Friday 24 November 2017

Guest post by Sarah Selezynov - Japanese lesson study: a question of culture

Given the publication of the EEF's evaluation report on Lesson Study, it seems sensible to take a slightly broader perspective on Lesson Study, so this week's post is by Sarah Selezynov - Programme Leader - Bespoke Leadership Programmes; IOE - Learning & Leadership; UCL Institute of Education. Sarah has extensive knowledge of Lesson Study and is currently organising two lesson study events in December - with Professor Akihiko Takahashi - to explore the Japanese approach to problem solving in mathematics, lesson study as a tool to improve teaching and learning, and the role of the koshi.

As a school leader who is interested in Japanese lesson study (JLS), you are probably reading the debate on this blog with interest – Should I or shouldn’t I?  Will it make a difference to my pupils in my school?  How can I be sure that the time and effort my school invests in this will pay dividends for pupil learning?  And you are right to be cautious.

And yet, I qualify this warning by saying that I believe that JLS has great potential for teachers and pupils.  JLS aligns with the wider research base on effective teacher professional development: it focuses on learning and not performance, begins with an end goal, engages teachers in and with research over an extended time frame, in collaborative groups.  And our research has shown strong evidence of improved teacher practice and student learning (Godfrey et al, forthcoming). 

So why the warning?  Because borrowing an education policy from another country and expecting it to simply work here as it does there, doesn’t really work – it rarely has.  Pasi Sahlberg (who is not against global borrowing per se) describes how a ‘network of interrelated factors – educational, political and cultural - …function differently in different situations’ (2011: 6) meaning that we cannot be sure that any one educational approach will function in the same way when it is translated from one country to the next.

So what do we need to consider when attempting to use JLS as an approach to teacher professional development in Britain?  First and foremost, we need to understand the cultural differences between Japan and Great Britain and how this might affect teachers’ responses to JLS. 

Hofstede (2010) categorises cultural differences along five dimensions, using a 0-100 ranking.  And on three of these rankings, Great Britain has a very different score to Japan:

  1. Uncertainty avoidance (Gap: Japan 11, Great Britain 68.5)
‘The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations' (2010: 191).

The lengthy, meticulous and detailed planning of JLS, including exploring known evidence through kyozai kenkyu, and the significant time spent predicting student responses, are all attempts to avoid any unanticipated events in the research lesson.  British teachers are very likely to be much less averse to taking risks in lessons and to therefore plan in less detail and not see the need for kyozai kenkyu.  

Uncertainty avoidance cultures also feel a greater need for protocols and rules, which may explain the formal and rigid processes of JLS.  It is highly likely that English teachers would not see the need for this level of formality and would want to deviate from LS protocols.  

Uncertainty avoidance leads to a greater tendency to believe in and revere expertise: hence the valued role of the koshi or ‘expert other’ in JLS.  British teachers engaged in LS are likely to value practice expertise as much as academic expertise, and less likely to see the need for a koshi

  1. Individualism versus collectivism (Gap: Japan 36, Great Britain 3)
Individualistic societies are those where 'ties between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him- or herself and his or her immediate family' (2010: 92).  In collectivist societies, 'people …. are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people's lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty' (2010: 92).

Great Britain is a highly individualistic society: occupational mobility is higher, teachers are managed as individuals and feedback on performance is given directly.   This difference is reflected in the English performance management system for teachers, the hiring and firing based on performance judgements, and performance feedback being given directly to the teacher after a lesson observation.  Japan is a collectivist society: occupational mobility is lower, teachers are managed collectively and it would not be productive to the group to give direct feedback to an individual.   JLS has evolved as a way of giving feedback on performance through the group, with the lesson plan as a collaborative product.  We might predict that teachers in Great Britain would shy away from the live observation element of JLS, fearing a judgement on their individual professional performance, which may affect job security.   Other collaborative aspects may also be challenging to implement in Great Britain, such as committing extended amounts of time to collaborative lesson planning process and working towards a whole school shared research theme.

  1. Long term orientation (Gap: Japan 3, Great Britain 40.5)
‘The fostering of virtues oriented toward future rewards - in particular perseverance' (2010: 239). 

The importance of perseverance and effort is clearly seen in JLS, where a research theme will be pursued by a school for two or three years.  This contrasts with the British short-termist attitude which is likely to influence policy decisions about the time teachers are asked to commit to investigating a research theme. 

 In summary, some key cultural differences between Great Britain and Japan are likely to mean teachers struggle with several distinguishing features of lesson study as a research process, namely:
  • Focusing on a shared research theme over a longer period of time;
  • Spending time on collaborative lesson planning, including exploring relevant material around their research theme;
  • Being observed by colleagues as they gather evidence in the research lesson;
  • Seeking outside expertise to develop and enhance their research ideas.
In our work with schools, we have managed to support teachers to engage with models of JLS that feature all of the above elements and these teachers and leaders have spoken highly of lesson study.  However, we have also encountered schools who say they are doing ‘lesson study’ but do not work on a shared research theme, nor plan collaboratively, nor act as silent observers in the lesson observation, and do not look to outside expertise to enhance their learning.  

What does this mean for you as a school leader?  If you are already using JLS, make sure that teachers are not just paying lip service to its features but adhering strictly to the features that distinguish lesson study as a research process.  If you are seeking to introduce JLS, anticipate the above cultural resistance.  Make sure teachers really understand why JLS is designed in the way it is and what you will lose if you leave out any of its critical research features.


Godfrey, D., Seleznyov, S., Wollaston, N., and Barrera-Pedamonte, F. (forthcoming). Target oriented lesson study (TOLS) Combining lesson study with an integrated impact evaluation model.
Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J. and Minkov, M., 2010. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind (Vol. 3). London: McGraw-Hill.

Sahlberg, P., 2011. Finnish lessons. Teachers College Press.


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