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Lost in translation? A look at how Lesson Study has been interpreted outside Japan

Written By: Sarah Seleznyov
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Many research projects about Lesson Study outside Japan miss its core components. Translated from the Japanese words jugyou (instruction or lesson) and kenkyuu (research or study), Fernandez (2002, p. 394) describes Japanese lesson study as ‘a systematic enquiry into teaching practice…, which happens to be carried out by examining lessons’. In its simplest form, we can describe lesson study as a form of teacher enquiry, in which teachers collaboratively plan a lesson in response to a research question, observe it being taught and then discuss what they have learnt about teaching and learning.

If lesson study is to be successfully adopted in contexts beyond Japan, there is a need for those practising it to have clarity about its critical components and yet, these components are frequently contested in the (mainly US) English language literature. This is hardly surprising since there is a dearth of material about lesson study by Japanese authors that is accessible to the English language reader, with the majority of this literature being produced by Japanese-speaking US authors (Fujii, 2014).

This study explores the increasing popularity of lesson study in the UK, and the challenges this translation might pose. It then presents the findings from a systematic review of the international literature base for lesson study which:

  • Identifies the critical components of Japanese lesson study
  • Explores the degree of fidelity with which lesson study is practised in countries beyond Japan.

 

This study discusses whether these differences could be attributed to structural or cultural differences between Japan and other nations. It strikes a note of caution for schools wishing to implement lesson study as an approach to teacher professional development.

Lesson study is easy to learn, but difficult to master
Chokshi and Fernandez (2004)

Lesson study translated

Since 1999, when Stigler and Hiebert first wrote about lesson study as a model for improvement of classroom practice in the US, it has become a popular ‘travelling reform’ (Steiner-Khamsi and Waldow, 2012). In the UK, recent calls for improved teacher professional development that draws on research into effective learning (see Coe et al., 2015; Hallgarten et al., 2014) have contributed to a surge of interest in lesson study.

In line with recent research on high impact professional development for teachers, lesson study offers a learning (not performance) focus (Watkins, 2010), starts with an end goal (Stoll et al., 2012) engages teachers in and with research (Bell, 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).

However, despite the promise and increasing popularity of lesson study, several authors have sounded a note of caution. Isoda (2007, p. xxiii) notes 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’. Similarly, Chokshi and Fernandez (2004, p. 524) state that ‘Lesson study is easy to learn, but difficult to master’, noting that US educators without a deep knowledge of lesson study tended to ‘focus on structural aspects of the process…or…mimic its superficial features, while ignoring the underlying rationale.’

Isoda (2007) recognises that lesson study may undergo ’creative transformation’ as it is adapted to a different culture. Murata (2011: 10) states that in other cultural and structural contexts ‘modifications are expected and essential’, but he highlights the danger of reducing its power if there are too many modifications to the process.

The literature review

A systematic literature review of 200 articles published between 2005 and 2015 (reported in full in Seleznyov, 2018)  was undertaken. It aimed to identify the critical components of lesson study and explore the degree to which research projects using lesson study in countries beyond Japan adhere to these critical components.

The lesser-known critical components are those which distinguish lesson study as a research process.

How faithful are international lesson study practices to the Japanese model?

The literature review also enables us to check the extent to which the implementation of lesson study beyond Japan adheres to the critical components identified above. Of the initial 200 articles, 101 studies were rejected because they:

  • Were not available online
  • Were not relevant
  • Were not about lesson study for in-service teachers, but about pre-service teachers or other school staff
  • Did not describe their lesson study models
  • Described a hybrid form of lesson study, for example, a blended programme including coaching or team teaching
  • Described lesson study in Japan.

 

This left 97 studies, of which 52 took place in the US and 15 in the UK, with others mainly in the Far East. Based on the articles’ descriptions of their lesson study processes, an analysis against the seven critical components of Japanese lesson study was carried out. This revealed that:

  • 33% of studies did not include the identification of a research theme (Critical Component 1)
  • 4% did not include collaborative planning and 63% did not include kyozai kenkyu (Critical Component 2)
  • 8% included no live observation of lessons, for example, using video or having teachers teach the lessons alone and feedback to the group (Critical Component 3)
  • 8% did not describe repeated cycles of research, while 60% involved the revising and re-teaching of a lesson or focused on the polishing of one ‘perfect’ lesson (Critical Component 5)
  • 55% did not engage an expert or koshi in the process (Critical Component 6)
  • 61% did not include any mention of mobilising knowledge between teacher groups (Critical Component 7).

 

In terms of the UK (and noting the small number of studies), it seems that lesson study models are particularly far from the Japanese model in the critical components which connect teachers’ knowledge and understanding within groups to knowledge and understanding that exists beyond it: namely, the process of kyozai kenkyu; the use of outside expertise (the koshi); and the mobilisation of knowledge across teacher groups. These gaps in practice are wider for the UK than for other English-speaking nations.

The critical components of Japanese lesson study

There is general universal agreement about three core components of lesson study: collaborative planning; teaching of the lesson observed by other teachers; and post-lesson discussion. However, the literature review tracked features that the majority of studies identified as crucial to lesson study’s success. This enabled us to identify several additional critical components beyond these three (Seleznyov, 2018), including:

  1. Identify a research theme
    Teachers compare long-term goals for pupil learning and development to current learning characteristics to identify a school-wide research theme, which may be pursued for two or three years.
  2. Planning
    Teachers work in collaborative groups of between six and 10 teachers (Fujii, 2014) to carry out kyozai kenkyu (a study of material relevant to the research theme). The group then produces a collaboratively written lesson plan over several meetings, across several months and about 10-15 hours of time (Fernandez, 2002). This detailed plan attempts to anticipate pupil responses, misconceptions and successes for the lesson.
  3. Research lesson
    The research lesson is taught by a nominated teacher, who is a member of the planning group. Other members of the group act as silent observers. They take a ‘research stance’ – focusing on the goals of the research lesson, paying attention to children’s learning and collecting data in relation to the goals (Saito, 2012).
  4. Post-lesson discussion
    The group meets to formally analyse evidence of pupil thinking gathered by observers (Saito, 2012), following a set of conversation protocols. Their learning in relation to the research theme is identified and recorded by the discussion chair. It is intended that this learning informs subsequent cycles of research.
  5. Repeated cycles of research
    In terms of revising or re-teaching the same lesson to a different class, the literature diverges. Some sources (e.g. Stigler and Hiebert, 1999) claim that revising and re-teaching the lesson is a standard part of the process, whilst others declare it as optional. However, Japanese authors (eg Fujii, 2016) describe re-teaching as unethical, since each research lesson is designed with a particular class in mind at a particular point in their learning. To teach this lesson to a different class is akin to treating these children as a science experiment (Fujii, 2016). Other authors note that lesson study is about ‘intellectual process’ rather than ‘isolated products’ (Chokshi and Fernandez, 2004, p. 523). The weight of evidence, therefore, suggests that re-teaching is not part of lesson study. However, learning from individual lessons does feed into subsequent research lessons (Fernandez and Yoshida, 2012).
  6. Outside expertise
    There is input from a koshi or ‘outside expert’ into the planning process, the research lesson and the post-lesson discussion to ensure that the lesson study process builds on what is already known about the research theme. The koshi is a lesson study and subject expert from an academic, local area or school-based background, who operates across networks of local schools.
  7. Mobilising knowledge
    Opportunities are created for teachers working in one lesson study group to access and use the knowledge from other groups, through observing other groups’ research lessons in their own school, from the koshi’s experiences of networking across schools, or through the publication of group findings. Japanese bookshops have large sections devoted to schools’ research reports (Fuji, 2016). Schools also frequently host ‘open house’ events, where teachers from other schools can observe research lessons, generally after a research theme has been explored for some time (Fernandez and Yoshida, 2012).

 

It is interesting to note that the lesser-known critical components are those which distinguish lesson study as a research process, namely: identification of the research theme; kyozai kenkyu, or the study phase of the lesson planning process; the research integrity of the taught lesson in which teachers do not interact with pupils; the iterative cycles of research over a considerable timeframe; and the publication of findings.

In terms of the UK (and noting the small number of studies), it seems that lesson study models are particularly far from the Japanese model.

How faithful are international lesson study practices to the Japanese model?

The literature review also enables us to check the extent to which the implementation of lesson study beyond Japan adheres to the critical components identified above. Of the initial 200 articles, 101 studies were rejected because they:

  • Were not available online
  • Were not relevant
  • Were not about lesson study for in-service teachers, but about pre-service teachers or other school staff
  • Did not describe their lesson study models
  • Described a hybrid form of lesson study, for example, a blended programme including coaching or team teaching
  • Described lesson study in Japan.

 

This left 97 studies, of which 52 took place in the US and 15 in the UK, with others mainly in the Far East. Based on the articles’ descriptions of their lesson study processes, an analysis against the seven critical components of Japanese lesson study was carried out. This revealed that:

  • 33% of studies did not include the identification of a research theme (Critical Component 1)
  • 4% did not include collaborative planning and 63% did not include kyozai kenkyu (Critical Component 2)
  • 8% included no live observation of lessons, for example, using video or having teachers teach the lessons alone and feedback to the group (Critical Component 3)
  • 8% did not describe repeated cycles of research, while 60% involved the revising and re-teaching of a lesson or focused on the polishing of one ‘perfect’ lesson (Critical Component 5)
  • 55% did not engage an expert or koshi in the process (Critical Component 6)
  • 61% did not include any mention of mobilising knowledge between teacher groups (Critical Component 7).

 

In terms of the UK (and noting the small number of studies), it seems that lesson study models are particularly far from the Japanese model in the critical components which connect teachers’ knowledge and understanding within groups to knowledge and understanding that exists beyond it: namely, the process of kyozai kenkyu; the use of outside expertise (the koshi); and the mobilisation of knowledge across teacher groups. These gaps in practice are wider for the UK than for other English-speaking nations.

Another structural challenge to the introduction of lesson study is the fact that UK professional development time and resources… require significant reworking.

Discussion

It is interesting to note that several of these missing components are those which distinguish lesson study as a research process, instead of merely a collaborative approach to professional development: namely, having a research theme; exploring the literature base; learning from others’ research projects; and generalising beyond the lesson itself. Indeed, several studies have observed that non-Japanese teachers who are unfamiliar with the research process can lack the skills to engage effectively in lesson study. Both Murata (2011) and Fernandez (2002) found that US teachers struggled to develop a research hypothesis, to design an appropriate classroom experiment, to gather and use appropriate evidence, and to generalise findings.

Japan’s systemic approach has embedded experience and expertise into the education system, meaning a uniform approach is much more likely; new teachers are inducted into long-standing, institutionalised lesson study processes (Lewis and Takahashi, 2013), for which regular time is built into the timetable, and supported by experts at no cost to the school. Such lesson study knowledge and experience is largely inaccessible to English-speaking audiences since very few Japanese researchers have written about it in English, and there are very few UK lesson study experts. Another structural challenge to the introduction of lesson study is the fact that UK professional development time and resources are not designed with lesson study in mind and therefore require significant reworking.

Attention should also be paid to the cultural differences that may have contributed to the emergence of lesson study in Japan, specifically the strong belief in long-term collective effort (Lewis, 2000). Regular school-wide events that build collaborative bonds and skills are the norm in Japanese schools, as is hansei (collaborative and public critical self-reflection), for example, repeated explorations by teachers and pupils on what went well and what to do differently next time (Lewis, 2000). Japan’s reverence for experience in the form of the koshi, is a natural extension of the cultural belief in perseverance over time.

The UK tendency to miss out those critical components which connect teachers’ knowledge and understanding within groups, to knowledge and understanding that exists beyond, could be seen to reflect a lesser commitment to collaboration as a means to improve practice and to a lesser reverence for experience as expertise.

UK schools wishing to explore Japanese lesson study as an approach to teacher professional development should ensure they have clarity about its critical components and attempt to anticipate the challenges they may face when implementing these in their own cultural and educational contexts. Senior leaders hoping to use lesson study might ask themselves the following questions in relation to the critical components:

  • Will teachers need professional development to develop the research skills necessary to enable lesson study to have an impact?
  • Can we access any ‘outside expertise’ to ensure lesson study processes are as effective as they can be?
  • How can professional learning time be redistributed to accommodate the different stages of lesson study?
  • Is there access to teaching and learning expertise for participating teachers and/or can teachers be supported to obtain relevant material for kyozai kenkyu?
  • What protocols for lesson study can we develop or obtain to ensure that lesson study processes adhere to the critical components?
  • Do all leaders school understand what lesson study is and how best to support teachers engaging in the approach?
References
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  • Chokshi, S. and Fernandez, C. (2004). Challenges to importing Japanese lesson study: Concerns, misconceptions, and nuances. Phi Delta Kappan 85(7), pp. 520 – 525.
  • Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L. (2015). Developing Teachers: Improving Professional Development for Teachers. Sutton Trust.
  • Fernandez, C. (2002). Learning from Japanese approaches to professional development: The case of lesson study. Journal of teacher education, 53(5), pp.393-405.
  • Fernandez, C. and Yoshida, M. (2012). Lesson study: A Japanese approach to improving mathematics teaching and learning. New York: Routledge.
  • Fujii, T. (2014). Implementing Japanese Lesson Study in Foreign Countries: Misconceptions Revealed. Mathematics Teacher Education and Development, 16(1), p.1.
  • Fujii, T. (2016). What can we learn from the Japanese model of professional growth from novice to expert? Presentation at Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Cambridge University.
  • Hallgarten, J., Bamfield. L. and McCarthy, K. (eds.) (2014). Licensed to create: ten essays on improving teacher quality. RSA Action and Research Centre: thersa.org
  • Isoda, M. (2007). Japanese lesson study in mathematics: Its impact, diversity and potential for educational improvement. World Scientific.
  • Lewis, C. (2000). Lesson Study: The Core of Japanese Professional Development. Presentation at Special Interest Group on Research in Mathematics Education, American Educational Research Association Meetings, New Orleans. [Accessed on 20.07.17].
  • Lewis, C. and Takahashi, A. (2013). Facilitating curriculum reforms through lesson study. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 2(3), pp.207-217.
  • Murata, A. (2011). Introduction: Conceptual overview of lesson study. Lesson study research and practice in mathematics education. Springer Netherlands. 1(12), pp.1-11
  • Saito, E. (2012) Key issues of lesson study in Japan and the United States: A literature review. Professional development in education 38.5: 777-789
  • Seleznyov, S. (2018) "Lesson study: an exploration of its translation beyond Japan", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies
  • Steiner-Khamsi, G., and Waldow, F. (eds) (2012). World Yearbook of Education 2012: policy borrowing and lending in education. London: Routledge
  • Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world's teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press
  • Stoll, L. (2009). Knowledge Animation in Policy and Practice: Making Connections. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. [Accessed 23.01.14].
  • Stoll, L., Harris, A. and Handscomb, G. (2012). Great professional development which leads to great pedagogy: Nine claims from research. Nottingham, UK: National College for School Leadership
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  • Watkins, C. (2010) Learning, Performance and Improvement Research Matters (34). London: IOE
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