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Four Approaches to Borrow from Japanese Lesson Study for an Effective Education Technology Pilot

Four Approaches to Borrow from Japanese Lesson Study for an Effective Education Technology Pilot

In a Japanese classroom, an elementary school teacher named Takao Seiyama is observed by almost a dozen education specialists. Notebook in hand, they watch him deliver a math lesson to a classroom of 2nd graders. The notebooks contain a special data collection table that compares sections of the lesson to student engagement indicators. Observing things like students’ posture during the launch of an activity or the sort of questions they ask while a project is being explained allow these specialists to glean how students feel about the learning experience and ultimately determine the level of engagement that each section of the level produces.

After a lesson is complete, the specialists and the instructor meet to discuss the lesson and what can be done to modify its less-engaging components. The revised lesson is then delivered and data collected again. This process may repeat—deliver, observe, reflect, revise, reteach—many times over until educators eventually have crafted a lesson where students were engaged throughout. The finalized lesson is then stored and shared with other Japanese teachers as a model.

This is Japanese lesson study, and it is more than a method of lesson creation. Rather, it is a culture of continuous professional development and collaboration where the lesson is the object of development (not the teacher), and by studying the lesson, educators discover how their students learn best. And, it’s working: according to the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Japanese students rank in the top five in 4th and 8th grade mathematics and the top three in 4th and 8th grade science.

It’s obvious that Japanese lesson study is a powerful approach to traditional teaching and learning, but will it also apply to digital education?

Instead of studying traditional lessons, schools that are gearing up to implement education technology are piloting digital ones. Education technology pilots serve much the same primary purpose as Japanese lesson study—to uncover an implementation model that meets the needs of one’s unique student and teacher community.

In my experience, educators heading up technology pilots are usually given little direction as to how to most effectively test the new program. The traditional practice of lesson study can serve as a model with no shortage of transferable steps that will help you as educators make the most of your pilot this year. Here are four takeaways from Japanese lesson study to help you run a successful edtech pilot and make impactful purchasing decisions.

Focus on the implementation, not the teacher

A primary tenant of Japanese lesson study is that the lesson (including the exact words used during lecturing), not the teacher, is the object of development. For a technology initiative, this means that you want to get to the point where most of your focus is on how to most effectively connect students with the technology and very little is on upskilling teachers. Until this time, it will be hard to tell if students’ difficulties are a result of their understanding of the content or a teacher’s struggle to leverage the technology properly. To achieve this, choose teachers to participate in your pilot who are experienced at implementing new technology and open to investing in ongoing training.

Set an engagement goal and a plan for observations

Japanese lesson study begins with an overarching goal for student engagement and then tracks physical engagement indicators—slouching, smiling, eye contact, asking certain questions, etc.—as they relate to progress toward that goal. Physical cues will be important in your pilot observations, but when students use educational technology, we need to collect additional data points from their interaction with the system to learn the whole story.

One of the benefits of technology is the wealth of data it can provide. Contact your vendor to learn about the data points available through the specific solution you are piloting. Then, hold a meeting with your staff and decide on what physical and digital data will be tracked, agree on how to interpret that data, and set a goal around the level of engagement desired in your implementation model. Finally, create a schedule of observations, and carry them out.

Change the implementation model based on the data

During a lesson study, researchers and educators may adjust the lesson according to observations and reteach it to gather new data numerous times over the school year. The key to success here is obtaining a critical volume of data. Ideally, you’ll want to pilot your program across multiple classes or schools and vary the implementation models in order to learn as much as possible about what engages your teachers and students. Perhaps one classroom will leverage the solution at the beginning of class and another near the end. Or, one group of teachers may focus on teacher-led strategies, while another group facilitates student-led or blended models.

After collecting data through planned observations, make adjustments to how the software is being used by teachers and students in an effort to increase engagement in problem areas. Expect to do this multiple times throughout your pilot, and be open to the fact that more than one model may meet your engagement goal.

Share your successful implementation models with other schools in the district

Lesson study documentation is considered research, and it is highly regarded as a reliable source for effective teaching practices. In Japan, lesson study results are available to educators across the country as model lessons not only for teachers to use out of the box but also for educators to continue to revise the lessons as the needs of their student population changes. This practice increases morale, helps teachers continue to become experts in their field, spreads working strategies, and most importantly, allows the lesson to continue to evolve along with the teachers and students who interact with it over time.

To make your results useful to other educators, detailed documentation is key. You’ll want to keep in-depth records of the engagement goal and indicators and their supporting rationale, in addition to which outlines of the models were tested, when and how observations took place, and how the implementation model changed over time. Lastly, decide on a way to communicate your findings by planning a districtwide share-out event at the end of the pilot or creating (and regularly updating) an online knowledge base.

Looking for more tips and best practices for a successful education technology pilot? Check out this blog post on 3 Reasons to Pilot an Online Program Before Purchasing.

david.cicero's picture

David has worked in education for 14 years. He has spent the last 6 years in the education technology industry and is currently working as an Educational Programs Consultant. As a trusted advisor and education technology advocate he has helped countless districts and schools successfully integrate technology. David holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas and a M.A. in Teaching from Northern Arizona University. 

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