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Learning through research: The case for Japanese lesson study

Written by: Sarah Seleznyov
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7 min read

Japanese lesson study has become increasingly popular (Seleznyov, 2018) as an approach to teacher professional development in the UK. Translated from the words jugyou (instruction or lesson) and kenkyu (research or study), lesson study involves teachers collaboratively planning a lesson, observing it being taught and then discussing their findings.

In line with recent research on high-impact professional development, lesson study starts with an end goal (Stoll et al., 2012), engages teachers in and with research (Bell et al., 2010) through structured collaboration (Timperley et al., 2014), includes processes to mobilise knowledge across schools (Stoll, 2009), and operates over a sustained timeframe (Hallgarten et al., 2014). Lesson study in Japan encourages a teacher learning culture in which healthy critical conversations about teaching and learning can take place. Like other more familiar UK models of professional development, such as joint practice development (Sebba et al., 2012) or professional learning communities (Bolam et al., 2005), it specifically exploits the relationship between the development of effective teacher learning cultures and impact on student learning.

Lesson study has been identified as a key contributor to Japan’s successful performance in international tests (Barber and Mourshed, 2007). An evaluation of lesson study in the US (Lewis and Perry, 2017), meanwhile, using a randomised control trial, found that the lesson study intervention had a significant impact on teachers’ and pupils’ fractions knowledge after controlling for relevant variables, and that teachers participating in lesson study reported a significantly higher quality of professional learning than control groups.

What is Japanese lesson study?

My research (Seleznyov, 2018) sought to identify the critical components of lesson study, with a particular focus on Japanese-speaking authors, since they describe lesson study at its source:

1. Identify focus

Teachers compare long-term goals for student learning to current learning characteristics in order to identify a school-wide research theme. Having a shared research focus supports close collaboration amongst teachers.

2. Planning

Teachers work in collaborative groups to carry out kyozaikenkyu (study of material relevant to the research theme). A detailed lesson plan, written collaboratively over several meetings, attempts to anticipate student responses, misconceptions and successes.

3. Research lesson

The research lesson is taught by a teacher from the planning group. Other members of the group act as silent observers. The focus is on collecting evidence of student learning, not judging teaching.

4. Post-lesson discussion

The group meets to formally discuss evidence gathered, following a set of conversation protocols that ensure the focus remains firmly on what teachers have learned.

5. Repeated cycles of research

Subsequent research lessons that draw on the findings from the post-lesson discussion are planned and taught. These are new lessons and not revisions or re-teachings of previous research lessons. Lesson study should focus on gradual, incremental changes to teachers’ practice that will enable improved learning for all students.

6. Outside expertise

There is input from a koshi or ‘expert other’ into the planning process and the research lesson. The koshi comes from outside the school and is from either an academic or a practice background.

7. Mobilising knowledge

Opportunities are created for teachers to access knowledge about teaching and learning by observing other groups’ research lessons, from the koshi networking across schools, and through the publication of group findings.

What does lesson study look like outside Japan?

My research further explored the extent to which these critical components figure in lesson study projects beyond Japan, especially in the UK. A systematic literature review of 200 English-language studies published between 2005 and 2015 identified 97 relevant studies, 15 of which took place in the UK.

In terms of UK studies:

  • 40 per cent of UK studies did not include the identification of a research theme (Component 1)
  • 67 per cent of UK studies did not include kyozaikenkyu (Component 2)
  • 33 per cent of UK studies involved the revising and re-teaching of a lesson (Component 5)
  • 53 per cent of UK studies did not engage an expert other or koshi in the process (Component 6)
  • 53 per cent of UK studies did not mention mobilising knowledge between teacher groups (Component 7).

Problematic modification of lesson study in the UK

It seems that much of UK ‘lesson study’ is quite far from what the Japanese would recognise. The variation in practices across studies also suggests that there is not an internationally shared understanding of lesson study. If we want to make as great a difference to student learning through lesson study as the Japanese have, we need to ensure that we make careful decisions about which features we include or ignore, and the impact that this might have on its efficacy. In fact, despite the promise of lesson study, several researchers have sounded a note of caution. Isoda (2007, p. xxiii) states that ‘… moving outside of its own historical and cultural context may entail the loss of some of the powerful influences that shape and give direction to lesson study in Japan’. Chokshi and Fernandez (2004, p. 524) note that US educators without a deep knowledge of lesson study tend to ‘focus on structural aspects of the process… or… mimic its superficial features, while ignoring the underlying rationale’. Murata (2011, p. 10) states that in other cultural and structural contexts, ‘modifications are expected and essential’, but highlights the danger of too much modification. Some examples of modifications and / or misconceptions are outlined below.

‘It’s enough for teachers to simply talk about teaching.’

Several lesson study models focus on teacher talk as the key vehicle for learning. In fact, it is engagement with research knowledge in combination with teacher collaboration that makes lesson study powerful. Without reference to what is already known, teachers may be simply ‘reinventing the wheel’, possibly to a lower design specification. Kyozaikenkyu is key to learning: it prevents ‘groupthink’ (Janis, 1971), whereby teachers operate within their own knowledge comfort zone.

‘We can use video instead of live observation.’

Despite the adherence to live lesson observation in Japan, some international models replace observation with video for reasons of expedience and cost. However, even the most recent developments in video technology cannot capture the full 3D effect of sitting in a lesson: the camera is likely to be focused on the teacher, shifting the observers’ focus from learning to teaching. In a live observation, the teacher can gain a sense of students’ emotional reactions as well as their verbal responses and physical actions, and is often able to observe quieter communication between students.

‘We don’t need to look outside our own school.’

The koshi observes the lesson, pulls together the ideas shared in the discussion and ties what is explored to larger subject matter and pedagogical issues. The koshi ensures that teachers build on the work of other lesson study groups, transporting knowledge across the various groups they support. The need to source and develop such experts in the UK is crucial to the success of lesson study, and the associated cost to schools makes this problematic.

In the US, teachers found it difficult to develop a research hypothesis, design an appropriate classroom experiment to test it, gather and use appropriate evidence, and generalise the findings. The koshi helps to develop a research skillset that enables teachers to become ‘proponents of evidence informed expert judgment’ (Brown and Zhang, 2016, p. 2).

‘We’ll all help you plan your lesson and then give you feedback’

The accountability and performance management framework in England has created what Watkins (2010) has described as a tension between lesson observation as a tool to improve learning and as a means of proving one’s performance. Teachers being observed as part of standard performance management do not want to take risks with their practice: the stakes are too high. And yet, it is only by taking risks that they are likely to improve their practice. One way in which lesson study encourages teachers to take risks is by making the lesson a shared product. All involved take collective responsibility for its successes and failures.

Some schools have provided teachers with time to discuss the lesson plan, but then expected the teacher whose class will be taught to produce the written plan and resources. However, it is in the co-production of the ‘script’ that Japanese teachers report their most significant learning. Also, if not written together, the lesson now essentially ‘belongs’ to the teacher who will teach it. In post-lesson discussions, teachers then find it difficult not to slip into the ‘what went well, even better if’ language frame from performance management. The lesson has become a demonstration of the individual teacher’s skill and not of the group’s shared enquiry.

What next for schools?

It is vital that schools wishing to implement lesson study as successfully as the Japanese have over several decades operate from a position of knowledge, so that they can make rational and informed choices about how best to adapt it to their context. My advice to schools is not to invest in an ‘off the peg’ model, but to take the time to develop a school-specific model that remains true to its critical components, whilst meeting your school’s needs.

The following questions may help:

  1. Do all staff understand the rationale behind the different features of the process and how each of them contributes to teacher learning?
  2. How used are teachers to sourcing and engaging with research and good practice material so that they are confident to conduct effective kyozaikenkyu?
  3. Do teachers tend towards an improving or proving attitude to lesson observation and how might this affect their engagement with lesson study?
  4. How can professional learning time be redistributed to accommodate the critical components of lesson study?
  5. Which ‘outside experts’ can support you with lesson study, in terms of research and subject expertise?

Lesson study is a powerful tool for teacher and pupil learning, and we should learn from the Japanese, who have used it for the longest and with the greatest impact.

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