Finding Effective Lessons for Teachers: An Exclusive Interview with James W. Stigler

Published October 1, 2004

There is no shortage of ideas to solve the problem of low student achievement in U.S. public schools: Smaller class sizes, more talented teachers, more well-rounded teachers recruited from other careers, and better pay for teachers are just a few of the prescriptions offered.

But in a 1999 book titled The Teaching Gap (Free Press), UCLA psychology professor James W. Stigler and coauthor James Hiebert suggested student achievement may be stunted by a much more fundamental cause: ineffective teaching methods.

“We have watched many examples of good teachers employing limited methods that, no matter how competently they are executed, could not lead to high levels of student achievement,” noted the two authors after studying actual teaching practices in the classroom.

Their observations were made possible through the Video Studies component of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), where teaching practices in more than one thousand classrooms in various countries were videotaped and analyzed. To facilitate the analysis, Stigler, who also is director of the TIMSS Video Studies, pioneered the development of an interactive database system to organize the lessons and make them readily accessible for further review and analysis by teachers for professional development purposes.

To further that effort, in 1998 Stigler founded LessonLab, a firm with the mission of understanding and improving classroom teaching and learning. LessonLab’s customers include school districts, state education departments, and the U.S. Department of Education. In 2003, the firm became part of Pearson Education.

Stigler is also coauthor, with Harold Stevenson, of The Learning Gap (Simon & Schuster, 1992). He has published research studies on various aspects of learning and classroom instruction, and his research has earned him numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 and the QuEST award from the American Federation of Teachers in 1995.

Stigler received his A.B. from Brown University in 1976, a Masters in Education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1977, and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan in 1982. He spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved in the issue of improving teaching?

Stigler: I have been interested in teaching as far back as I can remember, but I first started researching teaching in the late 1970s when I was a graduate student working with Harold Stevenson, doing large comparative studies of Asian-American students and their achievement. I became interested in both mathematics and teaching because the mathematics achievement among the Asian children was just so superior, and the teaching was just so different from anything I’d ever seen.

Clowes: Teachers frequently complain they aren’t treated as professionals. What is it that characterizes a profession?

Stigler: It’s really all about knowledge. A profession has a knowledge base that serves as a way for the field to improve its own practices. The knowledge base is a body of specialized knowledge that is generated both by researchers and practitioners in the field. People contribute to it, it grows over time, and new practitioners draw on it to define the standard practices in the field. That’s what makes it a profession.

For example, what makes medicine a profession is that there’s a knowledge base where improved techniques are shared among the members of the medical community. If somebody invents a new way to do surgery, they are able to put it into the knowledge base to inform other members of the profession. As a result of that process, practices within the profession are improved over time.

Without a professional knowledge base, one surgeon might develop several improved techniques but there would be no way to share that knowledge with other surgeons. Under those circumstances, you would have one very clever surgeon, but surgery wouldn’t be a profession. I think it’s a very analogous situation in teaching. For the most part, teaching in this country has not been based on a knowledge base. If a teacher develops a new method for teaching some subject, there’s no mechanism for sharing that method with other practitioners and improving practices in the field as a whole.

Clowes: I understand you formed a company, LessonLab, to start creating a knowledge base for teaching.

Stigler: LessonLab is based on the vision that teaching practices–effective classroom lessons–need to be made public and organized into a knowledge base that can be accessed by all teachers. In the medical field, there’s a whole tradition of shared understanding that comes from people looking over each other’s shoulders. In teaching, there’s a tradition of not looking over people’s shoulders and so there’s little shared understanding.

We built a technology platform for doing this, where you learn by studying examples of other people doing what it is you’re trying to improve. It’s a very simple idea. If you want to improve a process, go examine the process, and see if you can think of ways to improve it. That’s really the fundamental idea behind what we’re doing at LessonLab: Trying to find effective lessons.

The way we present these lessons is on videotape. With a profession like teaching, where there’s not a lot of looking over each other’s shoulders, it’s practically impossible to communicate about practices in the classroom by using words.

For instance, two teachers might agree that they both use problem-solving in their classrooms, but they could still have completely different images of what “problem-solving” is. Video provides concrete images of “problem-solving” to discuss. If you look at actual examples, you find the issue is not whether you use a specific technique, it’s how that technique is used. And that’s generally the case with most everything we study with teaching: It’s all about implementation.

The technology we built is simply a platform for managing the creation of this knowledge base, and the building of communities and learning programs based on interacting with the knowledge base. If someone was interested in, say, teaching a particular part of the math curriculum, our platform enables them to search for that and actually mark particular places in the video where they find relevant examples. Then they could have online discussions of these examples. That feature helps address one of the big problems in the teaching field, which is that conversations about teaching tend to be very abstract.

Clowes: Didn’t your initial findings come out of a videotape study of teachers in the Third International Math and Science Study?

Stigler: That was our first study, where we looked at eighth-grade teachers in three countries. We’ve now completed a second one involving seven countries, which was released last spring.

In our new study, we compared six higher-achieving countries with the United States: the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia. We were especially interested in what kinds of things tended to vary a lot among those high-achieving countries. For example, things like teacher-directed versus student-directed approaches to teaching: Should the teacher be at the front of the room teaching, or should the teacher just be organizing students to work in groups?

What we found is that it really doesn’t matter. If you look at Hong Kong and Japan, the two highest-achieving countries in the world, you find they have completely different approaches to teaching. In Hong Kong, it’s very teacher-directed. The teacher is in front of the room, lecturing, with less student talk than any of the other countries we studied. In Japan, it’s completely different. Students there spend lots of time working on their own, struggling with hard problems, sharing their solution methods, and so on.

So the message here is that a lot of the things we spend time arguing about probably make no difference. If you’re more comfortable with a classroom where you stand at the front and the students sit in rows, that’s not going to keep you from producing high achievement. That’s not the key factor. Of course, the next question is: What is the key factor in producing high achievement?

In our study, we looked at problems that students worked on during their math class, and we categorized them according to three different types:

  • using routine procedures;
  • stating concepts; and,
  • making connections.

“Using Routine Procedures” is where the teacher has taught students how to solve a problem with a specific procedure–like solving an algebraic equation–and then has them work on doing more examples.

“Stating Concepts,” which is not that common, is where students are required to retrieve some concept, like a formula or a definition. For example, the teacher might say, “Draw an isosceles right triangle.”

“Making Connections” problems are rich math problems with the potential to engage the students in constructing relationships among core math concepts.

What we found is that the percentage of time spent on the different types of problems varied all over the place, with the United States right in the middle. In Japan, they did more “Making Connections” problems than in any other country. In Hong Kong, they did the least. So it didn’t seem to matter how much time was spent on the different types of problems.

But here was the real finding: When we looked not at the type of problem that was presented, but at how it was implemented, that’s where we saw a huge difference between the U.S. and other countries. The way it worked was this: You may have a very rich, “Making Connections” problem, but the teacher can reduce it to a “Routine Procedure” problem when posing it in a lesson.

What we found was that, in higher-achieving countries, teachers were able to implement the “Making Connections” problems at a conceptual level. Whereas, in the U.S., every example of a “Making Connections” problem that we observed was transformed into a lower-level problem.

For example, a teacher might give students 12 different types of triangle and ask them to come up with a method for finding the areas of all those triangles. But within a minute of posing the problem, an American teacher will walk up to the board, and say, “Here, the formula is half the base times the height.” The teacher has just turned a very rich problem into a routine procedure.

The math teachers in the U.S. really don’t know what it means to teach a concept. We know how to teach procedures, we know how to ask people to work on problems, but we don’t seem to have a tradition for teaching actual concepts and engaging students in thinking about concepts.

Clowes: What are the implications of your findings with regard to improving the quality of teaching?

Stigler: There are three ways to improve the quality of teaching that students experience:

  • get better teachers;
  • improve the competence of existing teachers; and,
  • improve the teaching methods that teachers use.

The first way, getting better teachers or getting different people to teach, is the most common policy recommendation today, and yet I think it should be the least important. If there’s no mechanism for improving the methods of teaching, just getting better teachers in the classroom may give us a bump in achievement in the short run but it can’t possibly lead to long-term improvement of the sort you have in medicine, for example.

Medicine has improved over the past 100 years, but it’s not because you have smarter people deciding to become doctors. What has made medical care better is the growth of the professional knowledge base in medicine. I’m not against having smarter people teaching–that would be good–but I don’t see how that gets us into a gradual improvement of teaching.

The second way of improving teaching is to improve the competence of the teachers who are in the classroom now. The problem with that is, when we look through our videos, we see many examples of teachers very competently implementing methods of teaching that are not very effective.

That leads to the third way, which is how do we improve the teaching methods that teachers use? That’s really what’s different between the countries in our study. It’s not the competence of the teachers, it’s the method they use–the average teaching method. If we want to improve teaching, we need to find a way to improve the average method teachers use. If we could just make it 10 percent better, that would affect millions of children.

Clowes: So rather than looking at a heroic teacher model for improvements, you’re saying, “What can we do to help all teachers use better methods, better procedures, and better techniques?”

Stigler: Right. When you go to the doctor, you don’t have to go to a celebrity doctor to get the benefits of the best practices in medicine. Why shouldn’t teaching be the same?

Now, changing teaching methods is not like changing the maintenance procedure for a jet engine, where it is often just a matter of replacing pages in a large maintenance manual. Teaching is very different. Teaching is a cultural activity, and so changing teaching is going to follow the principles of cultural change, where you are dealing with implicit routines that just fire off automatically. That means the changes we identify have to be small ones–incremental changes–because that is the way culture changes.

What is encouraging about this new study is that it shows you can get high achievement from different teaching systems. What that means for a teacher who’s been exposed to three different methods used by successful teachers, is that the teacher can choose the one that best fits his or her personal teaching system. That’s the one that’s going to be sustainable. If you tell teachers to do something that doesn’t fit within their cultural system, that’s not sustainable.

Here’s a real example. After reading our book, The Teaching Gap, a teacher wrote me a letter, saying, “I found it very interesting that the Japanese teachers have students struggle with a problem before they teach them how to solve it. We never do that. We teach them how to solve it first, and then let them work on examples.”

She said, “I’m a very traditional teacher–I just get up and lecture–but I decided to try something after reading your book. I now start my lessons by letting students try to solve it on their own, and then give my lecture.” She said this small change had worked brilliantly for her. She saw a huge change in motivation and engagement in her students.

That’s an example of how cultural change can work. You don’t go to this teacher and say, “Stop teaching the way you’re teaching.” She can’t do that. But if you go to her with an idea, and she sees how to fit it into her cultural script, then it will be sustainable. It’s a small change but it’s the kind of change that will improve teaching over time–provided you also have a way to capture that change and share it with other teachers.

For more information …

Information about LessonLab is available online at

The 2003 publication, “Highlights from the TIMSS 1999 Video Study of Eighth-Grade Mathematics Teaching,” is available online from the National Center for Education Statistics at