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Lesson Study:
Practical Professional Development

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For teachers who have wished for hands-on professional development, lesson study is it. Teachers gather to research, create, try, and evaluate lesson plans to determine if they are helping students learn. Included: A description of lesson study practices.

Most teachers would flock to professional development that targeted not just what they taught, but the instructional issues with which they were currently coping.

Rarely are professional development programs that specialized, but they can be. An approach called lesson study allows groups of teachers to research, develop, and practice lessons and techniques that have direct impact on their students.

"It's really transforming for a lot of teachers -- they say it is the most beneficial professional development they ever have done," said Jackie Hurd, a third grade teacher and the lesson study coordinator for the San Mateo-Foster City (California) School District. "You end up examining your personal beliefs around teaching, and you learn more about your role as a teacher."


During lesson study, a group of teachers researches and writes a lesson plan on a particular theme. The teachers also write expectations for the lesson; how students will respond to it, whether it will help them understand a certain concept better, and how it will teach them to grasp that concept.

Once the lesson is completed, one teacher from the group volunteers to teach it to his or her class, and the other teachers are given release time to observe the implementation of the lesson, and note if and how it met expectations. After that, teachers meet again, review notes, and decide what revisions are needed.

Dr. Makoto Yoshida, a leader in lesson study in the U.S. and the founder of Global Education Resources, a firm whose goal is to improve elementary and middle school mathematics instruction and learning, said the approach appeals to teachers because it is hands-on and relevant to their every day teaching.

"When you look into classroom teaching, a lot of professional development is done outside of classroom content and practice," said Dr. Yoshida, who consults with districts and works with teachers to set up lesson study programs. "Teachers really need to learn to observe a lesson and talk about a lesson. Through collaborative work, teachers can learn from each other and gain content and pedagogical knowledge."

Teachers also can get immediate feedback on a lesson. "It's based on what you plan," Dr. Yoshida said. "You have a hypothesis about how the lesson will be effective, then you collect data, and determine if you are right -- that is, if learning is going on. Not only do the people who teach it learn, but the people who observe and engage in conversation about the lesson [also] learn."

One of the hardest parts for teachers practicing lesson study is to learn to be acute observers, Dr. Yoshida told Education World.

"Usually, teachers talk about surface things after they observe a lesson, like the color of manipulatives, and whether or not students seemed engaged," he said. "They need to learn to observe effectively, and determine if the lesson is contributing to students' learning. They have to observe how students are learning, how much they are learning, and if what they are learning matches with what they thought students would learn."


Districts that have tried lesson study say it is very attractive to teachers, even though it requires some work to learn to do it. Staff members at San Mateo-Foster City School District have been using lesson study for five years, and once teachers start, most stay with it, according to Hurd. Between 60 and 70 teachers from 12 of the district's 20 schools take part in lesson study every year. The district also offers a two-week-long summer workshop.

The approach is popular, she said, because "it has teacher buy-in, they can spend time on an issue they really need, and they are using data from classes.

"It has changed relationships at schools. More people are sharing resources. The beauty of lesson study is that you get professional development where you need it."

This year, teachers are focusing on differentiated instruction lessons. "The lesson becomes part of everyone in the group," Hurd said. "Then they watch the lesson with particular things in mind."

The Paterson, New Jersey, school system also has used lesson study in some schools for five years, with exciting results.

Theresa Carter, the supervisor of staff development for Paterson schools, said lesson study is particularly helpful for new teachers and alternate route to certification teachers.

At Paterson Public School Number 2, teachers get together to plan lessons as a group; then one teaches the lesson as others take notes. After discussing the lesson, teachers make revisions. Another teacher tries that version, which could lead to more revisions. When the lesson is completed, the group prepares a report for the faculty.

"It's a great way to improve your teaching," said William Jackson, a math facilitator who works with teachers and coordinates professional development. "It really helps you think deeply about your teaching. You get to see lots of examples of good teaching if you focus. You write down the expected student responses, and learn how to deal with errors in the lesson plan and how to change it. A lot of small things add up to dynamic teaching."

Lesson study groups in the school pick a theme, and develop lessons around that theme, such as helping children learn to think deeply. "Teachers learn to think really carefully about everything, from how they organize a blackboard, to how to engage students, and what materials to use or not use," said Jackson.

"We're trying to get all students to understand the lesson," he added. "If they don't, then what can we do to fix that?"


While lesson study is showing up in more districts in the U.S., it is very common in Japan, where it originated.

In Japan, lesson study is used in all subjects, including physical education and music, and even lunch, but in the U.S. it has been more focused on mathematics' instruction, according to Dr. Yoshida.

"I'm particularly interested in improving math instruction in elementary and middle schools," he said.

Interest in lesson study began to increase in the U.S. after American students performed poorly in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) in 1999. Some U.S. teachers went to Japan to videotape lessons, because Japanese students consistently score well on TIMMS' exams.

The videotapes led to a book called The Teaching Gap, written in part by researcher James Stigler, with whom Dr. Yoshida worked when he was a graduate student. "He asked me how Japanese teachers used lesson study as professional development," Dr. Yoshida said. In his book, Stigler cited the practice of lesson study by Japanese teachers as a possible reason for Japanese students' success.

Once teachers try lesson study and see how it improves their teaching, often they want to use it regularly, which should be encouraged, said Dr. Yoshida. "In education, we want children to be life-long learners, so we should expect the same from teachers."


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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