Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why Elsie Kitching might like The Teaching Gap (Book Review)

by Anne White

The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert. Copyright 1999, Free Press (a division of Simon and Schuster, Inc.); new edition with Afterword, 2009.

In 1928, Elsie Kitching, a friend and associate of Charlotte Mason, wrote:

"It has been said, on the other hand, that the one effort of attention and the one narration implies that the child must never do anything a second time, which is again a very much mistaken interpretation of Miss Mason's teaching. The second time may, as I have said, come in the way of composition later on; it probably comes again in the end of term examination, and certainly, if the child is interested, frequently in after life. There are also in the upper Forms the interesting sidelights which one book or subject throws upon another, sometimes covering the same ground from another point of view.  This is a subject on which we need to think clearly, for we are all of us inclined to attack any point of view from the one point with which we have to deal, but we need to take a bird's-eye view of the whole ground covered by any problem, lest we should not see the wood for the trees."  -- "Concerning "Repeated Narration," by Elsie Kitching, The Parents' Review, Volume 39, no. 1, January 1928, pgs. 58-62; emphasis mine
In another PR article, Miss Kitching emphasizes that since the PNEU methods are methods, not systems, it is important that we begin with the philosophical principles behind the methods, rather than the other way around.  She says something that might surprise homeschoolers who have spent many hours trying to figure out "the CM way to do things": that there is no one, absolute, foolproof CM-approved way to teach any particular subject, to do any particular activity--and she refers specifically to the question of how to teach reading. Yes, the PNEU provided booklists and timetables, marked exams, organized meetings, and provided many years of Parents' Review articles to try to answer the many questions that parents asked.  Yes, Charlotte Mason wrote about how to keep a nature notebook and do a picture talk. But in the end, a good teacher, working on the right educational principles, providing a generous curriculum, respecting the minds of the students, will probably do a good job overall without having to have every last instruction spelled out.
I found that second article particularly interesting, because I just finished reading a much more recent book that agrees, in many ways, with the "big picture" that Elsie Kitching describes.  In the early 1990's, a project called the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) videotaped eight-grade mathematics classes in the United States, Germany, and Japan.  The book The Teaching Gap is not, as its subtitle might suggest, a collection of hints from teachers around the world, but a description and summary of what the researchers found out during that project.  There were a total of 231 classes chosen randomly and filmed during a "typical" lesson; then the videos were studied by an international team of researchers.  They looked for patterns within the three countries, and for differences between them that might account for generally higher math test scores, for example, in Japan.  Were the Japanese teachers doing something special that the German and American teachers had missed?  Were there things that the American educational system could incorporate into math classes?

To give a short answer, the researchers (at that point) found a number of differences between the three countries.  Not every Japanese or German teacher taught the same way, and not every teacher taught the same way all the time, but there were enough common factors to establish some patterns.  Much of the difference came down to the facts that the best teachers allowed students to engage directly with challenging mathematics problems, and that the best lessons seemed to be presented as a sort of story--not in a literary sense, but as something planned with an opening, a middle, and an end, and periods of seatwork or group activity were part of that story as well.  The researchers, in the original book, spent quite a bit of time discussing one particular, uniquely Japanese aid to teaching: teams of teachers would regularly meet together to plan specific lessons, from beginning to end, down to the last example. Since they had a national curriculum, this meant that a local method for teaching "grade 2 math, chapter 2" or whatever could be passed on to teachers in other areas.  As well as adding to what you might call the "lesson bank," this sort of activity seemed to be particularly important in teacher development and training.  The teachers were working together to improve the students' experiences in every subject, and they themselves were learning to be better teachers by participating in these projects.  Their own experience was valued, because they were the people on the front lines.

The final question of the book was not whether the Americans should just adopt particular Japanese or even German teaching methods, for instance, getting together to plan lessons.  The researchers agreed that it would not be enough for teachers in one country to attempt to superficially imitate, or to be told to imitate, exactly what was done in another place, without changing the whole structure of education first.  In other words, principles, not surface methods, were what mattered, and one needed to be in place before much change could be seen in the other.  They also agreed that the focus needed to shift from "teachers" to "teaching," and that teaching could improve only if there was acknowledgement that a country's cultural notions of schools and teaching--the "script"--needed to change.

But the real revelation is in the Afterword, included in the 2009 edition of the book.  In 1999, the researchers expanded their project, and filmed classes in six other countries.. They found out that those countries were also teaching math very well--but that they all did it differently!  "Teachers in the Czech Republic and Hong Kong spend much of their time teaching the whole class, whether through lecture or recitation.  Teachers in the Netherlands, on the other hand, have students work independently for much of the lesson."  What did the high achievers have in common?  "Their varied approaches all accomplished the engagement of students in active struggle with core mathematics concepts and procedures.  It was this feature of teaching that we found common to the high achievers and missing in the United States." (Stigler and Hiebert, page 186)

What does all this have to do with Elsie Kitching, with Charlotte Mason, and with homeschooling parents? As Elsie said, it's easy to miss the wood for the trees.  We can't do the how-to if we're missing the why-to; but if our why-to is firmly in place, we will often see the how.  It might not be exactly the same as somebody else's how.   We may be teaching in different places; even in different centuries.  We may stalk up and down overcrowded classroom aisles like Marva Collins, or sit on a couch with one child snuggled against us.  We may use this math program, or that one.  We may find that it works to put all the "seatwork" together in a bunch and to do several book lessons back to back; or we may have children who work better with a more varied timetable.

And, like the Japanese teachers, we can definitely improve.  We can support each other, we can work with each other to talk about what worked well and what didn't, we can discuss books that we (the teachers) are reading together, we can even write class notes and lessons for each others' benefit.  In some ways, I think online homeschoolers have some of the best of all worlds: we certainly are not working in isolation!
Although The Teaching Gap is specifically about large educational systems, public schools, and classrooms, there is much in the book for home educators to think about.  In addition, we are, like it or not, part of cultures that hold "scripts" about education and schools, and those expectations affect us even if our own children are not in those classrooms.

Overall, a very interesting book, particularly as a bit of inspiration to examine the teaching "scripts" that we find ourselves following--and to rewrite them when needed.

(Charlotte Mason might ask us to note what ideas of education we have inadvertently admitted, and encourage us to give the boot to those that are harmful or non-productive.)

1 comment:

  1. This is very thought provoking I especially like...Their varied approaches all accomplished the engagement of students in active struggle... It was this feature of teaching that we found common to the high achievers... and..."But in the end, a good teacher, working on the right educational principles, providing a generous curriculum, respecting the minds of the students, will probably do a good job overall without having to have every last instruction spelled out."