“lesson study” & teachers’ unions

On the XMCA list (eXtended Mind, Culture, & Activity), Mike Cole relates:

. . . We got into an argument about school reforms and [he, being] a strong advocate of charter schools and variety creating mechanisms opined that “The problem was the unions.”

I argued that indeed, in some configurations of circumstances made unions uncooperative with supervisor’s grand schemes. Allan Bursin steamrolling reforms in San Diego was an example.

But, I also argued, that when reforms were organized in a proper manner, unions were NOT a problem and in fact, might be an important part of the solution.

Mike is asking about the role of teachers’ unions in education reforms such as the efforts reported by Cobb & McClain in their recent MCA article, which is being discussed on the XMCA list, and he has invited those authors to comment on the unions’ roles in the projects undertaken in their studies.

Another relevant source of examples, it seems to me, would be the role of unions in districts where “lesson study” has been implemented. Any real “lesson study” effort requires real time and other resources. In union-organized school districts, it seems to me commitment and support from both the District and the Union would be absolutely necessary.

Although “lesson study” may have been introduced earlier in the US, it seems to me its popularity took off with publication of The Teaching Gap, by Jim Stigler and Jim Hiebert, following their work on the video study component of TIMSS (the Third International Math and Science Study).

The American Federation of Teachers has been squarely and actively behind the “lesson study” movement since at least that time. The (AFT-related) Shanker Foundation supported writing the book, which carries an endorsement by AFT president Sandra Feldman on the back cover. A pre-publication version of the chapter titled “Teaching is a cultural activity” was published in their American Educator magazine (and can be downloaded here), and they have continued to support this approach (see, for example, here).

Support from the national union does not, of course, tell us about the roles that local affiliates (much less NEA-affiliated locals) have played in districts where lesson study has been undertaken. And, despite everyone’s advice, there may be administrations tempted to place the burden of lesson study on teachers who are not given the support to really do it–which would give cause for legitimate resistance by the teachers. Although I don’t know what’s been happening in this regard, I can put this question to the folks on the Lesson Study Listserv which is sponsored by the Lesson Study Research Group at Teachers College, Columbia. (Another important resource for Lesson Study is Research for Better Schools in Philadelphia.)

While Mike was asking about education reform, it should be noted that Stigler and Hiebert feature lesson study as an alternative to what we are familiar with as “education reform” in the United States. As practiced in Japan, lesson study is the ongoing, incremental improvement of teaching through the collegial efforts of teachers working together in planning, trying out, reflecting on, and then revising their lessons in a never-ending recursive process. Lesson study is not a procedure for producing better lesson plans; it is a practice in which better teaching is formed, with teachers acquiring “new eyes” for what’s happening in their classrooms through their collaboration with their colleagues–sustained within a culture that supports this idea of what it is to teach, and what it is to be a teacher. It decidedly is not the top-down imposition of mandated methods, and accountability in the form of high-stakes testing, expected to dramatically transform (or re-form) education overnight, or even in the short span of a decade or so.

(For more on this vision of teaching as a profession, see Hiebert, James, Ronald Gallimore, and James Stigler. “A Knowledge Base for the Teaching Profession: What Would It Look Like and How Can We Get One?” Educational Researcher 31, no. 5 (2002): 3-15).

This vision of continuing collaborative improvement of teaching seems (to me, at least) broader than the idea suggested by the term “lesson study” — as if it has to do just with lessons. Indeed, the Japanese term translated as “lesson study” is not one that I would have translated that way (although I’m not personally familiar with the Japanese usage, so I have to confess that I would actually be translating the Chinese cognate–see below).

As “lesson study” is being adopted in the US today, it does often seem to be just that–an activity that’s focused on the lesson as such. It does seem to me that an essential feature of this approach is for teachers to collaborate with a focus on something as specific as a lesson; but the “lesson” as such does not seem to me to be the essential feature. In Problem-Based Learning, for example, it seems to me that the focal unit could be a problem, or just a particular step in an unfolding PBL problem. In other words, it could be on a larger or a smaller scale than that of a “lesson,” although it should be as discrete and particular as the lessons developed in the Japanese practice of “jugyou [lesson(?)] kenkyuu [study].”

More generally, I wonder if “lesson” gives us an adequate idea of what the Japanese understand as “jugyou”–which I tend to read (in Chinese, admittedly) as “teaching,” rather than as “lesson.”

[ Below the following note I will make some use of Kanji, or Han characters. The text should be understandable if you cannot see or recognize the characters, although they might be helpful for those who can read them. ]

this note courtesy of Wikipedia Some text below on this page contains Chinese/Japanese characters. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Chinese characters.

In Chinese, I don’t think that “授業” (written 授业 on the mainland, and pronounced “shouye” in Mandarin) would be understood as “lesson.” I think 授业研究 (pronounced jugyou kenkyuu in Japanese, and shouye yanjiu in Chinese) would have a sense more like “teaching study” (rather than “lesson study”) in Chinese.

My access to Japanese is quite limited and antiquated. My 1954-edition Kenkyusha Japanese-English dictionary defines “jugyou” (in this order) as “teaching; instruction; [school] lessons.” My 1960-edition Kenkyusha English-Japanese dictionary defines “lesson” as “学课; 教课; 课业” (sorry about the Chinese-style characters–it’s all I can input right now). So I wonder if “jugyou kenkyuu” might not be understood in Japan as something more like what “teaching study” would sound like to us (vs. “lesson study”) in the United States. If “jugyou kenkyuu” is understood in the context of “kounaikenshuu” (see table below), it seems to me it might have a broader meaning than a more limited sense of “lesson study.” I wonder if the American sense of “lesson study” might not be something that would be rendered more precisely in Japanese as “gakka kenkyuu” (I have this in red because I think it’s not real Japanese; but I’m wondering if this would not be a Japanese term more closely matching what “lesson study” sounds like to us Americans, rather than the real Japanese term, jugyou kenkyuu.

What matters, of course, is not what the dictionaries say, but what people mean and understand by the actual use of terms. After an AERA session on lesson study in New Orleans (April 5, 2002, according to my notes), I asked Professor Makoto Yoshida about these things. (His English-language dissertation on lesson study was a major source for Stigler and Hiebert.) According to my memory and understanding, Professor Yoshida told me that “jugyou” is used both for “teaching” and also (unlike Chinese, as far as I know) for “lesson”; and that “teaching study” could be a preferred rendering of “jugyou” in relation to the concerns that I was raising.

I welcome any input on these questions. Most people interested in these things know the languages, and the practices, better than I do.

授業研究 jugyou kenkyuu “lesson study” – teaching study?
研究授業 kenkyuu jugyou a “study lesson” — a lesson for “lesson study”
{学課研究} {gakka kenkyuu} {lesson study?}
校内研修 kounaikenshuu “in-school”/”school-based” improvement study


  1. Posted January 7, 2007 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    There have been a couple very informative posts on the Lessonstudy listserv responding to the question with information about AFT- and NEA-affiliated initiatives at the local, state, and national levels.

    And, in Los Angeles, what looks like an example of a more independent local initiative:
    “Los Angeles Unified Teacher’s Union has developed a reading-based lesson study program that they offer to teachers there. While it is not a direct match with what is considered traditional lesson study, it is an example of a union taking a leadership approach in the area of lesson/curriculum study.”

    This page could be a place to add more, if you have more to add.

  2. Yuexia
    Posted March 2, 2007 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I think that Chinese word 授業originated from Han Yu(韩愈). He argues in >,师者,所以传道,授业,解惑也 (中文翻译,老师就是要传授道理,教授学业,解答疑难问题)。

    My own shallow English translation is that the primary functions of being a teacher, is to pass down(indoctrinate) knowledge which encompass a wide variety of things (how to learn, how to act morally and ethically, and so on), teach lessons, clarify and answer difficulty questions for the students. So according to Han Yu, he places 传道 as priority over 授业,解惑。

    Going back to 授业研究 shou ye yan jiu,I think it is cool to understand it as research on how to teach. But it is not completely a bad thing to also understand it as a lesson study since I guess that kind of lesson study as did by Stigler and Hiebert on Germany, U.S.A. and Japan classroom could be rendered as one aspect on how to teach in the real classroom settings. That being said, this lesson study focuses on how to 授业shou ye/teach a lesson in real settings. Of course,I think it makes more sense to understand shou ye as teaching study rather than lesson study because it seems to include more things to explore.

  3. Yuexia
    Posted March 2, 2007 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to mention above where Han Yu had that argument.

    Han Yu 韩愈 argues in > (Shi shuo):师者,所以传道,授业,解惑也 (中文翻译,老师就是要传授道理,教授学业,解答疑难问题)。

  4. Posted March 4, 2007 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Yuexia,

    I think your translation is good.

    A couple points: (1) “function” and “knowledge” carry limiting implications in English. I would use “purpose” instead of “function,” but I would say “The purpose for being a teacher” (which is not great English, but I think more precise) rather than “a teacher’s purpose” or “the purpose of a teacher.” “A teacher’s purpose” makes it sound more like a subjective, voluntary matter. Your phrasing “the functions of being a teacher” shows that you were also trying to avoid the subjective voluntary connotation. “Function” makes it more an objective claim, but suggests a kind of systems-theory idea that I think would be different from Han Yu’s idea. You also elaborate “knowledge” so that it extends beyond the limited sense in which that word is ofter used in English (see the proposal for my 2006 AERA session with Yuichi Handa). I think in English it would be OK to say “The purpose for the teacher is to pass down the Way (Dao).

    Also (2), “priority” could suggest which one prevails when they are in conflict. I think you mean “priority” in a different sense: “clarify and answer difficulty questions” are to be understood as serving the priority purpose of passing down the Dao.

    It seems to me you need to add an “is” for the “也” in 授业,解惑也. Also — most relevant to this post — is “授业” really “teach lessons”, or is it something more like “the practice of teaching”? (I guess I would try to say something like “teaching is the practice of clarifying and answering difficulty questions”)

    What do you think (Yuexia, or anybody)?

    Also, Yuexia and I attended a conference session at Stanford a couple years ago in which presenters were describing practices in China that strongly reminded me of what I am referring to here as “teaching study.” I don’t know how prevalent those practices are in China, though. If they are indeed common in China, then I wonder if Japanese “lesson study” is really such a unique practice, or whether it is just an institutionalized instantiation of practices that are more common in East Asia, perhaps reflecting a different (from the US) cultural idea of what it is to be a teacher.

  5. Yuexia
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your feedback on these points. These are all helpful to me.

    1. Actually, I hesitated to choose “function” rather than “purpose” previously.

    I think the sole reason I use “function” instead of “purpose”, as you described, is to avoid making it sound more like a subjective, voluntary matter. But it looks like I am going to the other pitfall. Your clarification does sound illuminating to me.

    2. There is no conflict between passing down Dao and clarifying and answer difficult questions. From my own view, to understand Dao, is the ultimate goal for learning for Han Yu (韩愈). That clarification process is to help students master Dao. To draw perhaps an inappropriate analogy, Dao may stand as macrocosm while to understanding questions and the following clarification process may look like Dao in microcosm.

    3.The direction translation for 授业, I think, is to understand it like 教授学业 in Chinese for Han Yu. I just directly translate it into English. 传道, 授业, 解惑 are three categories in the practice of teaching for teachers. These three together serve as the ways how teaching should be practiced from Han Yu’s perspectives.

  6. Yuexia
    Posted March 4, 2007 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    In response to you “P.S.”, you said, as I agree with you, it (lesson study) is just an institutionalized instantiation of practices that are more common in East Asia. This is typically what a lesson study introduced from WIKI: Lesson Study (or kenkyu jugyo) is a teaching improvement process that has origins in Japanese elementary education, where it is a widespread professional development practice. Working in a small group, teachers collaborate with one another, meeting to discuss learning goals, to plan an actual classroom lesson (called a “research lesson”), to observe how it works in practice, and then to revise and report on the results so that other teachers can benefit from it. Despite differences between Japanese and American educational systems (see Education in Japan and Education in the United States), the practice is gaining in popularity in the United States in K-12 education and teacher training, and more recently it is finding a home in higher education as a form of faculty development(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lesson_study).

    I doubt that if WIKI is right by saying that this process begins in Japan, but at least I think it is right to say that this concept (lesson study) may be coined by Professor Yoshida.

    I think from the attributes of what a “Lesson Study” comprises, I don’t think it’s rare to witness this practice at Chinese schools. On the contrary, it is fairly common, though minute differences may exist. I think JIAO YAN ZU 教研组 (Research group for teaching/lesson preparation group) is widely known and practiced in Chinese schools at almost all levels. So basically, the Chinese teachers work together, and collaborate with each other working on preparing a lesson plan, and so on.

    Tony, I have just found an article, and you may find some interesting things there.
    Here is the URL:
    In this article, you may be interested in the last two paragraphs which I quoted here.
    我接下来谈一谈教师学习条件的问题。为什么中国和日本的老师的比较好?在史蒂格勒和希尔伯特的书中有一个看法,他们的答案就是在于课的研究(lesson study)。课的研究成为老师专业发展的一个策略。一群老师坐在一块,先选出一个课题,当然,所选的课题应是对学生来说比较难学的,而且坐在一块的这些老师是教同一科目、同一年级的。他们可能邀请外面的顾问来帮忙,然后交流和分享他们的经验。找寻有关文献,试着设计一个课,然后就指派一个人去教,以执行该课的计划。当这位老师上课时,其他的老师参与观课。观完课以后,这些老师对这节课进行讨论,看有哪些值得反思的地方,可能把这个教案进行修订,然后另外一位老师将修订后的教案再教一遍,其他人仍参与看课,接下来也是讨论。最后,把这几个过程写成报告的形式,与其他学校的老师分享。这样一来,他们就可建立了一个教学知识库。在过去的两年,美国从事课的研究的风气渐盛,2001年4月我到美国西雅图参加美国教育研究会的会议(America Education Research Association Annual Conference),在1000个研究报告里面,其中只有一个是进行课的研究的。今年的上月(四月),在新奥尔良又召开了这个会议,与课的研究有关的报告有五十多个。如今在互联网上,可以找到200多个美国人所创建的课的研究的网址。
      让我们看看中国老师这方面的情况,在马立平的论文里提到为什么中国的老师这么棒,是不是他们所受的教育比较好?事实上,她发现美国教师受教育的程度比中国教师高得多,中国教师的教育是在行业中也就是工作中进行的。跟美国教师相比,中国教师花了比较多的时间用于研究课程、备课和互相讨论。几天前我谈到过彭恩霖(Lynn Paine),她做过上海新教师入职教育培训案例研究,谈到过教研组(lesson preparation groups)(顾:彭恩霖进了我们的教研组,看了教师们的活动,发现一个重大的差别,就是美国没有这种教研活动,因为中国有,所以新教师成长比较决,教师的实践智慧主要是在这种行业活动中得以发展的,在日本也是这个样子)。他们同一个科目、同一个年级的老师坐在一块讨论安排下一次课。虽然她说的不多,我可以想象。可能不同的是,在日本,对于课的研究,每位老师一年只作两次。另外一点,彭恩霖提出的,也是很多人都知道的,在中国,教学是一种很特别、很公开的活动,所以教师互相观课不是一件什么很难的事情,其实,他们必须得观其他人的课。那么你可以想一想刚才所谈到过的学生用同一方法解决不同的问题,我要说的一点可能你们没有考虑到,就是你们对这个东西太熟,中国的老师很容易意识到同一个课题可以用不同的方法去教,或对同个的课题从不同的角度进行探讨;如果你同意这是事实的话,这在世界上的其它地方是不容易看到的。不同的老师有不同的教学经验。如果你只看到不同的老师去教不同的东西的话,那么你就不能够了解同一个课题由不同的老师是怎样教的,他们教法上有什么差异,在我看来教学理念最重要的就是,你怎样教一个特定的课题。无论你怎么说我们要教给学生一些共通的能力,但这些能力的培养一定要有一个载体,不能是架空的。彭恩霖的文章提到老师在教研组里谈论的一些问题,往往是如何处理、如何面对某一个特定的课题,如何处理一些困难,我可以说在我的国家瑞典,学校的教研组很少有这么谈话的。他们在谈到有关教学的时候,大多是一般性的方法。在中国的有关课程文件里,很多时候涉及的还是有关这个课程的特定的课题。在彭恩霖的文章里面也特别提到了一节课的关键是什么(顾:她曾反复追问我们三个名词:一节课的重点,难点和关键,搞不清楚。事实上,一节课不可能面面俱到,要考虑它的重要的核心问题在哪里——重点;要解决这个核心问题有那些困难之处——难点;要突破、解决这个困难那些地方切入比较容易——关键。后来她认为,要上好一堂课,重点、难点、关键这三点美国人是没有的)。我个人认为你们能够把注意力集中于特定的课题是有深刻的教学意义的。在西方,现在有两种趋势,有一种势力把教师的注意力放在其它地方,而不是所教的特定的课上,他们总是讨论课堂的形式问题,如,是全班教好啊?还是分组教好?我不是说这些问题不重要,但是一般性的教学方法和课堂主题其实本身并不是目的。另外一个不好的势头,就是他们要常常谈到一般性能力的培养,我认为这是一个国际性的教育问题,我不知道顾教授同不同意,他到过香港好多次,他发现在两点之间求取一个平衡点其实在香港是一个很大的困难。我就谈到这儿,接下来我想听听你们的意见和回答你们可能提出的问题。

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