Ongoing professional learning – Lesson Study

Hundreds of educators gather in a corridor outside a classroom, listening intently and craning to catch a glimpse of the lesson being taught inside.

For well over a century, lesson study (jugyou kenkyuu) has been an important part of ongoing teacher professional development in Japan. ‘It started in the 1890s and originated from the schools affiliated to Normal Schools, which are the teacher training universities,' Professor Yoshinori Shimizu tells Teacher.

‘They started two types of professional development programs – a criticism lesson and a model lesson. In a criticism lesson, the teacher is observed by many people and the lesson is discussed intensively and extensively afterwards. The model lesson is just to demonstrate some model-type lesson for the teachers who are observing. The teachers who observe go back to their home school and do the same thing as a model. That was in the 1890s, nowadays it's changed.'

He explains today there are many types of lesson study activities in terms of the context, focus and size – intra-school (in elementary schools and some secondary schools), within whole school districts or cities, at a prefecture level and national events where thousands of teachers visit a school to observe and discuss.

'I have photos of one teacher, teaching 30 students, and they're just surrounded by hundreds of teachers. Some of them cannot even see the lesson itself, they're just listening to the voice of the teacher and the students to learn something.

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[Teachers crowd outside a classroom during a lesson study event in Japan. Image: Supplied]

‘At the national events there are 5000 people in some cases. They are very eager to learn from popular teachers; they are like legend teachers, they have CDs of their teaching and many books and photos in journals.'

Shimizu, from Japan's Tsukuba University, adds that while these huge events take place on a single day, lesson study is embedded in the culture and a regular occurrence at an individual school level where most teachers participate at least once a term. ‘Several schools in each district are assigned as model schools and given a small amount of money from the district or the city to do some action research-style work. Another dimension for thinking about lesson study is newly-hired teachers [as part of their induction program] are supposed to do some lessons in front of experienced teachers to develop their teaching skill.'

What does lesson study involve?

In their 1999 book, The Teaching Gap, James Stigler and James Hiebert look at lesson study in a Japan elementary school. ‘The premise behind lesson study is simple: if you want to improve teaching, the most effective place to do so is in the context of a classroom lesson. If you start with lessons, the problem of how to apply research findings in the classroom disappears.

‘The improvements are devised within the classroom in the first place. The challenge now becomes that of identifying the kinds of changes that will improve student learning in the classroom and, once the changes are identified, sharing this knowledge with other teaches who share similar problems, or share similar goals, in the classroom.'

They describe the steps that typify the lesson study process:

  • Defining the problem – for example, the aim may be to engage students, or teach a specific skill.
  • Planning the lesson – this often starts with the teacher looking at books and articles by other educators who've studied a similar problem. The authors note ‘the goal is not only to produce an effective lesson, but also to understand why and how the lesson works to promote understanding among students'.
  • Teaching the lesson – one person teaches and the others observe.
  • Evaluating the lesson and reflecting on its effect – in this step, the focus is on the lesson itself, not the person doing the teaching.
  • Revising the lesson – often to address student misunderstandings, this could include rethinking activities, questioning or resources used.
  • Teaching the revised lesson – this time to a different class and often by a different member of the group, and members of the school faculty are also invited.
  • Evaluating and reflecting again – this time faculty members and possibly an invited expert are involved. Again, the teacher doing the teaching leads the discussion from their perspective of how things went; the lesson is critiqued and changes are suggested for both teaching and learning. A key question in this step is ‘what was learned?'
  • Sharing the results – for teachers in Japan, this is seen as a major part of the process. It could involve them writing a report, often published as a book for use in an individual school, or shared on a bigger scale (prefecture level or via a professional publisher if an academic has been a part of the collaboration). Teachers from others school may also be invited to observe the final lesson. The Teaching Gap tells how one school hosted an end of year ‘lesson fair'.

A detailed approach to planning

Teachers around the world will be familiar with the process of planning, but the lesson study approach in Japan takes this element to a whole new level.

Professor Shimizu is a former member of the Mathematics Expert Group for the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). He recalls a favourite section in The Teaching Gap: ‘The book is very interesting. The teachers are talking very excitedly about which is better – 12 minus three or 12 minus four, in the introduction of subtraction. They spend much time deciding which number is better for the student to understand and for the teachers to teach; from a mathematical point of view and from an educational point of view, which is better? Such a tiny thing can be the target of lesson study. Sometimes as a new generic skill is emphasised in school – such as collaboration or communication, the introduction of the group work or pair work – this could be the topic of lesson study. Or problem-solving could be a topic.'

In the case of the above example, as well as discussing the exact wording of problems and numbers to be used, the educators also spent time: anticipating student solutions, responses and questions; thinking about how they were going to organise and use space on their chalkboard (seen in Japan as an important part of organising students' thinking and understanding); and discussing precise lesson timings. The lesson study process can last for weeks and months. In some cases, teachers could be working on a single lesson for a year.

In addition to witnessing the final lesson, common ‘takeaways' for those invited to observe include a copy of the lesson plan, expected student responses and ideas for teaching produced by the lesson study group that they can take back to their own schools and share with colleagues.

What are the benefits and what makes it work?

Stigler and Hiebert note that, rather than reform, the aim of lesson study is to produce ‘small, incremental improvements over long periods of time' and however long the process there remains ‘an unrelenting focus on student learning'.

They also witnessed professional learning benefits for teachers involved in this collaborative approach. ‘By working in groups to improve instruction, teachers are able to develop a shared language for describing and analysing classroom teaching, and to teach each other about teaching.

‘… Through the process of improving lessons and sharing with colleagues the knowledge they acquire, something remarkable happens to teachers: they begin viewing themselves as true professionals. They see themselves as contributing to the knowledge base that defines the profession. And they see this as an integral part of what it means to be a teacher.' Ultimately, they say lesson study is a teacher activity and so its success depends on the teachers themselves.

For the last 15 years or so, schools and education systems around the world have started to implement their own versions of the model to support staff professional learning. Professor Shimizu says, in the country where it originated, it remains simply a ‘part of life' for all educators. 'From the outside, lesson study is conceived as a way of professional development but from our Japanese perspective lesson study is a part of teacher's work.'

References and further reading

Lewis, Catherine C. (1995) Educating hearts and minds: Reflections on Japanese preschool and elementary education. Cambridge University Press.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world's teachers for improving education in the classroom. Simon and Schuster. New York, NY

How often do you take the time to critique a lesson you've taught? Consider the things you would have changed to improve the learning that took place.

When you're planning a lesson do you think about possible student misunderstandings and how you will deal with them?

Think about a topic or a skill you find difficult to teach. Is there an experienced colleague at your school who you could speak with or observe teaching?