The Math Teacher’s Job is Neither to Teach the Lesson, Nor to Help Individual Students Who are Struggling!

….but rather, to prepare a lesson from which ALL the students can learn!

… according to the way that Japanese math teachers are taught their craft, as described below. You will find that these methods, which include Lesson Study, are pretty much the exact opposite of American “Direct Instruction” or “Teaching Like A Champion.”  Given that nobody claims that Japanese students lag behind American ones in math or science, perhaps we in the US could profit from examining how other nations’ teachers do it. Note also that this description is of mathematics lessons in elementary school, not middle or high school.

Please read the following description and leave comments on what you think.

From Tom McDougal. Lesson Study Alliance, Chicago [and brought to my attention by Jerry Becker. – GFB]
It’s not the teacher’s job to teach the students!

By Tom McDougal

What?? You might be thinking. What else could the teacher’s job be but to teach?

The teacher’s job is to ensure that students learn, all of them, we hope, though we know we will usually fall short.

In Japan, most (elementary) math lessons are designed as  “teaching through problem solving” lessons (TtP). A teaching through problem solving lesson typically includes the following parts:

1.  introduce the problem
2.  explicitly pose the task for students
3.  students work on the task (5-10 minutes)
4.  share student ideas
5.  compare and discuss the ideas for the purpose of learning new mathematics
6.  summarize major points from the lesson
7.  student reflections

(There is sometimes overlap, and a back-and-forth between some of these, e.g. #4 & #5 may be combined.)

While students are working on the task (#3), the teacher walks around the room, monitoring their progress. Japanese educators have a term for this, kikkan shido, or  “providing] guidance between the desks.” They recognize that there are different ways to do kikkan shido, and it is often a subject of discussion in Lesson Study. During planning, for example, a team will usually discuss how – or whether  – the teacher should respond to a student who exhibits a particular misconception; during the post-lesson discussion, there may be argument about whether the kikkan shido was effective. And, it is considered a skill that new teachers need to develop.

Teachers who are inexperienced with TtP lessons often make an unfortunate error while doing kikkan shido: they see a student who is struggling, or who has done something wrong, and they stop and help that student. After several minutes the teacher moves on, encounters another student who is having trouble, helps that student, and so on. Then, suddenly, time is up, and the lesson ends.

There are at least four important drawbacks to this type of kikkan shido. First, as my description suggests, it uses up a lot of time. The teacher may never get around to all of the students, and other students who need help may never get it. Second, by addressing misconceptions privately rather than publicly, the teacher deprives other students of the opportunity to analyze those misconceptions and learn why they are incorrect. Any experienced teacher knows that certain misconceptions are very common, so when one student makes an error that stems from a common misconception, that offers an opportunity to “inoculate” other students against making the same error sometime later.

The third problem with tutoring students individually is that it conflicts with the whole premise of teaching through problem solving. You expect that some, or even all, of the students will have difficulty with the task; that’s why it’s called “problem solving” and not “practice.” Teaching through problem solving involves an expectation that students will have difficulty, but that the comparison and discussion phase will address their difficulties and that, by the end of the lesson, all (or almost all) of the students will have learned what they need to know.

And fourth, we want to help students learn to give viable arguments and to critique the reasoning of others, the third Standard for Mathematical Practice in the Common Core State Standards. To accomplish this, we need for students to share and discuss different, perhaps conflicting solutions. Students need to do the critiquing, not the teacher.

Of course, some errors are simply the result of sloppiness, or otherwise unrelated to the main learning goals of the lesson. So when the teacher sees an error while conducting kikkan shido, he or she has to decide: should this be addressed privately or publicly? What should I say to this student? Do I expect that, by the end of the lesson, this student will understand what he or she has done wrong? This is a tricky decision, and an important part of lesson planning is anticipating different student responses, correct and incorrect, and deciding ahead of time how to handle them.

Caring teachers naturally feel drawn to help struggling students: they feel like it is their duty to help those students right now. To counteract that impulse, I say, bluntly:

It is not the teacher’s job to teach the students. It’s the teacher’s job to create a lesson that teaches the students.


Low College Completion Rates even for students graduating from Charter Schools

I’d like to thank Jerry Becker for bringing this to my attention.

Can’t import the “Finnish approach” – cultural roots

A ‘guest post’ via Jerry Becker:

” Received from Stefan Turnau, Sunday, January 2, 2011 in response to the posting on “Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests” on January 1st, 2011. You might want to take a look at where what follows can be found plus a great deal more, due to Nigel Bispham who is a deputy head teacher from Cornwall who visits Finland to discover why the country scored so well on the international OECD PISA assessments.”

I’m afraid the “Finnish approach” can’t be exported wholesale to any other cultural context.
A by no means exhaustive list of aspects that make the Finnish approach work (in my short experience as a Brit who’s lived here in Helsinki for 7 years and has a daughter in primary education at the moment):
1. Finns have a deep and lasting respect for the teaching profession and education in general, people aspire to be teachers!
2. Parents respect the job teachers do and let them do it (they are not well paid but they enjoy high status). The government lets teachers get on with teaching,
3. Parents are reminded several times a year to come into the school anytime to observe lessons or any other part of the school day.
4. Teachers at all levels hold master’s degree qualifications in pedagogy and are left to get on with it without too many restrictions.
5. All facilities are in good repair and teaching aids are plentiful (with little damage from arson and vandalism because kids are generally protective of their schools and use the playground areas after school).
6. Active after school clubs from everything from art to athletics etc.
7. Short and sweet school days (e.g. 8-9 year olds 9 till 1/2pm).
8. Small class sizes (20-25).
9. Many kids have an early sense of self reliance from looking after themselves in the afternoons.
10. Kids here also get to roam free, expend a lot of energy, climb trees and skin their knees.
11. And so on….. 

I think I can sum it up by relating a somewhat minor bugbear I do have with the Finnish Ed System and it is that my daughter’s favourite expression is “Teacher says….xyz!” to put her parents right!

I think if you ask any Finnish school kid who the 10-15 most important people are in their lives, there is a good chance that their teacher will figure in there for many? How about in the UK, top 100?

I think the things that CAN be imported are ideas that allow a refocusing away from testing and performance by giving teachers more autonomy, a focus on quality rather then quantity of teaching, higher level academic teacher training qualifications, improving the status of teaching as a profession.
I’m afraid the “Chinese approach”, very different but equally successful, cannot be imported for the same reason.
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