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Learning Our Lessons


by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, November 2000

When was the last time you fully planned a lesson and shared it with others for feedback? For many of us, detailed, written-out lesson plans often fall by the wayside as we juggle numerous other duties and responsibilities throughout the school day and school year. By failing to promote the thorough development and review of lesson plans, however, we squander an important professional development opportunity to strengthen our teaching of mathematics.

I saw the potential for such professional development this summer in Japan. I and other American mathematics educators there for a seminar observed the practice of lesson study, a process that is built into the Japanese school year. Although lesson study seems straightforward as practiced in Japan, it also requires a significant investment in time and effort. lesson study involves a group of both new and veteran teachers working together on four essential activities: (1) setting goals and objectives they want to accomplish with their students; (2) creating a detailed lesson plan, a "study lesson," that can be used to examine the selected goals and objectives; (3) teaching the study lesson to students while other group members and teachers observe; and (4) analyzing and reflecting on the observed instruction and assessing what was learned about the goals and objectives that were set.

The full process of lesson study takes years to complete. The first year is often spent examining students' needs, abilities, and skills; assessing teachers' interests; and developing stronger and closer working relationships among teachers. The second year is spent determining the goals and objectives of the study, establishing the schedule, developing lessons, and actually teaching the lessons. The next year or two may be used to reflect on and refine the previous year's lesson study.

The influence of lesson study in Japan appears to have resulted in elementary school lessons that are typically much more developed and of higher quality than are lessons in the United States and Canada. Data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that Japanese teachers are much more likely than U.S. teachers to develop concepts through examples and to connect content to applications and students' prior knowledge.* Of course, developing concepts, making connections, and identifying appropriate representations of mathematics require a greater investment of time.

It's an investment we can and must make. And, the time to do it is now. lesson study is a viable approach to improving mathematics instruction in the United States and Canada. And, fortunately, we already have some groundwork in place and efforts underway.

As I watched the lesson study activities, I was reminded of preservice teacher education coursework in the United States. My own preservice teachers construct "scripted lessons" and present them to their peers. Through this process, they see many good lesson plans and examine the uses of manipulatives, technology, and other teaching tools in detail. They have thoughtful discussions about how students learn mathematics, and they collaborate and develop a shared understanding of appropriate teaching behaviors. The precision and care they use in creating their lessons, as well as the feedback they get, set the stage for powerful professional development opportunities.

However, unfortunately, once in the classroom, my former preservice teachers frequently stop writing scripted lesson plans in order to cope with a variety of competing concerns, such as grading homework, constructing tests, managing instruction, and monitoring students' behavior, along with bus and lunch duty, after-school tutoring, and extracurricular clubs. Somehow we must change the school day so that focused attention to the critical aspects of teaching a lesson can be emphasized. The recent Glenn Commission Report addresses many of these concerns.

An important first step is to look at existing support structures within the school setting. For example, mentoring programs that are designed to help new teachers enhance their content and teaching knowledge can be effective professional development tools for both beginning and experienced teachers. And, such programs can provide an existing avenue for reinstituting scripted lessons and other aspects of lesson study. Ideally, we should explore the feasibility of full-fledged lesson-study programs in our schools. Lesson-study use is already underway in several states, including Illinois, Washington, Michigan, and Connecticut, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

My own experiences suggest that renewed attention to the elements of good lesson planning and implementation, whether it be lesson study or some variation particular to your own situation, only makes sense. If we are to realize our vision of a high-quality mathematics education for every child, then we must invest time in improving the teaching of high-quality mathematics.

Note: For more information about lesson study, visit the Lesson Study Research Group Web site at

*From "Understanding and Improving Classroom Mathematics Instruction--An Overview of the TIMSS Video Study," by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert, in Phi Delta Kappan, September 1997.

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