to each other and lead ultimately to the best solution.  On the other hand, American teachers believe students must start by being taught smaller subskills that are important in solving the problem, which is not introduced until later, when students are encouraged to use their newfound skills to solve it procedurally.  

The Japanese approach, according to the authors, very much takes for granted that students must struggle with problems, whereas American teachers very much see signs of students struggling as evidence that they haven’t taught preceding steps effectively.  

There’s quite a lot embedded in such a comparison, I know, but the book’s focus is less on the cultural differences in pedagogy or expectations.  It’s more about how teaching is so hard to improve because it is so cultural, and embedded notions of what good instruction looks like can make it very difficult to change and grow.  

Meanwhile, the focus on improving “teachers,” an idea beloved by reformers, is, for the authors, beside the point.  What matter if we encourage better students to take up teaching, or if we provide them with more recommendations — so long as they’re still operating from the same stubbornly persistent cultural script?

The authors critique reform more broadly, and teacher PD more specifically, too.  For Stigler and Hiebert, Americans want immediate, dramatic reform of their schools, most of which proves stubbornly unable to penetrate the cultural practices of most teachers, while the Japanese on the other hand are content with slower but more lasting improvements.  

The Japanese practice that most exemplifies this effective reform is Lesson Study: teachers working collaboratively in grade- or subject-alike teams to refine a single lesson (that’s right, just a single lesson) over the course of a year.  It’s two concepts: it’s the notion of teachers working together to improve their own practice, and it’s the idea of focusing on the immediate and the small — writ large.  

The authors contrast such a modest goal — improving one single lesson — with the dramatic reform efforts tried in American classrooms.  They also contrast Lesson Study with the American notion of professional development (PD): the educational expert running a one-off session with a group of teachers and never seeing them again.  This model, because it’s isolated and disconnected from the immediacy of the classroom, is, for the authors, inadequate.  

The most fascinating metaphor in the book was related in a story the authors tell about Albert Shanker, famous teachers’ union leader, who visited a housing complex where new immigrants from Yemen were living.  “We’re trying to get them to use tables,” Shaker’s hosts told him.  Upon entering one apartment, Shaker and company saw a family at dinner, using the table — but while sitting on the floor, the table placed upside down, lying on the floor itself.  In this case, the authors compare teaching to eating, a cultural practice in which one’s basic tenets are hard to change by recommendation or “retraining” alone.

The authors seem to suggest that collaborative work between teachers, as in the case of Lesson Study, is the best way to ensure improved practices.  They do not say explicitly whether such activities can overcome the inertia of culturally-learned scripts, but they do suggest that such collaboration provides the best opportunity for real improvement: the making better of teaching, not teachers.  

I couldn’t agree more, both about the benefit of collaborative work, and about the need for incremental reform.

Participating in the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute three years ago, during which we each taught and critiqued each others’ lessons, was a powerful experience in the potential for teachers to improve each others’ work.  Normally teaching is such a private practice; most observations are evaluative, and it’s rare that any of us see each other teach.  I have colleagues I’ve worked with for ten years whom I’ve never seen teach for more than a few minutes.

And I agree completely the isolated PD session is too often a waste of time.  So are large-scale reform measures when they’re unaided by the kinds of slow, up-close, situational work that real change requires.  The authors cite the wonderfully circular logic of many reformers who do not focus on student learning as their goal: instead, success for these reformers is measured by the extent to which they faithfully implement the reforms.  Instead the model is teachers working together on a common problem to forge new and better solutions, with the real immediate feedback of student response and peer analysis.  It reminds me of my time in kayak racing, when it was standard for a group of kayakers to tackle the “problem” of new slalom courses together, rather than simply be told by a coach the best way to perfect a certain slalom maneuver.  

As I think back on those kayak racing days, I think of these times together on the practice course, confronting common problems, learning from each other, and workshopping new approaches, as some of the most rewarding aspects of sport.  I would certainly not say that my teaching career has been empty of such experiences.  To the contrary, I commonly enjoy this kind of collegial inquiry with my coworkers, but it comes during our planning sessions, when we either create new units together, rather than in response to our real instruction in the classroom.  As I said, it’s rare than any of them sees me teach.

It’s rare these days, since I’ve started tackling some of the “classics” in my field — most of which are challenging, involved reads — that I can finish a book so quickly, in one sitting, really, while absorbing a great deal of value from it as well.  The Teaching Gap was that book though: quick and easy to read, but meaningful.  I certainly recommend it.