Archive for June, 2007

LSIP Day 5: Narimasu Elementary School

June 30, 2007

Today we visited Narimasu Elementary School in the Itabashi Ward of Tokyo. As a designated research school, Narimasu receives government grants to investigate new directions in curriculum and instruction. Narimasu serves local students in grades 1 to 6 and is very much a typical Japanese elementary school.

We were very well received by the principal, Mrs. Ichinose, who spoke to us about the philosophy of the school, which is based on three things—openness, collaboration, and challenge. She said that she has very good teachers and they work very hard toward that goal. (I would like to note that both teachers and principals are referred to by the same title “sensei” or “teacher,” and it seems like Mrs. Ichinose sees her position not so much as boss but as part of a collaborative effort.) She also emphasized the importance of not just parental involvement, but involvement of the entire community.

In the morning, we split into small groups and visited classes. A parent or community volunteer, who spoke English, led each small group. We visited many different classes including art, swimming, Japanese language, music, mathematics and English.

Although Narimasu is quite different from Takehaya, there was still that feeling of openness and the feeling that they want to educate the whole child. Japanese schooling attempts to develop students’ creative talents, not just academic skills. There was student art all over the walls and I must say it was quite good. Children are genuinely happy, playful and loved. Teachers go out of their way to be kind to the children and, just like Takehaya, teachers were generally not yelling at kids, and as bad behavior was seemingly ignored, it quickly dissipated.

One of the highlights of the day was eating lunch with the students. It is really something to see how the students serve and eat lunch, usually unsupervised. All students wait until everyone is served and then together say the blessing “itadakimas” (we gratefully receive this) and eat. Nothing is wasted and afterwards they all clean up. I ate lunch in a sixth grade class and the students were very happy to practice their English. Common questions I was asked are, “What is your favorite _________ (hobby, color, food, etc.)?” I really laughed a lot with the students at my table as they taught me Japanese and I taught them English!

In the afternoon, we all observed a research lesson. The Narimasu school is conducting a different kind of lesson study where three lessons are conducted at the same time in the same grade and subject in different classes. Through this, observers can observe the previous day’s lesson, the current day’s lesson, and the next day’s lesson all at once in three different classes. Observers switch between classes to observe. These classes have been downsized in order to have classes of a little more than 20 students per class instead of the typical 40 or more. The students are divided into the three classes heterogeneously based on a pre-test so all classes have the same mix of ability levels. We observed 4th grade mathematics lessons taught by three teachers—Mr. Suzuki, Ms. Adachi, and Mr. Koizumi. We divided into three different groups to move about every 10 minutes between the classes. For the sake of brevity, I will comment on Ms. Adachi’s class only.

The goal of Ms. Adachi’s lesson was for students to see the advantages of writing a unified expression for a division problem. The problem that she posed was, “If you share 8 dozen pencils among 6 people, how many pencils will each person get?” Students wrote down their solution methods and answers on magnetic white boards and put them on the board. The teacher then classified all of the solutions into 3 basic methods: (1) 12 x 8 ÷ 6 = 16, (2) 12 x 8 = 96, 96 ÷ 6 = 16, and (3) 8 ÷ 6 = 1 R2, 24 ÷ 6 = 4, 12 + 4 = 16. When students explained the solutions, Ms. Adachi told them that they have to tell what the numbers mean in each expression. Students concluded that methods 1 and 2 were similar but many were confused about solution method #3. Through discussion, students understood that this method divided 8 dozens among 6 people so each person gets one dozen. The R2 means that there are 2 dozen or 24 left. These had to be divided among 6 people so each person gets 4 pencils. So each person receives 12 (1 dozen) + 4 or 16 pencils. Then, the teacher had students analyze the methods based on 3 criteria: (1) Is it efficient? (2) Is it simple? and (3) Is it accurate? Students concluded that the best method is method #1, the unified expression, although one student insisted that method #2 was the best. The teacher said that they would discuss that the next day, summarized the lesson, and asked students to write in math journals.

After the lesson, the entire staff met for the two-hour post-lesson discussion (two hours seems to be typical). The discussion focused on the importance of problem solving, the use of hint cards, the meaning and importance of mathematical expressions, and the purpose of writing unified expressions. There was much debate and discussion about all three lessons. Dr. Takahashi and Dr. Fujii brought final comments. This discussion was a good example of typical lesson study discussions in Japan, but it was not nearly as critical or intense as the one we saw at the Takehaya school.

Afterwards we all went out for a post-lesson “enkai” at a local restaurant. It was very exciting and fun. They made a lot of jokes (even about the principal!), the Japanese teachers all sang a Japanese song, the American teachers sang “America the Beautiful,” and two Mexican teachers sang a rousing rendition of “Mexico Lindo.” Again, it reinforced the idea in my mind of how important these post-lesson parties are to build friendship and community, and to support and honor the teachers who put themselves out there by teaching a public lesson so that everyone could learn.

Mata-ne (see you later),

Bill Jackson
Tokyo, June 28, 2007


LSIP Days 3 and 4: Takehaya Elementary and Lower Secondary School

June 26, 2007

On Monday and Tuesday, we visited Takehaya Elementary and Lower Secondary School in the Bunkyo Ward of Tokyo where we observed classes, observed research lessons, and played with the children. As stated previously, this school is affiliated with Tokyo Gagukei University and many teachers and student teachers come to the school to learn.

We were all very impressed by both the freedom and the responsibility of the students. Children play (and even learn at times) unsupervised, they serve lunch to themselves, and they clean the school. The overwhelming feeling that you get is that children are truly happy and enjoying their elementary and middle school experience. In many ways, it was heartbreaking to reflect on what, in comparison, is the oppressive nature of the typical U.S. school. At this school, kids play freely and enjoy themselves, classes are engaging and fun, and no one has to scream at them or say “shhhh.”

This is not because the students are better behaved than our students, however. We noticed that oftentimes, negative behaviors were simply ignored. Teachers generally do not stop the flow of a lesson because one or few students are misbehaving or not paying attention. We asked Dr. Takahashi about this and he told us that teachers make a conscious effort to do this and. Whereas in the U.S., student behavior is often seen apart from academics, Japanese teachers see it as part of academics and through their many lesson study experiences, teachers often discuss student behaviors and how to best deal with them, especially at this particular school. The result is that there is a very light feeling to the school and even teachers seem to be genuinely happy in their interactions with students, each other, and administrators. The principal of the school, Dr. Fujii, does not have a top down management style but very much sees teacher professional development as a long-term process in which he is intimately involved.

This leads me to think about one research lesson in particular that was taught to 6th grade students by Mr. Yamada on division of fractions. In Japan, division of fractions is often taught in the context of word problems such as, “With ¾ dl of paint you can paint 2/5 square meters of boards, how much board can you paint with 1 dl of paint?” (see Tokyo Shoseki Mathematics for Elementary School 6A p. 17, available at Mr. Yamada, however, gave students the problem 9/20 divided by 3/5 as well as the answer, ¾ based on what students had learned previously by changing the fractions to decimals and dividing to get 0.45/0.6=0.75=3/4. Then students thought about how to get this answer, ¾, directly by calculation of fractions.

Students quickly noticed that you can just divide the numerators and denominators to get the answer but were not sure if this worked in every case. One student suggested the problem 9/30 divided by 3/5 as one case. Although the teacher had planned on using ¾ divided by 2/5, he made the decision to go with this problem the student suggested and students tried to solve it to see if there was another way. Many students noticed that you could invert the dividend and multiply but they were unable to explain why you can do this very well. To make a long story short, this took the lesson in a very different direction and the teacher was unable to achieve the main goal of the lesson.

Afterwards, the teacher sat down to discuss the lesson with a panel of observers. (There were about 60 observers in all, including much of the school faculty and invited knowledgeable others.) what really shocked us was the candor of the discussion. Many teachers on the panel openly questioned the teacher’s decisions to not use a word problem, to accept the problem suggested by the student, and to not use either diagrams or manipulatives. The comments were very direct and it amounted to a severe two-hour grilling for this particular teacher where he was forced to question almost everything he did in the course of the lesson—very different from the general niceness we have witnessed in much U.S. lesson study discussions.

At the end, comments were made by the invited knowledgeable other—Dr. Nakamura of Tokyo Gagukei University. He said that often word problems are not necessary because in this case, painting boards is not really something kids can relate to. He said that these problems were used, however, so students could think about the proportional relationship, which is essential to understanding why we invert and multiply.

After the discussion, we all went out for an “enkai” (big party) with almost the entire school staff. We really learned the importance of these large parties because as everyone ate and drank together, we witnessed much caring, sharing and affirmation, especially for Mr. Yamada (who, by the way, as the teacher who taught the lesson did not have to pay). At one point, Mr. Yamada stood up and told everyone not to feel sorry for him because of the grilling he received at the post-lesson discussion. He said that this was not for him but for his students and that he appreciated his colleagues’ frankness because their intent was to help him to become a better teacher. Wow! It was very moving, to say the least.

There is so much more to say about how wonderful the visit to the Takehaya school was and all that we learned. But what sticks out the most to me are those words from Mr. Yamada. If we don’t open ourselves to such critique, how can we ever improve what we are doing? Thank you Mr. Yamada for teaching all of us a very valuable lesson.

Dewa Mata (bye),

Bill Jackson
Tokyo, June 25, 2007

LSIP Day 2: Orientation

June 24, 2007

This morning, we listened to presentations by Dr. Akihiko Takahashi from DePaul University in Chicago, and Dr. Tad Watanabe from Keenesaw State University in Georgia on the 47th floor of the Sumimoto building in Tokyo from which there is a beautiful view of the city. Dr. Takahashi discussed lesson study and Dr. Watanabe discussed the content of the lessons we will observe and how they are presented in Japanese textbooks. Since we will discuss the actual lessons in the coming days, I will only summarize Dr. Takahashi’s presentation in today’s blog.

Summary of Dr. Takahashi’s Presentation:

Both the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) and the Japanese Course of Study (COS) emphasize teaching mathematics through problem solving. This means that important mathematical concepts and skills are presented and taught in a problem-solving context. This is very different than teaching about (or for) problem-solving, as is usually done in most U.S. curricula and textbooks which teach problem-solving as a separate skill. To develop and improve this type of mathematics teaching, Japanese teachers engage in lesson study.

In a lesson study cycle, teachers collaboratively plan, teach, and reflect on an actual classroom lesson. This should not be understood as just teaching one lesson, however. Teachers plan an entire unit and several lessons are taught prior to the research lesson. Also, they do not plan the lesson from scratch. Textbooks, teacher’s guides, previous lesson studies, and other materials are carefully consulted.

A lesson study group involves the planning team that plans and teaches the lesson as well as subgroup members who help observe and discuss the research lesson. There are also often participants from outside the school who also act as observers and discussants. While traditional professional development for teachers usually begins with an answer, lesson study begins with a question. Traditional professional development can be likened to a cooking show. Many people watch the show but few actually try the recipe. Even those who actually try it, often run into problems since they are working alone, may have to substitute hard-to-find ingredients, etc. Lesson study is more like a cooking group that tries the recipe and then collaboratively thinks about how to modify and improve upon it.

There are different types of lesson study. The most common type is school-based lesson study. In school-based lesson study, teachers from within one school work on an over-arching goal for 5 to 7 years. Its purpose is to achieve systematic improvement, consistent instruction, and common vision at the school. We will see this type of lesson study at Takehaya Elementary and Lower Secondary (middle) School in Tokyo, which is affiliated with Tokyo Gagukei University. This school provides professional development activities for teachers and student teachers, and often teachers from outside come to the school for several months to learn. Every month, the entire faculty participates in observing and discussing research lessons in different subject areas.

We will also see this type of lesson study at Narimasu Elementary School in Tokyo. This school is a designated research school. In Japan, each prefecture (and sometimes each city within the prefecture) has one of these schools, which receive government grants to investigate new directions in curriculum and instruction. This particular school is studying achievement level grouping. They give students a pre-test at the beginning of each unit and based on the results, divide them into 3 groups. This is different from ability level grouping which tracks students into ability level groups for the entire year.

Another type of lesson study is district-wide lesson study. In this type of lesson study, teachers from across schools plan research lessons in different subject area groups to achieve a district-wide goal. Its purpose is to develop communication and exchange ideas among schools, and improve teaching and learning in the district as a whole. University professors are usually invited to act as knowledgeable others for the research lessons they teach.
We will observe this type of lesson study at two different schools—Ishida Elementary School, in Yamanashi Prefecture (near Mt. Fuji), and Kyuden Elementary School in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo. The latter school provides a half-day, district-wide professional development day every month where teachers from throughout the district come to the school to observe research lessons. Each month, a different subject area group teaches research lessons. Since there are so many observers (100 or more), the lesson are discussed by a selected panel of discussants while the others observe and learn from the discussion.
We had the afternoon free and many participants went shopping for souvenirs, electronics, and books, some went to the Kabuki theater, and some went exploring Tokyo. In the evening, we all shared a wonderful Kobe beef sukiaki dinner at a wonderful restaurant. The food is so good in Japan, I think the author of this blog may have to go on a diet after this trip!

Ja-ne (see you later),
Bill Jackson

Tokyo, June 24, 2007


LSIP Day 1: Sightseeing

June 24, 2007

Thirty-eight educators arrived in Tokyo, Japan yesterday afternoon from all over the U.S. and Canada. The flight was long (about 13 hours), but we were all ready to begin the Lesson Study Immersion Trip to Japan 2007, in spite of severe jet lag! We are staying at the very comfortable Keio Plaza Hotel in the busy and interesting Shinjuku section of Tokyo.

Today was our first full day in Japan and to take advantage of the effects of the jet lag (almost everyone was wide awake at around 2:00 or 3:00 AM), we went to the Tsukiji fish market at 5:00 AM on a chartered bus. Our very helpful (and funny) guide, Yoko-san, told us that this is the largest fish market in the world. Fortunately, we got there in time to see the tuna auction where buyers bid on huge blue fin tuna that fetch up to $20,000.00 a piece. We also saw so many different kinds of fish and sea creatures. We were all so impressed by how clean the fish market was, not a single fly!
Seeing so much fish made us all very hungry so afterwards, we went back to the hotel for breakfast where we could choose from a typical Japanese breakfast or an American breakfast. Many of us chose the Japanese breakfast, which consists of miso soup, rice, grilled fish, pickled vegetables, fresh fruit and other delicacies. I heard that the American-style breakfast was also very good.

At 9:00 AM, we all went on a sightseeing tour of Tokyo, beginning with the beautiful Asakusa Kannon Temple where we saw and learned about Japanese religious customs, and even witnessed a bride and groom coming to the shrine for a traditional Japanese-style wedding. Afterwards, we went to the Imperial Palace, which is where the Emperor of Japan, Akihito, and his wife live with 1000 servants. We were only allowed to view the impressive 280-acre compound from the outside (visitors are only allowed inside twice a year on special holidays), but we learned many interesting facts about the history and culture of the Japan.

After the sightseeing tour, we had lunch at a Kusheage restaurant where we ate skewers of battered, deep-fried fish, meat and vegetables. It was absolutely delicious! After lunch, we all had the afternoon and evening free. Many people went to museums, parks, shopping, or just walked around to take in the multitude of sights and sounds of Tokyo. All in all, it was a wonderful beginning to our trip! Now, we are really looking forward to our school visits where we will be observing classes, eating lunch with students, and observing and discussing research lessons.

Sayonara from Japan,
Bill Jackson

Tokyo, June 23, 2007