The Teaching Gap

by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, The Free Press, New York 1999

Although this book discusses the teaching of mathematics in Japan, Germany and the U.S., it’s pertinent to the Judo community because it addresses a problem we face in our sport, namely the use of faulty methodologies of instruction. The authors claim that most efforts to improve education fail because they simply don’t have any impact on the quality of teaching inside classrooms. Teaching, they argue, is cultural. American teachers aren’t incompetent, but the methods they use are severely limited, and American teaching has no system in place for getting better. It is teaching, not teachers, that must be changed.


We believe that these highly visible efforts, though well intentioned, miss the mark, because they leave out the one ingredient most likely to make a difference in students’ learning: the quality of teaching. Reducing the class size from thirty to twenty certainly will make teachers happier. But if teachers continue to use the same methods they used with larger classes, learning opportunities for students will change little.

The problem, I [Robert Slavin] would argue, is that reforms so often debated in the media, in the White House, in Congress, and in statehouses across the country do not touch on the changes needed to fundamentally reform America’s schools…These reforms ignore the basic truth. Student achievement cannot change unless America’s teachers use markedly more effective methods..

The fact that teaching is a cultural activity explains why teaching has been so resistant to change. But recognizing the cultural nature of teaching gives us new insights into what we need to do if we wish to improve it.

To really improve teaching we must invest far more than we do now in generating and sharing knowledge about teaching. This is another sort of teaching gap. Compared with other countries, the United States clearly lacks a system for developing professional knowledge and for giving teachers the opportunity to learn about teaching. American teachers, compared with those in Japan, for example, have no means of contributing to the gradual improvement of teaching methods or of improving their own skills. American teachers are left alone, an action sometimes justified on grounds of freedom, independence, and professionalism.

Japan has succeeded in developing a system that not only develops teachers but also develops knowledge about teaching that is relevant to classrooms and sharable among the members of the teaching profession. Not only do lesson-study groups operate in individual schools, but the process of designing and critiquing research lessons is an integral part of the larger professional activity of both teachers and researchers.

We believe, however, that attacking the problem simply by arbitrarily assigning professional characteristics to teachers mistake the trappings for the profession. In fact, a profession is created not by certificates and censures but by the existence of a substantive body of professional knowledge, as well as a mechanism for improving it, and by the genuine desire of the profession’s members to improve their practice.

We can now see most of our nation’s problems with teaching arise from the script for teaching that has evolved in this country and from the absence of a mechanism for changing it.

Celebrating individual innovations is fine, but individual innovations will never improve teaching in the average classroom. They cannot do so because they do not change standard practice. And if we hope to improve the practice of the profession, it is the standard, common practice that must improve. Sporadic end runs around the standard methods are not the answer; what is required is a steady, continuing effort to gradually improve the standard ways in which we teach.

Leave a Reply

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