by Janet Price
International High School: A Charter School at LaGuardia Community
MetLife Fellow, National Teacher Policy Institute
I have a story to tell you--the story of what happens when a group of
American teachers attempt to do a very Japanese form of professional
development--the lesson study.
A very influential book, The Teaching Gap, has brought this approach to
wider attention. The authors, James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, use the
lesson study to illustrate how putting teachers in charge of improving
teaching has made Japanese schools so effective. As part of their on-going
work as teachers, Japanese educators get together to plan a lesson,
observe the lesson, assess its effectiveness in terms of expected student
learning and then revise it and give it again in a different classroom.
The finished lesson and the process by which it was developed are written
up and archived for other teachers to learn from and use.
I am fortunate enough to teach in a school where conditions would seem to
be ideal for adapting the lesson study to American school culture. At IHS
teachers have common meeting time built into the school day. Moreover, I
work closely with a more experienced colleague to develop and revise the
curriculum we both teach. And in the spring of 2000 we had two unusually
strong student teachers. The principal had an intern from a leadership
program at Bank Street who was eager to work with us. The stars seemed to
be in perfect alignment to attempt a lesson study.
My story concerns what we actually did, what difficulties we encountered,
whether it was worth the time and effort and what are the larger policy
implications of five educators spending hours and hours to perfect one
Our Lesson Study
We decided to create a lesson study around a short story, "Frankie Mae,"
that we have taught from time to time in the past. It is a piece about a
family of black sharecroppers in the Mississippi delta that works well
both for analyzing literary techniques and for studying the history of the
Jim Crow south. But we weren't totally satisfied with how we had taught it
in the past.
We started with a lunchtime meeting to decide what we wanted students to
get out of reading this story. We then assigned one of the student
teachers, Stephanie, to draft a set of questions for students to answer in
small groups in class while my senior colleague, Noreen, took on the job
of designing mastery activities which students would do individually as
We met again about a week later to review and revise Stephanie's
questions. We decided to have students work on the history questions first
and then do the literature questions in a subsequent class. We also
decided to read the story out loud to the students since its use of
flashbacks and dialect had made it hard going for previous classes. We
thought if two of us read it and took parts it would be more engaging and
understandable. We decided to put some framing questions on the board for
students to think about as we read the story. Finally we decided to
precede the story with the Langston Hughes poem, "Sharecroppers."
We didn't have enough time to work on this pre-activity so we decided to
go with the discussion questions for the poem that we have used in the
past. We didn't have time to all meet to go over the revisions of the new
materials we were developing, so Stephanie and I worked on the Frankie Mae
questions and Noreen and I worked on revising the mastery activities.
We decided to try out the lesson in my class first with Stephanie and I
team-teaching and Noreen, Erin and Wade observing over the course of three
70-minute class periods. In the middle of this unit, after we had finished
the poem, read the story and the students had completed the history
questions, we met to debrief and make mid-course corrections. Comparing
the answers of the various small groups we saw that they had come to
similar conclusions for most of them and that it made sense to focus a
whole-class discussion on the two questions where responses diverged. The
full lesson study team was there for the lively class discussion that
ensued on how the white landowners derived so much power over blacks, how
blacks could get more power, and whether it made a difference that the
main character was a female--would her experience and fate have been
different if she had been a male.
The team met a fourth time to review and revise. We decided that the
groups of six were too big and that in Noreen's class she would use groups
of three. Noreen noted that in using the old poem activity, I had asked
students to change the order in which they answered the questions and that
she would undertake to revise the activity so the questions were in this
more optimal order. We decided the history questions worked splendidly as
did the tactic of only having a full class discussion about questions that
elicited divergent responses. But we decided that the unit had dragged on
too long so that while it started with a bang, it ended with a whimper.
For instance, most students in my class were late turning in their
individual assignments and didn't give them much time or thought. The
second time around, in Noreen's class, less time was spent on the literary
questions and the mastery activity was eliminated--students had plenty of
other individual writing assignments to do. Later, we passed on the
revised materials to a third teacher who taught the story in her class,
this time giving students the choice of answering the history or the
literature questions and then sharing their answers with the class. We've
concluded that next year we will integrate the most important literature
questions in with the history questions, so that they do not get short
shrift but also so that the activity does not drag on too long.
Difficulties we encountered
The project was far more difficult to pull off than we had anticipated. In
large part this was because rather than being part of our regular duties
it was in addition to everything else we had to do. But there were also
aspects of our school's culture and our own teaching styles that got in
the way. Here is a list of some of our difficulties and some of the ways
our project diverged from a classic Japanese lesson study:
We had a difficult time finding the three consecutive class periods
necessary to pull off this activity--classes when we didn't have something
else that had to be done and when we could all be in one place at one
We were not able to all observe all the classes because sometimes we were
scheduled to teach at the same time.
For scheduling reasons as well as our reluctance to turn over our class to
another teacher, we each taught the lesson in our own class--a deviation
from the usual Japanese approach where the same teacher teaches the lesson
through each iteration. We thus introduced a variable other than the
revision of the lesson and the second group of students.
When we were supposed to be in the role of observer we all were sorely
tempted to engage with the small groups, being part of the discussion
instead of just observing it. This may have enhanced students' enjoyment
and understanding, but it made it harder to assess whether the questions
worked on their own and whether, therefore, the activity could work with
only one adult in the class, a more typical staffing pattern. I kept
reminding the other team members as well as myself to let the students try
to answer the questions themselves before giving them any direction, but
we were only partially successful in exercising such restraint.
Some of the revisions made in Noreen's class were less related to making
the activity more effective than to fitting it into the limited time she
had, or suiting her particular teaching style. This was even truer when
the third teacher, not part of the lesson study team, taught the lesson.
Although the lesson study team spent at least four hours meeting, we
petered out at the end and never debriefed on Noreen's revisions, let
alone the third teacher's experience. Conversations became more informal
and on-the-fly as the work proceeded.
Visiting each other’s classes in addition to teaching a full load of our
own was exhausting and caused us to neglect other things we needed to do.
We were constantly battling distractions and disruptions--the guidance
counselor needing to pull out students, hearing tests for the tenth
graders, the art teacher pulling out a student who was part of an
Benefits we derived
In spite of all these problems, everyone involved seemed to feel it was
worth their while. Noreen, the veteran teacher, observed that while she
had enjoyed success teaching this story in the past, she had taught the
story so often that she was too close to it to make any substantive
changes and she needed someone else to look at it in a new way "to freshen
it up" and to help students get everything they could out of it. She also
valued the experience because, in a year where the school was undergoing a
major restructuring and we were also involved in introducing a new
community service curriculum, it was "one of those rare times when we were
able to devote time to refining a lesson." But she noted "if we tried to
do this with everything, it would be impossible.” She said she would like
to do a lesson study again next year, but this time start from scratch
with material we have never taught before. She didn't think this lesson
study had any dramatic effect on her practice "because we do this kind of
work and this kind of collaboration all the time anyway."
Wade, on the other hand, was a social studies teacher at a conventional
large high school before his internship at our school. He said he really
enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers and "see the
flow of ideas that collaboration coalesces into a more effective lesson."
He found the amount of time we spent on developing the lesson and level of
detail in our planning to be "staggering." He concluded that what he got
out of the collaboration was process--a process he wants to use when he
becomes a principal. His idea is to start by asking each department to do
a departmental lesson study each year and share them with others in the
school to promote more interdisciplinary work. Meanwhile, he was
enthusiastically received when he presented our work to the other students
in his Bank Street program.
This was a great project to do with student teachers because it gave them
the chance to roll up their sleeves and plan a lesson as equal partners--a
role neither Stephanie nor Erin were shy about playing. We modeled
collaborative planning and we modeled careful attention to detail--for
instance, attention to the order in which tasks are assigned to students
and to whether work is best done individually, in small group or whole
Personally, as a relatively new teacher who is stronger teaching history
than literature, I benefited enormously from this exercise. Although
Noreen has always been generous with her time and advice, the formality of
the exercise helped me get exactly what I needed from her to do a better
job teaching a piece of literature--a soup to nuts, blow by blow analysis
of what to do when and how.
Not only do we now have a perfect gem of a unit to teach next year. I also
believe I've learned some strategies that are generalizable to other
activities and units. For instance, the use of simple focusing questions
for students consider as they read the story, versus more complex
questions to explore afterwards is an approach I will use again. Likewise,
limiting whole class discussion to areas where there are diverging
opinions is a sound strategy to balance whole class and small group work.
I’m now more sensitive to the need to vary the size of groups, keeping
them smaller for activities that involve close reading of a text. Also, I
think I am now much more comfortable exploring literary technique.
Nearly a year after we completed this lesson study, Noreen and I met this
week to plan another activity and found ourselves applying the lessons we
had learned from the “Frankie Mae” study.
The Teaching Gap makes a strong case for the urgency of teachers taking
ownership over the process of improving teaching. It is hard to imagine
how teachers could do this without common meeting time during the school
day. The question is what is the best use of this time. At my school we
have far more common meeting time than most teachers enjoy, but we use
most of it for making budgeting, personnel and scheduling decisions,
developing our assessment system, conducting peer evaluations and doing
student case management. We also develop and revise curriculum but much of
that is done alone at home. Sharing and jointly revising curriculum is a
hasty ad hoc process, particularly in recent years, when an inordinate
amount of time has been spent responding to the state education
department's new testing program which threatens our performance-based
assessment system. Many of us our deeply frustrated that for all the time
we spend with wonderful colleagues, we don't spend enough time discussing
what we do in class. Sometimes it's a case of "water water everywhere and
not a drop to drink."
Is the lesson study the only way or the best way to build reflection on
classroom practice into teacher meeting time? Perhaps not, but based on
our experience, it is worth experimenting with. Is an approach so grounded
in the culture of Japanese schools transplantable? Yes, but in a flexible
way. It's a case where adaptation not replication is called for. It worked
as well as it did in our school because we made changes where we had to
accommodate our scheduling and other needs.
Is the lesson study an approach that district and state policy makers will
embrace, given their responsibilities for overseeing hundreds of schools,
thousands or millions of students--their need to solve massive problems
like the shortage of certified teachers and to “put out fires,” to respond
to the scandals that hit the newspapers. Is it politically viable to get
the support necessary to do something as incremental as engage teachers in
lesson studies? How can policy makers be convinced that lasting,
meaningful school reform is more likely to happen by teachers slowly
changing schools than by districts and states quickly making changes--a
new testing system most typically--that affect every student everywhere?
How do we convince policy makers that they would do less harm and maybe
even some good if they stepped aside and supported `teachers making