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What Are the Essential Elements of Lesson Study?

I recently asked a large group of California teachers how many of them had seen a promising educational approach discarded before it had been given a reasonable try. Every hand went up. Teachers volunteered several reasons that innovations fail so regularly. Many innovations are "watered down" or reduced to a few ritualistic activities by the time they reach the local school sites, where trainers may be several generations removed from the innovation's originators. Local educators may be pressured to implement features of an innovation quickly, without understanding their underlying purpose.

For the last ten years, I have conducted research in Japan on lesson study, the core form of professional development for Japanese teachersi. In the lesson study cycle, teachers work together to:

  • Formulate goals for student learning and long-term development.
  • Collaboratively plan a "research lesson" designed to bring these goals to life.
  • Conduct the lesson, with one team member teaching and others gathering evidence on student learning and development.
  • Discuss the evidence gathered during the lesson, using it to improve the lesson, the unit, and instruction more generally.
  • Teach the revised lesson in another classroom, if desired, and study and improve it again.ii

Lesson study is credited for the shift from "teaching as telling" to "teaching for understanding" in Japanese mathematics and science education, and is highly valued both by Japanese teachers and administrators. Although lesson study is rapidly emerging in sites across the United Statesiii, the history of other educational innovations should make us wary. Will lesson study be scantily implemented and quickly discarded like so many other once-promising educational innovations?

Unfortunately, lesson study and other innovations do not come with features neatly labeled "superficial" or "essential" so we know just how to implement them. To make matters worse, many features of lesson study will no doubt have to be adapted for the very different educational environment of the US. How are we to know what is a beneficial adaptation and what is a "lethal mutation?"

Lesson Study: A Handbook of Teacher-led Instructional Change identifies core experiences of lesson study, drawing on interviews with Japanese and US educators and observations of lesson study groups in both countries. Published recently by Research for Better Schools at <>, the handbook also highlights the practical know-how developed by educators in San Mateo-Foster City School District (CA) and other US settings to bring to life lesson study in the United States.2 Chapter 4 of the Handbook, excerpted here, summarizes the opportunities that well-designed lesson study should provide, which are also laid out in Figure 1.

1. Think Carefully about the Goals of a Particular Lesson, Unit, and Subject Area

A US teacher described the impact of lesson study on his instruction:

"The most notable change in my lesson planning and teaching has been the questions that I ask myself. The first question I ask myself about a lesson is 'what do I want the students to learn from this lesson?' While this may seem an obvious question to ask, it was never something I asked myself until I began the lesson study process. The question I was asking myself before lesson study was more like 'what am I covering today?'iv

2. Study and Improve the Best Available Lessons

US teachers beginning lesson study often assume that lessons should be original, but in fact lesson study typically builds on and improves the best available lesson and unit plans. For example, the teachers featured in the video "Can You Lift 100 Kilograms?" began by comparing several different unit plans for teaching levers.3 As teachers draw on the best available lessons, and add, test, and report their modifications, the quality of lessons steadily improves.

3. Deepen Our Subject-Matter Knowledge

Lesson study provides opportunities to discuss the academic content of lessons. For example, US and Japanese lesson study groups have discussed issues like the following in the course of planning or analyzing lessons:

  • When students move a solar battery closer to a light source and when they add a bulb to the light source, are students correct to describe both of these as "intensifying the light on the solar battery?"
  • What is the "slope" of a line? Is it the same thing as the angle of a line? If so, when a line's angle is changed by a change in the scale of the y axis, does the line's slope change as well?
  • Why are there 180 degrees in the angles of a triangle?
  • If tweezers are a lever, where is the fulcrum?

4. Think Deeply about Our Long-term Goals for Students

During lesson study, teachers consider the ideal qualities they hope students will have five or ten years in the future, their current qualities, and the gap between the two.v This long-term, whole-child focus is illustrated by Japanese lesson study goals, for example, to nurture students who "take pleasure in friendships and learning;" "hold their own viewpoints" and "take initiative in learning."

Since the importance of concrete and measurable outcomes is so often hammered into US educators, the Japanese focus on broad and long-term goals (in addition to academic objectives) can be puzzling. But to many US educators, the opportunity to consider long-term goals feels like the essential missing piece of instructional improvement. As one US teacher commented:

  A lot of [American] schools develop mission statements, but we don't do anything with them. The mission statements get put in a drawer and then teachers become cynical because the mission statements don't go anywhere. Lesson study gives guts to a mission statement, makes it real, and brings it to

5. Collaboratively Plan Lessons

While the average Japanese teacher sees about ten research lessons a year,vii US teachers have few opportunities to observe lessons taught by others.viii Lesson study builds a community of practice. As a Japanese teacher said after a research lesson:

  The research lesson is not over yet. It's not a one-time lesson; rather, it gives me a chance to continue consulting with other teachers. For example, I may say to other teachers, 'I want to ask you about my last lesson you saw...' Then, the other teachers can provide me with concrete suggestions and advice because they have seen at least one lesson I conducted. We teachers can better connect with each other in this way.

As another Japanese teacher said: "What's a successful research lesson? It's not so much what happens in the research lesson itself that makes it successful or unsuccessful. It is what you learned working with your colleagues on the way there."

6. Carefully Study Student Learning and Behavior

During research lessons, each lesson study team member has a data collection assignment-for example, to record changes in student thinking or methods used by students to solve problems. Data collected typically include evidence of learning, of interest or motivation, and of students' treatment of one another-reflecting the belief that classroom climate and student motivation, as well as academic knowledge, are important predictors of future learning.

In a perfectly controlled world, the "best practices" documented by research might be the same in every classroom. But in the real world, every class is different. Lesson study assumes that teachers need to look for evidence of students' learning, motivation, and development in their own setting. Lesson study also provides a means for teachers to develop their evidence-gathering skills and ability to see a lesson from the student's point of view. Developing "the eyes to see children" is, in the view of many Japanese educators, the most important goal of lesson study.

7. Develop Powerful Instructional Knowledge

Lesson study also builds instructional knowledge that can be applied across diverse lessons. San Mateo-Foster City teachers list among their learnings from lesson study many instructional strategies applicable across lessons, for example: use of the blackboard to keep a continuous lesson record; the realization that minor variations in the problem posed and the manipulatives could "make or break" the lesson, and the importance of creating a hunger for mathematical terminology rather than just introducing it. The teachers of "Can You Lift 100 Kilograms?"ix discovered that students gave very different responses when asked to look at an actual 220-pound sack than when given an illustration of the sack on a worksheet. Through lesson study, teachers develop and improve teaching strategies that can be applied throughout the curriculum, such as how to pose a good "hatsumon" (major question or problem) that will sustain students' interest throughout the lesson and unit, how to use debates to maximize student participation in discussions, and how to foster student note-taking and reflectionx

8. See One's Own Teaching through the Eyes of Colleagues and Students

As they plan a lesson together, members of a lesson study group learn about their own assumptions about teaching, and how these may differ from those held by other teachers. Collection of data during research lessons reveals the lesson through student experiences. As a Japanese teacher eloquently notes, research lessons provide a mirror on one's practice:

  A lesson is like a swiftly flowing river; when you're teaching you must make judgments instantly. When you do a research lesson, your colleagues write down your words and the students' words. Your real profile as a teacher is revealed to you for the first time.xi

Figure 1
Has lesson study enabled us to:
  • Think carefully about the goals of a particular lesson, unit and subject area.
  • Study and improve the best available lessons.
  • Deepen our subject-matter knowledge.
  • Think deeply about our long-term goals for students.
  • Collaboratively plan lessons.
  • Carefully study student learning and behavior.
  • Develop powerful instructional knowledge.
  • See one's own teaching through the eyes of students and colleagues.

As US teachers learn about lesson study, it may be tempting to think of it as a codified set of procedures for planning, conducting, analyzing, and revising a lesson. But the key to successful lesson study in the US may be attention to the experiences in Figure 1.


* * * * * * * * * *
1Portions excerpted, with permission, from Lesson Study: A Handbook of Teacher-led Instructional Change, by Catherine C. Lewis. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools, 2002.

iLewis, C., & Tsuchida, I. (1998, Winter). A lesson is like a swiftly flowing river: Research lessons and the improvement of Japanese education. American Educator, 14-17 & 50-52; Lewis, C. & Tsuchida, I. (1997) Planned educational change in Japan: The shift to student-centered elementary science. Journal of Education Policy, 12:5, 313-331; 2002 Lewis, C. Does Lesson Study Have a Future in the United States? Nagoya Journal of Education and Human Development 2002, No. 1 (p.1.-24)

iiRe-teaching the research lesson is optional, but highly recommended by Makoto Yoshida, a pioneer of lesson study in US schools (see Close-up 2, Chapter 5).

iiiA list of lesson study groups in North America may be found at the website of the Columbia Lesson Study Research Group at Teachers College, Columbia University, <>.

2This material is based upon research supported by the National Science Foundation under grants REC 9814967 and RED-9355857. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

ivNick Timpone, teacher, Paterson Public School Number Two, Questionnaire Response, January, 2001.

3Videotape viewable and available at <>.

vFernandez, Chokshi, S., Cannon, J. , & Yoshida, M. (2001). Learning about lesson study in the United States. In E. Beauchamp (Ed.), New and old voices on Japanese education. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E._Sharpe.for a description of this process in a US school.

viClass discussion comment by student teacher, Mills College class, Oakland CA, January 12, 2001.

viiYoshida, M. (1999). "Lesson Study: A Case Study of a Japanese approach to Improving Instruction Through School-Based Teacher Development." Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.

viiiYoshida, M. (1999). "Lesson Study: A Case Study of a Japanese approach to Improving Instruction Through School-Based Teacher Development." Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago; Darling-Hammond, L. & Ball, D.L. (1998). Teaching for high standards: What policymakers need to know and be able to do. New York; National Commission on Teaching and America's Future and Consortium for Policy Research in Education; Darling-Hammond, L. (1997). The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

ix"Can You Lift 100 Kilograms?" is an 18-minute video of the lesson study cycle in a Japanese school, available from <>.

xYoshida, M. (1999). "Lesson Study: A case study of a Japanese approach to improving instruction through school-based teacher development." Doctoral dissertation, University of Chicago.

xiKazuyoshi Morita, teacher at Tsukuba attached elementary school, interview on 7/3/96


Catherine C. Lewis
Currently a senior research scientist at Mills College, Catherine Lewis has conducted research in Japanese schools since 1979 and is fluent in Japanese. A graduate of Harvard University (BA) and Stanford University (Ph.D.), she is principal investigator of the NSF-funded project, "Lesson Study: Case Studies of an Emerging Reform," and author of more than 40 publications on elementary education, child development, and educational change, including the award-winning book Educating Hearts and Minds: Reflections on Japanese Preschool and Elementary Education (Cambridge University Press, 1995).
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