Teacher Development in Japan

The ITE CoP explored ways to develop teacher expertise, including Japanese Lesson Study. We compiled three resources on teacher development in Japan, including:

1.  A working paper written by Learning First on teacher development in Japan

2.  A set of frequently asked questions about Japanese Lesson Study

3.  Questions and Answers with Japanese Lesson Study expert, Dr Akihiko Takahashi, who spoke to ITE CoP participants in a November 2016 webinar

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Japanese Lesson Study?

Lesson study consists of groups of teachers deeply analyzing lessons using an improvement cycle. In groups, teachers prepare a research lesson to meet goals for improving instruction. One or more teachers lead the lesson while others watch and collect evidence on student engagement and learning. After this, a debrief discussion is held on what happened, how students approached the task assigned and how the lesson can be improved in the future. The purpose of the lesson study is not to refine a lesson to perfection but instead to deeply analyze a lesson in order to build teacher expertise. A typical lesson study cycle takes at least 5 weeks. It is a slow and considered developmental process.

How does Japanese lesson study help build subject expertise?

Lesson study is designed to gradually build subject expertise across the entire teaching staff. Lesson study can increase teacher subject knowledge through a deeper understanding of student learning and the impact of different instructional approaches. This can establish a cycle that slowly builds subject knowledge in teachers, leading to improved teaching and improved student outcomes.

For example, when looking at different ways of introducing students to algebra, teachers analyze different approaches they might take, predict the different ways students can understand (and misunderstand) the key content, and decide how best to address these issues. All of this make teachers think carefully about content and pedagogy, as they must understand the underlying mathematical concepts and the different ways these concepts are learnt by students.

How does Japanese lesson study fit into broader ITE in Japan?

In Japan, lesson study occurs throughout a teacher’s career, from in-school practicums during ITE, to teacher induction, to ongoing professional learning. Teachers learn the required steps to develop their teaching during ITE, which is continued throughout their career. More so, however, teachers learn the required ‘lifelong learner’ mindset in ITE that is facilitated throughout their career through the process of lesson study.

Could Japanese lesson study work in another country?

Yes! While there are many superficial implementations of lesson study around the world, it is definitely possible to implement the activities of lesson study outside of Japan. Dr Takahashi has been working in the United States to do just this and has determined several institutional structures and practices that are important for maximising its impact. He calls this process Collaborative Lesson Research which has the following components: a clear research purpose, kyouzai kenkyuu (the careful study of academic content and teaching materials), a written research proposal, a live research lesson and discussion, knowledgeable others and sharing of results. It’s also very important that the school is committed to lesson study (or collaborative lesson research) as a whole and has a long-term, well-planning timetable for the research, a structure to support teacher collaboration and opportunities to bring in updated knowledge.

Q and A with Lesson Study Expert Dr Akihiko Takahashi


 “They have a saying in Japan. To become a teacher, you have to complete a teacher program. To become a good teacher, you have to work continuously and work hard.” – Dr Akihiko Takahashi

Introducing Dr Akihiko Takahashi

Dr Takahashi is a professor of math education at DePaul University. Before that he was an elementary school teacher in Japan. Dr Takahashi first came to the United States in the early 1990s expecting to see the great approaches to teaching math that he and his colleagues in Japan had learned about from American researchers. When he couldn’t find these approaches being used in classrooms, he soon realized why: there was no lesson study in the United States. Dr. Takahashi now helps run an organization called Lesson Study Alliance that helps American teachers learn lesson study. As a result, Dr. Takahashi has an in-depth understanding of both lesson study in Japan and how those lessons can translate to a US context.

Presentation Dr Akihiko Takahashi

Dr Takahashi presented the following slides to the CoP, and discussed the questions below with the group.

Many schools and districts in the US use set curricular resources. These resources tend to vary in quality and alignment to the standards. In your work in the US, what do you notice about the curriculum used and what advice would you give us to help teachers use/modify them?

Most teachers look at the text book and they try to teach it to the class. However there is too much information in the text book. The publishers are afraid of covering all the content so they always put in more, rather than less. Teachers need to study carefully and think about which part of the text book is ‘must have’ and which is ‘nice to have’ in order to accomplish the student learning goal. Teachers can then remove the ‘nice to have’ and focus on the ‘must have’ to meet students' needs. Thinking about what you can lose without reducing the goal of the lesson is one of the first steps the teacher must perform as part of Kyouzai Kenkyuu, examining the text book material.

The typical mindset of teachers when they plan the lesson is they look at the worksheet or the task and ask which standard does that particular task address? They look at the individual problems or individual tasks and how they relate to the standard. But the Common Core State Standards are more like a list of what curriculum goals the student has to master. Teachers need to look at the standards in a different way. Start from standards and then look at the material. They should ask themselves, ‘to accomplish this goal how many lessons / tasks is enough?’ From that they can then set up a unit. If they have examined the text book material as I mentioned, the unit is putting all the necessary text book tasks together.

The following diagram (taken from Dr Takahashi’s slides) depicts the Kyouzai Kenkyuu in the lesson study process.


Does lesson study help teachers increase their skills to choose and develop the right teaching materials?

The design of curriculum requires a lot of skills and knowledge beyond what teachers have. Teachers have a good knowledge of working with students and delivering the curriculum to the students. However it is not necessary for them to be able to design a new curriculum. One of the mistakes I usually see is school districts asking teachers to design their own curriculum. Very often it doesn’t work. Curriculum design requires someone with special knowledge and skills. However, teachers have a very good sense about examining the curriculum to see if it is appropriate for their students or not. If you have good observation skills and formative assessment skills and then you can examine the curriculum.

We have a lot of teachers in the U.S. who are Level 1. Can you go from Level 1 to Level 3, or do we need to do something different with Level 1 teachers to help them get to Level 2 (before going to Level 3)?

Dr Takahashi’s slides explain three levels of expertise of mathematics teaching used by Japanese mathematics educators and teachers:

•  Level 1: The teacher can tell students the important basic ideas of mathematics such as facts, concepts, procedures, and practices.

•  Level 2: The teacher can explain the meanings and reasons of the important basic ideas and practices of mathematics in order for students to understand them.

•  Level 3: The teacher can provide students with opportunities to understand these basic ideas and practices, and support their learning so that the students become independent learners.

(Sugiyama, Y. 2008, Trans. Takahashi, A., 2011a)

Many school districts provide workshops open to any teachers to become Level 3 teachers. But that is not how it works. To become Level 3 you should have the knowledge of a Level 2 teacher. With Level 3 style teaching, once the student is stuck, teachers should be able to clearly explain to students how to progress. Level 3 teachers may not share the knowledge to the students while teaching, but they should have Level 2 knowledge for designing lessons and making instructional decisions while teaching.  That means that a Level 1 teacher cannot skip Level 2 to become Level 3.

The Level 2 knowledge - PCK, knowledge about curriculum, content, how it works – is such an important piece. That is why Japanese initial teacher education is focused on everyone developing this knowledge. However, it is impossible to cover every single topic that a teacher might teach during the four years of initial teacher preparation. Therefore, training teachers in how to conduct kyouzai kenkyuu is helping teachers to learn to perform their own studies if they need it.

How can the principles of Japanese lesson study be used to build stronger content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge in beginning teachers, especially if teacher candidates start with low content knowledge?

In Japan, you rarely begin lesson study by designing lessons and teaching lessons. Teachers begin the lesson study process by participating in others’ research lessons. Japanese schools provide beginning teachers with enough of an opportunity to observe other people’s research lessons and engage in their post-lesson discussion. This is the place where there is discussion of Level 2 knowledge, designing lessons, teaching through problem solving etc. Novice teachers are encouraged to go to these open house lesson study sessions and learn with experienced teachers. This is a place you can deepen your content knowledge in a way that is much more powerful than listening in a lecture because it is much more situated in practice.

The following diagram (taken from Dr Takahashi’s slides) depicts the different types of professional development and how they develop different types of teaching knowledge and skills.

Professional development.png

What are the most effective ways to help move teachers from Level 1 to Level 2 (once they are out of school and actively teaching)?

We see a lot of Level 1 teachers in the US. You watch some teachers’ research lessons and they are simply Level 1 teaching and they are happy with that. Why are they happy? Because they can’t see the students.

In lesson study if you carefully look at the students, when the teacher says something and the students don’t learn much that has a huge impact. Lesson study gives these teachers the opportunity to see the reality of what is happening in the classroom. It helps them to be motivated that they need to be better - that Level 1 is not enough. It is a tough lesson but they need to be able to see for themselves the fact that students are not learning much by simply listening teacher’s explanations.

The following table (taken from Dr Takahashi’s slides) compares lesson study to traditional teacher development.


Student teaching in Japan seems short compared to in the US? Why is this the case? Where do Japanese teachers learn practical teaching skills? 

In the US, the mindset is that if you teach more, you will get better. So, once you do a lot of teaching you get better.

Typically, Japanese prospective teachers have two sets of student teaching during four-year teacher training programs at a university, one at a university attached school during the third year of the program and another during the fourth year of the program. For the first student teaching placement, typically 4-6 student teachers are assigned to one class and work with one co-operating teacher. Each student teacher teaches only three of four lessons during three weeks of the student teaching but they are much more focused. Before they teach their lesson to the class they need to get approval from cooperating teachers and they often need to rewrite the lesson plan 2-3 times. They then present the lesson to their colleagues and they explain why certain parts are important. It is much more in-depth, much more like lesson study. When they teach the lesson, it is observed by all other student teachers and the cooperating teacher. They then have an hour-long discussion about it. They reflect on it. Based on the reflection the student teacher will design another lesson. Each time it is very intense and so the student teacher carefully designs and reflect, and they use the opportunity to learn from it.

In other words, Japanese student teachers are introduced the basics of lesson study during their first student teaching placement during the third year of their program. Based on this experience each student teacher goes to public schools, just like typical US student teaching placements during the fourth year of their program. The differences are the duration, only three weeks, and timing, in the middle of the fourth year and not the end of teacher preparation program.

Over the three lessons the quality becomes really different.

Here in the US not many people carefully observe the student teacher’s teaching process. Most co-operating teachers do not carefully collect observed data of student learning to support the student teacher. The student teachers teach a lot but there is not much careful reflection. If you do not have reflection, student teachers may not be able to improve. Doing more but without careful reflection based on the observed data of student learning process may not be as sufficient as doing a few lessons with careful preparation and careful in-depth reflection.

Lesson Study can be an efficient way to develop teachers but can also involve a lot of intense support. What are the differences in resources and costs to deliver both types of approaches (traditional professional development in US v lesson study in Japan)?

Lesson study is decentralization of professional development. Instead of resources coming from the center, each school has an authentic approach, coming up with a school-wide question and then working together. They will not need so many directions from outside. You can do most of the parts of lesson study in the school with minimal support from outside. You don’t have to spend so much money for hiring professional development specialist and sending teachers to go to conferences and workshops. For example, Chicago public schools have built in preparation time for professional development each week and that time can be used for lesson study. So, there is not much additional cost compared to asking someone from outside to run a workshop or paying for new materials for teachers. In fact, OECD studies often show that the Japanese school system does not spend so much money compared to other countries

Further reading

Collaborative lesson research: maximizing the impact of lesson study

Supporting the Effective Implementation of a New Mathematics Curriculum: A Case Study of School-Based Lesson Study at a Japanese Public Elementary School