This fall, I'm taking a course on mathematics instruction. It's very loosely organized, permitting me to choose my own area of interest and sources. So far, I'm leaning towards investigating these international differences, and hoping that I'll find that at least part of the explanation is differences in teaching methods. That'd be nice. That'd mean we (teachers) have at least some power to influence the results, not just so that our kids score higher than average for our school district or nation, but on an international scale.
So far, I've come across several possible explanations, which probably all have some relevance:
- The school culture is different. School is valued more in some cultures than in others, and the role of the school differs between, on one hand, being mainly fostering and caring, and, on the other hand, focusing on creation and transmission of knowledge. Finland belongs to the "school is important, and it's purpose is knowledge" tradition, while in Sweden transmission of knowledge is secondary to fostering and caring.
- Students do more or less homework. In TIMSS Advanced 2008, a recent comparison of upper secondary math education showed Russian students to be far superior to the students in most European nations. One difference: russian students do on average 6 hours of math homework per week. Swedish students: barely one hour. US students? I don't know, but there seems to be a debate about whether homework is right or wrong. It shocks me that there is even a difference of opinion on this matter.
- Teacher recruitment and education is different in high-achieving and low-achieving nations. In Sweden, teaching is not a high-status profession, and pretty much anyone who applies gets into teacher education programs. There, the emphasis is on philosophy an the "what and why" of teaching, with almost no inclusion of the, methinks, important question "how". In other, higher-achieving nations, it is very difficult to get in to teaching education programs, so only the best and brightest become teachers. More emphasis is placed on guided practice, with longer in-service periods and structured mentoring. There may also be a relationship to teacher's salaries, especially starting salaries, where higher salaries attract more competent people to become teachers.
- Teaching methods, where to start on this one? In "The Teaching Gap", the authors investigate the TIMSS video studies and found that in higher-achieving nations such as Japan, teaching is more based on problem solving, is more varied, and involves very little routine practice and much more complex problems. Classes are large (40ish students is not uncommon) and heterogeneous. On the other hand, Hong Kong and russian students also score high on international tests, and the teaching there is much more teacher centered; teachers lecture or use other direct instruction methods more than in most other countries. What these countries have in common seems to be the high standards they set for the students. The lessons are focused on complex mathematical problems, and whether the students solve the problems themselves or follow the teacher's solutions, may not matter as much as we're used to believing.
- Teacher's possibilities for professional development can also be seen as a contributing cause. In Sweden, teachers have the right/obligation to spend a significant amount of time on professional development, but this usually takes the form of attending conferences now and then. There is little time available for continuous development, such as lesson study, that involves sharing experiences and cooperating with colleagues, and therefore very little feedback on one's teaching. Attempts are being made to introduce lesson study in Swedish schools, and my colleagues and I have successfully produced three during the last two years, but because little extra time is granted, such work is inconsistent and very taxing.
As I read more, I'll write more on this topic. Also, things are changing in Sweden. Teacher education is going through a reform, although it's not clear in which direction. Government officials are saying teachers need higher status, and overall it seems that the sitting government (a coalition of right-wing parties) are trying to create a more old fashioned school culture with an emphasis on rules, grades, and knowledge instead of softer values such as intrinsic motivation, creativity, and caring. Mostly, I think this move is in the right direction.