Japan has managed to maintain its place in the top 10 for highest educational standards for as long as these things have been measured. The secret seems to be that Japan’s teachers have a deep and more profound knowledge of two aspects of education than do others elsewhere in the world, developed through Lesson Study.
The first aspect of their knowledge is that they understand deeply not only their subject knowledge but also how to teach their subjects and how to avoid and correct misconceptions. This is “pedagogical content knowledge”. The second aspect is teachers’ deep knowledge of the way their pupils learn, their needs and motivations.
And why might this deeper knowledge be possible? Well, according to Japan’s teachers – and to a growing movement around the world including Hong Kong and Singapore – the reason might lie in Lesson Study.
Lesson Study is a breathtakingly simple and common sense way of developing teachers’ practice knowledge: i.e. teachers’ knowledge of how best to teach X to pupils like Y. In a Lesson Study, a group of teachers work together to plan, deliver and analyse a series of “research lessons” devised to improve the way they teach something or the way particular learners learn something.
They record what they discover or develop and pass this knowledge on to others by inviting people to watch them demonstrate the approach in a public research lesson – or by writing it up and publishing it online. In Japan, 70 per cent of research into teaching and learning is published by serving teachers.
Research and evaluation work I have carried out over the past 10 years – some at a large scale – shows that Lesson Study in the UK can make a dramatic difference to pupils’ standards and can get adequate teachers to outstanding teachers with outstanding results. Why might this be? I think it comes down to the fact that there are distinctive qualities that make teacher learning different from that of other professions. We learn our professional “knowledge” in the workplace by “joining in”.
But it is tricky to learn by joining in when traditional experience in this country is one of “lone teaching”. And even when there is a fellow professional in the classroom with you focusing on your practice, as likely as not they are jotting down observation notes and judging you. The most surreal paradox of all is that most formal teacher learning still takes place outside the classroom, when the inside is the most effective location!
Lesson Study seems to cut through all this. Its mature processes help learning communities to form swiftly, focused on improving the learning of real pupils by improving real teaching. It creates safe spaces where teachers can explore approaches and take risks, while closely scrutinising the impact on their pupils’ learning – and by focusing together on pupils’ learning, they get to the heart of what to change in their teaching.
Lesson Study seems to hold a promise of going even beyond this – of helping us to focus on learning and teaching at levels of detail we have never been able to before. This is because it seems to help us deal with the unending speed and complexity of the classroom – to “see our pupils with new eyes” – and it even seems to connect us, as teachers, with our hidden reserves of “tacit” practice knowledge.
Further informationThe Teacher Development Trust is the national charity for effective professional development. Visit www.teacherdevelopmenttrust.org and for its free database of CPD, go to http://GoodCPDGuide.com
Pete Dudley is a visiting professor at the University of Leicester and sits on the Teacher Development Trust advisory board. He has published free materials on Lesson Study at www.lessonstudy.co.uk