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Schools Where Teachers Learn from Each Other

Schools in the U.S. and Britain are often said to be "egg-carton" cultures. Like eggs in a carton, teachers are separated from each other by thick cushioning, so that they have no chance to bump up against each other's instruction.

In 1993, while observing in Japanese elementary schools, I suspected that the situation for Japanese teachers is quite different. I was surprised by how widely teachers used certain teaching approaches - such as investigative science and structured mathematical problem-solving - that are touted by researchers in the U.S., but have never spread widely in U.S. classrooms. When I asked Japanese teachers about how they learned these approaches, they often said "lesson study" (jugyou kenkyuu ) or "research lessons" (kenkyuu juygou ). You can see that these phrases contain the same two words, reversed in order.

Figure1
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Figure 1 shows the research lesson within the larger lesson study process. The research lesson is an actual, live classroom lesson that brings to life teachers' ideas about good teaching of a particular topic. A team of teachers plans and observes the research lesson, making careful observations of student learning as the lesson is taught by one team member to students. Other team members collect data on students' learning that are discussed during a post-lesson reflection meeting, and teachers draw out implications for redesign of the lesson, and for teaching and learning more broadly. Photographs show the steps of the lesson study cycle.

Introduced to the U.S. only about 10 years ago, lesson study is a type of professional learning that is nearly universal in Japanese elementary schools, and fairly common in lower secondary schools as well. Like the quality circles that are often credited for Japan's manufacturing prowess, lesson study values the knowledge of individuals on the frontline of the work, and provides a system through which they systematically share and build knowledge. Teachers around the world (http://hrd.apec.org/index.php/Lesson_Study; http://www.worldals.org/) have learned about lesson study through video and writings (http://www.lessonresearch.net/), and many teachers outside Japan have begun to practice lesson study. What benefits have they discovered? What challenges have they encountered?

 

1. Turning the pyramid of instructional improvement on its head

Figure 2
Figure2
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As schematically illustrated in Figure 2, U.S. teachers spend time in many activities designed to improve instruction, but few of these activities actually entail observing and discussing instruction with colleagues. In contrast, planning, observing, and discussing lessons is central to Japanese teachers' improvement efforts. In lesson study, Japanese teachers investigate available teaching materials, enact a lesson based on the available materials and their ideas about any needed improvements, and carefully study how students respond. Lesson study allows teachers take leadership in posing a question of pressing interest to them, seeking out available research (for which university-based collaborators can provide important support), and bringing to life their ideas about optimal teaching in an actual classroom research lesson. In this way, the U.S. instructional improvement pyramid shown in Figure 2 can be turned on its head. Teachers spend their time collaboratively planning, observing and discussing actual lessons and building the shared knowledge needed to refine and improve classroom teaching.

 

2. Imagining a new relationship between research and practice

The U.S. has a very well-developed enterprise of educational research at universities. We attract high-quality graduate students from around the world. But, if we measure the effectiveness of U.S. education research by how well students in our K-12 schools are doing, we would have to say that the U.S. educational research enterprise is not very effective! Much has been written about why (for a recent look, see Stein & Coburn, 2010). Not surprisingly, researchers often interpret the research-practice gap as a failure of policymakers and classroom teachers to use available research, whereas teachers may interpret the problem as the lack of usefulness or timeliness of available research. Lesson study embodies a very different relationship between university-based researchers and K-12 schools: each group brings important expertise and questions to the table. For example, the hands-on, minds-on investigative science in Japanese classrooms that has so impressed many U.S. observers was developed through collaboration of school-based and university-based educators who translated ideas of investigative science - some from the U.S. - to Japanese classrooms. School-based educators systematically studied and refined these through cycles of lesson study, often inviting in university-based educators to collaborate and provide commentary on large public research lessons. In the U.S., some lesson study sites find it difficult to find university-based colleagues or other knowledgeable outsiders who can help support and advance teachers' exploration of the subject matter and its teaching without taking over the work. For example, in one site I studied, an outside literacy specialist kept telling teachers how to teach, rather than asking questions about their planned approach, or introducing ideas that would challenge their assumptions. Telling may feel efficient in the short run, but does nothing to support teachers' agency as continuing inquirers. At a public research lesson in Japan, a university professor was introduced as someone who has "more than 75 invitations a year to comment on research lessons at schools." To be widely valued as a research lesson commentator and lesson study collaborator is a point of pride for Japanese professors. I hope such a system will emerge in the U.S.

 

3. Building professional learning communities

One U.S. teacher notes that, as her school practiced school-wide lesson study, the talk around the water cooler changed: Teachers began to talk comfortably about the daily experiences in the classroom. It became safe to share teaching challenges with colleagues. As teachers from Massachusetts, in the U.S. wrote about their lesson study experience:

Great trust has developed over time that allows us to be both teachers and learners with each other. Isn't that what it's all about? (http://www2.edc.org/lessonstudy/)

As this quote highlights, teachers may learn best in a supportive setting where they can admit their struggles and difficulties. Japanese teachers are fond of pointing out that lesson study is not just about what happens during the research lesson and post-lesson discussion, but also about how the human relationships among teachers in a school are changed as a result of teachers' participation in lesson study. As one Japanese teacher commented after the research lesson and post-lesson discussion were over:

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 (Lewis & Tsuchida, 1998).

 

4. What are the challenges of lesson study outside Japan?

When lesson study was first introduced to schools in the U.S., many researchers were skeptical about whether it could be transported from Japan to the very different culture of the U.S. I often heard comments like "U.S. teachers don't have the collaborative skills needed to do lesson study" or "U.S. teachers don't have the content knowledge that Japanese teachers have." Studies have established, however, that U.S. teachers can develop both collaborative skills and content knowledge through lesson study (e.g., Perry & Lewis, 2010; Lewis, Perry, Hurd, & O'Connell, 2006). U.S. adaptations of lesson study have often added explicit processes to build collaboration (see, for example, the protocols for norm-setting and discussion in Lewis & Hurd, 2011) and made sure U.S. teachers have access to high-quality materials about the content being studied, whether in mathematics (see, for example, http://www.lessonresearch.net/ies_details.html) or history (http://www.teachingamericanhistory.us/lesson_study/index.html).

There are now pockets of lesson study throughout the United States, and in many other countries-Brunei, Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, Viet Nam, to name a few that have been well-represented at meetings of the World Association of Lesson Studies. But many aspects of the Japanese lesson study system have yet to emerge. For example, U.S. lesson study has very little link to policy. In Japan, lesson study with large public research lessons is a key way for teachers to build and spread the knowledge needed to implement new curriculum and policies. But such a system does not exist (to my knowledge) in any other country. And while Japan has active voluntary lesson study networks at a variety of levels (local, regional, national), such networks are just beginning to emerge in other countries www.svmimac.org, most lesson study activity occurs in isolated pockets. Likewise, while it would be rare to find a Japanese principal or superintendent who fails to see the value in lesson study, many U.S. administrators still need to be persuaded of the value of lesson study. Working through organizations like World Association of Lesson Study (WALS) which will hold its annual conference in Tokyo in November, 2011 (www.worldals.org) I hope there will be many opportunities for educators from around the world to share and build knowledge of Japan's remarkable national treasure of lesson study.

 

References Cited

Lewis, C. & Hurd, J. (2011). Lesson study step by step: How teacher learning communities improve instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Lewis, C., Perry, R., Hurd, J., & O'Connell, M. P. (2006). Lesson study comes of age in North America. Phi Delta Kappan, December 2006, 273-281.

Perry, R. & Lewis, C. (2010). In Stein, M.K. & Coburn, C. (Eds.) Research and practice in education: Building alliances, bridging the divide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 131-145.

Stein, M.K. & Coburn, C. (2010). Research and practice in education: Building alliances, bridging the divide. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield
Publishing Group.

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