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SFFS Math Faculty Learn about "Lesson Study" from Japanese Expert

Thursday, March 22, 2018
The SFFS math team with Dr. Takahashi (fourth from right)

Established in 2016 with generous support from our community, the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF) supports our faculty with transformative professional development experiences at key moments in their careers. Encouraged to think beyond workshops and conferences, teachers submit an application seeking support for a professional development experience that will enrich future programs, our school culture and greater community.

After receiving support from the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future, third grade teacher Amabelle Sze trekked many miles south to Hillsborough to attend the Innovative Learning Conference in the fall of 2017. There, she learned about "Lesson Study," a Japanese method for deepening collaboration, planning and reflection in teaching and learning. The name for Lesson Study in Japanese is “jugyokenkyu.” “Jugyo” meaning “teaching and learning.” “Kenkyu” meaning “study or research.” So, Lesson Study is the study or research of teaching and learning.

When Amabelle gets excited about a new, educative idea, she is unstoppable. Upon her return, Amabelle extolled the value and importance of Lesson Study to anybody who would listen.

Luckily for her, she can typically find a learning partner that is game in fellow third grade teacher Jake Ban. Jake, who had previously engaged in Lesson Study during graduate school, was immediately excited about the opportunity to delve deeper with colleagues in the service of student learning. Jennifer Arnest, who had learned about Lesson Study at Mills College, fanned the fire. Amabelle and Jennifer then presented about Lesson Study at a professional development day this past fall. It was soon clear that Amabelle, Jake, and Jennifer’s enthusiasm about Lesson Study was shared by many colleagues.

A few months later, Jake and Amabelle were sitting in a public library in East Oakland. After Jake’s persistent nagging, a graduate school classmate had arranged for them to attend a public lesson with elementary teachers from Woodland Acorn. For these teachers, this class was the culmination of a months-long Lesson Study process. For Amabelle and Jake, what had felt like a vague, interesting idea now seemed imminently achievable and ever more important. They were impressed by the depth of practice and knowledge the teachers exhibited. The Acorn Woodland staff were reflective and curious while simultaneously deliberate and savvy. Their research proposal, pre- and post-lesson conversations, the lesson itself, and the reflection, demonstrated the deep complexities inherent in teaching and learning.

At Woodland Acorn, it was not only teachers who were deeply engaged. The students were presented with a problem, “Can you write 8/3 as a mixed number?”, and persisted in solving this problem in a variety of ways independently. When asked to explain their thinking, these students, most of whom are English Language Learners, demonstrated a depth of mathematical understanding through conversation, writing, and whole-class presentation. In the teacher reflection of this lesson, Jake and Amabelle heard the letters “TTP” repeated often. They turned to each other and shrugged at this acronym. Afterwards, when one teacher passed by, Amabelle asked, “Excuse me, what is TTP?” The response: “Teaching Through Problem Solving.”

Throughout Japan, this methodology of teaching mathematics is used. Rather than teaching concepts, with a traditional “I do, you do, we do” structure, students engage in a problem for which the solution is not known in advance. Teaching Through Problem Solving is open-ended and thusly often time-consuming, often messy, and often unresolved. A leading Japanese math teacher and strong proponent of Lesson Study, Akihiko Takahashi reflected on this process, “[Math teachers] are too impatient. You expect children to learn a concept by the end of the lesson.”

TTP provides young mathematicians with an opportunity to delve deeply into mathematical practices to develop strong conceptual foundations and problem solving abilities. TPP overlays nicely with the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, which essentialize the habits of professional mathematicians.

Both Lesson Study and TTP reflect many of our shared Quaker values:

  • Simplicity: teaching math through problem solving encourages narrow and deep mathematical learning
  • Community: working together with colleagues to plan curriculum
  • Reflection: being more mindful of our practice through group reflection
  • Continuous revelation: researching lesson topics, planning and reflecting together provides a greater truth than any one individual teacher could possess

We are very happy to announce that we hosted Dr. Takahashi at San Francisco Friends School on March 19, 2018. He worked closely with a team of our K-8 math teachers on collaborative lesson research and the approach to teaching through problem solving.