Vonn R Christenson and Dr. Blake Peterson, Mathematics Education
For years the United States has lagged behind the international community in mathematical performance at the elementary and secondary education levels. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), differences between the teaching style in Japan and the United States were studied, identified and recorded. Through this study, it was discovered that students in the United States “encounter mathematics that is at a lower level, is somewhat superficial, and is not as fully or coherently developed” as the mathematics in Japan.i
In The Teaching Gap, Dr. James W. Stigler and Dr. James Hiebert analyzed the information from the TIMSS study to help identify “the best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom.” They discovered that “in Japan, teachers appear to take a less active role, allowing their students to invent their own procedures for solving problems…Teachers, however, carefully design and orchestrate lessons so that students are likely to use procedures that have been developed recently in class.”ii It is apparent from these studies that Japanese students are superior in mathematics not simply because they are better students of mathematics, but because they are in fact receiving a higher level of instruction from their teachers. Consequently, the question naturally arises, how do Japanese teachers learn and develop their effective teaching practices?
To answer this question, I studied the university education received by math educators in Japan prior to their entering the teaching profession. Significant differences between math education programs in Japan as compared with the United States could indicate a source of Japan’s superior teaching techniques. If sufficiently understood, these differences in teacher preparation could be implemented in the United States to improve the performance of our own math educators. If no such differences appear, then groundwork will have been laid for researchers to study other possible sources of teacher preparation, including in-service teacher mentoring, the teaching environment in Japan, or even the classroom instruction experienced by teachers when they were young.
Preliminary research on this topic revealed that little is available in English on Japanese math education programs. The most pertinent information was usually in reference to the TIMSS study mentioned earlier. These analyses often helped to define the differences existing between the U.S. and Japan, but failed to identify the factors contributing to these differences, let alone the potential role of university education programs in nurturing such differences.
Consequently, the next part of my research was to contact via email professors of Japanese universities to acquire information on the math education programs at their university. Through this means, I was able to gather data from about 12 different Japanese universities. Much of the information was provided in English, but for some of the Japanese documents I was able to obtain translation.
This acquired information pointed to several unique characteristics of Japanese math education programs. First, university students in Japan take nearly twice as many classes as their American counterparts, having about 10-12 different classes each semester. Although many of these classes are comparable to those taught in the United States, Japanese universities preferred to cover fewer topics in greater depth than the more comprehensive and consequently superficial level of mathematics taught in the United States. Furthermore, students are often graded strictly on their performance on the final exam, with intermediate homework and classroom attendance not being mandatory for the class.
Another significant difference between the two programs is with the student teaching experience. In Japan, the student teaching experience lasts for only 2-4 weeks, as compared with the 4-8 month student teaching experience in the United States. In addition, the purpose of the student teaching experience appears to focus more on learning how to think as a teacher than to actually learn how to teach. In other words, most of the student teacher’s experience is not spent in front of a class teaching, but rather is spent in preparing, watching, analyzing and discussing lesson plans presented both by the individual, other student teachers, and the faculty advisor. Emphasis is placed on understanding the students’ knowledge and needs, and fostering the pupil’s ability to discover mathematical principles for themselves.
One final difference worth mentioning is that Japanese universities are much more nationalized in their curriculum than the United States. The Japanese Government has a Ministry of Education which overlooks all aspects of education in Japan. Their jurisdiction includes everything from approving textbooks for use in elementary schools to establishing curriculum guidelines for universities. This nationalization of the education system standardizes the learning experience to a much greater extent than that found in the United States. Professors still have much freedom in how they wish to present the given materials, but expectations for potential teachers are explicitly understood and largely consistent from one university to the next.
In conclusion, my study of math education programs in Japan seems to indicate that the key to their superior teaching techniques lies more in the structure, environment and student teaching experience than in the actual university classes themselves. Perhaps the most intriguing finding of all was with regards to the opinion held by Japanese teachers about the significance of their profession. To them, effective teaching is considered to be a lifelong pursuit; a pursuit that must be constantly studied, revised and improved. The receipt of a teaching license does not indicate that one is ready to teach, but merely ready to learn how to become an effective teacher. I believe that this attitude more than anything will improve the level of teaching in the United States. If teachers can be inspired at the start of their career to make their profession one of constant improvement, then any deficiencies that may exist otherwise can be overcome. Japan has had many years to nurture this attitude and make it an integral part of their education system…Our schools in the United States will follow suit only if the new generation of teachers begins now to make such an approach the standard that they will live by – the standard by which they will teach.
i Stigler, James W. and James Heibert. (1999). The Teaching Gap. New York: The Free Press. Pg. 66.
ii Ibid. Pg. 27. 68