The Learning Gap

Now that my book is grossly overdue at the Seattle Public Library, I’ve finally finished The Learning Gap: Why our schools are failing and what we can learn from Japanese and Chinese education. (My overdue fees are going to hurt all the more because the whole book is available for free online…)

There were a lot of interesting ideas and observations in this book, which was written in 1992. I have a few major concerns with some of Stevenson and Stigler’s arguments, but I think their main takeaway is definitely worth taking a look at.

My scanner is MIA, but for example, I thought you needed to see this graph on what parents in Beijing value versus parents in Chicago:

Defining the Ideal Teacher
Defining the Ideal Teacher

Look at those huge differences in clarity and sensitivity, as well as enthusiasm. What do you think causes them? How would you answer this survey?

I am now on the lookout for a “Math Set.” Stevenson and Stigler mention this manipulatives kit, and many other researchers quote it, but I can’t seem to find a set that contains “a box of colorful, well-designed materials for teaching mathematical concepts: tiles, clock, ruler, checkerboard, colored triangles, beads, and many other attractive objects.” (186)

I also wanted to share this passage:

If we were asked briefly to characterize classes in Japan and China, we would say that they consist of coherent lessons that are presented in a thoughtful, relaxed, and nonauthoritarian manner. Teachers frequently involve students as sources of information. Lessons are oriented toward problem-solving rather than rote mastery of facts and procedures, and make use of many different types of representational materials. The role assumed by the teacher is that of the knowledgable guide, rather than that of prime dispenser of information and arbiter of what is correct. There is frequent verbal interaction in the classroom as the teacher attempts to stimulate students to produce, explain, and evaluate solutions to problems. These characteristics contradict stereotypes held by most Westerners about Asian teaching practices. Lessons are not rote; they are not filled with drill. Teachers do not spend large amounts of time lecturing to children; and the children are not passive automatons but active participants in the learning process. (176-177)

Definitely something to think about.

Finally, here’s what the authors recommend we should do to define our solution to improving instruction in US public schools:

1. Free Teachers (give them more time to prepare lessons and for professional development)
2. Improve Teacher Training
3. Make Systematic Use of Learning Principles (research-based instruction)
4. Teach to the Group (hold high standards?)
5. Consider Increasing Class Size (with the opportunity for “more time each day to plan lessons, deal with individual children, and consult with colleagues” (212))
6. Revise Textbooks
7.  Free Children (more frequent, shorter breaks)
8. Eliminate Tracking
9. Respect the Age of Innocence (keep learning fun)

Make Realistic Assessments (of their students) and Raise Standards
(American kids were always the worst at math, but their families always thought they were better at math than anyone else)

Value Education
Believe in Effort

If you’re interested in more, here’s a thoughtful article from the NCTM.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *