No common instructional method is found in the highest-achieving countries’ math classes

iStock_000008353112_ExtraSmallTwo studies of teaching around the world have added to our knowledge of teachers here and abroad. Gerald W. Bracey, George Mason University, summarizes data from two studies: “Preparing Teachers Around the World” and “Teaching Mathematics in Seven Countries: Results from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study.” Findings include:

  1. Hong Kong and the Czech Republic spent the most time on procedural lessons, but the U.S. and Germany also spend 69 percent of class time teaching procedures. Japanese teachers emphasized conceptual matters significantly more than teachers in other countries.
  2. More than 30 percent of American classes suffered interruptions by intercoms or visitors while none of the Japanese classes were interrupted during lessons.
  3. American teachers spent more time reviewing old material than any country except the Czech Republic. None of the countries spent much time practicing new material except Japan, which spent 60 percent of class time on new material.
  4. Thirty-nine percent of Japan’s lessons were considered to be of high complexity and 45 percent moderately complex. The U.S. had the fewest lessons considered to be of high complexity (6 percent) and the third-highest number judged to be of low complexity (67 percent). Australia was highest in low-complexity problems with 77 percent and the Netherlands second with 69 percent.
  5. Computers were seldom used in math classes in higher-achieving countries. Nine percent of the lessons in Japan, 5 percent in Hong Kong, 4 percent in Australia and 2 percent in Switzerland involved the use of computers.
  6. Teachers dominated classroom discussion worldwide. American teachers spoke eight words for every one spoken by students. The ratio was 13:1 in Japan and 16:1 in Hong Kong.
  7. Only England, Hong Kong and Japan require a national exam in a subject area for teacher certification. The U.S. and England are the only two countries to offer non-traditional routes to teacher certification.
  8. In most countries hiring is done at the school or district level; only in Japan is hiring done by the state. Using purchasing power to compare salaries in Japan, Korea and the U.S., Korea’s teachers make the most, America’s the least.

Given this information, Bracey says he would have predicted that Japan would score highest on international exams, but Japan came in fifth after Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. High-scoring countries have diverse math lessons and teaching strategies, but on the basis of these two studies, Bracey makes one recommendation: Math and science teachers should have degrees in the subjects they teach.


“Teachers Around the World,” Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 85, Number 3, November 2003, pp. 253-254.

Published in ERN December/January 2004 Volume 17 Number 1

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