Wednesday 3 February 2016

Changing the UK's Teaching Culture

This week I have been reading another excellent book about mathematics teaching. This one is called The Teaching Gap by James W Stigler and James Hiebert and it's about a large-scale study that was carried out on year nine maths lessons in the United States, Germany, and Japan. The authors sought to find out why America was lagging behind in the international comparisons of school mathematics achievement, and why Japan was doing so well. All quotations in this post are from this book.

Let me quickly summarise what they found from studying dozens of filmed lessons from each country:

  • American lessons usually involved a teacher showing the class an example, followed by the students copying the method used to solve very similar problems. There was a big emphasis on learning definitions and procedures. Lessons always started by going through the previous homework.
  • German lessons involved very challenging mathematics, and usually involved the teacher going through a very difficult maths problem on the board with the class contributing. There was little time for practice in the lesson, and this was set as homework instead. Lessons always started by going through the previous homework.
  • Japanese lessons started by recapping the main point of the previous lesson (they did not see any homework in Japanese lessons) and then the teacher would give a problem for the students to solve without any kind of indication of a method. The students would then work to solve it, sometimes working in groups. The teacher would then ask students to explain their methods and the teacher would discuss the merits of each method. 

I would say that in the UK we are probably somewhere between Germany and the US. Clearly the Japanese method is working best, as the PISA results show that mathematics achievement is best in Japan. What's more interesting to me, however, isn't the Japanese approach to teaching maths, it's the Japanese approach to improving teaching and learning.

Stigler and Hiebert talk about the fact that teaching is a cultural activity, much like a family dinner. Cultural scripts are learned by observing and participating in the activity. We know how to behave in a Sunday lunch situation because it is cultural. We don't study this, we just absorb the knowledge from being there. For some people of the older generation, using a computer is not a cultural activity, and they had to sit down with a manual and learn how to use it. For children in this day and age, using a computer is a cultural activity, because it is something they have just picked up from observation and by being around computers often. Teaching is a cultural activity and it is learned from spending thirteen years in a classroom as a student. We only spend one year training to be a teacher formally, and this pales in comparison to the thirteen years we spend informally learning how to teach.

Cultural activities never suddenly change, they evolve slowly over time. The UK cannot suddenly say, "Hey, Japan teaches better than us, let's now teach like Japan!" This would be too inconsistent with our current mental cultural "script" that we have about teaching. Teaching systems are made up of elements that interact with each other. If we change one significant element, we can throw the system off-balance. The system then rebalances itself by shifting things around. The result is that the change that was made is adjusted so that the system can function as it did before, so no real change has taken place. An example of this would be for your school to tell all of the maths teachers they must use a problem-solving approach in every lesson. This huge change throws the teacher's system off-balance. The teacher then subconsciously redresses the balance to their system by giving too much direct instruction to the students whilst they are problem-solving. Thus the huge change looks like it has been implemented when in fact it has been completely swallowed up by the system and nothing has changed.

"It has now been documented in several studies that teachers asked to change features of their teaching often modify the features to fit within their pre-existing system instead of changing the system itself". 

The students are part of the system too, and they also have a script in their minds about what their role in the classroom is. When teachers change their teaching system, often they fail to account for the fact that their students have not changed their learning system. The students' internal systems will over-compensate to deal with the teacher's new system, leading to normality.

"Trying to improve teaching by changing individual features usually makes little difference, positive or negative. But it can backfire and leave things worse than before. When one or two features are changed, and the system tries to run as before, it can operate in a disabled state". 

Teachers can sometimes be sceptical of new ideas and reforms. This is because the cultural beliefs about teaching are so fully integrated into a teacher's mindset that they are not questioned or even noticed. There are some things we would not even consider changing about maths teaching in this country, and there are some things we may like to change but we view them as unchangeable. For example, in the UK we put our students into ability sets, often from year 7. Many teachers I have spoken to about the subject have said it would be impossible (or at least very very difficult) to teach mixed ability classes in maths. And yet, we're pretty much the only country in the world who doesn't have mixed ability classes!

So is it impossible for us to change our teaching in any significant way? No, we just have to approach change very differently.

Stigler and Hiebert suggest we start by becoming more aware of the cultural scripts we are using. We need to find out: what are our fundamental beliefs about mathematics teaching? We can change these beliefs and we can change our scripts, but only if we are aware of what they are like in the first place.

Despite years of reform, new textbooks, excellent materials provided by the government and mathematics teaching groups (like the Standards Unit), maths teaching in the UK hasn't really changed that much, and neither has our standing in the international league tables. However, in Japan, teaching has changed greatly over the past fifty years, and so has their students' achievement levels. This is because Japan uses a very different model for improving teaching. The Japanese system leads to slow, steady, maintained improvement over a long period of time.

Japanese maths teachers take responsibility for improving lessons. And the key word there is lessons: they do not strive to improve themselves as teachers, they strive to improve individual lessons. Lessons which can be used by the other teachers in their school and even in their country. This continuous professional development is called Kounaikenshuu, and consists of teachers working together in small groups within their school to plan a specific lesson together, in great depth, try the lesson out with a class and observe how it goes evaluate the lesson afterwards, then revise the lesson and teach it again, to a different class. Notice that the focus is on improving a lesson, not on improving an individual teacher. When you develop a good teacher, their impact will only last the forty years they teach for and only affect their students, whereas developing great lessons can have impact for hundreds of years and benefit thousands or even millions. The lesson observations in Japan are focused completely on the structure of the lesson and how the learning takes place. No judgement would be given to the teacher themself.

Because Japan has a national curriculum, and because Japanese students are taught in mixed ability classes, these lessons that are created can be used by many different teachers year in, year out. So it makes sense to invest heavily in getting the lessons right. These lessons will be improved every year through these research groups, and the teachers involved write reports that are published in compilations of lesson studies for other teachers to read. These are kept within the school unless they are particularly ground-breaking, in which case they are sent to the authorities to publish nationally.

"Lesson study is a process of improvement that is expected to produce small, incremental improvements in teaching over a long period of time. It is emphatically not a reformlike process". 

What I like so much about Kounaikenshuu is that the teachers feel as if they are contributing to the teaching profession itself, not just themselves. Yeah, it's great when you receive an "outstanding" rating, but isn't it better to feel as though you have improved mathematics learning in your entire country, even just a little bit?

This idea of lesson study does exist in the UK and is happening in many schools. But let's make sure that this is not just another fad that will be absorbed into our systems and thus make no difference to our practice. My school introduced lesson study last year as the main part of our CPD. However, this year it has vanished, which is a shame. I think it was a great idea and I'm so glad we did it, but I didn't engage in it fully, and I didn't get much (if anything) out of it, and I believe that is because of the following reasons:

  • The groups we met in were too large (eight to fifteen teachers I think). If we had met in threes or fours I think we could have had more focused discussions.
  • We worked on our own independent projects, not in groups. We observed each other in order to help each other with our projects, but it would have been more useful if we had worked on exactly the same project, as they do in Japan.
  • We were not in subject groups. In fact, we were encouraged to split the faculty up into different groups, the idea being we could then bring back to the department a variety of findings. But I think it would have been more effective if we were in small groups of teachers from the same department, and teaching very similar classes.
  • We were not focusing on lessons, but on general strategies. Some of our areas of research were: increasing independence, encouraging a growth mindset, using flipped learning, and closing the gap between Pupil Premium and non-Pupil Premium students. I feel that it would have been much more effective if instead we had been focusing on: how to teach adding negative numbers, or how to introduce differentiation to year 12s. By focusing on specific lessons that get taught again and again and again by many different teachers, our findings would be immediately applicable and have a wide impact.

Of course, you don't need a group in order to conduct lesson studies, although it will not be as effective alone. I have decided to start my own lesson studies, on a much smaller and less impressive scale. I have decided to plan one lesson each week in great depth (not my usual back-of-an-envelope planning) and then evaluate the lesson afterwards. I'm keeping the lesson plans and post-lesson notes in a special notebook (#stationerynerd) and I'm going to keep these notes to refer to the next time I come to teach the same topics. The problem is, of course, that as a teacher of setted children, my lesson plans aren't as widely applicable as they would be in Japan. This year I am teaching year seven set eight. Next year I will most likely be teaching set four. The year after that will be set two. The classes will probably respond completely differently to the same lessons. But I'm going to try. My plan is to change my practice one lesson at a time, using the Japanese art of Kounaikenshuu.


  1. Very interesting as ever Emma. It's helping me make sense of my situation - the school I taught in for four years was much more 'japanese' style of learning, group working and students developing their own methods. We even had 'lesson study' style ideas (not the actual processes which i have read about in a few places now but the essense of having some beautiful fully formed lessons which we all used in our somewhat mixed ability classes so it was the same for all year on year. Students fougt against doing lots of questions ("it's essentially just the same thing with the number changed/ the process reversed/ etc!") and every question needed a new twist to keep it interesting and challenging. My current school student fight against trying to think up a method themselves and fall back on "we haven't been taught that"/ "that was ages ago" every time something slightly new comes up. Book trawl/lesson feedback requests more copied examples in books explicit methods and advises to begin lessons with reviewing homework. I can see why it doesn't work for me - I'm suited to a different system! I feel that whole-class reviewing homework at the start of a lesson (as opposed to individual bookwork to reply to feedback) encourages poor attempts at the work, equating sucess to mindless copying, is insifficient for those who totally don't get it (after all, they didn't understand after a whole hour on it, how will 5-10 mins be sucessful) and is pointless for those who totally do get it. Likewise more examples and lots of copied examples replaces active thinking and eats up valuable learning time on something relatively mindless. Yet some teachers consider those both vital elements to their sucessful teaching....

    1. Totally agree with the reviewing homework thing. I used to be an advocate of starting every lesson with this (I even wrote a blog post on it!) but I have since seen the negatives of this, as you have written above.

    2. Oh, and these "beautifully formed lessons" you mentioned - would you like to email me those one day :)