So, this will be my final post for the blog. I’ve been back in the U.S. for a few days and I am still buzzing about all I was able to learn and do on the trip. Doing this kind of thing requires lots of sacrifice; I’m horribly behind on email, my research, writing, planning for teaching in the Fall, as well as household stuff like picking out new tile for our kitchen, and my bank account is noticeably depleted from the costs incurred to go on the trip as well as all of the $$$ I spent on irresistible Japanese pens and paper clips in the shape of elephants (the Japanese have a term for this kind of thing – kawaii – meaning “cute”) but it was all very, very much worth it.
I’ve put a lot of thought into this final post. Here’s my big take-away about lesson study: lesson study, in itself, does not result in instructional improvement. The act of collaboratively planning a lesson, teaching it as observers watch, and discussing the lesson afterwards does not, in itself, change teaching practice. What I observed is that lesson study changes the ecology of teaching in school settings, and by changing this ecology, what teachers and administrators in a school recognize as important and valuable shifts. Lesson study, done badly, does little to improve instruction. However, when lesson study is done well, teachers and administrators see their practice with new eyes and sharpen their focus on what really matters for students’ learning. Ultimately, its the teachers and administrators who make the change, but lesson study can provide an environment to make what needs to be reworked in one’s teaching practice more transparent.
I learned that…
In Japan, teachers mention frustrations with unmotivated students, students who don’t do their homework, students who don’t pay attention in class. However, Japanese educational leaders seek answers to these questions by critically examining the content of their course of study through lesson study, asking questions like “How can we pose tasks to spark students’ interest, to see the value in discussing their ideas with others, etc?”
Like their American counterparts, Japanese teachers face preparing students for high-stakes (in 9th grade) and standardized assessments (in 6th grade), earn middle-class to upper-middle-class wages, work long hours (in Japan, teachers are on contract for 11 months). I noticed that on lesson study days, Japanese teachers would stay after school from 3 p.m. – 6 p.m. or later discussing the study lessons, even for the study lessons they observed but were not directly involved as a member of the research lesson team. My impression was that all teachers were dedicated to their jobs.
Technology is not used in Japanese classrooms just because it exists; if technology is incorporated, it usually starts when a school does a lesson study to see whether or not the tool or software promotes learning effectively. All lessons I observed would be very low-tech by U.S. standards.
In reflecting upon what I’ve learned, I realized something interesting: advocates of a more “corporate” approach to schooling that has contributed to the growth of vouchers and charter schools argue that improving education for all children is achieved by running schools in a fiscally responsible manner, firing bad teachers (those whose children don’t do well on tests) and hiring better teachers (some who have less experience or no experience), and adding an element of competition into the educational “marketplace” to motivate “lazy” schools to work harder to become better schools and retain their “clients.”
I have a B.S. in Administrative Management, and learned in my management coursework some basic principles for managing employees effectively. From what I see, the “corporate” approach to education has completely failed to acknowledge the first principle of management: Recognizing that your employees are what makes a company successful. No amount of savvy budgeting, cost-cutting measures will compensate for a staff that is poorly trained and unmotivated. A second principle: Motivating your employees involved helping them understand the company’s purpose and goals, the rationale behind decisions that impact their work, and the value that they add to the organization and its mission – and then “getting out of their way” to allow them to figure out how they will achieve the mission. Lesson study is the means with which Japanese teachers work together to help the school achieve the goals of the yearly research theme, and the change that happens is wholly determined by the teachers that participate in lesson study. Instead of the specter of dismissal looming over their heads, Japanese teachers work in a culture that strongly promotes improvement and change collectively. It’s true that it is very uncommon for Japanese teachers to be fired. They enter their professions with strong content knowledge, and after having passed rigorous exams for certification as well as when they apply to teach in a prefecture. They have much to learn about teaching at this point, but the educational system sees as part of its duty to support the ongoing learning of teachers, recognizing that teachers with ten or more years of experience are far more effective than novice teachers.
What if we began conceiving that learning to teach is a lifelong endeavor, and that the district that hires a teacher must take on the responsibility of supporting the ongoing learning of that teacher? Which leads me to one other principle I learned about management: the investment you make in training and supporting the work environment and culture for employees yields both immediate and recurrent dividends. Are we really prepared to play this “corporate” analogy out? If so, its time to recognize how strong corporations support their employees, and from there we will see where the most important change in U.S. education needs to be made.
I won’t be continuing with this blog, but I may continue blogging about lesson study in my work. I’ll post a link to that blog when/if it happens!