Overview of Lesson Study in Japan
In this paper, Makoto Yoshida, an expert in lesson study and Japanese teaching practices, provides an overview of lesson study of Japan. The practice of lesson study has a long history. It is correlated to the improvement of teaching and learning in the classroom and has helped develop curriculum in Japan. Yoshida outlines the process as it has been practiced in Japan, including planning a lesson study schedule; choosing a research theme; preparing, writing, teaching, and discussing a research lesson; writing a lesson study report; and hosting an open house.
Lesson study, called Jugyokenkyu in Japanese, is the core professional development process Japanese teachers use to continually improve the quality of the learning experiences they provide to their students. The practice has a long history, and it has helped to significantly improve teaching and learning in the classroom as well as develop curriculum in Japan. Many elementary and middle school teachers in Japan have reported that lesson study is one of the important professional development approaches that helps teachers grow as professionals throughout their career (Yoshida 1999).
Japanese teachers conduct lesson study in many forms and venues. Lesson study is conducted as a part of Konaikenshu, school-based professional development, and organized as school-wide groups or specific content area groups. Lesson study can also be done across schools. In Japan these practices are organized by region (e.g., school district), voluntary teacher groups (e.g., math study groups and circles), as part of a first-year teacher education process, and as part of educational associations and institutions.
There are three main activities that make up lesson study: (1) identifying a lesson study research theme; (2) conducting a small number of research lessons that explore this theme; and (3) reflecting on the process, which includes producing written reports.
Identifying a Lesson Study Research Theme
The process for setting the research theme (goal or main aim) for a specific lesson study involves initial discussions among all teachers of the group. This process is usually carried out at the beginning of the lesson study process. A research theme is usually established by identifying the gap between their students’ state of learning and understanding and the teachers’ aspirations for their students, which are based upon the available data and reflecting on classroom practices. In addition, teachers discuss how they want to close performance gaps. Through this exercise, the Japanese teachers establish a research theme and use it as a focus of improvement to conduct their lesson study activities. The research theme is also used to determine the success of the lesson study.
Tsuta Elementary School in Hiroshima, Japan set up "Promoting students' ability to think autonomously, invent, and learn from each other while focusing on problem-solving in mathematics" as a lesson study research theme. To establish the research theme, the school held a couple of staff meetings. All of the grade-level teacher groups shared their views about their students’ state of learning, the students’ weaknesses in learning, and their aspirations for their students. Then the teachers identified a few common issues that they could agree on to improve their students’ learning.
This excerpt from my doctoral dissertation further explains how the Tsuta teachers determined their research theme:
“The students at this school are cheerful, obedient and are very enthusiastic about learning. However, it seems as if they have not acquired the skills to think deeply about one problem, listen and pay attention to the comments of other students, and respect the opinions of other students. Moreover, as the students reach the fifth and sixth grade, they become more and more afraid of making mistakes in front of other students. As a result of this fear, they become less willing to be active participants in the learning process. In order to address these problems, the team decided on the topic of "Promoting students’ ability to think on their own, invent, and learn from each other." They felt that by choosing this topic they could build on each student’s strong desire to learn (when they face a new subject) and teach (them how to enhance their learning from) other students' ideas and from their mistakes (and the mistakes of others), while at same time fostering a feeling of success among all the students.” (Yoshida 1999)
In Japan, lesson study has been conducted in mathematics and many other subject areas. A few examples of lesson study research themes in several subject areas are:
- focusing on Japanese language lessons to foster students' expressive abilities
- developing well thought out mathematics lessons that provide students with a feeling of satisfaction and enjoyment of mathematical activities while fostering their ability to have good foresight and logical thinking
- using a Japanese language class to foster students' ability to wrestle with topics they discover on their own
- fostering students' lively and autonomous behavior by developing their physical strength and health.
A Japanese school generally works on the same research theme and the same content area, such as mathematics, for three to four years. This is particularly true for a Konaikenshu setting, in which a school tries to develop consistency in instruction throughout the school to improve student learning. As mentioned earlier, Tsuta’s three-year research theme was: "Promoting students’ ability to think autonomously, invent, and learn from each other while focusing on problem solving in mathematics." To achieve this large goal, the teachers usually set up a series of sub-goals, one for each year, while keeping the research theme as an overarching objective. The first year might focus on fostering students’ comprehension skills on word problems. The second year might focus on presentation and listening skills, and the third year might focus on fostering their discussion skills. These sub-goals provide a step-wise approach to achieving the overall research theme.
Conducting Research Lessons
In the initial research and preparation stage, a group of teachers jointly draws up a detailed plan for the research lesson. This group is usually called a lesson-planning group. A lesson-planning group usually consists of four to six people. If lesson study is conducted in a Konaikenshu setting, the teachers are divided into small subgroups and function as the lesson-planning groups.
To prepare a research lesson, a team of teachers discuss many issues. First, teachers look at the unit they are going to investigate and discuss:·
- what is being taught and how a textbook presents a unit
- how other textbooks or materials present the unit differently
- relationship of the unit to the curriculum
- students’ previously learned knowledge and current state of understanding of the topic
- goals and important mathematical concepts in the unit
- how the research lesson fits into the unit
- goal of the research lesson.
Then the teachers discuss the specifics of the research lesson they are developing. Following is a list of topics they often discuss:
- problem the lesson will focus on
- how to start the lesson (engagement and interest)
- main question to ask to promote student thinking
- students’ anticipated solutions and teacher’s responses
- instructional tools and manipulatives
- handouts and note taking
- blackboard organization and media use
- progression, flow, and coherence of the lesson
- how and where to end the lesson
- how to evaluate the lesson
Teachers often discuss other issues along with the research lesson they are developing. Some topics are:
- how to handle individual differences
- how to foster various student skills to solve mathematical problems (e.g., drawing diagrams, tables, and graphs; ordering; and categorizing)
- how to foster other student skills besides knowledge about mathematics (e.g., student listening skills and presentation skills)
- types of learning experiences that help students engage, be interested in, and want to further investigate the lesson
- abstract issues about mathematics education (e.g., What do we teach students by teaching the subject of mathematics?)
In the process of planning the lesson, the teachers develop a detailed written research lesson. The written research lesson plan is a critical component of the lesson study process. The process of writing the lesson plan itself helps the teachers deepen their thinking about the issues involved. The research lesson plan becomes a written record of the team’s work. The plan also serves as a means of communication with other teachers in and out of the group during the lesson study process. Lastly, it can be shared with other lesson study practitioners so the group’s effort can become other teachers’ resource for improving teaching and learning.
After the lesson is developed, a teacher from the group teaches the research lesson in a real classroom while other members observe. Teachers from outside the planning group are invited as well in order to offer helpful suggestions for improving the lesson. After the lesson, a debriefing session is held and the observers reflect and discuss the lesson. Things they learn from the discussion are incorporated into the revision of the research lesson and implemented in another classroom. This is an optional but highly recommended process, particularly for novice lesson study practitioners, since the first implementation/observation of the lesson helps teachers to see how the plan they made actually works in a real classroom. Seeing the practice in the classroom also facilitates a more productive discussion for developing a better lesson. After the research lesson is revised, another member of the group teaches it in another classroom. The number of observers is usually higher for the second implementation. An outside advisor is usually invited for this occasion. After the lesson, a debriefing session is held to reflect upon and discuss the lesson. Finally, the lesson plans for the research lesson and thoughts from the discussions are compiled into a written report.
To carry out the debriefing session smoothly and effectively, a facilitator and a note taker are assigned. The teacher who taught the lesson, the lesson-planning group, a facilitator, a note-taker, and an outside advisor usually sit together and carry out the discussion with the other observers. The debriefing session starts with a reflection on the lesson by the teacher who taught the lesson. The teacher shares his/her view on the students’ learning, difficulties faced, decisions made that were different from the original plan, and other issues the teacher wants to discuss with the participants. Then the other members of the lesson writing team share what they observed. From these teachers’ reflections, the facilitator selects a few focus topics and the discussion is opened to all the participants. The last five to ten minutes are usually reserved for comments from the outside advisor. The outside advisor ties together the discussion and provides some helpful suggestions that all participants can learn from this research lesson observation.
Reflecting and Recording
In order to summarize the lesson study group’s activity and achievement and keep a record for future use, the school compiles the research lesson plans developed throughout the school year, observation data and notes, samples of students’ work, discussion notes, and the reflections on the lesson study activity into a final report. This record becomes an important resource for teachers to improve their practice in the future. In Japan, schools produce such lesson study reports and store them at the school as well as the board of education and education centers. They are often distributed at lesson study open houses and to important guests when they visit the school. In Japan, teachers publish many lesson study case study books, which are available at large popular bookstores.
Yearly Schedule for Conducting Lesson Study in Konaikenshu
In a Konaikenshu setting, each sub-group generally carries out two or three lesson study cycles per year. These lesson-planning groups engage in lesson study cycles when they are less busy with regular school activities. They tend to avoid the time when the school is holding school events, testing, etc. When teachers have time, they usually engage intensively in lesson study. At the beginning of the year, lesson study time is usually allotted for planning the lesson study schedule and setting goals. At the end of the year, time is reserved for summarizing the lesson study activities. Having some different planning groups provides more occasions for the teachers to observe well-prepared lessons as well as engage in discussion of those lessons. Japanese teachers report that each year they usually have about 10 occasions to observe research lessons in and outside of schools and have one or two chances to teach in front of other teachers as part of lesson study. In addition, they reported that lesson study in a Konaikenshu setting helps teachers provide a coherent and consistent instruction for the students at the school (Yoshida 1999).
Lesson Study Open House
On occasion, schools in Japan open their schools to the public to showcase their lesson study achievement. The purpose of a lesson study open house is to share the school’s lesson study achievement with other schools and to hold discussions with invited guests and learn from them. Usually, a number of lessons are taught while the guests observe. Discussions of the lessons follow. The host school usually prepares a booklet that contains lesson plans along with a brochure describing the school and the lesson study work conducted there. Local well-known teachers, administrators, and university professors are often invited as outside advisors to provide their perspective on the school’s lesson study achievement.
Key Features of Lesson Study
Lesson study provides teachers a concrete opportunity to see teaching and learning in the classroom. Lesson study guides teachers to focus their discussions on planning, implementation, observation, and reflection of classroom practice. By looking at actual practice in the classroom, teachers are able to develop a common understanding or image of what effective teaching practice entails, which in turn helps students understand what they are learning.
Another unique characteristic of lesson study is that it keeps students at the heart of the professional development activity. Lesson study provides an opportunity for teachers to carefully examine the student learning and understanding process by observing and discussing actual classroom practice. This opportunity also enhances the role of teachers as researchers in the classroom. Teachers establish a hypothesis (e.g., if we teach a particular way, the children learn) and test it in the classroom with students. Then the teachers collect data while observing the students during the lesson and determine whether or not the hypothesis worked in the classroom.
Another characteristic of lesson study is that it is teacher-led professional development. Through lesson study, teachers can be actively involved in the process of instructional change and curriculum development. In addition, the collaboration helps reduce isolation among teachers and develop a common understanding of how to systematically and consistently improve instruction and learning in the school as a whole. Moreover, lesson study is a form of research that allows teachers to take a central role as investigators of their own classroom practice and become life-long autonomous thinkers and researchers of teaching and learning in the classroom.
Yoshida, M. (1999). Lesson Study: A Case Study of a Japanese Approach to Improving Instruction Through School-Based Teacher Development. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Chicago.
This paper was originally published online in August 2003.