Intel Corp., working with LessonLabs Inc., has just released a professional development package that includes demonstration videos showing instructional techniques typical in Japan, Hong Kong, and Switzerland, three of six countries that outscored the United States on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The Intel package is based on findings derived from TIMSS, and algebra is the subject taught in the demonstration videos.

The study, called “Teaching Mathematics in Seven Countries: Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study,” summarizes the teaching practices of 638 teachers from Australia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

Because these six other nations all outperformed the U.S. on previous TIMSS mathematics tests, researchers wanted to find out what American teachers could do to improve their results.

“This study allows us to learn from those countries whose students excel in mathematics,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “We know that our current practices have not achieved the success we demand. So, we’ve asked experts to review the teaching practices of high-achieving countries to inform our teachers and staff in our teacher preparation programs how to improve U.S. teaching practices.”

In each case, a teacher was videotaped for one complete lesson, and in each country, videotapes were collected across the school year to capture the range of topics and activities that can take place throughout an entire year.

After systematically analyzing data collected from thousands of hours of videotaped lessons, researchers found that teachers from high-achieving countries do not use a single common method for teaching mathematics.

They also found teaching practices in the United States differ remarkably from the way mathematics is taught in high-performing countries.

In 1995, researchers conducted a similar study of math lessons from three countries: Germany, Japan, and the United States. After this study, researchers concluded that because Japan had a unique teaching style and scored the highest on the TIMMS, all teachers should teach like Japanese teachers.

However, the 1999 study concludes that there is no single method of teaching mathematics among high-achieving countries. The 1999 study was expanded to include eighth-grade mathematics and science lessons from seven countries. (Germany was not included because it did not perform better than the U.S. on the TIMMS.)

“All teaching in the different countries is unique,” said Jim Stigler, co-director of the TIMMS Video Study and chief executive of LessonLab Inc. Teaching practices are a reflection of culture, and each country—including the U.S.—has a distinct national style, he explained.

“We found that there isn’t one feature that all high-achieving countries take,” Stigler said, which could end age-old debates on what should be emphasized in teaching: procedural versus conceptual understanding? Teacher-centered versus student-centered?

“In these high-achieving countries, you see both,” Stigler said. For example, Hong Kong teachers tend to lecture at the front of the class, while students in the Netherlands do more independent and group work, he said.

“We get so trapped in our cultural way of teaching, but we have choices in how we approach this,” Stigler said.

Teaching is very complex and requires a combination of approaches, he concludes: “To improve teachers, you can’t just say do these three things. You have to give teachers the ability to judge and analyze what technique would be best for each lesson.”

Findings of the study

Researchers did identify some common practices among the seven countries. For example, all taught eighth-grade mathematics by solving problems, and least 80 percent of lesson time, on average, was devoted to problem solving. Teachers in all countries had students work together as a class, in small groups, and independently.

On average, lessons in all countries included a review of previous content as well as the introduction of new content. Also, teachers spoke more than students at a ratio of at least 8 to 1 words, respectively.

American and Czech Republic teachers spent the most time (28 percent) reviewing old content, compared with other nations (8 percent for Hong Kong and 5 percent for Japan) that focused more on new material, the study found.

Compared with other countries, Australia and the U.S. used a smaller percentage of problems that require students to make connections between mathematical facts, procedures, and concepts. Japan used the highest percentage (54 percent) of problems that emphasized making connections. The other countries ranged from 13 percent to 24 percent.

Also, Australian and American teachers tended to turn conceptual problems, where students have to think of what to do to find the answer, into procedural problems, where students simply follow directions to find the answer.

Calculators were used in more lessons in the Netherlands (91 percent) than in the U.S. and other countries, where calculator use ranged from 31 percent to 56 percent. Computers were rarely used in mathematics lessons in any country, ranging from 2 percent to 9 percent of lessons.

“There are no silver bullets, obviously, for mathematics teachers to use to get high student scores on these tests,” said Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “I don’t think there is anything [here] that is really surprising. I would like to think we were using more real-world concepts than we are.”

The testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act will make it hard for teachers to change some of their practices, especially when it comes to reviewing previous concepts, Lott added: “Teachers think that it requires a lot of review, and with all the testing we are doing now it will be a lot harder to get rid of that review.”

The study was released March 26 by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and its sponsoring partner, the National Science Foundation.

Later this year, NCES plans to release two additional reports: one on eighth-grade science teaching and another that compares U.S. mathematics teaching in 1995 with that of 1999.

Professional development course

Based on the findings of the TIMMS Video Study, LessonLab and Intel are offering a new online professional development course that highlights teaching techniques from around the world. Teachers who enroll in the web-based course can observe and learn from videos of teachers in Hong Kong, Japan, and Switzerland.

“This 10-hour online course isn’t going to teach teachers how to teach algebra, but it will help them beef up their technique,” said Paige Kuni, Intel’s worldwide K-12 education manager.

“It’s not a Helpful Heloise Hint, where you add club soda and the stain goes away. Teaching is much more complex than that,” she added. “When I watch the U.S. videos, I see that U.S. teachers tend to do a lot of the students’ thinking for them.”

Teachers who participate in the online course use interactive, web-based tools to reflect and connect what they learn from the videos with what they want to happen in their own classroom. Thirty-five teachers already have piloted this program, which is offered either as a six-week facilitated course with an optional university credit, or as a non-facilitated course that allows for self-paced learning but with no credit.

“After taking the TIMSS video course, I began to understand that there are many alternatives in teaching algebra—that I needed to gather questions that help my students make mathematical connections, to further develop their critical thinking skills,” said Joseph Sabol, a teacher with the Alvord Unified School District in Riverside, Calif.

The course materials—which include a CD-ROM of the three videos, a study guide, and unlimited access to the online content for three months—cost $40, and credit through the University of California at Los Angeles costs $60.

LessonLab also is selling 28 videotaped lessons, complete with translations, on CD-ROM for $40 to help expose teachers to these practices. Unlike the online course, these CD-ROMs won’t include curriculum, but Stigler said they’re ideal for building professional development programs.


TIMMS Video Studies

“Teaching Mathematics in Seven Countries: Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study”

LessonLab Inc.

Online course