Why edutourists go astray

A math class in Shanghai

Edutourists often go astray, writes Tom Loveless on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times declared the “Shanghai secret” is teacher training and a work day that allows for professional development and peer interaction.

After touring schools in Japan, Chalkbeat’s Elizabeth Green endorsed lesson study and “pedagogical reforms from the 1980s and 1990s” to boost math learning.

High-scoring Finland is a prime edutourist destination, writes Loveless. “The Education Ministry of Finland hosted at least 100 delegations from 40 to 45 countries per year from 2005 to 2011.”

Singling out a top achieving country—or state or district or school or teacher or some other “subject”—and then generalizing from what this top performer does is known as selecting on the dependent variable.  The dependent variable, in this case, is achievement.  To look for patterns of behavior that may explain achievement, a careful analyst examines subjects across the distribution—middling and poor performers as well as those at the top.  That way, if a particular activity—let’s call one “Teaching Strategy X”—is found a lot at the top, not as much in the middle, and rarely or not at all at the bottom, the analyst can say that Teaching Strategy X is positively correlated with performance.  That doesn’t mean it causes high achievement—even high school statistics students are taught “correlation is not causation”—only that the two variables go up and down together.

Edutourists routinely go to top-scoring countries, but rarely check whether their favored strategy is used in middle- and low-scoring nations, writes Loveless.

In addition, edutourists visit a selected sample of the best schools, he writes.  Confirmation bias makes it likely they’ll see what they expect to see.

Can we teach like the Japanese?

Elizabeth Green’s Why do Americans Stink at Math? didn’t go far enough, writes Dan Willingham. Improving math instruction is even harder than she thinks.

The nub of her argument is this. American stink at math because the methods used to teach it are rote, don’t lead to transfer to the real world, and lead to shallow understanding. There are pedagogical methods that lead to much deeper understanding. U.S. researchers pioneered these methods and Japanese student achievement took off when the Japanese educational system adopted them.

. . . Traditional classrooms are characterized by the phrase “I, We, You.” The teacher models a new mathematical procedure (“I”), the whole class practices it (“We”), and then individual students try it on their own (“You”). That’s the method that leads to rote, shallow knowledge. More desirable is “You, Y’all, We.” The teacher presents a problem which students try to solve on their own (“You”). Then they meet in small groups to compare and discuss the solutions they’ve devised (Y’all). Finally, the groups share their ideas as a whole class (“We”).

Reform math comes around every 30 years, but never gains traction, writes Willingham.  Green blames “lack of support for teachers, and the fact that teachers must understand math better to use these methods.”

Green’s take is that if you hand down a mandate from on high “teach this way” with little training, and hand it to people with a shaky grasp of the foundations of math, the result is predictable; you get the fuzzy crap in classrooms that’s probably worse than the mindless memorization that characterizes the worst of the “I, We, You” method.

True enough, writes Willingham. But there’s more.

Green’s preferred method requires teachers to make quick decisions in class when a group gets on the wrong track. “Do you try to get the class to see where it went wrong right away, or do you let them continue, and play out the consequences of the their solution? Once you’ve decided that, what exactly will you say to try to nudge them in that direction?”

Japanese teachers discuss individual lessons in detail to prepare for this. They agree on the best way to teach each lesson down to what numbers are best for examples. And they expect all students to learn the same content with no regard for individual differences.

U.S. teachers are used to teaching autonomy.

‘Lesson study’ catches on in Chicago

“Lesson study” — a Japanese technique for honing teaching — is being tried in Chicago schools, notes the Hechinger Report.

Math teacher Michael Hock  teaches about the distributive property as 30 teachers observe. 

After a lesson is taught and students dismissed, teachers analyze what happened. They’re like scientists looking back at their experiment, figuring out what went right, what went wrong.“You can see [it] everywhere in Japan,” says (Toshiakira) Fujii. “In Tokyo in the case it’s Wednesday. Wednesday [we] usually finish at lunch time. Then one class stays, and the other classes dismiss. And then every teacher comes to that one class and observes. Even the school nurse and school counselor also join to watch the lesson—that’s our traditional way.”

One teacher asks why Hock didn’t ask students to draw a model of the equation. Another says,  “I didn’t see much evidence that they felt challenged.” adds another, citing his extensive notes.

The teachers discuss whether it was more successful to use concrete examples or abstract ones and whether the illustration Hock used helped students understand the concept being taught.

Hock says he loves the constructive feedback, but it requires a thick skin.