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Local Educators Study Promising Japanese Teaching Method

Gomez, who taught the first lesson in February 2008, discovered that he needed to spend more time reinforcing basic concepts before diving into two-digit multiplication. One of his students was matched with a tutor after observers noticed that she was adeptly faking her way through class.

What eventually bleeds from discrete research lessons into everyday practice, teachers said, is noticing whether students get it -- learning to ask questions that elicit what a student is thinking, where that student is going wrong and therefore what it will take to correct her misconception.

"In the U.S., frequently students are trying to figure out what is in the teacher's mind. What answer is the teacher looking for?" said Patsy Wang-Iverson, a consultant who has studied and written about the Japanese method for a decade and who now acts as the Reed teachers' mentor. "In Japan, teachers are trying to figure out what is in the student's mind -- how they're thinking, what they're thinking and the source of their misunderstanding."

At Reed, lesson study was spurred by Akinsheye, a former math resource teacher. Three years ago, she sent two teachers to observe a research lesson in Patterson, N.J., at the first public American school to adopt lesson study in the late '90s. When they returned wanting to try it at Reed, Akinsheye got a $47,000 grant from the school system and hired Wang-Iverson. This year, the program is expanding to include teachers in every grade.

The culture at Reed has changed as a result of the weekly meetings, said faculty. Teachers don't feel isolated as they face the daunting challenge of raising achievement in a school where 94 percent of the 319 students are poor and two-thirds struggle with English. They chat at the Xerox machine about partitive division. Bethel called Gomez after 10 p.m. one night last week to talk about multiplication arrays.

"You don't stay in a corner there wondering, how do I teach this?" said Elinor Stephens, a fourth-grade teacher.

Lesson study also bolsters a teacher's own grasp of math concepts during a stage in the research lesson cycle called kyozaikenkyu, or intensive learning. Teachers at Reed have assigned one another math homework. Last spring, they all took an online math course through M.I.T., and in addition to deepening their content knowledge, they learned humility.

"We all had gaps in our understanding of elementary mathematics," said Bethel.

The larger benefit of lesson study, proponents say, is to push the conversation about improving teaching beyond luring more highly qualified people into schools to helping teachers grow once they have landed in the classroom.

"If we believe all students can learn, then the corollary to that is all teachers can improve," said Wang-Iverson. "That is at the heart of lesson study."

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