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Opening the 'Black Box': Studying Teaching Practices

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The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the people who brought you the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), is conducting a new study, on classroom practice. I can't wait.

In the new study, researchers will videotape lower secondary teachers in eight countries teaching a mathematics lesson on quadratic equations. Researchers will also analyze instructional materials and issue questionnaires to get background information from teachers and students. Data collection is taking place this yerar; the results are expected to be released in 2020.

The goal, according to the OECD, is to ascertain which teaching practices are used, how they are interrelated, and which practices are related to students' cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes. The videos will be collected in a global library.

Video studies of teaching are not new. As part of the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), researchers videotaped eighth grade teachers of mathematics and science in seven countries, including the United States. The results showed clear differences in instructional approaches between teachers in high-achieving countries, like Hong Kong and the Netherlands, and those in lower-achieving countries, like the U.S., according to James Hiebert and James Stigler, who analyzed the results. For example, teachers in the high-achieving countries were much more likely than those in the U.S. to allow students to "explore and discuss mathematical relationships while solving...problems."

One major benefit of these types of studies is the opportunity for teachers to see other teachers in action. This benefits both the teachers who observe and those who are observed: the observers can see other ways of teaching and those observed can get valuable feedback. But teaching, especially in the United States, is a "black box"; teachers seldom have the chance to see other teachers, even in their own buildings. According to the OECD's Teaching and Learning International Study (TALIS), half of U.S. teachers say they never observe other teachers' classes and provide feedback, compared with only 6.1 percent of teachers in Japan.

I saw first-hand how valuable observation and feedback can be during a visit to Shanghai in 2016. The classrooms we visited were crowded because groups of fellow teachers squeezed in as well. Immediately following the lesson, the observers sat with the teacher and her colleagues to report on what they saw and make suggestions. The goal was not to cast judgment on the teacher or her teaching, but rather to help her improve, and the teachers who were observed certainly took the suggestions that way.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is not participating in the video study, although this country did take part in the early stages. The countries that will be studied are Chile, China (Shanghai), Colombia, Germany (eight Länder), Japan, Mexico, Spain (Madrid), and the United Kingdom (England). But I hope U.S. teachers pay close attention to the findings and become regular visitors to the global library. It's time to open the black box.

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