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Local Educators Study Promising Japanese Teaching Method

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009; 3:47 PM

Third-grade teacher Andy Gomez stood at a whiteboard before 10 of his colleagues on a recent Thursday afternoon at Marie Reed Elementary in Adams Morgan. His students were stumbling over subtraction problems like 700 minus 369, he said -- the zeros were tripping them up.

The solution to their difficulties was coming -- by way of Japan.

For the next half-hour, the group discussed -- down to nitty-gritty details about vocabulary to use or avoid -- what the students' fundamental misunderstandings about numbers might be and how to address them.

This collaborative examination of the mechanics of teaching is part of the school's embrace of "lesson study," a model of professional development for teachers that was developed in Japan. It was pioneered in the District by five teachers at Marie Reed, who began meeting weekly two years ago to study math content and pedagogy.

It is a wholly different approach from the workshop-with-an-outside-expert model that dominates professional development for American teachers, according to a February report by Stanford University researchers. And though its effect on student achievement has not been well documented by researchers, there is some promising evidence: A 2006 study showed that the increase in test scores over four years at a California school where teachers engaged in lesson study was triple that of other schools in the same district. Another broader study of 15 schools in California showed that at schools in which teachers met two or three times a month to address student's specific academic struggles, test scores rose relative to the district average. "Lesson study is a way for teachers to get better. It provides a vehicle to grow," said Eric Bethel, a fifth-grade teacher at Marie Reed who is beginning his eighth year in the classroom. "I've never ever been involved in any professional development that's been as enriching."

At Reed, math scores on the District's Comprehensive Assessment System (DC-CAS) standardized test have risen substantially since teachers began practicing lesson study -- proficiency rates have more than doubled since 2007 to 74 percent. However, the school was one of six in the District with high concentrations of erasures on the 2008 tests. Principal Dayo Akinsheye attributed the high number of erasures to students having two hours to complete each 20-minute test, leaving plenty of time to check work and change answers.

Education researchers James Stigler and James Hiebert first popularized lesson study in the United States in 1999, when they published a book called "The Teaching Gap," in which they compared education in cultures from around the globe. They described a Japanese system in which teachers are constantly examining and tweaking their practice rather than attempting wholesale reform, as has failed so many times in America.

"The evidence is pretty good that the only kind of improvements in teaching that are going to be sustainable are going to be small, incremental improvements," Stigler said in an interview.

Lesson study is a way to organize those small improvements. Teachers work together on a "research lesson," sometimes over the course of an entire year. They identify an objective, come up with a way to teach it and then script students' anticipated misunderstandings and the teacher's response to those misunderstandings.

One member of the group teaches the lesson in front of observers, who are instructed to record students' responses and reactions. They don't evaluate the individual teacher; the lesson has been created by a group, after all, and the purpose is to discover how it is received by students.

"We're looking at the child and the thinking that you see evolving as the lesson progresses," said Akinsheye, who is a member of the lesson study group. "That takes away a lot of the concern that teachers have."

After a post-lesson discussion among the teacher and observers about what worked and what didn't, the group revises and re-teaches.


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