Class dissection: 'Lesson study' aims to improve teaching

A Japanese strategy for helping teachers improve their craft is catching on in Chicago.

January 9, 2012

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(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Teachers observe students during a lesson study session at Jorge Prieto Elementary last summer.
Educators in Japan have used lesson study for more than a century as a strategy for improving teaching.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
During a lesson study session, the teacher passes out a detailed lesson plan to those observing the class. They take notes.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Teachers observe the lesson, taking notes about student responses and the lesson's effectiveness.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Math teacher Michael Hock during a class he taught for a lesson study session. Other teachers gauge his success.
(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Teacher Michael Hock (right) hears feedback from teachers on the lesson he taught. That can take "thick skin," he says.

In the sunlit library at Jorge Prieto Elementary on Chicago’s’ northwest side, an experiment is underway.

A provisional classroom has been set up. A white board sits at the front of the room, and 20 eighth graders are seated at library tables. Math teacher Michael Hock is giving a lesson about the distributive property.

Scattered throughout the room are some 30 other teachers. They aren’t wearing lab coats—but they might as well be. They clutch clipboards and carefully monitor kids’ reactions to the teacher’s explanations, peering over students’ shoulders as they write answers.

“What is the area of the garden?” Hock asks students as he points to an illustration on the white board. “Nestor, I haven’t heard from you today.”

Nestor answers the question, and the 30 adults, including visiting teachers from Japan, scribble notes.

The exercise is called “lesson study.” It’s a professional development strategy used extensively in Japan that essentially dissects a teacher’s lesson and the way it’s delivered.

Here’s how it works: teachers come up with a detailed lesson plan and explain ahead of time to colleagues the goals of the lesson. Then, one teacher tries the lesson out on a group of students, while dozens of other teachers watch what happens. Finally, the observers offer feedback and ideas for improvement.

“[We’ve been] doing lesson study more than 100 years in Japan,” says Toshiakira Fujii, a premier professor of math education in Japan who was among those teachers observing at Prieto. “But lesson study in the United States is quite new.”

Fujii says Japanese teachers see lesson study as a proving ground, a way to shine in front of their colleagues.

“You can see [it] everywhere in Japan,” says Fujii. “In Tokyo in the case it’s Wednesday. Wednesday [we] usually finish at lunch time. Then one class stays, and the other classes dismiss. And then every teacher comes to that one class and observes. Even the school nurse and school counselor also join to watch the lesson—that’s our traditional way.”

There’s been lots of talk about how Chicago should evaluate teachers. Lesson study is being billed as a way to help teachers improve.

The strategy is one both teachers unions and school districts say they like. The head of instruction in Chicago Public Schools says she’s a fan of lesson study.  The Chicago Teachers Union helped organize the lesson study at Prieto—and convenes other sessions on holidays like Pulaski Day, when students and teachers volunteer to participate.

Florida included lesson study in its winning Race to the Top proposal.

After a lesson is taught and students dismissed, teachers analyze what happened. They’re like scientists looking back at their experiment, figuring out what went right, what went wrong.

“Possibly you forgot—or you chose not to—ask the students to draw a model of the equation,” one teacher tells Hock after students at Prieto have left the library.

“I didn’t see much evidence that they felt challenged,” adds another, citing his extensive notes.  “I know there was some discussion at two of the tables, but there didn’t seem to be very much discussion at three of them.”

The teachers discuss whether it was more successful to use concrete examples or abstract ones and whether the illustration Hock used helped students understand the concept being taught. 

“I really love it because it’s all about constructive feedback,” says Hock. But he admits it can require some thick skin at times. “Because you’re going to hear some things. I mean, some people like that constructive feedback and some people are like, ‘Whoa, I hate that. It kind of points out all the things we did wrong.’ I don’t look at it that way.”

Hock was criticized the day prior for talking too much while teaching.

“But today when you were walking around between desks—you stopped talking,” Fujii told him during the feedback session. “You can change your behavior by one day. That’s amazing.”

Margaret O’Sullivan, who teaches sixth grade science at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park, says participating in lesson study has changed her whole thought process as a teacher.

“Now I’m thinking before I start the lesson, ‘OK, these are the questions I’m going to ask.’ And not just questions where they give you back facts. But questions that are going to lead them to more deeper thinking.”

O’Sullivan says it’s difficult for teachers to get thoughtful feedback on their day-to-day work. Many principals observe teachers just once a year.

“When you’re in the classroom, you’re only limited to what you see, so you may miss out on a lot of what’s going on,” says O’Sullivan. “So after doing a lesson to step back and have people point out things that you may not have noticed is incredible feedback that you just don’t get.”

Lesson study advocates in Chicago hope to spread the practice further. As Chicago shifts to new “common core” learning standards, advocates hope lesson study might play a role in helping teachers teach to the more rigorous standards.

Chicago has its own lesson study guru.  DePaul University education professor Akihiko Takahashi is known internationally for promoting lesson study. Here, he’s co-founded the Chicago-based Lesson Study Alliance, and he’s on a mission:

“Traditional American professional development is somebody outside comes and then does for teachers,” says Takahashi. But he argues there is lots teachers can do on their own. “My goal is in every school teachers gather and then find a new way to improve lessons by themselves.”

And what do students think of lesson study?
           
It feels “weird” having all those adults milling about, peering over students’ shoulders, says Prieto eighth grader Hector Figueroa. But, he adds, “you get used to it.”

Hector’s teacher told kids they should just think of the adults as “flies on the wall.”

“But that would be even freakier,” Hector says. Still, he gets the point: “I think they’re just trying to make our teachers better.”