"Can we really teach students to communicate and share their ideas
if we as teachers don't do so ourselves?"
A Math Teacher's Travel Journal To Japan
By Bill Jackson
We visited Ishida Elementary School, serving 470 students in grades 1 through 6 in Kofu City, about 2 hours from Tokyo. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Fuji - Fuji-san in Japanese.
Students at this school didn't speak nearly as much English as their counterparts in Tokyo but they were very happy to see us. We ate lunch with the students, visited many different classes, and had a wonderful time. Afterward, the principal, Mr. Jinguiji, and vice-principal, Mr. Takahashi, and the head of the school's research committee discussed the lesson study goal. We also attended a "konaikenshu", the school based lesson study meeting, which was the seventh such meeting they've had this year - the year began in April.
Overview Of Lesson Study At The School
Teachers at Ishida Elementary School were concerned about having good relationships with each other but they were not looking at their lessons with critical eyes. Japanese people tend to go along with the group instead of being individuals and, therefore, tend to have similar ideas. This is hindering their efforts to improve. The same problem exists with the students. Instead of having their own ideas, they are often content with going along with the group. To solve this problem, the school is working together to foster many different points of view among both students and teachers. Through lesson study, they are addressing these issues in order to improve the education at the school.
The school's lesson study goal is "to foster solid understanding and learning in students." To achieve the goal they want to "bring out multiple points of view, recognize different points of view, and come up with ideas" and to "develop communication skills in students." By communicating with each other, students can learn from each other and raise their level of understanding. To do this, however, they need to be able to express their own ideas and listen to the ideas of their friends. In order to foster this trait in students, teachers need to be able to communicate as well. In lesson study meetings, they encourage teachers to share and communicate their thoughts with each other, and design activities in ways that students come up with the tasks and ideas they want to study themselves. Lesson study is done around this goal in all subjects.
Since Ishida Elementary School is a designated research school by the Japanese Ministry of Education and the Yamanashi Board of Education, they receive grants to pursue this goal. One of the things the grant provides them is assistance from the education professors at Yamanashi University. The school is preparing for a lesson study open house and many teachers will attend from throughout the prefecture to hear about the results of their research and view public research lessons around this goal.
Lesson Study Planning Meeting And Public Research Lesson
The lesson study planning meeting we attended and the lesson we observed involved a second grade lesson on ordinal numbers. The problem the teacher, Mr. Hayakawa, posed to the students was the following: "Children were lined up in a straight line. Yoshiko is the 6th person from the front of the line and the 7th person from the back of the line. How many children are there altogether?" The most common error students come up with in this problem is 6 + 7 = 13. Since being 6th from the front involves 6 people including Yoshiko and being 7th from the back involves 7 people including Yoshiko, the error of adding 6 and 7 involves counting Yoshiko twice. Mr. Hayakawa wanted to pose the problem in the context of students waiting on line to buy bread, which is something they did on a recent field trip. They ran out of buns and needed to make more for the students. The baker could see only the first 6 people and his assistant could see only the last 7 people. Both could see Yoshiko.
The main parts of the lesson were: understanding the problem, individual problem solving, sharing in groups, presentation and discussion of solutions, and reflection through journal writing. There was much discussion about the problem being posed, materials that were to be used, etc. The entire staff was there and part of the reason for the meeting was to prepare them for a new style of post-lesson discussion that was meant to foster communication among the observers. I will explain this later.
On the day of the public research lesson, there were at about 60 observers which included us, teachers from the school, the principal and vice-principal, pre-service teachers from Yamanashi University, and two university professors - Professor Nakamura and Professor Tabata. The teacher took a longer amount of time than anticipated posing the problem, so the lesson went over the time allotted. Also, students came up with some unexpected responses that the teacher was unsure about how to deal with. One of them was 5 + 6 = 11 (5 in front of Yoshiko and 6 behind her but no Yoshiko). Many students had the incorrect answer (6 + 7) but a correct representation with manipulatives or drawings. The post lesson discussion focused on these things and some others, including whether or not students were really communicating during the small group sharing time.
Since I have talked about other post-lesson discussions before (see links below), I would like to focus now on the way they conducted the discussion, not on the content of it. Each observer was given three post-it (sticky) notes: blue, yellow, and pink. On the blue note each observer was to write a couple of words - something positive about the lesson; the yellow note was to write a question you had about the lesson; and the pink note was to write something the teacher should consider for future teaching. In the hallway, they posted large copies of the lesson plan and after the lesson the observers (including us - they made large English copies too!) placed the notes on the lesson plan. Teachers were divided into small groups of about 8 people, each with its own large lesson plan to post the notes. Then they were told to organize the results and categorize them according whether they had to do with three sections of the lesson they were interested in getting feedback about - the posing of the problem, the small group communication piece, and the representations students used (this includes both expressions and drawings or use of manipulatives). After this, each group discussed the lesson and the reason why they wrote what they did on the notes for about a half an hour. The conversations in each small group of observers were very engaging. Afterwards, each group was asked to share what they discussed. Final comments were brought by Professor Tabata, and at the end Mr. Hayakawa, the teacher of the lesson, shared reflections about what he learned from the research lesson.
It is difficult to express how powerful this type of post-lesson discussion was in a post. It really did achieve the goal of fostering communication. It also left me with a question: Can we really teach students to communicate and share their ideas if we as teachers don't do so ourselves?
Bye Bye -- this is the way many young people in Japan say goodbye these days. Try to imagine hearing it with a Japanese accent!
Day 7 & 8 - Part 2
Under the shadow of Mount Fuji, Kofu City, Japan
Day 1 & 2: - "What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan"
Day 3 & 4: "A More Global Perspective On Teacher Assessment and Development"
Day 5: - "Less Is More" - Textbooks and more
Day 6 & 7 - Part 1: - "Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not."
Editor's Note: We are delighted that Bill is sharing his wealth of knowledge through this series of journals from his 2007 trip to Japan.