collegial connections

reflections and musings from the School of Education at Mills College

Reading Japanese Classrooms

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Kathy Schultz, Dean - Mills College School of Education

Kathy Schultz, Dean
Mills College School of Education

I had the good fortune to accompany a group of Mills colleagues, along with several teachers and administrators from the Oakland Unified School District, on a trip to Japan to learn about Japanese Lesson Study in elementary and middle school mathematics classrooms. Generously funded by the Toyota Foundation, and overseen by senior researcher and Principal Investigator Catherine Lewis, this trip was designed to teach us about this powerful form of professional development through an immersion experience in Japanese schools with educators from Japan and around the world. We visited seven schools in seven days.

There is much to say about this trip and what I learned, but the aspect that I want to write about here is the way that we were taught, or attempted to learn, how to read Japanese classrooms.  My mentor Frederick Erickson often said that children are always learning or on task; it’s simply a question of whose task they are on: their own, the teacher’s, one set by their peers, or the like. I tend to approach classrooms with that in mind. I look for how and what students are learning, not whether they are learning.  I try to understand teaching in relationship to students’ learning, whether the teaching is generated from the front of the classroom or through more informal interactions. I have written about how silence is a critical form of participation in classrooms, and often focus on how students are representing learning (and teachers are instructing) through silence in addition to verbal responses.

In order to understand our observations in Japanese classrooms, we wore transmitters with headphones while one of our Japanese colleagues interpreted the teacher and students’ talk and writing. We also were also given the lesson plans ahead of time. Many of the lesson plans were comprehensive and included possible dialogues for the problem-solving period as well as the instructional context. At times we had discussions before the lesson with our Japanese guides, experts both in the Japanese mathematics curriculum and Lesson Study as practiced in Japan.

One of the most complex lessons we observed was about angles. The lesson followed what we came to understand as a typical pattern of Japanese mathematics lessons. The teacher introduced the topic by drawing on the students’ prior knowledge. He posed a problem for the students and then asked them to generate solutions.  While they worked independently, he walked around and observed the students, taking notes on a seating chart.  Occasionally he commented on students’ solutions or posed questions to prompt their thinking. As the students generated solutions, he documented their thinking on the chalkboard which created a visual map of the lesson. The students documented their work and the class’s collective thinking in journals. At the conclusion of the class, the teacher summed up the work and asked them to write briefly in these journals.

During the discussion period, the teacher made the decision to follow the lead of two students, which distracted him from getting to the stated purpose of the lesson. The conversation was lively, several students seemed engaged, and at the end of the class the students hadn’t reached the predicted conclusion or endpoint on the lesson plan. Still I believe that the students had gained new understanding of angles, and that their curiosity and desire to learn more was piqued. In Erickson’s terms, they were “on task.”  My notes contain transcripts of what the teacher and students said, and little analysis of the quality of the interactions.

A Japanese Classroom

After the lesson, we assembled to observe the next phase of the lesson study process: a discussion and analysis of the lesson led by teacher leaders, followed by a talk from a university professor reflecting on both the lesson and the ensuing discussion.  The post-lesson conversation among the teachers centered on student solutions and the teachers’ pedagogical choices.  A new chalkboard was pulled down as various teachers illustrated what they saw on students’ papers, and how and whether it indicated understanding. We followed the discussion with interest.  At the conclusion, the professor unequivocally declared, “This lesson was a disaster in terms of what was indicated in the textbook.” He went on to explain the mathematics of the lesson and the missed opportunities that were a consequence of poor decisions the teacher had made. Simply put, the teacher had chosen the wrong examples or solutions from the students to focus on and, as a consequence, been unable to reach the critical teaching point suggested by the text.

Although I tried hard to follow his exposition through the somewhat difficult translation, I was not convinced that the lesson was really a disaster until we later posed the same question to our Japanese leader. “Yes,” he informed us without hesitation, “The lesson was a disaster.” Along with several of my colleagues, I had completely misread the lesson and classroom activity. From that moment on, I wanted to understand how Japanese educators “read” classrooms, to understand how my vision of exploration and possibility in the classroom was in conflict with their interpretation of the lesson as characterized by errors in decision-making and mathematics.

The debate about education in this country often boils down to how can we compete in a global market and improve the education of our American youth so that they achieve at the same high level as youth in other countries. In order to achieve these goals, the US has established national standards, adopted new curricula, instituted high stakes testing. But how often do we really try to read the classrooms in these countries, attempting to deeply understand—and even critical analyze—the pedagogical decisions of teachers and learners? How do we facilitate true dialogue and learning across international contexts when there are such high stakes and national loyalties? I wonder about the value or role of outside perspectives.  How does my own focus on the importance of listening to or paying close attention to student silence add to Japanese educators’ understandings of their own classrooms? And finally, I wonder, how can those of us on the trip use our experiences to inform our own work in local schools and our preparation of future educators?

Written by collegialconnections

August 22, 2012 at 11:47 am

2 Responses

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  1. Its great as your other blog posts : D, thankyou for putting up. “A lost battle is a battle one thinks one has lost.” by Ferdinand Foch.

    Steven Olson

    September 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  2. It was a very interesting post thanks for writing it!


    September 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm

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