Opportunity, Collaboration & Discovery

What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan

CJ Westerberg, July 12, 2012 10:20 AM

"Traditional (U.S. teacher) professional development can be likened to a cooking show. Many people watch the show but few actually try the recipe. Even those who actually try it, often run into problems since they are working alone . . .  Lesson Study (in Japan) is more like a cooking group that tries the recipe and then collaboratively thinks about how to modify and improve upon it."
-Bill Jackson, Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale NY

"Lesson Study" In Japan
A Teacher's Travel Journal

by Bill Jackson

There has been much talk recently about how to improve teacher quality in America, especially in the areas of mathematics and science where international studies show that we lag consistently behind many other industrialized nations. In the U.S., teachers initially learn how to teach through undergraduate and graduate courses in schools of education. In addition, during the undergraduate experience, a teacher may spend a few weeks or months in an actual classroom as a student teacher. After that, teachers are put in the classroom with the expectation that they are able to teach effectively. Any additional training they receive usually comes in the form of workshops led by outside "experts" but these opportunities are usually few and far between.

Countries with high achievement in mathematics like Japan, take a very different approach to professional training of teachers called Lesson Study ---- a form of professional learning where teachers collaboratively plan, teach, observe, discuss and reflect on actual classroom lessons. I became involved in Lesson Study in 1999 as an eighth grade classroom teacher and it literally transformed my teaching and knowledge of mathematics. (You can read more about this in Part One in my guest post "Singapore Math Demystified".) Today, many schools in the U.S. are discovering the power of Lesson Study to improve mathematics instruction but it is still in its infancy and we still have a lot to learn for Lesson Study to significantly impact teaching and learning.

In 2007 I had the opportunity to co-lead and participate in a Lesson Study Immersion Trip to Japan with my colleagues Dr. Akihiko Takahashi of DePaul University, Dr. Tad Watanabe of Kennesaw State University, Dr. Makoto Yoshida of William Paterson University, all well-known experts in Lesson Study and mathematics teaching and learning. The trip was sponsored by Global Education Resources, which supports Lesson Study in the U.S. by providing English translations of Japanese mathematics textbooks and other helpful materials.

In this post, I will share insights gleaned from the trip about how Japan --- a country whose students consistently rank among the best in the world in mathematics --- develops some of the best math teaching and teachers in the world. I hope that these insights will shed light on how we can improve math teaching in the U.S. and better prepare current and future math teachers.

Days 1 and 2: Arrival and Overview of Lesson Study in Japan
June 24, 2007

Yesterday, thirty-eight educators from the U.S., Canada and Mexico arrived in Tokyo, Japan. The flight was long (about 13 hours), but we are all ready to begin the Lesson Study Immersion Trip to Japan, in spite of severe jet lag! The purpose of our trip is to learn more about Lesson Study by observing and learning from experienced Japanese practitioners.

We spent the first day sightseeing and getting acclimated and the next morning we listened to a presentation by Dr. Akihiko Takahashi:

Summary of Dr. Takahashi's Presentation:

Both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the Japanese Course of Study (COS) emphasize teaching mathematics through problem solving. This means that important mathematical concepts and skills are presented and taught in a problem-solving context. This is very different than teaching about (or for) problem-solving, as is usually done in most U.S. curricula and textbooks, which teach problem-solving as a separate skill. To develop and improve this type of mathematics teaching, Japanese teachers engage in a professional learning process called "Lesson Study".

In a Lesson Study cycle, teachers collaboratively plan, teach, and reflect on an actual classroom lesson. This should not be understood as just teaching one lesson, however. In Lesson Study, teachers plan an entire unit and several lessons are taught prior to the lesson that will be taught publicly, which is called the "research lesson". Also, they do not plan the lesson from scratch. Textbooks, teacher's guides, previous Lesson Studies, and other materials are carefully consulted.

A Lesson Study group involves the planning team that plans and teaches the lesson as well as subgroup members who help observe and discuss the research lesson. There are also often invited participants from outside the school who act as observers and discussants. While traditional professional development for teachers usually begins with an answer, Lesson Study begins with a question. Traditional professional development can be likened to a cooking show. Many people watch the show but few actually try the recipe. Even those who actually try it, often run into problems since they are working alone, may have to substitute hard-to-find ingredients, and the like.  Lesson Study is more like a cooking group that tries the recipe and then collaboratively thinks about how to modify and improve upon it.

There are different types of Lesson Study. The most common type is school-based Lesson Study. In school-based lesson study, teachers from within one school work on an over-arching goal for 5 to 7 years in order to achieve systematic improvement, consistent instruction, and develop a common vision at the school. We will see this at Takehaya Elementary and Lower Secondary (middle) School in Tokyo, which is affiliated with Tokyo Gagukei University. This school provides professional development activities for teachers and student teachers, and often teachers from outside come to the school for several months to learn. Every month, the entire faculty participates in observing and discussing research lessons in different subject areas. We will also see this type of Lesson Study at Narimasu Elementary School in Tokyo, a designated research school. In Japan, each prefecture (and sometimes each city within the prefecture) has one of these schools, which receive government grants to investigate new directions in curriculum and instruction.

Another type of Lesson Study is district-wide Lesson Study where teachers from across schools plan research lessons in different subject area groups to achieve a district-wide goal. Its purpose is to develop communication and exchange ideas among schools, and improve teaching and learning in the district as a whole. University professors are usually invited to act as knowledgeable others to provide comments and expert feedback on the research lessons.

We will observe this type of lesson study at two different schools -- Ishida Elementary School, in Yamanashi Prefecture (near Mt. Fuji), and Kyuden Elementary School in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo. The latter school provides a half-day, district-wide professional development day every month where teachers from throughout the district come to the school to observe research lessons. Each month, a different subject area group teaches research lessons. Since there are so many observers (100 or more), the lessons are discussed by a selected panel of discussants while the others observe and learn from the discussion.

We had the afternoon free and many participants went shopping for souvenirs, electronics, and books, some went to the Kabuki theater, and some went exploring Tokyo. In the evening, we all shared a wonderful Kobe beef sukiaki dinner at a restaurant. The food is so good in Japan, I think the author of this narrative may have to go on a diet after this trip!

Ja-ne (see you later),

Bill Jackson

Day 1 & 2: Link Here - "What American Teachers Can Learn From Japan"
Day 3 & 4: Link Here - "A More Global Perspective On Teacher Assessment and Development"
Day 5:  Link Here - Developing Creative Talents, Not Just Academic Skills
Day 6: Link Here - "Less Is More"
Day 7 & 8 - Part 1: Link Here - "Teaching For Students. Sounds Obvious. Not."
Day 7 & 8 - Part 2: Link Here - "Teachers Walking The Talk"

Previously published in The Daily Riff June 2010

For more on Jackson's recent Singapore trip:



Editor's Note:    Bill Jackson is Math Helping Teacher, Scarsdale NY Public Schools, one of the highest performing school districts in the country.  If you missed his series on Singapore Math.
"Singapore Math Demystified!" published by The Daily Riff , we highly recommend you to check it out HERE.  We are delighted that Bill is sharing his wealth of knowledge through this new series of journals from his 2007 trip to Japan.

  • Bill Walters

    Can anyone share information related to the teaching conditions of elementary teachers in Japan? Do they teach a full day or half-day? How many days do they teach in a year. What type of staff development do they have. Any direction to a web-site would be appreciated.

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