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.