Just before the new year, I spent 20 days visiting schools in Japan. The Abe Fellowship for journalists, supported by the Japan Foundation and administered by the Social Science Research Council, paid my way. 

I visited under the influence of two powerful works: “Big Bird Goes to Japan” and “The Teaching Gap,” the 1999 book by James Hiebert and James Stigler. “The Teaching Gap” elevates a relatively obscure professional development practice native to Japan — “lesson study” — as a major solution to the American educational dilemma.

I wanted to see if Stigler and Hiebert were right. The following is the first in a series of posts describing what I found.

One slide in a presentation by the vice principal of the University of Tokyo's Attached Secondary School.

TOKYO — Before I visited Japan, another journalist I know who had just traveled there urged me to be skeptical. The Japanese make a lot of promises, he said, but dig just a little bit, and you’ll find that most claims don’t hold up.

I had this in mind on my first school visit, to the University of Tokyo’s attached secondary school. I had heard about attached schools, fuzokukou in Japanese. They were like the old “practice” or “laboratory” schools in the U.S., I was told, where those studying to become teachers learned from master teachers who used their classrooms, in turn, to hone ever-better teaching practice. (I described one such school in this article; search for “Cook County Normal School.”)

Fuzok teachers were supposed to be true masters, so talented that some became famous, attracting hundreds of admiring teachers to the public lessons that are common in Japan. Maybe most intriguing, fuzokukou schools’ close ties to university teacher training programs suggested an interest in teaching that persisted even in the ivory tower.

I did ultimately find evidence that schools like this exist in Japan. But the University of Tokyo’s attached secondary school was not one.

As it turns out, the country’s most prestigious national university — the Harvard of Japan, as several people described it to me, with a front gate made famous by how difficult it is to enter — does not train teachers at all. And while it does act as a site for research about how to improve teaching, the school’s vice principal was just as proud of another feature of the school, which he highlighted in an introductory presentation to me and other attendees of the World Association of Lesson Study’s annual conference.

The school, whose admission is based on an application process, collects twins! “I do not think that there is another school that collects twins,” the vice principal said with a smile.

The photo above, from his presentation, shows all the twins that attend the school. Identical twins are on the right and fraternal twins are on the left. At least twice, when an attendee asked a question about lesson study, the vice principal offered an answer about twins instead.

Twins, he explained, are rare in Japan, occurring in 1 in only 170 births, and they often do not like the attention that comes with being unusual. This school allows the twins to feel normal. “It’s like X Men!” said a man sitting behind me. As a rule, twins are kept in separate classes. Meanwhile, the parents of the twins form a Twin Parents Association.

What exactly the research on these twins has yielded I have not yet figured out. A cursory search of research journals turned up very little, and the vice principal said that the data set is actually too small to conclude much.

Next, I’ll talk about what we saw in classrooms at the school, where the focus was different: on encouraging less teacher and more student talk via small-group instruction.

Read more about my trip to Japan here.