Shifting Phases's Reviews > The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom

The Teaching Gap by James W. Stigler
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By the time I finished reading this it had 50 sticky-notes protruding from the edges. Lots of very well-documented food for thought, based on the TIMSS study of 8th-graders around the world. In the 10th anniversary edition, they've studied a dozen or so countries, finding the US sorely lacking in math education. The diagnosis: focusing on definitions and procedures does not lead to understanding logic or relationships between ideas. The prescription: the underlying culture of teaching must be changed, not merely the behaviour of individual teachers. Teachers must be trusted and empowered to become our own R&D lab, to implement slow, steady change. Preferably while working together.

I appreciated the tone, which was far less academic than usual for an educational study. I also appreciated the frank evaluation of the field of educational research. "We must move beyond models of reform in which we try to replace one teaching method with another by distributing the written recommendations of experts." (p. 127) The result of this method is that, looking back over the last 50 years, "we can see fashions and trends... but we cannot see the kind of gradual improvement that marks true professions." (Does this mean that the dissemination of educational research constitutes pseudoteaching?)

There's an interesting point about how teacher training is conducted (especially in-service). "Educators have becomeincreasingly aware of the importance of context in understanding and facilitating learning, but the arguments have been applied more often to students' learning than to teachers' learning." Teachers must become scholars of our own teaching in our own classrooms, not in "weekend workshops, university courses," where we are expected to learn something new, disconnected from [our] context, then hope it works" (p. 135, p. 144) back home. The authors specifically recommend restructuring in-service days by amortizing them over the year and using them for teacher collaboration. (p. 145) They promote this as a way to encourage reflection; if you value teachers' research, it creates in the teacher a temperament oriented to inquiry and a disposition toward investigating one's own practice." (p. 151) They also suggest that having opportunities to watch other teachers can create the desire to improve. (p. 152)

The authors discuss some barriers to change, and one of them is lack of institutional memory and longevity ("typically, [superintendents] don't last long enough in their positions to follow through over long periods of time." p. 139)

Another is a culture of mistrust. "The lack of confidence in teachers is not limited to public and political communities. Even educators display a certain skepticism of teachers' inclination or ability to improve teaching. Over the years, curriculum developers often have tried to create 'teacher-proof" curricula -- content that is to be presented to students in such a straightforward wy that it could not be distorted by incompetent teachers. There is also a long-standing degree of distrust between administrators and teachers, illustrated by the fact that principlas usually observe teachers only when it is time to evaluate them." (p. 170)

The suggestions about professionalism line up eerily with Dan Meyer's comments about teacher review and malpractice: "Doctors don't try to figure out a new technique or procedure for every patient who comes into their office; they begin by using the standard techniques and procedures based on the experience of many doctors over the years. Nobody considers this a way of doctor-proofing medicine, although they do have a name for the failure to use standard practices -- it's malpractice." (p. 176) This provides an interesting light in which to see our culture of martyred heroes (a la Erin Gruwell).

The authors emphasize teachers setting shared educational goals (p. 141). I wonder if this is possible before teachers have had the freedom to set their own goals (maybe implementing SBG or some similar thing in the classroom is a precondition). There were other interesting comments about assessment: "Even with clear goals, teachers cannot improve their practise unless they have access to a steady flow of information about the effectiveness of their teaching." (p. 142) There's some obvious constructivism here: we must develop the improvements, not simply receive them, if they are to be effective.


Almost as interesting as the book were the other reviews on Goodreads. Some readers complained that it contained no best practises to be followed. In fact, I found quite a few (examples: p. 50: technique for memorization drill; p. 64: how to increase the coherence of a lesson). However, the authors notably found that collecting best-practises has not worked to change the underlying culture of teaching. On p. 189 they say "Rather than trying to imitate the techniques of teachers in other cultures, teachers should learn a variety of instructional strategies... they must also learn to monitor what students are experiencing, thinking, and learning during a lesson and be able to constantly readjust their strategies." While best practises may help specific teachers on specific days, we are in danger of confusing this with the systemic change we need.
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Reading Progress

March 6, 2011 – Shelved
Started Reading
March 7, 2011 – Finished Reading

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