I was reading a book by Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code” and this paragraph caught my attention.
“According to a 1995 study, a sample of Japanese eighth graders spent 44 percent of their class time inventing, thinking, and actively struggling with underlying concepts. The study’s sample of American students, on the other hand, spent less than 1 percent of their time in that state. “The Japanese want their kids to struggle,” said Jim Stigler, the UCLA professor who oversaw the study and who cowrote The Teaching Gap with James Hiebert. “Sometimes the [Japanese] teacher will purposely give the wrong answer so the kids can grapple with the theory. American teachers, though, worked like waiters. Whenever there was a struggle, they wanted to move past it, make sure the class kept gliding along. But you don’t learn by gliding” (Coyle, 2009).
I went to Japanese schools from kindergarten to college and I taught in a public junior high school and private high school. I am not sure which schools those researchers visited in Japan, but this was certainly not the case for me. (I wish it had been the case!) I can say that mere memorization was more of the focus. Secondary school was somewhat of a struggle for me. But we did not struggle to try to understand the materials. It was more like we struggled to cram the vast amount of isolated facts without having time to figure out how those isolated facts are related to each other. We have cram schools called Juku everywhere in Japan and a lot of kids go there to cram knowledge!
In his book “The Talent Code,” Daniel Coyle talks about how KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools focus on deep practice and incorporate deep silent work during the day. Thinking back, I never had time during the class to work on problem sets silently, except for exams. For example, during the math classes, in general, teachers showed how to solve problems and we copied the answers to our notebooks silently. We did not have to think. It was the teachers who were doing the thinking, not us.
When I was an English teacher in Japan, I did not allocate much time for my students to read silently during the class. The main reason was that I thought if I let students work on their own silently during the class, I was not doing my job as a teacher.
“Think, Pair, and Share” is one of the popular teaching techniques used in the classroom in the US. Students think about the problem they need to solve first, then talk to their neighbor(s) to share. They discuss in a pair, group, or class. I think this is a great activity, but often the first thinking on their own part is regarded rather lightly compared to the pairing and sharing parts.
It is clear that for anybody to build knowledge and improve skills, you need to think, struggle, make mistakes, and figure it out on your own. You cannot dump knowledge from a teacher’s brain into a student’s brain. Students need time to think and work on their own. You might think it is a waste of precious class time, but I think it is okay or even necessary to allocate some of the class time for students to work on their own silently. Students might resist and say that teachers are not doing their job first. However, if you explain to your students how knowledge is built and emphasize the importance of thinking, struggling, making mistakes, they will appreciate the importance of deep silent work.
We need to “think deeply” to give our students true opportunities to learn!
Coyle, Daniel. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How. Random House Publishing Group, 93-94.