Lesson Study: the centrality of the lesson

After a week of observing lessons and interviewing key players who support of lesson study at a systems level it seems clear that the lesson is central to the professional development of teachers in Japan whether this be facilitated by lesson study or by other means. Lessons appear to be the main focus of thinking of teachers and other educationalists in thinking about professional developmental all stages of a teacher’s career.

Research lesson – Tokyo

One issue that is striking is the difference between the Japanese and English initial teacher education systems. Whereas initial teacher education is increasingly situated in schools here and might be thought to be becoming an apprenticeship model, in Japan courses leading to becoming a teacher involve very little classroom experience – maybe something like six weeks in total with these coming at the end of a four year undergraduate preparation. This does lead one to suspect that in terms of preparation for some of the issues that prove difficult during initial steps into teaching Japanese teachers might feel somewhat underprepared. This will include basic skills such as ensuring lessons run to time, engaging and motivating students and so on. Maybe this is one reason why such skills might be the focus of lesson study for early career teachers.
However, it is equally clear that lesson study is everywhere in Japanese educational systems. Whilst it is possible to understand how we might adopt parallel ways of working here there are some ways in which this seems less replicable.
Two issues stand out: the teacher “research agenda” and the “organic lesson study group”. The latter of these incorporates the former but each needs to be considered on its own.
It seems that each school has a “research theme” that drives aspects of its work during the year. The agenda is developed by a committee which is one of a number that is involved with fundamental aspects of the work of the school. This committee is responsible for ensuring an overarching focus during lesson study that is internal to the school. This theme might be something like fostering student self-autonomy in learning which clearly allows considerable variation in the different lessons across different subjects that will be developed and researched during the year.
Such a focus on teacher involvement in researching or inquiring into their practice is prevalent everywhere in the school/ teacher system. Many of those we spoke to – admittedly all lesson study enthusiasts – told us of how they are involved in teacher inquiry groups that are active outside and beyond their own schools. Many such groups were considered as being organic – perhaps clustered around a university research group, more often or not around a respected elder with vast lesson study experience. These groups might gather after school or at a weekend to discuss teaching practice with lessons and lesson study once more being central. Although Japanese teachers seem to have more time allocated to joint planning and collaborative work on lessons than here it is only a small amount more but it also seems important that other time is spent by teachers pursuing their research themes and attending study lessons. (Of course there is much less of a focus on teacher involvement in measuring student performance-although this is very important for students in Japan the onus appears to be on them to do well rather than on the teacher and the school). The Japanese in general work very long hours – you only have to witness the crowded subway trains at 11pm to get a sense of how long! – and this is definitely not something we would want to replicate here.
These two social practices provide some insight into how different our cultures and systems are but I’m also left wondering if somehow we have allowed ourselves in education here in England to lose control of our profession. Fundamental to both the “research agenda” and “organic lesson study groups” is the professional agency they provide to ordinary classroom teachers. This is in stark contrast to how teaching in England appears to be increasingly micro-managed! The centrality of the lesson to the process ensures that teaching, teachers and learners are to the fore with measuring, performance and data being very much in the background if visible at all.