One of the best ways for teachers to learn about instruction — according to many teachers themselves — is by watching their colleagues teach. But classroom observations can be logistically challenging and don’t necessarily translate into professional learning experiences. Simply observing another teacher does not reveal the reasons underlying what the teacher is doing, information that can be crucial to improving the observer’s understanding of the instructional decision-making. For classroom observation to be useful as a learning experience, teachers need reflection opportunities — alongside the lesson observation — to explore decisions and discuss their observations and ideas with other teachers.
How might those who provide professional development structure these kinds of learning opportunities for teachers? I recommend starting by watching a group of teachers engaging in a professional development process called lesson study. Lesson study is a cycle of inquiry in which a small team of teachers reflects on their instructional goals for students, plans a classroom lesson, observes the lesson together, then reflects on the lesson and the implications.
For 14 years, I had the opportunity to focus on the lesson study process as part of the Mills College Lesson Study Group. We worked with teams of teachers across the country, helping them use lesson study to support their teaching and learning. The professional learning support we provided for teacher teams was highlighted by the What Works Clearinghouse as one of only two programs (out of 643 reviewed) that showed successful impact on student achievement. (You can find the clearinghouse report here.) I think lesson study might have a lot to offer your group as well!
There are four primary components, or phases, of lesson study:
- Study the curriculum and goals for student development
- Plan a “research” lesson, unit, and data collection
- Conduct the research lesson and collect data
- Reflect on the data, lesson, and learnings from the lesson study
The Mills College Lesson Study Group produced a series of videos in which teachers demonstrate the lesson study process: solving and discussing algebra problems, studying mathematics standards, and identifying elementary-grade concepts critical to students’ success in algebra. The teachers study several existing lessons and choose one as the basis for their classroom “research” lesson, taking it through two cycles of planning, teaching, observation, and reflection. Through lesson study, the teachers focus not just on improving a classroom math lesson, but on deepening their own understanding of mathematics, of students, and of teaching.
The DVD (called How Many Seats?) can be used to guide a group of teachers through a process of learning about lesson study. To do so, you might have participants watch each of the DVD segments separately and discuss reflection questions prepared ahead of the session to facilitate their deeper understanding of each of the lesson study phases. For example, participants could watch the initial planning session and discuss how the process shown in the video is similar to or different from other collaborative planning they have done with teachers. Other sample reflection questions that you might use are included here.
To focus the discussion on mathematics, participants could do the mathematics problem that the teachers in the video used in their lesson. You could have participants use manipulatives and anticipate how students might solve the problem. Participants could also discuss how they teach similar algebra content to their students, or discuss cross-grade connections to understand what students in earlier grades would need to know to be successful, and how students in later grades might build on the learning from this lesson. Another good discussion around the planning segment of the video would be to have participants explore how their own curriculum materials address this mathematical content, allowing participants to compare and contrast different approaches.
Similar rich discussions could occur around the video clips of the other lesson study phases. For example, participants could practice gathering their own classroom observation data during the lesson segment, and could discuss what they learn from these data about teaching algebra and teaching more generally, as well as what they learn about beneficial approaches to observing students during a lesson.
In these ways, you can use the video segments not only to provide a clear example of the different phases of the lesson study process, but also to stimulate participants’ discussion about how they might replicate and learn from lesson study.
For using the videos in professional development, several associated documents — available here — provide additional support, such as a “plan to guide learning” (lesson plan template), a completed lesson plan, and the observation protocol that provides information on how observers might behave during a classroom observation.
Should you need further support or additional reading material for your group, a guide for step-by-step lesson study is available here. It includes, for example, recommended procedures for debriefing the lesson observation. Also, my colleagues at Mills College and I are always happy to answer any questions you may have about how lesson study might support your thinking and learning.