Lesson from Japan helps teachers here improve

Maudlyne Ihejirika, Chicago Sun-Times

On a recent day in a sixth-grade classroom at Sabin Elementary, math instructor Jaime McLaughlin was teaching 11-year-olds how to add positive and negative numbers. “Eighteen plus -4,” student Chastity Rice said, stretching a ruler toward the blackboard. “I started at 18, and went back 4. I ended up at 14.”

Good, McLaughlin said, taking his class through a lesson that covered three ways to find the answer — using a number line, absolute value patterns, or a calculator.

Ignored by McLaughlin and his concentrating students were several Sabin teachers watching, hovering, taking notes, and videotaping their every interaction. After class, those peers ripped apart McLaughlin’s teaching style.

A little bit of Japan has come to the Chicago Public Schools — in the form of jugyoukenkyuu, or “lesson study,” a strategy experts have long credited for Japan’s unceasing advancements in math and science instruction to elementary students. The century-old Japanese concept involves refining — down to the most minuscule detail — the best teaching strategy for a specific reading, writing or arithmetic lesson at a specific grade level.

Chicago Public School Area 6 teachers visit Kyuden Elementary School.

Its focus being student-driven learning — where teachers become facilitators for students to arrive at lesson goals or answers themselves — jugyoukenkyuu requires constant peer critique, practice, evaluation and revision of lesson plans.

“The way you wrote it on the board didn’t actually hold up to the principle being taught,” math and science coach Lori Zaimi told McLaughlin.

“I think having them work together rather than coming up to the board would have helped,” seventh – and eighth-grade math teacher Heidi Sally chimed in.

“And use more signal words that are sequential in nature, like first I’m going to do this, next I’m going to do that,” literacy coach Emily Rowley added.

At the root of Japan’s lauded, student-centered education system, jugyoukenkyuu has found its way into U.S. schools seeking long-term improvement strategies.

McLaughlin, Zaimi and Sally traveled to Japan this summer on a $10,000 Fund for Teachers grant to learn firsthand how to adapt it here.

The three teachers said in their visit to Tokyo schools, it was not uncommon to see up to 30 teachers flitting about a classroom with notebooks and cameras observing one instructor. In Japan, after teachers have tackled a lesson plan — researching and practicing it on students, evaluating its effect, then revising and re-teaching — the final refined product is published.

Sabin staff just hopes to arrive at best practice — one math lesson at a time, within one school’s confines.

“It’s a whole different mind-set, with your practice being exposed, but much more effective,” said McLaughlin. “Of course, U.S. teachers can be a bit proprietary. We’ll need to be open to constructive criticism. You can’t take it personally.”