Shared research yields ideas for schooling


When we first enrolled our son in Japanese school, there were occasions when he came home earlier than I’d expected. The first time, I happened to be at home. “Why were you dismissed early?” I asked my son. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. “The teacher said something, but I didn’t understand.”

The second time it happened, I came back from an errand to find my son locked out and upset. I called another mother to find out what was going on. “There was kenkyu jugyo today,” she explained. “That’s an experimental lesson conducted with one class of students and observed by all the other teachers in the school. The other students are sent home early so their teachers are free to observe the lesson. It’s always marked on the school calendar so parents get home early.”

Kenkyu jugyo is rendered into English as “research lesson” or “lesson study.” Japanese parents know to check for such days because experimental lessons are conducted at virtually every elementary and middle school in Japan, and are the basis of konai kenshu (in-school research), a continual process of lesson improvement and school-based professional development for teachers.

This kind of in-school research has begun to attract attention overseas, particularly in the United States, where many educators believe it could be used to improve teaching methods. The process starts early in the first semester, when the entire faculty of a school meets to choose a topic for research to be conducted over the course of the school year. Sometimes local administrators or the Education Ministry assign specific topics to different schools, and results are shared.

Research themes are very broad, going beyond a specific subject matter or lesson. For example, the theme at our school this year is: kangae o tsutaeaeru kodomo no ikusei (raising children who are able to exchange thoughts with others). I was surprised that the topic wasn’t something more concrete, like improving math skills. Our principal explained that teachers try to identify an area in which there is a big gap between the qualities students have now and the ideals that teachers hold for them.

“We want our students to be able to express their thoughts and listen well so they can gain information and insights from others,” she told me. “Through our research this year, we will be developing and testing lessons to see how well they encourage the development of communication skills.”

I went to school to observe a recent research lesson with fifth-graders. The teacher planned to divide the kids into small groups to debate ways to protect the environment. He had them develop positions in advance and gave them instruction about how to participate in a group discussion.

I watched six students debate on whether PET bottles should be banned. The group leader asked each member to state his or her opinion. She then restated that viewpoint. “You think it’s impractical to ban PET bottles and we should instead recycle them more. Is that right? Then let’s hear Shimizu-san’s opinion.” It was orderly but not very lively.

Another group debated whether it’s OK to use cars instead of public transportation for trips within Tokyo. The discussion started in the same way, but this group, which included some more outspoken members of the fifth grade, was more passionate. They stayed on the topic until two boys got into an argument about how long it takes to get to Ikebukuro.

Meanwhile, the teachers, including the principal and a university professor who had been invited to participate, circulated with clipboards. I peeked over their shoulders and saw they were evaluating the students on how well they expressed their opinions and listened to others. They also took notes about how engaged the children were, and whether all the children were included in the discussion.

As soon as the children were dismissed, the teachers met to evaluate and critique the lesson. The teacher who taught the lesson would make revisions based on the discussion. And the next teacher to develop a research lesson would build on the suggestions made.

Teachers say research lessons and the meetings that follow are an important means of professional development. They pick up ideas and methods from their colleagues, and may discover problems in their own techniques. For example, one new teacher was told during such a meeting that he spoke too quickly when he was teaching. “I didn’t realize it until then, but my students were having trouble understanding me. Now I speak more clearly and slowly in the classroom.”

When I started asking questions about lesson study, Japanese teachers seemed surprised. “Why are you interested?” they asked. “Don’t American schools do this?” Not like in Japan, according to Katherine Boles of Harvard Graduate School of Education and Vivian Troen of Brandeis University, both in Massachusetts, who compared teacher research in Japan and the U.S. in 2000. They found that it’s very unusual for an American school to engage in whole-school lesson research. And unlike Japan, where every teacher participates in lesson research throughout his or her teaching career, many American teachers don’t. Those who do conduct research usually do it in their own classroom and are rarely observed by other teachers.

American educators became interested in Japanese lesson study after James Stigler and James Hiebert described it in their book, “The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom” (The Free Press, 1999). Since then, several U.S. school systems have introduced lesson study, according to Catherine Lewis, a professor of education at Mills College, Oakland, Calif. Lesson study has been the topic of numerous regional conferences and next month, the “First Annual Lesson Study Conference” will be held in Stamford, Conn.

I think it’s great to borrow successful ideas from Japan. But what will American schools do with students when their teachers are observing research lessons? American parents won’t be as accommodating about schedule changes. And no one in the U.S. is going to feel comfortable leaving a classroom full of young children for an hour without adult supervision.

Now there’s a problem worthy of study.