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 http://www.globaledresources.com.) 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

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