A basic idea of the Prussian system of education starting in the 18th century was the application of factory automation principles of production efficiency from the Industrial Revolution. In this system, every student would learn the same lesson from the same textbook on the same day. Teachers were to be trained only to be able to present the lessons as written, not to have any deeper understanding of the subject themselves. Although this is no longer the driving principle of education systems in many countries, teachers are still undertrained, and still under heavy constraints imposed by curricula and standardized testing. In addition, teachers are mostly on their own when creating lesson plans, particularly in the problem of adapting existing lessons to the abilities, prior knowledge, and learning styles of the children in their classes.
It does not have to be so. I have a notion of a global collaboration among teachers to find the best ways of teaching, even when those methods are not part of the curricula imposed from on high. But to get there, we must start on a smaller scale. It turns out that Japan has a working model for this, which is now being brought forward in the United Kingdom by Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary in the British Labour Party. It has two components, known in Japanese as kounaikenshuu (校内研修 in-school training), for lifelong professional development organized by the teachers themselves, and jugyou kenkyuu (授業研究 lesson study), for collaborative lesson planning.
For those who are not familiar with British parliamentary practice, I must explain that the shadow education secretary shadows the actual education secretary in the ruling party (currently the Conservatives), as others in the opposition party (currently Labour) shadow the rest of the government, that is, ministers and secretaries in the ruling party. Shadow ministers and secretaries are, among other things, responsible for putting forward alternative policies, which can become issues whenever there is an election.
This idea of using Japan as a model did not come into the UK out of nowhere. For example, here are two books that raise these ideas strongly.
- The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert
- What Works in Schools: Translating Research Into Action, by Robert J. Marzano
So now you know just enough to begin to make sense of the story itself:
By Hannah Richardson, BBC News education reporter
England’s schools should take lessons from Japan and the Far East on how to improve performance, the shadow education secretary says. Stephen Twigg says despite many school reforms, there has been little change to the style of classroom teaching since Victorian times. Labour’s number one priority for education is raising the quality and status of teachers, he says. And he plans to visit Japan to see how education has been reformed there. This will form part of Labour’s review of its education policy.
Along with other Far Eastern countries, such as South Korea and Singapore, Japan constantly outperforms England in international studies on maths and science. This is something that has been highlighted by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Mr Twigg says that although Labour improved results in the core subjects during its time in office, it was clear that “more of the same isn’t the answer”.
‘Trial and error’
He added: “We must learn from high-performing nations like Japan to radically transform education in England. “Labour will bring reform into the classroom by learning from the Japanese system of lesson planning, known as jugyou kenkyuu.” This involves teachers meeting regularly to collaborate on the design and implementation of lessons.
He continues: “Education in England has had years of reform to structures, exams and accountability measures. But the style of classroom teaching has changed little since Victorian times.” In Japan, teaching practices have changed markedly in the last 50 years, through a process of gradual, incremental improvements over time. Japan gives teachers themselves primary responsibility for improving classroom practice.” He highlights how participation in continual professional development, known as kounaikenshuu, is considered a core job requirement in Japan.
Mr Twigg also points out that in England, teachers lead students through a series of steps to help them learn how to solve problems. In Japan the focus is on allowing students to develop their own methods for solving problems, through trial and error.
He adds: “If we want to change teaching, we can’t just change teachers – we must change the culture of teaching, its very fabric and DNA.”
Note particularly that in Japan, groups of teachers are allowed to make mistakes without being punished. When they succeed, their reward is not gold stars or special bonuses, but the satisfaction of seeing their ideas adopted by others. What do you think most motivates a teacher? No, not tenure. Being able to teach better. Seeing children’s eyes light up with understanding more often. What the psychologists call intrinsic motivation, not external rewards.
What we need, then, is to change the culture around teaching, to allow teachers and students to succeed, not to straitjacket them in outmoded practices and ideology.