Imagine having the time to collaborate with colleagues to design lesson plans and being able to try the lessons out while receiving feedback from fellow educators. In Japan this method of improving teaching, known as lesson study, is common practice, and now some schools in the U.S. are experimenting with it as well.
In lesson study teachers come together to identify a teaching problem they want to solve. The teachers research why students are having trouble mastering a specific concept and together design a lesson plan to better teach that concept.
Then they hold a public research lesson where one teacher uses the lesson plan to teach a class of students while the other teachers observe. The observers focus on the students and how they respond to the lesson being taught.
Lesson study is the focus of one segment of a radio documentary from American RadioWorks, titled “Teaching Teachers.” The documentary explores methods for training new teachers and helping current teachers improve, and is worth a listen during your next long car ride or trip to the gym.
James Hiebert, an education researcher at the University of Delaware who is featured in the documentary, says, “Everything we do in the U.S. is focused on the effectiveness of the individual. ‘Is this teacher effective?’ Not, ‘Are the methods they’re using effective, and could they use other methods?’”
Catherine Lewis, an American researcher who became interested in lesson study when she was working in Japan in the 1990s and has since been helping teachers in the U.S. learn to use this approach, described the response of a teacher at a school that adopted lesson study. “The talk around the water cooler has really changed. We used to hide it when we had a failure. And everybody has failures in teaching. But we used to hide them. And now, we’re perfectly comfortable saying, ‘You know, I don’t have a good way of teaching division with remainders. What do you do? Can I come see it in your classroom?’”
The documentary identified many teachers in the U.S. who find lesson study to be a valuable tool for improving their practice. However, this approach to improving teaching and learning faces many hurdles in this country.
“We are so addicted to quick fixes,” says Hiebert. The response of policymakers is often, “If it doesn’t fix things in two years, it’s not worth it.”
Kate Field, CEA teacher development specialist, says that Japanese culture is very communal and that focus on the community likely plays a role in lesson study’s success there. Prior to working as a social studies teacher in Connecticut for 15 years, Field spent three years living and working in Japan.
“Japanese culture is rooted in Confucian values, which downplay the emphasis on the individual in favor of the group,” she says. “Japanese children are raised to cooperate and collaborate with each other and are taught to downplay individual accomplishments in favor of contributing to the accomplishments of the group.”
Field thinks that another reason lesson study has not caught on here in the U.S. is because teachers don’t have the same amount of time to collaborate. Field says that in Japanese schools, “Because community and collaboration are valued so highly, they dedicate a substantial portion of every day to allowing teachers to work together. It is hard to imagine the U.S. moving toward a system that gives teachers that much time to work together.”
Lesson study does have potential for teachers in the U.S, according to Field, “It just can’t be done exactly the way the Japanese do it.”
Field adds that “looking at how to improve teaching methods rather than focusing on ‘ineffective teachers’ is a powerful shift that has to happen in this country in order for meaningful improvement to occur. The concept of lesson study, if adequate time was provided, could be a valuable step in that direction.”
“Just because we haven’t done collaboration well in the past doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to foster it,” Field says.
Listen to the entire documentary, “Teaching Teachers,” by clicking here.