Understanding and Improving Classroom Mathematics Instruction: An Overview of the TIMSS Video Study

Article excerpt

Perhaps the most important finding of the TIMSS video study is that the Japanese approach to teacher development is very different from the American approach. Our biggest long-term problem, according to Mr. Stigler and Mr. Hiebert, is not how we teach now but that we have no way of getting better.

The video component of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was the first attempt ever made to use videotape to study national probability samples of teachers at work. In this article, we present a brief overview of this unprecedented study, which involved detailed analysis and comparison of eighth-grade mathematics teaching in three countries: Germany, Japan, and the United States. We also discuss implications of the video study for the improvement of classroom mathematics teaching in the United States.

Collecting national samples of teaching can serve two important purposes. First, it gives us solid information about the processes of teaching and learning inside U.S. classrooms, information that is crucial for developing sound education policies. Efforts to improve student learning succeed or fail inside the classroom, a fact that has too often been ignored by would-be reformers. Setting standards for content and performance is an important first step. But student learning will not be improved merely by setting standards and holding teachers accountable. We must study directly the processes that lead to learning in the classroom, for if we do not understand these processes we will have little chance of improving them. Most other professional and industrial fields have determined that improving the quality of the processes is the surest road to improving products, but we in education have yet to learn this lesson. The videotape study of classroom instruction allows us to refocus on teaching processes, with the aim of improving students' learning.

National samples of teaching also enable us to compare U.S. teaching methods with those used in other countries. This comparison allows us to see teaching in a new way. Teaching is a cultural activity.(1) It is an everyday event that occurs throughout all parts of American society. Over time, we have developed norms and expectations for teaching that are widely shared and passed along as one generation of students becomes the next generation of teachers.(2) Because our models of how teaching should look are so widely shared and so familiar, they become nearly invisible. We come to believe that this is the way teaching must be. When we observe teaching in other countries, these accepted and unquestioned practices are brought to light, and we see that we teach the way we do because we choose to teach this way. This realization is crucial because it opens up new possibilities for how we might improve teaching.

Conducting the TIMSS Video Study

U.S. students performed poorly in the Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS), conducted in the 1980s. Consequently, as planning commenced for the TIMSS, there was great interest in being able to go beyond the cross-national achievement data to focus on the underlying processes that produce achievement. Instructional processes in the classroom were assumed to be an important cause of student learning. But how could something as complex as teaching be studied on a large scale, across cultures?

One approach is to give teachers a questionnaire asking them to describe their instructional practices. Although such a questionnaire had been administered as part of SIMS, there are problems with this approach. Even within the U.S., we lack shared meanings for the words we use to describe teaching. One teacher will call something "problem solving" while her colleague next door calls the same thing a "routine exercise." The problem of no shared language is compounded in a cross-cultural questionnaire study. The responses are nearly impossible to interpret.

Thus the decision was made to collect direct information on teaching by videotaping classroom instruction. …