By Tom White
As I understand it, the primary form of professional development in Japan is something called Lesson Study; a model in which a team of teachers collaborates on the planning and delivery of a lesson. One lesson. The whole team decides on a topic, picks a lesson and then plans it. Once the lesson plan is complete, one member teaches the lesson to a group of students while the rest of the team studies how the lesson plays out. Their focus is on the students’ interaction with the learning activity. After the lesson, the entire team compares notes, analyzing and reflecting on the lesson. This debriefing session usually evolves into a revision of the lesson, to be taught by a different teacher and observed again by the rest of the team. Only when they’re satisfied with the lesson does the team move on to a different lesson.
It’s important to note that during the observation and the debriefing, the focus is always on the lesson, not the teacher. Furthermore, the lesson is always referred to as “our lesson.” And rightly so, since it was crafted by the team, not the teacher who presented it. This makes lesson study an extremely “safe” way to get teachers out into each other’s rooms and talking about teaching.
I love Lesson Study. I’ve used it in my own school and I’ve help get it going in other schools. What I particularly love is the focus on The Lesson – the most underrated element of teaching; the singular point in which the teacher, the school and the curriculum come into direct contact with the student.
The primary purpose of Lesson Study is the creation of good, tested lessons. That’s why they do it in Japan, where Lesson Study originated during the post-war years. Lesson Study in America also yields quality lessons, but in my experience, the real benefit is the incidental learning that goes on throughout the entire process. As teachers discuss every part of the lesson, they each call upon their experience and training to come up with ideas to share. They listen to each other and debate the possibilities, all the while refining and expanding their own philosophies and teacher tool-kits, thereby benefitting the rest of the thousand-or-so lessons they teach each year. It’s extremely
powerful, especially with a mixture of young and “seasoned” teachers.
Despite all this, Lesson Study hasn’t really caught on in America. This doesn’t surprise me, and I can think of at least three reasons why it hasn’t – and likely won’t – take root in this nation.
First of all, Lesson Study is too gradual for our country. Productive, professional discourse notwithstanding, Lesson Study’s output of two or three quality lessons per year is simply too glacial for a nation that prefers “school reform” over slow, sustainable improvement. We don’t want our low-performing schools to simply “get better;” we want them to “turn around.” Unlike Japan, we want Results Now. In regards to professional development, Japan joined a gym, while America invented liposuction. Ironically, Japan – plodding along with Lesson Study – has become an educational superstar, while American schools, despite our Results Now mentality, haven’t changed a whole lot over the past twenty years.
Besides that, I don’t think there’s enough trust in this country between groups of stakeholders that teachers, working without an administrator or without an “expert” are actually “working.” I recently worked with a group of teachers in Washington D.C., facilitating the formation of two Lesson Study groups. The biggest concern they had was protecting the process and their work from their principal, who they felt would want to either influence their lessons or turn the “study” into another form of evaluative observation. This makes sense, considering that principals are under intense pressure to increase test scores. PD time is precious, and it’s hard to justify squandering it on something that won’t yield immediate, measurable changes in data.
Finally, Lesson Study is simply too simple and too cheap for America, a nation that doesn’t take any professional development model seriously until Corwin Press has had its way with it. It’s not that you can’t find a book about Lesson Study – you can; but you can also reread the first paragraph of this post and save yourself $24.95. It really is that simple. Lesson Study is the minimalist’s model of professional development. The haiku of PLC’s, if you will. In fact, the teachers with whom I was working in D.C. had, within the first hour, and without so much as a binder, figured out the basic process and begun adapting the model so it would work in their school. By the second hour, they had formed their two groups and were working on a set of norms that would guide their meetings. By the fourth hour, one group had starting planning a lesson in which their students would use primary documents dealing with the Iroquois Confederation to write historically accurate recipes using the foods available to the Native People. The other group was working on an activity in which students would look at global patterns of lactose intolerance and make connections to the history of colonialism.
Very cool lessons; but what was even cooler were the conversations they were having: What constitutes a primary document? What’s the operative difference between guided and independent practice? What’s the biology behind lactose intolerance? Why is there so little health data from
Somalia? Should we let the students try to make sense out of a color-coded map before or after we tell them what the colors represent? What exactly is an anticipatory set? How could different tribes eat such different foods and still get adequate nutrition? These discussions, focused on both content and pedagogy, happened without either an expert or an administrator.
Lesson Study is the epitome of high-quality, job-embedded professional development. It’s simple, powerful and effective. It gets teachers talking about their craft and it gets them into each other’s rooms to watch each other teach.
It’s perfect, and it will never catch on in this country.
It’s too bad.