Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Developing Teachers--Lessons from Japan

Yesterday Brent Staples wrote a great piece in the NY Times regarding teacher development in Japan. Staples prefaces his comments about Japanese teachers' professional development with what may be the most public statement on this matter that I have seen:

Lurking behind these test scores, however, are two profoundly important and closely intertwined topics that the United States has yet to even approach: how teachers are trained and how they teach what they teach. These issues get a great deal of attention in high-performing systems abroad - especially in Japan, which stands light years ahead of us in international comparisons.

Of course, the minute anyone suggests studying the Japanese method of anything, someone objects, saying the Japanese are not like us. As the Ed Wonks point out:

One thing that seems to be overlooked by everyone is the fact that the Japanese are, for the most part, (A notable exception are the Ainu on the northern island of Hokkaido.) a homogeneous culture with one language, shared values, (such as teamwork, traditional respect for scholars/learning, and obedience to authority) and a history of strongly-centralized government, which serves to facilitate the implementation of National Content-Area Standards.

This is, of course, true. However, I am not suggesting we necessarily replace our governmental and school bureaucracy with the Japanese methods. What I, and I believe Staples, suggest is that we study Japanese METHODS of teacher developement. The methods described by Staples reflect that Japanese philosophy of Kaizen. "Kaizen" is a philosophy of life and work that stresses continuous, incremental improvement. In fact, the word "kaizen" literally means "change to become good."

The foundations of kaizen are five-fold.
1. teamwork
2. personal discipline
3. improved morale
4. quality circles
5. suggestions for improvement

Thus teamwork and personal discipline (and success) work hand in hand with constant suggestions for improvement. The Japanese system, as described by Staples:

Japanese teacher-development strategy in which teachers work cooperatively and intensively to improve their methods. This process, known as "lesson study," allows teachers to revise and refine lessons that are then shared with others, sometimes through video and sometimes at conventions. In addition to helping novices, this system builds a publicly accessible body of knowledge about what works in the classroom.

The lesson-study groups focus on refining methods that improve student understanding. In doing so, the groups go step by step, laying out successful strategies for teaching specific lessons. This reflects the Japanese view that successful teaching is the product of intensive teacher development and self-scrutiny. In America, by contrast, novice teachers are often presumed competent on Day One. They have few opportunities in their careers to watch successful colleagues in action. (emphasis added)

A while back, Polski3 and I had an exchange of posts where we talked about what he thinks teachers want. He described two particular desires:
How about a teacher to teacher mentoring program for newly hired, new to the classroom, teachers ? As it is, newly hired new to the classroom teachers are thrown into their classrooms and maybe told, "good luck".
How about release time to go visit other schools to see what our fellow teachers are doing and perhaps get some new ideas ?

I don't know how many teachers share Polski's ideas, but it seems to me that as a profession, teachers could benefit. But the Japanese methods of teacher training and development embrace as core functions the idea of teacher mentoring and exchange of ideas. This is but one area that must change if we are to considered teachers as the professionals they are.

This idea of collaborative, collective and incremental improvements is not new in America. In fact, other professions live by the idea. The medical profession in particuarly regularly collaborates to find improvements in methods to deliver a better quality of care to patients. It is not unheard of for doctors to review cases in an individual basis and make suggestions for improvements, indeed, it is required for hospitals to maintain the accredidation. The medical profession does it withing hospitals, across states and within professions. This constant incremental improvements, this kaizen of medicine has produced phenomenal results in American medicine.

We as a nation need to embrace the same idea in education, that continuous, incremental improvements in our teachers can yield fantastic results, but we need to let teachers talk to teachers and work collaboratively to find better solutions for educating our kids.

Others on this topic:
Jenny D
Alexander Russo
Jim Horn
JHS Teacher

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