Comparison of Teaching Methods in American and Japanese Schools

A Comparison of Teaching Methods in American and Japanese Schools

         From a number of cross-national comparisons of math achievement, we have learned that elementary school students from the worst Japanese schools routinely outperform students from the best American schools - Comparison of Teaching Methods in American and Japanese Schools introduction.  The book, The Learning Gap, presented a study of schooling and achievement in Japan, Taiwan, China, and the United States. The findings were cause for concern: As early as fifth grade, U.S. students lagged far behind their counterparts in the other countries. On a test of mathematics achievement, for example, the highest-scoring classroom in the U.S. sample did not perform as well as the lowest-scoring classroom in the Japanese sample (Stevenson and Stigler, 1994).

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         In assessments of math and science, U.S. performance is mediocre. There are two major tests, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). On the math portion of the TIMSS, our eighth-grade students rank 16th among 46 nations. The 15 entities whose students outperformed ours include Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Estonia, Japan, and Hungary (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). On the PISA test, American scores in science and math literacy were below the average for the 30 nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The American Institutes for Research examined the scores of the 12 nations, including ours, that participated in TIMSS and PISA in 2003 and found that our students consistently ranked eighth or ninth of the 12 (Ravitch, 2007).  Only mathematics and science have been consistently tested, because other subjects such as language and history are deemed to be culture-bound.

         The results from TIMSS have garnered a great deal of media interest and have caught the attention of politicians, policymakers, and the general public. The results are dramatic, and they do not paint a flattering picture of American education. Of course, the results of large international studies are always open to question but the gap in achievement between U.S. students and those in other countries is simply too wide to be dismissed on methodological grounds. U.S. education is in need of improvement.

         American middle school and high-school pupils continually lag their peers in other developed countries – especially in mathematics – despite years of decreasing class size, building ornate new structures and introducing new curriculum. (Copeland and Bennett, 2008).  We spend a lot on education so these outcomes are disappointing. What are we doing wrong?

         Stigler and Hiebert in their book, The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, came up with a different conclusion: although variability in competence is certainly visible in the videos we collected, such differences are dwarfed by the differences in teaching methods that we see across cultures. The authors and their international colleagues spent three years comparing teaching methods and test scores of Mathematics classes in Germany, Japan, and America (American and Japanese emphasized). Lessons were videotaped in each country, and then analyzed by the researchers. Their conclusion is that the US approach focuses on teaching terms and procedures where as the other countries emphasize understanding concepts. They ground this view on their belief that teaching is a cultural activity, based on the norms and expectations of the society in which it is found. Indeed, teaching, not the teacher is the critical factor.

         Americans focus on the competence of teachers. They decry the quality of applicants for teaching positions and criticize the talent of the current teaching corps.  While Japanese teaching is distinguished not so much by the competence of the teachers but by teaching for conceptual understanding that aims to develop students’ understanding of mathematical relationships and properties. Students in Japanese classrooms spend as much time solving challenging problems and discussing mathematical concepts as they do practicing skills. This system of mathematical knowledge is taught to children in lessons that are highly coherent, hierarchically linear, and based on teachers’ own research of what lessons promote student learning. Further, these lessons typically involve structured problem- solving, where math concepts are induced from challenging problems, where these concepts are concretized through well-considered examples, and where mathematical relationships are proven as following necessarily from given premises.

         In contrast, mathematics teaching in the U.S. seeks to train students in mathematical procedures. American mathematics teaching is extremely limited, focused for the most part on a very narrow band of procedural skills. These procedures are taught to students by demonstrating one correct procedure for solving an easy problem, and then students are asked to imitate that procedure for many highly similar problems. Whether students are in rows working individually or sitting in groups, whether they have access to the latest technology or are working only with paper and pencil, they spend most of their time acquiring isolated skills through repeated practice.     More often than not, the lessons for imparting these skills are incoherent–with many non-mathematical discursions and interruptions. Further, lessons almost never involve math inductions and proofs; rather, teachers state math relationships explicitly and immediately tell students how the relationship should be used to solve simple problems. Last, lessons are developed by education researchers not only without the collaboration of teachers, but specifically so that the lessons are “teacher-proof”.

         Content in the U.S. are less advanced and presented in a more piecemeal and prescriptive way – there were twice the number of definitions presented and more concepts were simply given/stated vs. developed/derived. There was also more topic switching, more interruptions (0% in Japan and 31% in the U.S.), less coherence of lessons and less student involvement in doing the work (9% in the U.S. and 40% in Japan).

         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 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.

         Besides focusing on the quality of the instructional learning experience, another factor that would re-enforce an effective teaching method is the amount of time students engage in learning. The U.S. has one of the shortest school years among rich countries and whose children do less homework than their counterparts in advanced Asian and European countries. Since the Asian students have more days in their school year and more homework and often attend after-school tutoring schools, they have about twice the total annual study time of American students. The time factor is a major reason for U.S. children falling further and further behind during the school year (Walberg).

But as a word of caution, although Japanese do a good job with math, they do an average job with science and a poor job with languages and the social sciences. Essentially, while math students might be encouraged to think around the concepts, this does not apply to other areas of learning. Differences in math achievement are the product of differences in the culture of math teaching.  Indeed, many important suggestions are made about how the Japanese teaching methods can be recreated in the U.S. within the American context.   We can learn from the experience of other cultures and incorporate it to improve our own.


Copeland, A. and Bennett, G. (2008). Understanding American Schools. Third Edition. Interchange Institute.

Hiebert, J. and Stigler, J. (1999). The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom. Free Press.

Ravitch, D. (2007, July) Question & Answer: The Truth About America’s Schools. The  American. Retrieved: May 2, 2008 from     august-magazine-contents/question-answer-the-truth-about-americas-schools.

Stevenson, H. and Stigler, J. (1994). The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and        What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education. Simon & Schuster.

U.S. Department of Education (2004, December). Highlights From the Trends in            International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003. National Center for   Education Statistics. Retrieved: May 2, 2008 from

Walberg, H.  Teaching Methods. Retrieved: May 2, 2008 from


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