What schools everywhere can learn from Japanese lesson study

Samara Cooper

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Learning First’s new report, Australia’s primary challenge, explores why primary schools in Australia should develop more subject expertise among teachers, and how they could do so by drawing on the example of schools in Finland, Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong. This third blog in a series examines how the Japanese school system builds in expertise from a teacher’s first school experience to her last, through a process known as lesson study.

Imagine you’re a teacher who gets the chance to spend weeks preparing just one lesson. You go back and forth with colleagues on how best to design the lesson to meet student learning needs, anticipating potential questions and student errors in understanding. Then you deliver it to your class while a group of colleagues watches and studies whether students are engaged and learning. After the lesson, you sit down with the group and discuss how it went, how the students approached the task and how the lesson can be improved next time.

In Japan this process is called jugyokenkyu, or lesson study. Jugyo means teaching and learning, kenkyu means study or research lesson study. Lesson study is used in practicums (supervised placements in schools during initial teacher education), in teacher induction and in teachers’ everyday work. It is the main form of professional development throughout a teacher’s career. Japanese lesson study has become widely known, and many other countries – from the US to China to Zambia – have implemented similar programs.

Lesson study is used to help teachers develop the expertise to teach a subject. Deeply rooted in practice, it incorporates much of what is known about good adult learning and high quality professional development. In particular:

  • Lesson study is not undertaken by individual teachers but is a whole school, collaborative process. Many schools choose a broad research theme at the start of the year. They then create a schedule for lesson planning, with multiple research lessons (lessons observed by and discussed with colleagues) to take place throughout the year. Within the school-wide theme, smaller groups of teachers choose a more specific topic for study, based on an analysis of student learning needs. Together they plan and carry out two or three lesson study cycles a year.
  • Lesson study focuses on developing subject expertise in a way that incorporates everything a teacher needs to know and do to improve student learning. It involves subject-specific groups of teachers analysing student reactions and thought patterns and designing lessons to best teach the content. The collaborative nature of lesson study means that new teachers learn directly from more experienced peers who have deep teaching expertise in that subject. It can also make for much more creative teaching, as teachers debate how to impart knowledge in a way that grabs students. Writing a book on education in Japan in the early 1990s, American researcher Catherine Lewis discovered that Japanese teachers had devised many engaging ways to show primary students how to figure out the area of a parallelogram, whereas it had been taught to her as a formula to memorise when she was in school in the US.
  • Lesson study focusses on student learning. It relies on the ability of others to observe and analyse not the teacher’s performance but its impact on the students. It is very important for other teachers to carefully observe the students because a lot of teachers don’t realise that the way they are teaching is not advancing students’ learning. Teachers can perform lesson after lesson and never realise that the way they are teaching is not getting through. Other teachers in their classroom can observe not only the teaching but the way students are learning (or not).
  • Lesson study devotes a significant amount of teacher time to planning and reflection. A typical lesson study cycle takes at least five weeks. Planning for a single research lesson can involve 10 to 15 hours of meetings. It is a slow and considered process. At the end of the year, teachers will often write an action research report that pulls together all their learning, including a detailed lesson plan, summaries of their professional learning and questions to consider for future research lessons. This way learning is always built upon previous knowledge and never lost.

Lesson study is not about creating the perfect lesson. It is about establishing collaborative practices that explicitly tie teacher professional learning to student learning. Once such practices become established, schools become true learning organisations for both teachers and students. The work of Learning First focusses on how to build these organisations. Lesson study is one valid approach, and other systems have much to learn from it.

The stages of lesson study

 

Samara Cooper is a former associate at Learning First. Read Australia’s Primary Challenge.