Harold W. Stevenson, a University of Michigan psychologist whose provocative comparisons of American grade school teachers and students with their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan provided strong arguments for education reform in the United States, particularly in the way math was taught, has died. He was 80.
Stevenson, who until recently lived in Ann Arbor, Mich., died July 7 at a Palo Alto hospital. He had Alzheimer’s disease and pneumonia, said John W. Hagen, a University of Michigan colleague and friend for 30 years.
Stevenson was the author, with UCLA Professor James W. Stigler, of the 1992 book “The Learning Gap, Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn From Japanese and Chinese Education.”
The book punctured stereotypes of Asian elementary schools as high-pressured learning factories and illuminated what many experts came to agree were grave deficiencies in the U.S. education system. They included weak academic standards, overburdened teachers and misguided cultural beliefs about parental roles and the importance of individual student effort.
Stevenson “added very important things to the conversation about American education,” said Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union. “He looked at family attitudes and priorities, teacher training and methods. He was really a pioneer in cross-cultural comparisons” in education.
Although educators had known as early as the 1960s that students in Asia ranked higher than Americans on international assessments of academic achievement, the explanations were “too often cloaked in speculation,” said Jack Schwille, assistant dean for international studies in education at Michigan State University. “Stevenson collected data on classroom teaching and learning [that] could help explain the differences,” Schwille said. “And he got educators and laypersons to pay attention to them.”
Stevenson’s work was often cited during the national debate over education standards in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, particularly in discussions of U.S. students’ poor mastery of math. He argued that American educators would do well to emulate the systems in Japan and Taiwan, where learning goals are carefully plotted and clearly defined, and creative hands-on exercises are considered as crucial as pencil-and-paper drills.
At the core of the Asian schools’ success in math, Stevenson believed, were thoroughly trained teachers who were given ample support during the school day to craft lessons and share ideas with colleagues.
“Stevenson’s work made clear the kind of education that was really going on in Asia ... and helped pave the way for some improvements we see now, especially in California,” said David Klein, a mathematics professor at Cal State Northridge who has been active in the movement to strengthen math teaching in the United States.
Stevenson’s interest in Asian schools began in the 1970s, when he joined the first delegation of American child development experts to visit China since the Communist takeover in 1949. In 1976, he began planning the first in a series of studies examining the factors underlying academic achievement in the United States and East Asia.
Over the next decade, Stevenson and his colleagues spent hundreds of hours observing elementary school classrooms in Minneapolis; Taipei, Taiwan; and Sendai, Japan.
The researchers eventually focused on math achievement because the gap between American and Asian students in that subject was so wide. By fifth grade, Stevenson and Stigler found, the lowest-scoring Japanese classroom outperformed the highest-scoring U.S. classroom.
In their book, which has never gone out of print, Stevenson and Stigler describe a scene from a Japanese classroom where students were learning to draw cubes in three dimensions. One student who was having particular difficulty with the assignment was asked to go to the blackboard and work on the problem in front of his classmates. He struggled with his drawing for 45 minutes.
As they watched him, Stevenson and Stigler noticed how anxious and uncomfortable they felt. The youngster at the board, however, showed no signs of embarrassment.
“We assumed that because this student was displaying an error that it would be devastating to him because we might feel that way,” Stigler, who was Stevenson’s graduate student, recalled. “But [the student] didn’t feel that way, so that led to this great interest as to why. Our culture exacts a great cost psychologically for making a mistake, whereas in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be that way. In Japan, mistakes, error, confusion [are] all just a natural part of the learning process. That is the kind of observation that got Harold real excited.”
The student eventually drew the cube correctly, which elicited the applause of his peers. Stevenson and Stigler would observe similar scenes unfold in other classrooms in Asia. They concluded that not only did Asian teachers have a healthy regard for students’ errors as “an index of what still needs to be learned,” but they keep stragglers and achievers moving together in an approach that encourages perseverance, practice and mastery for all students.
In contrast to the Japanese, American teachers were loath to submit their students to public scrutiny out of fear it would damage the youngsters’ self-esteem, Stevenson and his colleagues found. Moreover, U.S. teachers often segregated students into low- and high-ability groups, a practice that Stevenson said reflected a deeply held belief that not all students could succeed.
“We have set up a curriculum, and we don’t expect all children to learn it,” he told Newsweek in 1992. “It’s a terribly pessimistic statement.”
Another important difference he found was that Japanese and Chinese teachers received considerably more time during the school day to prepare lessons, discuss goals with other teachers and work with individual students. On average, they spent only three to five hours a day in front of a classroom.
In America, however, “we keep teachers busy in front of the classroom all day long,” Stevenson told the Dallas Morning News in 1993. “We deprive teachers of opportunities for ... extending their knowledge, both in the subject area they’re teaching and also in methods, so that it’s very difficult for American teachers to do a good job.”
He concluded that class size was not the obstacle to learning that American teachers believed it to be. Asian teachers on average had larger classes than their U.S. counterparts yet produced better results. Stevenson believed that this was due to their training and the extra time they have for preparation, as well as to the cultural consensus that schoolwork takes priority over other endeavors.
In Japan, teachers sometimes audition a new lesson in front of fellow teachers, who then critique it. They refine their lessons until they become what Stevenson called “polished stones,” a practice that inspired a teaching film Stevenson produced with Shin-ying Lee. Called “The Polished Stones: Mathematics Achievement Among Chinese and Japanese Elementary School Students,” the film is often shown to new teachers.
Stevenson also found that, contrary to the grim stereotype of Asian schools being all work and no play, the picture was actually much brighter. The Asian schools gave students more breaks -- a 10- to 15-minute recess after every class --which enabled youngsters to shake off anxieties and come back refreshed for the next subject. In American elementary schools, one or two recesses a day remains the norm.
A native of Dines, Wyo., Stevenson spent his undergraduate years at the University of Colorado, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1947. He received a master’s in 1948 and a doctorate in 1951 from Stanford University. He was fluent in Japanese, which he learned while serving in the military during World War II.
He taught at several colleges and universities, including Pomona College in Claremont from 1950 to 1953, before joining the University of Michigan faculty in 1971. He directed the university’s program in child development and social policy from 1978 to 1993. He retired in 2001.
Stevenson is survived by his wife, Nancy; four children; a brother and seven grandchildren.