Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Teaching Teachers.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Emily Hanford: And I’m Emily Hanford. Once upon a time, Deborah Loewenberg Ball was an elementary school teacher. And she was really good at it. Lots of people told her.
Deborah Loewenberg Ball: You’re just such a natural teacher.
Smith: She didn’t see it that way, though. She saw teaching as something really challenging that she was working hard at.
Hanford: But this idea that some people are just born to be teachers runs deep in American culture.
Smith: And Ball says there’s this other idea about teaching that runs deep, too.
Ball: Teaching is pretty easy. I mean, it’s little kids, or even high school kids. The content is not that hard. You know, seems fun. But it doesn’t seem hard.
Hanford: Now, I can tell you from personal experience this is not true. I taught when I was in my 20s. I wasn’t even a regular classroom teacher. I taught afterschool and summer reading classes to kids. And it was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.
Smith: I’ve also done some teaching, and I’ll agree: it’s not easy.
Hanford: Deborah Ball is now dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan and she’s on a bit of a mission to prove that teaching is complex work. She has this talk she does at policy conferences and education events. I’ve seen her do it a couple of times. Here’s a video of her doing it back in 2011.
[Sounds of crowd in ballroom]
Smith: To set the scene here a bit: we’re in a hotel ballroom. It is lunchtime. This is the keynote address at a conference about teaching. The room is full of teachers.
Hanford: Ball begins with a brief introduction. Then she puts a math problem up on the screen.
Smith: 49 times 25.
Ball (video): So I want you to solve it. What is the answer to 49 times 25?
Smith: The teachers get out their pens and pencils.
Ball (video): The good news is that in a room like this, people actually do the problem. You would not believe how many well-educated adults become, sort of turn into jelly at the prospect of having to do this problem. I’m serious. But I think, by now, most of you have figured out that the answer to the problem is 1,225. And what I then say to people is, “That is really nice that you know how to do that, and know what? You could not get off square one in a fourth-grade class.” Do you know why? Because when fourth-graders are learning to do multiplication, they don’t always get 1,225.
Smith: Ball displays three wrong answers that fourth-graders are likely to come up with. And she asks the audience: can you figure out how kids came up with those answers?
Hanford: The wrong answers are not random. Something specific went awry in the way kids were thinking about multiplication.
Smith: They misunderstood what carrying a number means, or they multiplied digits in an unusual order. You can find the incorrect answers on our website and see if you can figure out what the kids did wrong.
Hanford: When Ball asks the teachers in the room if they can see the flaws in mathematical thinking that led to the wrong answers, lots of hands go up.
Ball (video): When I’ve used this with people who are not teachers, you can talk to a room this big and have not one hand go up. People can’t do it. They have no idea. They’ve never thought about the fact that what you do when you’re teaching is you think about other people’s thinking. You don’t think about your own thinking; you think what other people think. That is really hard.
Smith: And you don’t just think about what one person is thinking. You think about what 20 or 30 people are thinking. Meanwhile, you have to keep their attention; monitor their behavior. There’s a lot you need to know how to do.
Hanford: But Ball says in the United States, teaching isn’t treated as a profession that requires extensive training, like law or medicine. Teaching is seen as something you kind of figure out on you own, using your knowledge and your talent.
Ball: I believe that there are some people who have a natural affinity for this just as there are for anything else in our world.
Smith: But, she points out, teaching is one of the largest occupations out there. There are 3.5 million teachers in the United States.
Ball: I can usually get an audience to laugh by saying, “I am pretty sure there are not close to 4 million people who are born to teach.” So, I’m willing to let it go that there are some. But it’s very, very, very few people. And the remainder of those people who are willing to be responsible for young people’s learning deserve to learn how to do this work well. And the children that they teach particularly deserve to have those teachers taught.
Smith: Research shows students with really good teachers learn significantly more than students with weak teachers. But Ball says teacher preparation programs are not teaching people the skills they need to be good teachers.
Hanford: But what exactly do you need to know and be able to do to help 20 fourth-graders when they give you wacky answers to 49 times 25? And how can teachers learn that?
Smith: Those are questions we’re going to explore over the coming hour.
Hanford: We’re also going to ask, what does it take to become a better teacher once you’ve started teaching?
Smith: First, though, let’s hear from three American teachers about what their initial training was like. These women went to different programs, in different parts of the country, at different times. None of them of them felt ready to teach. Emily has their story.
[Music out, Hanford takes over narration]
Emily Hanford: There are a lot of teacher preparation programs in the United States. But when you ask teachers this question:
Hanford (in classroom): Did you feel prepared to be a teacher?
There’s not a lot of variety in the response.
Jasmine Bankhead: Oooh, no. No, no, no.
Jasmine Bankhead went to what’s considered a “traditional” teacher prep program. That means it’s at a college or university. You typically take a few semesters of education classes as part of a degree program, then do some student teaching. Thalia Nawi went to a traditional prep program, too. She says the classes were pretty easy. In one, the professor started things off by saying:
Thalia Nawi: I just want you to know, everybody’s gonna get an A in the class.
She says the caliber of the coursework, the caliber of the faculty…
Nawi: It was embarrassing.
Traditional teacher prep programs in the United States have long had a reputation for being easy. That’s led some people to argue traditional preparation is a waste of time. Better to get smart people, give them a brief introduction to teaching, and get them into classrooms quickly so they can start figuring things out. That’s how so-called nontraditional teacher prep programs were born. Jennifer Green did one of those in 1991.
Green: So there were five weeks of sort of introduction to planning and introduction to classroom management.
Her classes were in the afternoons. In the mornings, she was a student teacher at a high school.
Green: And I was paired with a French teacher who was an extraordinary teacher.
Five weeks wasn’t enough to figure out how this teacher was doing what she was doing. But at least Green got to see great teaching. Not everyone does. On Jasmine Bankhead’s first day of student teaching…
Bankhead: My mentor teacher, she came in, we talked for a few minutes, and she was like, “OK, I’ll be in the library from now on.” And just like that, I was by myself. And although I complained a little bit to my student teaching supervisor, I still felt like I was expected to make it work.
You hear some version of this line a lot from teachers. “I was just expected to make it work.” After Jennifer Green’s five weeks of classes and student teaching, she got a job as a ninth-grade teacher at a huge New Orleans high school. She taught French and English.
Green: I would come in in the morning. I would close the door. I would struggle through the day. I would cry three times a week after my third period, which was my most challenging group of students. I would dust myself off. I would tell my fourth-period class that I had terrible allergies [laughs] and that’s why my eyes were so red.
All three of these women wanted to be good teachers. But they weren’t ready. Why weren’t they? Deborah Ball says there’s a fundamental problem with teacher training in America. We aren’t even sure what teachers need to know in order to be good teachers. Unlike in other professions, there’s no set of skills everybody agrees a teacher ought to have.
Ball: Not only many professions, but many skilled trades are able to identify the core set of skills, techniques, knowledge that are at the core of doing that work responsibly to be good enough to be at an entry level.
To be a plumber, for example, you need to know how to vent a sanitary drainage system. To be a pilot, you need to know how to do a crosswind approach and landing. And you have to prove you can do these things to get licensed.
Ball: This is true primarily at least across occupations and professions where people’s safety is at risk. And I do think it’s of great concern that we don’t as a culture appear to think that children are at risk when we don’t execute that same kind of responsibility.
So about 10 years ago, she and her colleagues at the University of Michigan decided to identify a core set of skills that people should have before they start teaching. Tim Boerst, chair of the elementary teacher education program, says the question they asked themselves was this:
Tim Boerst: When a teacher goes out into the field, what are they routinely going to be needing to do? And how are those routines, those particular practices, really important in the learning of students? Because there are all kinds of things that teachers routinely do. Which are the ones that we’re going to be picking that we really think advance the learning of academic subject matter?
They got a bunch of teachers and researchers together and came up with a list of the things all beginning teachers should know how to do. Their list had 84 things on it. That was clearly too many. They needed a set of skills they could actually teach in their two-year program. So they whittled their list down to 19 skills, and called them high-leverage teaching practices.
Ball: Examples include eliciting and interpreting student thinking.
This is Deborah Ball again.
Ball: So that’s the skill of, in one or two questions, being able to get a child to tell you what he or she just did. Another one would be managing and leading a class discussion that’s productive and actually gets to a point where children are actually learning something and it’s not just “talk, talk, talk,” or classroom management.
Now the specific skills you need for many occupations – like knowing how to vent a sanitary drainage system to be a plumber – these are skills that most people wouldn’t learn unless they were training for that occupation. Teaching is a bit different, because we were all students. We’ve spent years watching people teach. And we all do a certain amount of teaching in our everyday lives – giving people directions or showing someone how to do something. The University of Michigan wants to know, what do students coming into the teacher prep program already know about teaching? So, students take a test. But not a paper and pencil test. A test where they actually do some teaching.
Teacher: All right, can you do me a favor and look at this problem here.
This is a video. Two adults are in a conference room. One is a graduate student pretending to be an elementary school kid. The other is an undergraduate who has just started the elementary teacher prep program. She’s been told to play the role of teacher.
Teacher: All right, so can you show me how you got this 623 from this problem here?
Student: Yeah, well that’s actually not my answer.
Teacher: That’s not your answer?
The kid in this simulation has done an addition problem with three two-digit numbers. The way I was taught is add up all the numbers in the ones column, carry to the 10s column, add those up, done. The kid in the simulation has the right answer, but she’s used a different method.
Student: Oh, I did two 10s plus three 10s plus one 10.
Teacher: Ok, um…
One purpose of this simulation is to see how well the student coming into the teacher prep program can elicit and interpret the kid’s thinking. That’s one of those high-leverage teaching practices. And it’s hard to do. Here’s another pair playing kid and teacher.
Teacher: And that’s how you added two plus three plus one, you get six.
Teacher: And then you did the nine plus six plus eight to get 23.
Student: Uh-huh, that’s what I did.
Teacher: OK, great.
A lot of the college students end up doing what this one was just doing. Rather than eliciting the kid’s thinking, the “teacher” is telling the kid what she thinks the kid is thinking.
Boerst: And the kid just goes, “Uh-huh.”
That’s Tim Boerst, who was playing the kid in that last simulation. He has a name for what the teacher was doing. He calls it “filling in student thinking.”
Boerst: And that happens in classrooms all the time, where teachers make assumptions about what kids are thinking. Kids don’t really know how to say otherwise or maybe aren’t inclined to say otherwise. Like, “Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, ’cause I don’t really want to say what I was thinking.”
This can lead teachers to think kids get things when they don’t. Michigan has found that half of the students coming into its elementary teacher prep program do this “filling in of student thinking.”
Boerst: And so through these very early assessments, we’re able to see things that we want them to unlearn. Don’t be doing that filling of kid thinking, let’s try to figure out a different way to work on that. But also, things that they know about content or teaching that we can really build on.
The idea of simulated assessments is borrowed from the medical field. Medical students routinely practice their clinical skills by interacting with people pretending to be patients. Teacher education hasn’t traditionally had this kind of practice. When you did your student teaching, you’d be practicing on real kids. But at Michigan now, there’s lots of simulated practice before student teaching begins.
Intern: So today, I want to ask you to read this question again…
This is a video again. Students in the teacher prep program are doing something called “peer teaching.” They planned a lesson together and now they’re taking turns teaching it to each other and their instructor. The students are called interns, another nod to the medical training model. The intern in this video is teaching a first-grade science lesson about why plants need stems. It’s a little hard to hear.
Student: I think they help the plant eat.
Intern: They help the plant eat?
Here’s what just happened. One of the instructors, who’s pretending to be a first-grader, raised her hand and said she thinks stems help plants eat.
Betsy Davis: And that idea that plants eat food from the soil is a typical alternative idea or misconception that children will have.
This is Betsy Davis, one of the instructors.
Davis: So she was trying to introduce that misconception into the discussion. And so we saw the teacher needing to deal with that, and then figure out what was she going to do with it.
Intern: Does anybody have any other ideas?
The intern in the video seems a bit unsure what to do with this misconception about plant stems. It’s hard to figure out how to respond when a kid says something like this. I know this from my own brief experience as a teacher. Do you correct the mistake? That might shut down the discussion. Maybe it’s better to hear what all the kids are thinking first? But then you’re likely to have all kinds of wrong ideas out there. Kids might get confused. You might get confused. Suddenly the whole class is off in some other direction or tangent you didn’t plan for. When class is done, you’re not exactly sure what went wrong, but you’re glad it’s over.
Davis: Many of us have had that experience of, “OK, phew, that’s over, I don’t have to do it again. OK, done.”
But Davis says the University of Michigan is trying to teach interns to learn from their mistakes.
Davis: By having the interns really watch their own video of their teaching really carefully, they see things or they hear themselves saying things that don’t make sense or that are missed opportunities. And that’s one of the things we ask them to highlight in their videos is, what did you miss the chance to do that if you were doing this over, you would do?
The idea at Michigan now is to focus everything on practice. That’s a big change. Students used to spend a lot of time reading and talking about teaching, but rarely practicing it, says Deborah Ball.
Ball: The assignments in the past were much more reflection, analysis. In some sense we could have been misled by people getting good grades for writing well. And, although it may sound a little too extreme, I think we’re more interested now in whether they can do it well, not how well they can talk about it.
Of course, there’s typically some kind of student teaching in a teacher prep program. But Ball says that often means just sending teacher prep students out to classrooms without giving much thought to what they’re going to learn, or how they’re going to learn it. So Michigan has made changes in the way student teaching works, too.
[Sound of car doors slamming]
It’s a rainy morning in March, and three interns in the secondary teacher prep program have carpooled to a high school in Detroit. The interns are heading together to one teacher’s classroom. It didn’t used to work this way. Michigan used to place students in lots of classrooms all over the metropolitan area. But it was always a scramble to find schools willing to take them. And the interns didn’t always see effective teaching.
Elizabeth Moje: Our interns were actually starting to pick up some kind of negative practices from the field.
This is Elizabeth Moje, a professor who helps oversee the student teaching program. She wanted interns to see teachers who were really good at things like eliciting student thinking and leading class discussions. One day she and a colleague were talking and she was saying…
Moje: If only we could just send them to these three teachers, three people who we had worked with, and we knew what they did in their classrooms. And we kind of looked at each other and said, “Oh, we can!”
Now the teaching interns at Michigan rotate in groups to just a few different classrooms in a few different schools.
Spoerl: And then which one did you end up taking?
Intern: The Dred Scott.
Spoerl: Dred Scott.
This is another group of interns, at a school just outside Detroit. They’re working with a middle school social studies teacher.
Spoerl: And which one did you end up taking?
Intern: State’s rights.
Spoerl: State’s rights.
The social studies teacher is getting the interns set up to work with her students on an assignment about the causes of the Civil War.
Jesse Lu: OK, um, let’s go to the first question.
This is an intern named Jesse Lu, working with a group of students.
Lu: Why was slavery so important to the South?
Student: Um, it provided income and it was a way to trade goods and products so they can make money…
Lu is trying to get the students to understand that slavery gave some people social status, too. But he’s struggling. So Rebecca Gadd stops the discussion. Gadd is a graduate student at Michigan who works with the interns and is here in class today. She takes Lu aside for a quick timeout.
Gadd: OK, so what I would suspect is that the way that this is explained is a little bit abstract.
Gadd: So you need to think, are you going to ask or are you going to explain?
Gadd is a former middle school teacher. She wishes her training had included this kind of guided practice. Teachers can go through their entire training – their entire careers, even – without anyone taking them aside and offering in-the-moment feedback. She says Michigan got the idea for doing this from medical training.
Gadd: When aspiring doctors are practicing with patients, medical educators don’t wait until they’ve killed the patient to intervene and say, “You should have done this differently.” Instead, they intervene in the moment and say, “OK, we need to be doing this.”
Intern: What do you guys know about states’ rights when you’re thinking about it as a cause of the Civil War?
These Michigan students spend two semesters in classrooms, observing and working with kids one-on-one or in groups. The idea is a gradual assumption of responsibility. They don’t actually do what most people think of as student teaching until their third semester. That’s when they’re promoted from intern to resident, and they actually get to take charge and teach the class. Grace Tesfae is in her semester-long residency, getting ready to graduate from Michigan in a few months.
Hanford: So how do you feel about being a teacher next year?
Grace Tesfae: Um, I feel good about it. I’m excited about it, also scary. You’re by yourself, you’re planning everything. But I’m excited. I feel like I’ll be ready, hopefully, when the time comes.
Tesfae feels like she’ll be ready. But will she? It’s hard to know. Michigan doesn’t have much data yet. And it’s not clear what kind of data would provide a meaningful measure of what they’re trying to do. They could look at test scores of students in their graduates’ classrooms. That would tell them something. But Michigan wants to know if its teachers can do things like elicit and interpret student thinking. Test scores don’t tell you that. Michigan does have its interns do one of those teaching tests again. Remember that one with the math problem?
Teacher (Video): And then you did the nine plus six plus eight to get 23.
Student: Uh-huh, that’s what I did.
Teacher: OK, great.
They take a similar test about a year later. By the end of their first year in the program, most interns are no longer doing that thing where they fill in rather than elicit a student’s thinking. The Michigan interns show progress on other elements of those 19 high-leverage teaching practices, too. But who’s to say those 19 practices are the right ones to be focusing on? I asked Deborah Ball that question.
Ball: These are bets. These aren’t necessarily – they certainly aren’t the end, but they are the best bets we had. And we have to have a systematic way of revising those.
She wants help from other teachers and researchers. What do they think are the core skills of teaching? The idea is to come to a common understanding as a profession. Ball also wants a system to determine whether beginning teachers have mastered those skills. She’s started an organization to develop new licensing standards for teaching, something akin to what aviation and plumbing have. Ball’s ultimate goal is to make sure every first-year teacher in the United States is what she calls “a well-started beginner.” That’s what they’re aiming for at Michigan.
Ball: We’re really eyeing the first year, honestly. We feel like that’s our responsibility. We should be accountable for having people leave us who can hit the ground running. Really, the goal is that kids wouldn’t have first-year teachers who are completely underprepared. That is our goal. Our goal is that it wouldn’t be true anymore that you could just end up with a teacher who’s – this is her year to have a wreck year.
Ball feels particular urgency about this question because in the United States, it’s poor kids who are most likely to get first-year teachers. Ball says to improve education for all kids, and especially for poor kids, first-year teachers have to be better.
Smith: That’s Emily Hanford. I’m Stephen Smith. And you’re listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Teaching Teachers.” So Emily, Deborah Ball is trying to prevent the problem we heard about earlier – new teachers who get classrooms of their own without having the skills they need to help kids learn. But is a “well-started beginner” really a good teacher?
Hanford: Probably not as good as she will be. There’s research that shows teachers typically improve a lot in their first few years. But after that, they seem to stall out.
Smith: They stop getting better?
Hanford: According to this research, after about three to five years, most American teachers are about as good as they’re going to get. If you’re not a great teacher after a few years in the classroom, you might as well quit or be fired. That’s the thinking in the United States, anyway. But not all countries see it that way. In Japan, you’re not considered an expert teacher until you’ve been in the classroom for 10 years.
Smith: Why such a different view?
Hanford: In Japan, there’s a very strong belief in the idea of continuous improvement. You’re expected to do most of your learning on the job.
Akihiko Takahashi: Japanese say, they say, after you graduate and then get the certificate, you can be a teacher. However, to become a good teacher, you have to work continuously. Otherwise you cannot be a good teacher.
Hanford: The Japanese have developed a system for helping teachers improve that’s unlike anything we’ve had in the United States. But it’s something some American schools are now adopting.
Smith: Coming up, we will learn about this Japanese method of teacher improvement. And we’ll visit a Chicago school that’s doing it.
Hanford: There’s more about this story on our website, AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can watch Deborah Ball go through the math problem we heard at the beginning of the program and see if you can figure out why kids got it wrong. You can also read more about the high-leverage teaching practices.
Smith: We want to know what impact American RadioWorks stories have on you. Has this documentary or another that we’ve made changed how you think about an issue? Has it led you to do something, like start a conversation or try to change something in your community? Go to AmericanRadioWorks.org and let us know.
Support for “Teaching Teachers” comes from the Spencer Foundation, Lumina Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. More in a moment from APM, American Public Media.
Stephen Smith: From APM, American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, “Teaching Teachers.” I’m Stephen Smith.
Emily Hanford: And I’m Emily Hanford. Back in the mid-1990s, a videographer was sent out to public schools across the United States. His job was to record eighth-grade math lessons.
TIMSS U.S. video: Vertical angles. What is the angle that is vertical to the 70-degree angle?
Smith: The videographer recorded 81 different lessons. The schools and the teachers were chosen randomly.
Hanford: It was a study of teaching. James Hiebert worked on the study.
James Hiebert: Our goal was to find out what an average eighth-grader would experience when they got up in the morning, went to their local school and had math class. What did that look like?
TIMSS U.S. video: When I intersect lines, I get vertical angles, right? Look at your definitions. I gave them to you. You have them there. You can look ’em up.
Smith: The teacher in this video is standing at the blackboard. The students are in rows, with their notebooks out.
TIMSS U.S. video: Ah Claudia, two supplementary angles add up to how many degrees? Supplementary. 180. How can you remember…
Hanford: Watching this video takes me right back to my own days in public school in the 1980s. My math classes looked a lot like this one.
Smith: Mine too, back in the 1970s.
Hanford: Now when the researchers set out to do this video study, they weren’t sure what they’d find, says James Hiebert.
Hiebert: Never before had a random sample of classrooms been filmed with individual lessons in multiple classrooms.
Smith: In other words, no one really knew what American teaching looked like. The routine for most teachers was go in your classroom, shut your door; you’re on your own.
Hanford: Typically, the only people who saw you teach were your students, maybe a student teacher or a classroom aide.
Smith: You might think this would lead to lots of variety in American classrooms – teachers coming up with their own techniques, doing things in their own way.
Hanford: But what was remarkable about the 81 videos was how similar they were. Across the United States, eighth-grade math was being taught pretty much the same way everywhere.
Smith: But in Japan, math classes were much different.
[Sound of class in TIMSS Japan video]
Hanford: When the videographer was traveling across the United States taping eighth-grade math classes, another videographer was doing the same thing in Japan, as part of the same study.
[Teacher in Japan video describes word problem]
Smith: The Japanese teacher is standing at the front of the room. The students are in rows. Just like in the American classroom.
Hanford: But the work the Japanese students do is quite different.
Smith: Class begins with the teacher reading a word problem.
Hanford: It’s about two brothers who go to a temple every day to pray for their sick mother. Each morning, each brother puts a coin from his wallet into the offertory box.
Smith: The older brother has 18 coins of one denomination in his wallet. The younger brother has 22 coins of a lower denomination in his. The older brother has more money. But the younger brother has more coins.
Hanford: Here’s the problem students have to figure out: if each brother puts one coin in the offertory box every morning, how many days does it take for the younger brother to have more money left in his wallet?
Hiebert: The ultimate goal of this lesson is to think about inequalities and how you would express them.
Hanford: This is James Hiebert again. I visited him in his office at the University of Delaware, and we watched this video together. After the Japanese teacher reads the word problem, he gives students 15 minutes to work on it on their own.
[Video continues in background]
Hiebert: And now he’s going around and he’s looking at each person’s work, very carefully. I mean he’s bending over, his face is almost on the desk. But he’s not telling the student how to do the problem, he’s figuring out what they’re doing. And he’s asking them questions, like, “Could you think of doing it another way?”
Smith: And that’s the point of this lesson. Students come up with as many ways as they can to solve the problem. Then they present their methods, and the teacher guides the class in a discussion about the mathematics behind each method. They spend almost the entire 52-minute class period on this one word problem.
Hanford: When the researchers watched all of the videos that came in from Japan, they noticed that – like in the United States – all of the teachers were teaching pretty much the same way.
Smith: But they weren’t teaching the way American teachers were. In the United States, math teachers tended to follow a pattern of “I do, we all do, then you do.” In other words, the teacher shows the students what to do. They all do it together. And then the students do it on their own.
Hanford: In Japan, it was flipped. First, students grapple with problems on their own. Then the teacher guides them through a deeper understanding of the methods and the mathematics.
Smith: It’s a very different way to learn math. It helps students get beyond just a procedural understanding and towards a conceptual understanding. Catherine Lewis learned this first hand. She’s an American education researcher who was in Japan working on a book at about the same time the videographer was taping those lessons.
Catherine Lewis: I was in Japanese classrooms, sitting for months on end studying children’s classroom management.
Hanford: Her book had nothing to do with math, but sitting for hours in Japanese classes, Lewis realized she was learning all kinds of interesting things she’d never thought about before.
Lewis: I noticed, for example, that there are many ways to figure out what’s the area of a parallelogram if you simply know the area of a rectangle. And, when I was in school that had just been taught to me as a formula. I’d never been expected to sort of invent that myself. And it opened up a whole new world of mathematics to me.
Hanford: She asked Japanese teachers, how did you learn to teach this way? And they all said…
Lewis: Oh, these teaching strategies came from the United States. And I was dumbfounded, ’cause I had never seen these in U.S classrooms.
Smith: But these teaching strategies had come from the United States. American researchers had been advocating for them since the 1980s. But the strategies hadn’t made it into classrooms.
Hanford: This was really curious. Education ideas developed in the U.S. weren’t being used by American teachers, but they were being used in Japan.
Lewis: So I asked teachers, “Well, how did you personally learn to teach this way?” And they all said, “Lesson study, lesson study.”
Smith: Lesson study.
Akihiko Takahashi: Jugyokenkyu
Hanford: This is Akihiko Takahashi, who was a teacher in Japan in the 1980s.
Takahashi: Jugyo means teaching and learning. Kenkyu means study or research.
Smith: Lesson study is a process Japanese teachers use to improve their teaching.
Hanford: Turns out math lessons in Japan used to look a lot like lessons in the U.S. Lots of memorizing terms and practicing procedures.
Smith: But when new ideas about teaching and learning are introduced, Japanese teachers have a way to learn those new ideas and practice them.
Hanford: American teachers don’t.
Smith: Some people are trying to change that, by bringing Japanese lesson study to the United States. Emily has the story.
[Emily Hanford takes over narration]
Hanford: Long before he knew anything about lesson study, Tom McDougal knew he needed something to help him be a better teacher. He’d studied engineering at Dartmouth College. Graduated in 1984. Got a job teaching math at a high school.
Tom McDougal: And while I was there I learned the difference between being really good at mathematics, which I was, versus being able to help students learn mathematics, which I wasn’t.
So, McDougal started seeking out math conferences and workshops. Some of them weren’t very good, but…
McDougal: Some of them I would really say, “Wow, if I could take this idea back to my classroom, my kids would do better.” The problem was, what happened when I got back to my classroom.
The idea made so much sense when he was sitting in the workshop. But when he tried to do it, all kinds of questions would come up. And there was no one to turn to for help. Like most American teachers at the time, he was the only adult in his classroom. He spent pretty much his entire workday in front of kids, teaching. There was no time to reflect. No time to go watch other teachers’ classes, see how they were doing things. No one even talked about teaching. It was lonely and frustrating.
McDougal: At the end of the day, I’m sitting there at my desk, I’m discouraged because my lessons didn’t go well. I’ve got this mountain of paperwork that, you know, is gonna be even more discouraging because I’m gonna look at what the kids did and see that it’s a mess.
And the great ideas he learned about at those math workshops?
McDougal: Most of those ideas never really got implemented. Never even got tested out.
McDougal really wanted to be a great teacher. But the system seemed to be working against him. So he quit.
Not every system works this way. In Japan, the system is set up to get teachers to work together. Rather than sitting alone in their classrooms after school, Japanese teachers sit together. Their desks are all in one room, encouraging them to talk and share ideas. And unlike in American schools, where teachers spend most of their school day in front of kids, teachers in Japan have lots of time built into their workweek to collaborate and plan. And they have lesson study. Here are the basics of how it works. Teachers come together and identify a teaching problem they want to solve. Maybe their students are struggling with adding fractions.
Takahashi: That might be a topic for you to study.
Japanese teacher Akihiko Takahashi has been through lesson study hundreds of times. He says after teachers decide on a topic, they do some research.
Takahashi: You do some groundwork, just like a researcher. What the research said, what curriculum said.
Teachers gather articles on why students struggle with adding fractions. They learn about the latest methods for teaching fractions.
Takahashi: Then, design the lesson.
Teachers create a lesson plan together.
Takahashi: The lesson plan is not a typical lesson plan. Lesson plan is more like their proposal, their research proposal for teaching.
It’s like their hypothesis. If we teach this lesson in this way, we think students will understand fractions better.
Takahashi: Then, one of the teacher teach the lesson.
One teacher teaches the lesson and the other teachers watch. But they don’t focus on the teacher; they focus on the students. How are the students reacting? What are they understanding or misunderstanding? The focus is on the lesson. In the United States, we tend to think about improving teachers – recruiting better ones, firing bad ones. But the Japanese think about improving teaching. It’s a very different idea, and one that a growing number of American schools are trying to embrace by doing lesson study.
[School bell rings]
It’s a Friday afternoon in January. We’re at the O’Keeffe School of Excellence, a public school on Chicago’s south side. Students are going home for the weekend, except for one class of third-graders. They’re staying after for a special math class.
Melissa Warner: When I pass you in, please silently find your nametag and put your two hands on your chair.
This is their teacher, Melissa Warner. The kids have just had a quick snack of pizza, and now they’re filing back into their classroom, which is full of visitors. The visitors applaud as the kids enter.
This is what’s known as a public research lesson. Three teachers have been working together on a lesson plan for months, and today Ms. Warner will teach the lesson. The audience includes teachers from this school, plus teachers and an assistant principal from another Chicago school. How’s Ms. Warner feeling?
Warner: I’m excited. I feel like we’ve put a lot of work into it. We really want feedback. And I think we’re ready!
[To the crowd] Have a seat…
Warner has never taught in front of a crowd, but she seems unfazed by the people standing around the room. They’ve got clipboards in their hands, ready to take notes.
Warner: Mathematicians, please open your math journals and find our new learning from yesterday.
This week in class, the kids have been learning how to calculate the area of a rectangle. Today, they’re going to get a different shape. Ms. Warner gives them each a piece of graph paper with a fat L-shaped figure on it.
Warner: I want you to start thinking about some ways you could find the area.
Ms. Warner sets her timer. She’s going to give her third-graders five minutes to work on the problem by themselves. As they work, she walks around the room, taking notes on what they’re doing, occasionally asking a kid to explain her thinking.
Girl: And I added three plus three plus…
The visitors in the room are also taking notes on what the kids are doing. One of them is Japanese teacher Akihiko Takahashi. He now lives in the United States, and works to help American teachers learn lesson study. Takahashi says walking around a classroom, closely observing what kids are doing, and getting them to explain their thinking has a name in Japanese. There’s actually a phrase for it.
Takahashi: This is called Kikan-Shido. Kikan means between desks. Shido means teaching.
So, teaching between the desks. In Japanese, there are a bunch of words and phrases that describe specific things teachers do to help children learn. This vocabulary about teaching comes from years of doing lesson study. We don’t have this kind of vocabulary in the United States.
Warner: Jimetta, Jamar, Tanaya, Dre’Shawn, bring your journals. Green table, join us on the rug.
The kids have finished working on their own and now Ms. Warner is calling them to the rug at the front of the class, where they’re going to talk about how they did the problem.
Warner: Let’s see. Jimetta, can I see your journal? And could you just explain to us what you started to kind of draw in your shape?
The kids start explaining their methods. Pretty quickly, though, there’s confusion.
Warner: What’s he trying to say? I’m confused.
Some students calculated the perimeter instead of the area. Ms. Warner knows some students did it right. She calls on one of them.
Warner: Dre’Shawn, bring up what you were just talking to Kenneth about.
Dre’Shawn: Kenneth and I said, um, that you don’t supposed to count all the sides, you only supposed to count the vertical and the horizontal.
Kids: Yeah! Exactly!
Some kids seem to be getting Dre’Shawn’s explanation, but many of them still look confused. There’s a lot of back and forth about the difference between area and perimeter, and Dre’Shawn is getting antsy because he wants to show the class how he found the area of the L. Finally, Ms. Warner calls on him.
Warner: All right, so you put a line right here, Dre’Shawn. And then what’d you do after that?
Dre’Shawn: I put a short line where the white part at.
Warner: Oh yeah, and you did, it looks like 3 centimeters here…
Dre’Shawn has split the L into two rectangles and calculated the area of each one.
Warner: Equals 12. Ooh! And then I see – oh, and look what you did. Oh, and then I see – what’s he doing?
[Kids “ooh” and “ahh”]
This seems to be a breakthrough moment. To see if kids really get it, Ms. Warner asks them to turn to the person next to them and talk about Dre’Shawn’s method. The class erupts into conversation.
Kid: But he just not using the bottom one and I don’t really get that.
Kid: Why you don’t get it?
Kid: Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to say.
Kid: I still don’t get why he should use the bottom.
The conversation is a bit all over the place. Ms. Warner calls the class back to focus on her.
Warner: Great conversations. All right, Tanaya, explain what’s going on here.
Tanaya: So, me and Nasir had a disagreement. ‘Cause he think Dre’Shawn should do the bottom but I think he shouldn’t, ’cause you only should do two of ’em.
Warner: You’re talking about the two shapes…
Tanaya is having a hard time explaining what she doesn’t understand. Ms. Warner tries to interpret and steer the conversation in a productive direction, but it’s hard. A bunch of kids are still stuck on perimeter. Others have split the shape in two but don’t realize you have to add the area of the two rectangles together. And some insist you need to multiply the area of the two rectangles. Warner looks a bit stressed, the visitors at the back of the room are scribbling away on their clipboards, and when it’s all over and the kids have gone home, Warner declares:
Warner: I feel like that was so hard. That was the hardest lesson I’ve ever taught.
Warner is kind of down on herself. She thinks most of the kids didn’t get it. But now this really interesting thing happens. The teachers do a post-lesson discussion where they share their notes about what they noticed the kids doing.
Angela Flores: Tracy, I was listening to him when he was talking on the rug. He had really good ideas but he wasn’t able to articulate them. He even went as far to separate that shape into three. But when called on, he froze up and he couldn’t say anything that he was thinking.
This is Angela Flores. She’s one of the teachers who helped plan today’s lesson. She and the other observers have very specific things to say about what individual kids were doing. It’s the kind of information one teacher leading a lesson could never gather on her own, and it helps Warner see that more of the kids may have gotten it than she realized. This prompts a discussion about how the lesson might be structured differently next time. Maybe it’s not a good idea to bring kids to the rug to talk. Maybe that was too confusing and chaotic. The post-lesson discussion focuses on whether the lesson worked, not whether the teacher did a good job. Warner says lesson study has helped her think about teaching in a new way.
Warner: It was about me before. And it was like, these are the things I’m gonna teach you, and this is my end result. And you didn’t think about how students were gonna interpret that.
Jasmine Bankhead: The goal is to improve teaching overall in our building.
This is the school’s principal, Jasmine Bankhead. She’s one of the teachers we met in the first part of the program. She brought lesson study to her school because she doesn’t want her teachers to feel like they have to figure everything out on their own, the way she did.
Bankhead: I wish that this type of development was available when I was in the classroom. I know that as I plan and budget that I have to make room for this type of collaboration in my school, so that my teachers can continue to grow.
It’s not easy to make lesson study work. American schools aren’t really set up for it. Principals like Bankhead have to rearrange schedules and hire subs to give teachers time to collaborate and watch each other teach. There are lots of stories of American schools where teachers got lesson study going, then a new principal came in with a different idea about how to do things, and lesson study fell apart. James Hiebert says one of the challenges with lesson study is that it’s a long and intensive process. It may not produce the kind of quick results American schools are looking for.
Hiebert: We are so addicted to quick fixes, if it doesn’t fix things in two years, it’s not worth it.
Hiebert is the one who did the video study that revealed such big differences between teaching in the United States and teaching in Japan. He attributes much of that difference to lesson study.
Hiebert: One great question to ask is: If we wanted to be sure that we were teaching better 20 years from now than we are today – I mean in every classroom, in the average classroom in the United States – what would we do tomorrow? That’s, I think, a much more sensible approach. But that’s not an American idea. And it’s really hard to convince Congress or policymakers or anybody of that approach.
Hiebert says what’s most profound about lesson study is the way it shifts the focus from teachers to teaching. He says that’s a difficult shift for Americans to make.
Hiebert: Everything we do in the U.S. is focused on the effectiveness of the individual. Is this teacher effective? Not, are the methods they’re using effective, and could they use other methods?
Lewis: And I think that’s what we miss in U.S. school improvement. We think that one teacher, working really hard, can change everything.
Researcher Catherine Lewis says there are lots of excellent teachers in the United States.
Lewis: But by and large, their excellence is a light under a barrel. Others aren’t able to learn from them.
She says lesson study is different from other approaches to professional development because teachers are able to learn from each other while at the same time learning the latest ideas and teaching methods through their research process. Plus, lesson study gives teachers a way to practice what they learn in a way that going to a workshop does not. Lewis has been helping American teachers do lesson study for 15 years. She says teachers like the way lesson study makes them feel like they’re part of a team. Here’s what one teacher told her.
Lewis: I asked, what’s the biggest change with lesson study? And she said, the talk around the water cooler has really changed. We used to hide it when we had a failure. And everybody has failures in teaching, but we used to hide them. And now, we’re perfectly comfortable saying, “You know, I don’t have a good way of teaching division with remainders. What do you do? Can I come see it in your classroom?”
It’s hard to know exactly how widespread lesson study is in the United States. Lewis estimates thousands of American teachers are doing it. There’s even a whole state that’s trying it – Florida, which actually got federal funding to encourage schools to adopt lesson study. One of the things several teachers told me is that lesson study makes their work more interesting. It’s fun to get together with your colleagues and talk about how kids learn. But when you’re alone, teaching is often just frustrating. Tom McDougal, the math teacher who quit, believes his teaching career would have been different if the schools he worked in had been set up more like Japanese schools, where teachers have their desks in the same room and have time built in for lesson study.
McDougal: I think back to my days of teaching and I think about how lonely I felt most days. And I contrast that to what it would be like if I were sitting in a room with my colleagues right at my elbow. I think I’d probably be teaching today if I were in that circumstance.
But McDougal is still working in education. He learned about lesson study after he’d quit teaching. He was so excited about it that he started an organization to help American teachers learn to do it. It’s the organization that helped the school in Chicago start lesson study. McDougal has no plans to go back to teaching. Instead, he’s hoping to change things for the next generation of American teachers.
Smith: That’s American RadioWorks correspondent Emily Hanford. I’m Stephen Smith and you’re listening to “Teaching Teachers.” So Emily, one of the first questions I have for you is – what do we know about whether lesson study actually works? Does it improve teaching?
Hanford: There is some evidence that it does. A recent review of research on professional development looked at 643 studies on approaches to improving math teaching. Only two of those approaches were found to have positive effects on students’ math proficiency, and one of them was lesson study.
Smith: Wow. Sounds like a lot of stuff out there isn’t working.
Hanford: I think that’s true. But it’s also true that in education, it’s actually quite difficult to prove whether something is working. We think that because we have all this test score data, we can come up with proof, but it’s much more complicated than that.
Smith: And a lot depends, right? I mean, lesson study might work really well in one place because of the teachers involved or the way they do it, but say in another school, it might not be so effective.
Hanford: That is definitely true, with everything in education.
Smith: Now, one of the things I was wondering is, how did the Japanese learn to do lesson study in the first place? Where’d they get the idea?
Hanford: Amazingly, it came from the United States. Back in the late 19th century, when the Japanese first started a public school system, the government sent teachers to the U.S. to learn western teaching methods. And in American schools of education at the time there was a popular method called the “criticism lesson.” Students training to be teachers would teach a lesson and their classmates would watch and provide feedback. Kind of like lesson study. Kind of like the peer teaching those students were doing in Michigan, too.
Smith: And do the Japanese do lesson study just with math? I mean, we heard a lot of math in this program.
Hanford: In Japan, teachers do lesson study in all subjects. And there is lesson study in other subjects in the U.S., too, but it’s mostly math.
Smith: So Emily, what did you find most interesting about lesson study?
Hanford: I’m intrigued by the way it flips certain ideas that run very deep in the United States. The way it shifts the focus from teachers to teaching. The way it gets teachers to think less about what they’re doing and more about what kids are learning. The way it emphasizes that teaching is about hard work, not inborn talent. It also flips the publishing process. In the United States, publishers put out textbooks and curriculum that schools and districts adopt. In Japan, it’s the other way around. Publishers print the lessons that teachers have developed through lesson study. So in Japan, the curriculum is coming from the teachers. It’s not something imposed on them from above.
Smith: Do you see lesson study as something that more American schools are gonna embrace?
Hanford: I see two things pushing American schools in the direction of lesson study, or something like it. One is Common Core. As you know, Common Core is a new set of educational standards that teachers across the country need to learn. And that’s exactly what lesson study is designed to do: help teachers learn new things. One of the teachers in Chicago told me she couldn’t imagine learning Common Core without lesson study.
Smith: What’s the other thing you see that lesson study has going for it in the U.S.?
Hanford: Well, I think the culture around teaching is changing. It’s not as much about going into your classroom and figuring things out on your own anymore. There are lots of American schools doing things like arranging for teachers to have their planning periods together, and bringing in instructional coaches to help them develop, get better at their jobs. But there are still a lot of things in the structure of the American school day that make it hard for teachers to do things like watch each other teach.
Smith: In this program we’ve heard about ideas to change both how teachers are initially trained and how teachers learn on the job. Do you think that there’s momentum to change both of those in a significant way?
Hanford: I’d say we’re hearing a lot more about teacher preparation these days. But I think what the debate about teacher preparation often misses is the question Deborah Ball is asking. What are the skills teachers should learn, and how would we know teachers had learned those skills? I also think a narrow focus on teacher preparation reinforces the idea that initial training is the most important part, when on-the-job learning is probably just as important. Perhaps it’s even more important if what we want are teachers who will keep getting better at their jobs over the course of a long career.
Smith: Now to my mind, what seems to be at the core of all this is what we talked about at the beginning of the program. And that is, that helping kids learn is really complex work.
Hanford: It’s really hard. And to change the way we think about training teachers and helping them get better, I think we first need to acknowledge that teaching is complex, that it requires a great deal of professional skill, and that people who want to be teachers need to learn those skills. The idea that millions of people are born to teach or they’ll just figure most of it out on their own is leaving too much to chance.
Smith: Thanks, Emily.
Hanford: You’re welcome.
Smith: That’s correspondent Emily Hanford. And I’m Stephen Smith. You’ve been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, “Teaching Teachers.” It was produced by Emily and edited by Catherine Winter. The Web producer is Andy Kruse. Mixing by Craig Thorson. The American RadioWorks team includes Suzanne Pekow, Samara Freemark, Sasha Aslanian, Ryan Katz, Peter Clowney and Ellen Guettler.
We have more about this story on our website, where you can find links to the videos of math classes in Japan and the U.S., and where you can read more about lesson study. Find us at AmericanRadioWorks.org. We’re also on Facebook at American.RadioWorks and Twitter at AmRadioWorks.
We’d love to hear what this documentary made you think about. Will you be sharing it with friends or colleagues? Did it change your ideas about teaching? Let us know at AmericanRadioWorks.org.
Support for this program comes from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Lumina Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Spencer Foundation. A note of disclosure: Deborah Ball is chair of the Spencer Foundation board, and the Spencer Foundation has given money in the past to support research by Akihiko Takahashi, but the foundation had no involvement in our coverage.
This is APM, American Public Media.