Good Teaching Goes Global

By Ahn, Ruth; Tamayo, Kristin et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2013 | Go to article overview

Good Teaching Goes Global


Ahn, Ruth, Tamayo, Kristin, Catabagan, Paula, Phi Delta Kappan


The achievement disparities of low-income and minority children are similar around the world. But so are the good teaching practices that help them improve their scores.

"Sensei, kore wakarehen! Konnan douyatte surun?" Teacher, I don't understand! How do you do this?

Having observed a high minority junior high school in Osaka, Japan, for the past seven years, I frequently encountered these energetic yet frustrated student voices. These responses and scenes were strikingly similar to what I often hear and see here in U.S. classrooms: "What are we doing here? When can we leave? Do we have to be here?" Disinterest. Unmotivated. Detached. These traits are pervasive in classrooms around the world. Similarly, I have found, so are those for good teaching.

So I invited two U.S. teachers with whom I have worked to share their perspectives and compare them with what I learned in Japan. We were part of a group of 10 pre-service teachers who worked with English language learners (ELLs) in a school near Los Angeles. We worked in an after-school intervention program with students who had failed their 6th-grade math class or the standardized tests for that grade. Our goal was to bring them to grade level before they entered 7th grade. It was a high minority (89% Hispanic) and high ELL (43%) school. Only 16% of the students in the school met or exceeded California's math standards, compared to 50% statewide.

Good teaching is borderless.

Across the Pacific Ocean, more than 5,000 miles away, I observed a high minority junior high school in Osaka, where 30% to 40% of the school population is Buraku--a traditionally socially marginalized minority--while more than 10% of the students are recent immigrants. I spent time in the classroom of Mr. Kato, an 8th-grade mathematics teacher and baseball coach whose lifelong passion is to take his students to koshien, a prestigious annual high school baseball event that every male student dreams of attending. Kato connects math to his students' everyday lives through stories, games, and manipulatives.

So far, yet so close

What do these two international contexts have in common? Although entirely different languages, cultures, and educational systems, I was struck by the transcendence of good teaching practices.

For example, changing student perceptions about mathematics is one of the most difficult tasks facing teachers on both sides of the Pacific. In my group in the U.S., instead of bombarding students with numbers, we had them experience the concept physically, out side the classroom, and through multisensory approaches.

In one activity, we drew a chalk number line on the ground where students physically moved their bodies along the line to learn about integers. Students physically placed themselves at zero as the starting point and then moved right or left along the number line. We could then explain the concept of negative numbers more successfully when they referred back to their kinesthetic experience. Students learned that when seeing positive numbers they would move right on the number line and left for a minus sign. When subtracting a negative number, such as in the problem 4-(-7), students were able to explain that they had to "turn twice." Providing a meaningful experience like this before teaching the academic language and mathematical symbols gave students the conceptual understanding necessary to tackle more abstract mathematical concepts later.

Similarly, in Japan, rather than presenting the material as math problems to solve, Kato used a treasure hunt activity to teach X and Y coordinates. He began by giving them a map with directions to a treasure. "If you go to the right one step and up four steps, you will find the treasure," the directions said. After going through another example, Mr. Kato gave his students a second map with Points A through F to hide their own treasure on the map and explain to their classmates where they hid it. …

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