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Using Japanese ‘Lesson Study’ to Increase Collaboration Among Teachers

By Brad Ermeling & Genevieve Ermeling — April 14, 2016 5 min read
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In their new book Teaching Better, Brad and Genevieve Ermeling describe their first-hand experience with Japanese lesson study and the important lessons they learned from collaborating with colleagues. Today, they share some of their key learnings.

Teachers in classrooms around the world spend hours of class time each week roving between desks during student activities, group projects, pair work, or individual practice. As more school systems embrace an emphasis on deeper learning, teachers are spending even more time in this facilitative role to support students’ collaborative work and problem solving.

In our ongoing efforts to observe and assist teachers in developing these skills, we are reminded of the lessons we learned over 20 years ago being “raised” as educators in Japan. Just after completing college and our teacher preparation coursework, we accepted positions at a K-12 Japanese school where we spent seven years immersed in the Japanese education system.

It turns out Japanese educators have a specific pedagogical term for describing this mode of instruction called kikan shidō (between desks instruction), carefully distinguished from a separate Japanese term, kikan junshi (between desks patrolling), which focuses merely on checking for right answers and behaviors.

The Japanese Model
We first learned of kikan shidō while participating in Japanese lesson study with a district-level research group in Saitama prefecture. Lesson study is a well-established form of teacher collaborative inquiry in Japan, which also gained popularity in the United States after publication of results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) video study. The central feature of lesson study is the observation and analysis of live classroom lessons collaboratively planned by a group of teachers.

During one lesson study project hosted at our school, the English department prepared a detailed lesson for a ninth grade oral communication course and asked one of us to teach the lesson for the scheduled observation. The goal was to foster student development of more advanced communication skills to generate and sustain English dialogue. The lesson included teacher modeling and several extended pair exercises that challenged students to produce and practice authentic English discourse with classmates.

During the post-lesson reflection, one observer suggested a more systematic approach to the use of kikan shidō, pointing out that most of the between-desks instruction focused on a few pairs of students were struggling with the assigned exercise, while intermediate and advanced students received virtually no guidance or support. The observer suggested a shorter length of time with each pair focused on brief episodes of concise feedback.

Based on our specific lesson goals, he emphasized the value of using this lesson segment to gain a more complete perspective on the progress of all students, including any emerging patterns that might warrant whole-class attention. These observations prompted further analysis and revision of the lesson as the team discussed ways to more intentionally distribute and differentiate support for all students during kikan shidō without neglecting the lower-performing subgroup.

Results and Strategies
Our experience with this lesson study project and subsequent video analysis of our own classroom lessons opened our eyes to the importance of kikan-shidō as part of regular lesson preparation. The video footage illustrated in sharp relief the unplanned, cursory exchanges we came up with “on-the-fly” to assist or monitor student work, which mostly reiterated previous instruction and seldom advanced students toward deeper learning.

In another article we recently published in Educational Leadership*, we expand on a study by O’Keefe, et al. (2006), by illustrating four principal functions of kikan-shidō: (1) monitoring student activity, (2) guiding student activity, (3) organizing materials and the physical setup, and (4) engaging in social talk. We also describe how more intentional use of kikan shidō might help US teachers facilitate deeper learning for all students. The teacher’s interactions and decisions during students’ independent or collaborative “work time"—choosing what to focus on, how much time to spend with each team or individual, what to say or not say—has a crucial instructional value.

In our ongoing work to support schools, we have also found teachers need sustained, collaborative learning opportunities and new professional development resources to practice and refine this mode of instruction and facilitate deeper learning. Below are some example questions teachers find useful in preparing and reflecting on kikan shidō:


  • How does kikan shidō support the learning goals for this lesson?

  • What are my specific goals as I circulate?

  • How will I distribute my time with various groups and differentiate support?

  • What key understandings or misconceptions will I be looking for?

  • What probing questions will I use to check for understanding or advance student thinking?

  • What will I be careful not to say or do that might decrease the rigor of the task?

  • What materials will I need to distribute?

  • When should I engage in brief social conversation with students to provide encouragement and build relationships?

Using lesson study or collaborative inquiry to plan and reflect on lessons that incorporate these questions is one way to develop effective kikan-shidō practices. Carrying a copy of the lesson plan on a tablet or mobile device during kikan-shidō is also useful; teachers can review the plan on the fly during instruction and take notes as they observe students, perhaps even capturing audio and visual examples of student work.

Reflection
Teacher teams can then discuss these observations in post-lesson reflection meetings. As we describe in our book, they can discuss kikan shidō choices in the lesson, such as the the type of guidance teachers provided during specific moments of student interaction, or which groups they selected to present at the end of the lesson and how kikan shidō observations informed those choices. Did these examples help facilitate a rich discussion on the range of problem approaches? Given the options available from the various approaches observed in observations, what were some other possibilities, and how might they have added or detracted from the culminating discussion?

This kind of deliberate planning and reflection will help teachers develop increasingly nuanced understandings of the choices presented in each kikan-shidō episode and, most importantly, how these choices inhibit or enhance student learning. It’s also a great way to introduce teachers to the power of collaborative inquiry and the important role observation plays in opening our eyes to alternative practice.

Note: You can also attend a live webinar with the authors on June 6, 2016. Register for this free webinar.

*Ermeling, B. A., & Graff-Ermeling, G. (2014, October). Teaching between desks. Educational Leadership, 72(2), 55-60. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. ©2014 by ASCD. Adapted with permission.

Photo of teacher and students in Japanese classroom courtesy of Asia Society.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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