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Japanese and American Schools Learn through Jugyokenkyu

What can an urban New Jersey school learn from a Japanese school located in an upscale Connecticut community? According to Teachers College professor in Human Development, Clea Fernandez, it could learn how to reinvent its school.

What can an urban New Jersey school learn from a Japanese school located in an upscale Connecticut community? According to Teachers College professor in Human Development, Clea Fernandez, it could learn how to reinvent its school.

Fernandez has been involved with a small group of scholars interested in how Japanese schools develop lesson plans that engage their students in subject matters that American students usually dislike, like math. In Japan, and in a Japanese school in Greenwich, the success of teaching may very well lie with the teachers working collaborative in a process called jugyokenkyu, which roughly translates to "lesson study."


Teachers working together to develop lesson plans may not seem very revolutionary, but there is a more than good chance that in America, it has never been done as the Japanese practice it. Lesson study is an extensive process that allows teachers to reflect upon their teaching and their lessons, and to address specific issues within their teaching-all with the support and contributions of their colleagues.

"When we would go to Japan, or talk to Japanese teachers, they all say 'lesson study is the most important experience in my professional life,'" said Fernandez, and it's this collaborative process that she feels is the true soul of the success of lesson study in Japan.

Conversely, American teachers do not have the same approach to professional development. "Teachers don't have the opportunity to sustain thinking about their teaching. They go off to a workshop and they come back with an idea and then when it doesn't work, they just shelve it, because they have no process by which they can reflect and so forth," said Fernandez. Teaching in America, said Fernandez, is a very isolated experience.


Fernandez, along with Makoto Yoshida, a fellow researcher who developed one of the seminal reports on lesson study available in the United States, and with the help of several students are beginning to bridge the gap between the two approaches to professional development. Having recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation, Fernandez and her team are working with a K-8 school in Paterson, NJ, with the help of teachers from a Japanese School in Greenwich, to develop a unique approach to lesson study that fits into the American education system.

As the past school year closed, the school in Paterson had successfully completed two lesson study cycles. Patterson principal, Lynn Liptak, explains the impact of lesson study as a very positive improvement. "I think we took steps in the direction of reducing isolation in which most teachers work, of focusing carefully and thoughtfully on student learning, and of understanding the importance of careful, collaborative lesson planning. I feel the first year was a good beginning in what will be a long process."

It's a process that has its roots at TC. Professor Frank Smith introduced Paterson eighth grade teachers and principals to a video component of a research project called the Third International Math and Science Study, (TIMSS), which was essentially a comprehensive comparison of international teaching styles. Using the tapes as inspiration, the Paterson schools began working a math study group based on the TIMSS videotapes.

In the meantime, Fernandez, who had worked with the TIMSS study, came to Teachers College and brought Yoshida with her. When Fernandez approached the Greenwich Japanese School she didn't expect the response she received.

"When we first spoke with them, they said "Maybe you could come a couple of times to the school, and maybe we could set up a Web site for the two schools to talk," said Fernandez. "In fact, they said to us, we have tried to forge partnerships with American Schools in the Greenwich community because we are very interested in learning about American Education and meeting our counterparts in the United States. We are in a foreign country and we really want to learn about American education, but we can't get beyond visiting each other's schools. We want to roll up our sleeves and work with the school."


The lesson study approach is to look at the heart of the school and work from the inside to develop an approach to teaching. "Lesson study begins with really looking at your school and really looking at your students and thinking about what it is that you want to promote in your students and then working backwards from that to planning lessons that will help you meet those goals," said Fernandez.

American reform tends to focus on theoretical ideas rather than actual practice. This may have to do, as Fernandez said, with a lack of national curriculum. Lesson study hinges on not being caught up in the details of when to teach something but how to teach it. Using lesson study will highlight the need for designing the curriculum as it develops lessons, but it is a long process.

"It really highlights one of our big challenges for the 21st Century and hopefully for the next decade. This challenge is to begin thinking more seriously about how to lay-out a curriculum that allows teachers to focus on their teaching, rather than put teachers in this role of curriculum development-which is what I see our teachers always shifting into," said Fernandez.

To begin the lesson study process, a group of Japanese teachers began coming to the Paterson school to observe the school, from classrooms to lunchrooms. American teachers were also brought to the Japanese school to an open house. On local FM frequency via headsets, Yoshida translates between English and Japanese. "The essence of lesson study", said Fernandez, "is to observe each other teaching."

Towards the end of the lesson study process, teachers will present the lessons that they have developed to each other. A group of fellow teachers will watch the lesson being taught, take notes on the strong and weak points of the lesson. This is something that American teachers find distasteful at first, but soon warm up to, said Fernandez. All of the lessons are also videotaped.


At this point, Fernandez's lesson study technique is confined to Paterson School #2, though there are many other schools developing their own flavors of it. Fernandez points out that her group's approach is the only one she knows of in the United States that has an American and Japanese school working so closely together.

On November 14th, they plan to share their work with educators from throughout the country. The Japanese School will be hosting a lesson study open house where they are presenting seven lesson study plans in math and science that were developed this year.

"We are inviting educators from all over the country to come actually see lesson study at the Japanese schools. That's our first step into disseminating, or entering into a conversation with other schools and school districts about doing lesson study," said Fernandez.

Fernandez said that she hopes the open house will help generate interest in lesson study and start getting other schools and school districts involved with her group and the Japanese School.

"We plan to support our partners with using a number of approaches including technologies," said Fernandez. "We would like to create a network of schools. For example, we already have a web site which has been really helpful in just having a place where people can come talk to us and getting in touch with other people doing lesson study."

The people who will benefit the most from this project, though, will be the students. Liptak said that her students have responded very well to the "active, cooperative learning which has ensued. They also have enjoyed the teaching of teachers from the Greenwich Japanese School."

"After the first year of instruction," said Liptak, "one student compared the teaching to previous experience: 'last year the book did the thinking; this year we did the thinking.'"

You can visit the lesson study web site at www.tc.edu/lessonstudy.

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001