Collaboration with Japanese maths experts

Bowland Maths was fortunate to develop good collaboration with a group of Japanese maths education experts over the years.

In Japan, a group of maths experts including advisors to the Government on maths education, developed a sustained interest in Bowland Maths. This is because Bowland Maths materials – particularly the case studies - cover a critical aspect of mathematics which they consider to be missing in Japan. While problem solving is used actively and routinely in maths education in Japan, most problems are purely mathematical ones, with only a thin disguise of ‘contexts’. There is little curricular emphasis on learning how to apply maths to the real world or in open-ended and complex problems. Further, the Japanese students score particularly low in international comparison in terms of their enthusiasm or interest in learning maths. The expert view is that there is a real need to teach maths in a way that is context-rich and engaging – a situation similar to that of the UK. When some of the Japanese maths education experts saw the Bowland Maths case studies, they could see what they were missing.

Keiichi Nishimura, then curriculum advisor in maths for the Ministry of Education in Japan, first contacted Bowland Maths in 2010 to request that his team of Japanese experts visit UK schools to see Bowland Maths in action. They began to explore how best to use Bowland Maths materials in Japan, conducting several public research lessons. In February 2012, they invited a four-person Bowland team to Japan to advise them how best to introduce Bowland Maths in Japan and asked them to participate in their Lesson Study. This was the first time the Bowland experts had seen Lesson Study in action; it did not take long for the two sides to realise that there was a common interest: to create an environment in which teachers and experts can actively collaborate to develop teaching skills and Bowland type materials for process.

The timing could not be better for collaborative work with the Japanese maths experts. A group of 15 Japanese maths experts led by Keiichi were already working together to introduce Bowland type teaching materials into Japan, funded by the Japanese government. Keiichi then moved to Gakugei University to become a key member for another new project, the International Math-teacher Professionalisation through Lesson Study (IMPULS) also funded by the Japanese government. The goal of the IMPULS Project, led by Prof. Toshiakira Fujii, was to promote globally best practice in Lesson Study. The Bowland Maths Lesson Study Project was quickly planned, with a project launch workshop in July 2012, to be implemented in 2012-2013.

Throughout the project period, Bowland Maths lesson study teams benefitted from direct advice from the IMPULS and other Japanese maths education experts. In the academic year of 2012-13, three teams of 3-5 Japanese experts visited the UK for a week each, observing research lessons in schools across clusters. In autumn 2013, Keiichi and Prof. Akihiko Takahashi from De Paul University made additional short visits to support three schools which decided to conduct lesson study events without any project funding – the first step towards sustainability. One of our participating schools, Heartland Academy, with support from Bowland Maths, put together the first Public Research Lesson, with Prof. Takahashi playing the key role of ‘koshi’ – expert commentator. Overall, Japanese experts joined 15 out of the 30 research lessons conducted under the project.

The collaboration was further deepened UK maths educators visiting Japan. In June 2012, one teacher and a university expert from the UK, selected by Bowland Maths, were invited to Japan to join a two-week IMPULS immersion programme to learn how lesson study is conducted in Japan. In July 2013, four more project participants were invited to join the IMPULS immersion programme in Japan, with travel support from Bowland Maths. In June 2014, four more candidates from the UK were selected to participate in their programme so to help disseminate the lesson study practice more widely in the UK.

The collaboration has been based on mutual learning. The tradition in the UK of ‘real maths’ is deep, going back to the ‘80s with innovative education materials such as the Standards Units, GAIM, etc. Indeed, it is that rich tradition that enabled Bowland Maths to come to existence. The Nottingham University team led by Prof. Malcolm Swan has long worked with every aspect of Bowland Maths, but their leading place in the world is underlined by the fact that were also selected to work in the US, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Japanese need to explore this new area of maths education, in which the UK has world leading expertise, meant that they had a critical interest in the Bowland Lesson Study Project. The Japanese experts saw this project as a collaborative opportunity not only for establishing good practice for Lesson Study, but also for joint learning in this relatively unexplored area within problem solving.