School & District Management

In ‘Lesson Study’ Sessions, Teachers Polish Their Craft

By Debra Viadero — February 11, 2004 6 min read

It’s time for a “lesson study” meeting in Marie Coffaro’s second-floor classroom here at Paterson School 2. Yet it looks more like fun-and-games time.

The school’s mathematics facilitator, two tutors, Ms. Coffaro, and another classroom teacher are sitting around a child-size table, rolling a die, laughing, and filling in empty circles with little quarter-circles of colored construction paper.

There’s a purpose behind the merriment, of course. These educators are piloting a math game they hope will spur students to think about how fractions combine to make a whole. In the 80 minutes they spend “playing,” members of the group are trying to predict how Ms. Coffaro’s students with learning disabilities will respond to this game when they play it in class a few weeks from now.

For instance, they ask, what happens if students start saying “one-half” for two quarter circles instead of “two- fourths?” Won’t that be confusing, since they aren’t expected to learn about adding fractions with different denominators until the following year? If more empty circles are added to the game board, the educators ask one another, would students get more or less opportunity to think about the fraction they need to make a whole circle? Should they add empty squares?

So go the weekly lesson-study meetings at School 2. The urban K-8 school in New Jersey’s 24,000-student Paterson district is among the first in the United States to embrace this increasingly popular learning-improvement technique from Japan. On the other side of the Pacific, educators call lesson study jugyou kenkyuu. Reversed, the words mean “research lessons” because the practice involves teachers’ developing and pilot-testing lessons to meet particular needs.

‘Producing Reflection’

But at its heart, researchers who have examined lesson study contend, the practice is more about the process than it is about the product. As they discuss and analyze lessons, teachers are also learning more about their own craft.

“Lesson study has almost nothing to do with perfect lessons,” said Clea Fernandez, the director of the Lesson Research Group at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It’s about producing reflection. You can produce a mediocre lesson and teachers still get a whole lot out of that process.”

Following visits to Japan, a handful of U.S. researchers introduced lesson study to educators in this country in the 1990s. The technique drew added attention through the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. Because Japanese schoolchildren consistently scored high on those tests, researchers and educators in the United States looked to classroom videotapes produced as part of the study for clues to their success.

In The Teaching Gap, a 1999 book based on those videotape studies, researchers James W. Stigler and James Hiebert suggest lesson study might be one such clue.

Now, according to Ms. Fernandez’s group, teachers in 29 states are trying their hands at the practice.

Here in Paterson, a gritty, industrial city 15 miles west of New York City, teachers turned to lesson study as part of a broader effort to improve mathematics learning in their school. With 720 students in kindergarten through 8th grade, most of whom live in low-income households, the school has struggled for years with low test scores and the challenges of a population that hails from all corners of the globe.

“We’re looking at math as the key to college for our kids,” said Lynn Liptak, Paterson School 2’s longtime principal.

Ms. Liptak enlisted help from Ms. Fernandez, from Makoto Yoshida, the researcher whose work fed into the chapter on lesson study in The Teaching Gap, and from Research for Better Schools, a Philadelphia-based research group. To give the Paterson teachers a firsthand look at lesson study, the researchers hooked them up with a Greenwich, Conn., school that is run by the Japanese government for expatriate citizens—a partnership that still continues.

Even so, School 2 had little to go on when it launched its first lesson-study sessions five years ago. Despite the practice’s popularity, research on lesson study is still in its infancy. Such studies are rare even in Japan, where educators have used lesson study for 50 years or more.

“It’s so ingrained that they never really thought of it as anything special,” said Ms. Fernandez. “It’s just something that you do as a teacher.”

Unfinished Business

Likewise, efforts to transplant lesson study here—even at School 2—are a work in progress, researchers caution.

“There may be things supporting lesson study that aren’t obvious to us yet,” said Catherine C. Lewis, a researcher at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She published the first scholarly article on the topic in this country.

“What’s going to be important to us in the U.S. is not just understanding the sort of surface features of lesson study,” Ms. Lewis said, “but understanding the learning process that occurs for teachers.”

At School 2, the practice has grown to include several subjects and nearly every teacher in the school. (Kindergarten teachers do not take part, and one teacher at another level has opted not to participate.)

“It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done personally as professional development,” said William C. Jackson, the school’s full-time math facilitator and a leader of the lesson- study efforts here. The technique succeeds, he thinks, because teachers are working together on solutions that apply in their own diverse classrooms.

School 2’s lesson-study groups meet once a week during the school day for cycles of 12 weeks. Ms. Liptak schedules the classes of participating teachers so that students are taking physical education, art, music, or other special classes while their teachers meet.

Each cycle begins with a look at an entire instructional unit. Teachers study how the textbooks approach the concepts they are aiming at and how the topic is taught in surrounding grades. The individual lessons that teachers develop are tested once, refined, and then tested again with different students.

“This way, you learn to anticipate the shortcomings and the children who may not catch what you’re doing,” said Jill K. Precel, one of the teachers in the lesson-study group on fractions. “You teach to all the possibilities, where you might not have before.”

Afterward, the groups each prepare a report that chronicles their thinking processes and what they learned from their trial-and-error experiences. Mr. Jackson keeps those reports, as well as videotapes from the resulting lessons, in the school library for others to view.

The school also hosts open houses, much as schools in Japan do, where visitors can come to observe and critique the finished lessons being taught.

For Paterson educators, the hardest part of the process has been learning to open up their classrooms to analysis—not just from their own colleagues, but also from outsiders.

“We were so used to being self-contained and in our own world, where we weren’t used to people coming in,” said Geri M. Dickinson, a 4th grade teacher in Ms. Precel’s group.

Mr. Jackson acknowledged there were some bruised feelings at first. He said resentments dissipated as the critiques focused less on what individual teachers were doing and more on what students were doing.

Researchers studying the evolution of lesson study at Paterson School 2 say the school has come a long way in fostering an open-door culture. The process has also inspired the school to adopt math textbooks from Singapore in an effort to find a curriculum that teaches fewer topics, but in greater depth. Teachers also streamlined their use of “manipulatives” after some lesson-study sessions revealed that too many math toys distracted students.

“Obviously, you can’t do it all the time,” Ms. Precel said of the lengthy lesson-study process. “But once you’ve had that kind of thinking put before you, it’s hard to turn around and teach any other way.”

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Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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