BECOME A MEMBER! Sign up for TIE services now and start your international school career


The Difference Between Improving Teachers and Improving Teaching

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “Teaching Versus Teachers as a Lever for Change: Comparing a Japanese and a U.S. Perspective on Improving Instruction” by James Hiebert and James Stigler in Educational Researcher, May 2017 (Vol. 46, #4, p. 169-176),; the authors can be reached at and
In this article in Educational Researcher, James Hiebert (University of Delaware) and James Stigler (University of California/Los Angeles) draw on their “eye-opening” video analysis of 8th-grade mathematics classes in the U.S. and other high-achieving countries, including Japan. They found markedly better instructional practices in several other countries, and noticed that Japan had a built-in system for improving teaching “gradually and steadily over time.” Hiebert and Stigler conclude that “the biggest problem in the United States is not that mathematics is being taught poorly now; it is that the country has no mechanism for getting better.”
The heart of the matter, they believe, is that Americans have focused on improving teachers – by recruiting more-qualified people into the profession, higher standards for teacher certification, increased accountability, professional development, value-added measures, and making it easier to fire ineffective performers. Meanwhile, the Japanese have focused on continuously improving teaching through the school-based, collegial system of lesson study. The result is that teaching in Japan – the way teachers and students interact around the content – has improved dramatically over the last 50 years, while teaching in most U.S. classrooms has remained basically the same.
Hiebert and Stigler are especially scornful of the U.S. attempt to measure teachers’ effectiveness by their students’ test scores. “[W]e know of no evidence that evaluating teachers and holding them accountable for the learning of their students improves their teaching or their students’ learning,” say the authors. “This is not surprising because for the vast majority of teachers, improvement is a learning issue, not a motivation issue. Unless assessments provide information that teachers can use to improve, the assessments probably will not affect teaching.” They also comment on the strategy of replacing the least effective teachers (“Replacing more than a few teachers requires a much larger pool of more talented teachers than exists”) and on current PD practices (“negligible widespread or lasting effects on teachers’ practice or students’ learning”).
The difference in approach, say Hiebert and Stigler, springs from the way we think about improving instruction. If we focus on trying to “fix” individual teachers, we’ll fail – and we’ll be unfair to individual teachers who are products of their culture and training. But if we see teaching as a system, we stand a better chance of succeeding. “The first step in improving teaching is understanding how a system of teaching – within a classroom, school, or nation – works now,” they say. “How do the active ingredients of the system work together to produce student learning and other desired education outcomes – including both average outcomes and variation in outcomes?” The place to begin, say Hiebert and Stigler, is where the rubber meets the road – the classroom lesson: “a mini-system that repeats day after day, where teachers interact with students about content.”
“Just as teaching is a system,” they continue, “improving teaching is a system.” Both Japan and China have both focused on the individual lesson as the fulcrum for gradual improvement, using lesson study to continuously improve small components of teaching and spreading those improvements incrementally through the profession until they become common practice. What made this possible? Based on their study of Japanese schools, Hiebert and Stigler say it’s four things: Well-crafted learning goals for students, curriculum, assessments, and professional development:
• Shared learning goals – “Improving teaching requires, first, that learning goals for students at each stage of their school careers be specified as precisely as possible,” say the authors. These need to be hierarchical: overarching goals for the school year; goals for each unit of study; and precisely defined lesson goals, including how those relate to the unit and yearly goals. When common learning goals are shared among teachers, it naturally creates curiosity about what’s working best and “great demand for better teaching methods across the system.”
• Widely used curriculum materials that invite improvement – Japan has several commercial math curriculums for elementary and middle schools, all aligned with national standards. Teachers continuously experiment with improvements by tweaking individual lessons, observing each other as they teach them, and embedding the changes in a shared knowledge base that is passed along to other teachers. “Storing knowledge in artifacts rather than in the heads of individual teachers,” say Hiebert and Stigler, “is both a significant consequence and essential component of lesson study as a system for improving teaching.”
• Assessments that provide usable feedback to teachers – “Improving systems requires measurement, both of outcomes and the processes hypothesized to produce the outcomes,” say the authors. “In the observations conducted by lesson study groups, teachers examine evidence of student learning as it happens and tie what students are learning to specific aspects of the lesson the teachers are trying to improve.” The focus is always on the students and what’s helping them learn. At the end of each unit, tests are written collaboratively by teacher teams, given at about the same time, and then scored together comparing students’ performance in different classrooms. There’s keen attention to differences in performance and what those might indicate. Teachers whose students chronically underperform get help from their colleagues. Some who don’t improve leave the profession – an informal form of accountability.
• Professional development that inducts teachers into the system of improvement – PD in Japan is driven by lesson study, and new teachers become part of the system of improving teaching. “The focus is not on improving an individual’s qualifications or capabilities,” say Hiebert and Stigler, “but on improving the methods of teaching and their outcomes. The spotlight in lesson study shines on a group’s ability to improve teaching through careful planning, careful observation during the lesson to collect relevant student data, and careful analysis of the data and consequent revisions to the lesson… The group takes responsibility for the success of a lesson and believes that lessons can always improve.” Teachers say focusing so intently on one lesson makes them more effective teachers of all lessons. “The system designed to improve teaching,” say the authors, “produces teachers with better capabilities as a side effect.”
What are the implications of Japan’s teaching-improvement system for U.S. schools? The lack of clear national standards in the U.S. has resulted “in little demand for instructional products, like lesson plans, that could be used across schools, districts and states,” say Hiebert and Stigler. “The lack of demand for effective instructional products is one of the major obstacles to scaling up improvements within the United States.” Diverse standards and expectations also result in less sharing of effective practices, a “weak sense of professionalism among teachers,” less-focused teacher training, and weak enculturation of new teachers. In addition, textbooks are written to cover variable standards in different states and aren’t geared to continuous improvement of specific lessons. “Teachers must hold in their heads, rather than in shareable artifacts, the knowledge they acquire about teaching this curriculum to achieve these learning goals,” say Hiebert and Stigler. “They become the repository for all the good ideas they develop over time, and they take these ideas with them when they retire… Rather than beginning where the previous generation left off, new generations of teachers must start over, learning themselves what their predecessors had already learned.”
But what about the Common Core? Hiebert and Stigler believe the standards were written at quite a general level to win approval and that they don’t go to the lesson level. This has resulted in publishers selling textbooks and other materials that claim to be aligned with the Common Core but are actually all over the map. As for the PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, which are designed to measure student learning on the new standards, Hiebert and Stigler are concerned that some states are planning to use the results to evaluate teachers rather than improve teaching. All this, and the continuation of low-value professional development, they say, “actually work against large-scale and continuous improvement of teaching.”
What is to be done? Hiebert and Stigler point to several efforts within the U.S. that are trying to implement the essence of what they advocate: the SERP development of instructional products for teaching; Gallimore and Ermeling’s five elements of a school-based improvement system; and a number of lesson study implementation sites. “Although promising,” they say, “these examples have not spread far beyond their initial, resource-supported boundaries.” Far more effective would be during-the-year assessments that provide data that teacher teams can use to improve teaching practices, focusing on individual lessons and using a collegial process as the prime locus of professional development.
“Is it possible for the United States to develop a system for improving teaching?” ask Hiebert and Stigler. “It would require a cultural change to do so, and changing cultural activities is difficult. Cultural activities change only if all people affected by the change want it to happen. This means teachers, school district leaders, school boards, parents, and state departments of education would all need to work together to change features that support improvement, including the four identified here. The United States also would need to rid itself of its addiction to quick fixes. Improving teaching on a large scale requires years of continuous, hard work. Payoffs do not come immediately. But, the reward is that when they do come, they last.”

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


There are currently no comments posted. Please post one via the form above.