The Teaching Gap

The Teaching Gap is a funny book. Not funny “ha ha”. Funny in terms of how it has been perceived.

It was published in about 1999 and the professional conversation turned to “Japanese Lesson Study”. Initiatives were initiated. Presentations were made. Etc.

And in fact, Japanese Lesson Study comprises about the last third of the book. But it’s not what the book is about. The Teaching Gap is about how assumptions and values play out in classroom practice. And it’s about how things don’t have to be the way they are in math classrooms because they are quite different in other countries’ math classrooms.

But it’s not about lesson study. Here is why I care.

I frequently recommend The Teaching Gap to colleagues. If the message they take away is that I am recommending Japanese Lesson Study, then my mission is not accomplished. When I recommend the book, I am recommending an insightful study of classroom teaching that forces readers to think critically about their own classroom practice.

We are all ready for critical thinking about our classroom practice.

We are not all ready for Lesson Study.

In fact, as a group, American teachers are tremendously far from being ready for lesson study.

Consider the rhetoric around Khan Academy. According to a recent Time Magazine piece, Khan says “He doesn’t use a script. In fact, he admits, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say half the time.’ But the low production values of Khan’s videos are part of what makes them so effective.”

How does Khan plan? Same article: “Khan begins by doing two minutes’ worth of research on Google, looking for graphs that affirm what he remembers from his econ class in college, then flips through a few pages in a 4-in.-thick economics textbook sitting on his desk and clicks a button to start recording.”

And simultaneously, Khan has received millions of dollars to do more of this. He is hailed as “brilliant” (Newsweek) and “The new Andrew Carnegie” (Time).

If we’re ready to use Khan Academy as a primary instructional medium, we are not ready for lesson study.

At about 1:50 in the video below, a math teacher extols Khan Academy for the diagnostic data it gives him on students.

I should go back and think about what I’m really asking my students to do. Whether that’s something that’s too high of a level for 80% of the class, or something that’s too low of a level for the class.

That reflection is nowhere close to what lesson study would produce. Lesson study would involve planning with other teachers, teaching (with others observing) and a discussion afterwards of how students’ ideas played out in the lesson. The teachers would discuss the lesson in minute detail. Conclusions would be drawn about how the examples used should be different, what questions should be asked next time, whether the context in the lesson supported student reasoning, etc.

The rhetoric in US schools tends to focus on the speed with which material is covered, not on nuanced details of lesson structure.

That teacher in the video? I’m sure he’s very good at what he does. But he’s not questioning whether a linear trajectory through a set of skills is the best description of what it means to learn mathematics. Instead, he seems to uncritically accept this proposition. And that’s where a lot of us are, frankly.

It’s why Khan Academy is hailed as such a revolution. Khan Academy is a friendly tool for doing something better. But that thing it does? It’s the wrong thing to do. So being better at it doesn’t matter very much.

That teacher needs to read the first two-thirds of The Teaching Gap. Like all of us, he needs to critically analyze his practice in light of the ideas presented there. He needs to talk with colleagues about what he concludes.

Then he can come back in a couple of years, read the last part of the book and form a lesson study group.

So I continue to recommend The Teaching Gap. We desperately need to know how things could be different. But when I recommend it, I will continue to point out that the main message of the book is in the first two-thirds. Because as a field, we’re not ready for lesson study.

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12 responses to “The Teaching Gap

  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    Note: this comment has been edited to conform to my stated norms for productive discussion.

    Wonderful points, Chris. This is yet another insightful take on both the myths and reality of Khan Academy itself, and on the sorry state of US mathematics teaching. I must agree that the truly difficult work of high-quality Japanese-style lesson study is not yet within the reach of most teachers here. There are cultural issues, content-knowledge issues, basic pedagogical issues, and pedagogical content-knowledge issues. There are also major issues of school culture. Given the current war on public schools, it is hard to envision how teachers in schools that are under attack (meaning, in particular, high-needs schools) will ever be in a position to do the hard work or to get themselves, individually and collectively, better-equipped to do so. Of course, lots of us are trying to figure that out and move things to a better place. KA just further muddies the waters.

  2. Several interesting things to think about here; thanks for sharing. I’ll definitely put the book on my list.

    In my career, I haven’t had much opportunity to participate in activities like lesson studies within the bounds of my job. Indeed, it’s been rare to have anything more than token common planning time with colleagues. And besides the lack of support at the higher levels for such practice, I’d say most of the people I’ve worked with would be reluctant to do something like that anyway.

    And as we move ever closer toward an industrial approach to education, we’ll get farther away from such valuable practices. After all, assembly line workers don’t need to sit around and reflect on what they do; they just put the peg in the hole.

  3. I will pick up the book – thanks!

  4. Do you think there are other reflective practices somewhere between just talking with other teachers during common planning time and full-on lesson study? I’ve tried to initiate a lesson study group within my school a few times and each time, gotten the response that lesson study is just too involved and takes too much time. I’d love a recommendation for something that could serve as a stepping stone to lesson study – any ideas? Great post, by the way, and I totally agree with you, although I still think Khan Academy videos have some value for students that want a quick review or practice procedural skills with feedback.

  5. Given that there is only a very weak correlation between instructional time and student achievement, it’d be nice if we could make time for this intense practice by paring down student contact time.

  6. Great points. Had a person tell me that the Khan Academy is what got him over a hurdle and to decide to head back to school (I’m glad to say he came to ask about other math resources), so it does seem to help some people… but then I think of how much money is spent on it and how much better it *could* be and get annoyed again…

  7. By the way, an odd intersection of blog and twitter ideas today brought me to this (obvious?) observation: lesson study is something that could be done effectively and efficiently online with our online community.

    Someone needs to start that website. One where we submit videos of our teaching and contributors make observations about how the lesson could be improved. Another teacher implements the revised lesson and submits that video.

    I like it. Seems like it could be pretty powerful.

  8. Marshall, I’d help with that.

  9. I got an email along these lines from a reader last night. My response, fwiw:

    “At various points, I’ve thought right along your lines. ie. ‘We need an online Japanese lesson study program. Teachers will choose a problem, film themselves working on it with their classes. We’ll all debrief.’ I bought lessonstudyonline.com. I don’t know. It seemed like a great idea. I came to think there are rather large issues around student privacy (which is a really valid issue) and teacher reticence (valid, but less so) that might preclude that kind of thing. The communities of teachers that make this kind of project work have a lot of trust in each other, which is harder to come by online.”

  10. Michael Paul Goldenberg

    I agree with you, Dan: I don’t see this as feasible given confidentiality. It could work in a restricted community of kids and teachers where parents knew going in that they were agreeing to let their children participate.

  11. Does it need to be filmed? What if the teacher teaching the lesson, and perhaps another observer, compiled their notes and any assessments, formal or informal, that were given, and debriefed this with the community? Yes, it’s not as objective as a video of the class, but it does allow us to sidestep the issue of teacher and student privacy.

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