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Lesson Study Can Improve Teaching, Learning

Through lesson study, teachers learn to work together to develop, teach, and refine a lesson. While this can mean breaking old teaching habits, the authors of a guide to lesson study say the result is improved instruction and student learning. Included: An explanation of the steps involved in lesson study.

Often teachers could use a helping hand with a tough or new lesson. Teachers trained in the lesson study process learn to work together to create lessons and refine them based on peer observations on how the lessons are presented. Advocates say it is a powerful professional development process that can lead to stronger lesson plans and teaching practices.

For those starting out, Leading Lesson Study: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Facilitators lays out the lesson study process, presents implementation strategies, and offers examples of lesson study practices in schools.

Jennifer Stepanek, one of five authors of the book, talked with Education World about the benefits of practicing lesson study and its applications in the accountability age.

Jennifer Stepanek
Jennifer Stepanek

Education World: What are the advantages to lesson study over more conventional professional development approaches?

Jennifer Stepanek: For a long time, professional development was thought of in terms of workshop or trainings that take place outside the school. But the research on effective professional development points more toward ongoing efforts that are school based and tied directly to teachers work. Even though we still see a lot of workshops and institutes, things are starting to shift toward local and sustained approaches.

Lesson study actually incorporates many of the strengths of these types of professional development. One example is study groups, in which teachers read books or articles and then discuss what they read and how it might inform their practice. In lesson study, the teachers examine a variety of teaching materials immediately apply what they have learned to planning the research lesson.

Another type of professional development that has some commonalities with lesson study is curriculum development. In fact, sometimes people assume that lesson study is a form of curriculum development, which is understandable given its name. But the lesson is not the primary outcome of the process, as it usually is in curriculum development. The lesson is really an organizer that the teachers use as they engage in the real work of lesson study: studying teaching materials, discussing content and instruction, reflecting on their practice, and investigating student learning. Lesson study teams do share their research lessons with each other, but they do so in order to communicate what they have learned.

"The point is not to critique the teacher or to provide suggestions on how he or she might improve. The observation is an opportunity for everyone to find out as much as they can about how students learn.
One last example -- looking at student work is something that most people are familiar with. Teachers engage a similar activity during lesson study, but they are able to work with much more than just artifacts from the classroom. They are able to see for themselves how the instruction unfolds and observe student learning in the classroom. And that live observation is such an important part of the process -- the point is not to critique the teacher or to provide suggestions on how he or she might improve. The observation is an opportunity for everyone to find out as much as they can about how students learn.

EW: In your experience, what is the hardest part of lesson study for teachers to implement?

Stepanek: Lesson study is not easy to put into practice, even though the general process is fairly easy to grasp. I think Clea Fernandez and Sonal Chokshi really said it best: Lesson study is easy to learn but difficult to master. They have written about this issue based on their experiences with lesson study teams in the United States.

I think two of the biggest challenges are related. One is the idea of teaching in front of your peers. When teachers talk about their first impressions of lesson study, that is often what stood out to them: I dont want a group of people in my classroom, watching me. And they are worried because they think that the process is going to be about judging or finding fault with them and how they teach. After they engage in lesson study or even after they have a chance to see it in action, they are usually surprised and relieved. They find out that the focus of the observation and the debriefing that follows is about the lesson and how the students respond to what the team has planned.

Nevertheless, there is still some degree of vulnerability for the person who teaches the lesson. I think that this is especially true because opening your classroom to other people is still not very common in the U.S. -- teachers are still quite isolated. This feeling of vulnerability contributes to one of the other challenges for doing lesson study: conducting a rich and meaningful debriefing. When they share the data the gathered during the lesson, team members and outside observers often look for ways to praise the lesson and the teacher.

A frequently-heard comment is, The lesson went well and the students were engaged. People are aware that they teacher has put himself on the line, and they dont want to say anything that might be perceived as negative. And its not that exploring what worked well is not important. But if the team and the observers do not also look closely at what did not work or did not go as planned, they are missing out on the opportunity to learn how the research lesson -- and other lessons -- can be improved.

Its a balance, because the other extreme does happen too, when observers misunderstand their role and use the debriefing to tell the teacher and the team what they did wrong or how they should have structured the lesson. The purpose of the debriefing is to share observations about what students did and said and it is usually up to the team to use that information to refine the research lesson. Sometimes the debriefing is set up for a discussion about how the lesson might be changed -- this can be very valuable -- but it is up to the team to decide if they want to open up the discussion in this way.

EW: What would you say is the most critical step in the lesson study process? Why?

Stepanek: This question is hard to answer for lesson study, because it really is about the whole process -- all of the steps are important. But we might start at the beginning with setting goals, to look at why this is a crucial part of the process.

Jennifer Stepanek

The first step in the lesson study cycle is crafting a research theme. This is a broad, long-term goal that is focused on students, rather than instruction or specific content. A teams research theme might be something like, To help students become confident and creative thinkers and problem solvers, or For students to value reading for a variety of purposes. If there are multiple lesson study teams in a school or district, they will identify a common research theme to guide their work and teams may use the same theme across multiple cycles.

When the teams begin planning, they use the research theme to help them identify the content of their research lesson and the goals for student learning that it will address. So a lesson goal that is tied to the research theme on reading might be something like, Students will compare narrative and nonfiction text. One way to think about the lesson is that it is the teams hypotheses about how to best achieve the goals they have identified.

The goals will continue to be a key aspect of the cycle through the phase of observing and debriefing the lesson. The teams will be looking for evidence that students are able to achieve the goals and evaluating the research lesson based on the evidence. This is just one example of how one step in the process has an impact on the rest of the lesson study cycle.

I should also add that the phases of the process are just one of the critical aspects of lesson study. The process defines what the lesson study team does, but even teams that hit every step in the cycle are going to be missing crucial pieces if they are not dealing with meaningful ideas and actively engaging with them. In the book, we talk about this in terms of the core elements of lesson study, which include the process, the big ideas, and the habits of mind. The big ideas are the important issue in teaching and learning that the team explores that are related to students, goals, content, and instruction. The habits of mind are the qualities that teachers build and use in order to grow professionally: adopting a research stance toward their practice, learning together, and enacting self-efficacy.

EW: How does lesson study help teachers in this age of heightened accountability?

Stepanek: The current emphasis on using data and evidence to inform educational practice and concentrating on results for students is very congenial to lesson study. It focuses teachers on the results of their actions and dialogue with students. It provides a process that teachers can use to learn from their practice, verifying the effectiveness of their methods, and helping them to identify less-effective routines.

"The purpose of the debriefing is to share observations about what students did and said and it is usually up to the team to use that information to refine the research lesson.
Some researchers who are also proponents of lesson study have argued that lesson study can be used to change teachers informal knowledge into professional knowledge that is public and verifiable. Their perspective is appealing because it gives lesson study a firm place in current policies that are pushing for more accountability. But it can also be problematic in some peoples eyes, because trying to make lesson study look more like formal research may make it less appealing to teachers and compromise some of its powerful features. For example, as they plan, observe, and discuss the research lesson, teachers are focused on learning about their own classrooms and students. If a team is more concerned about perfecting the lesson for an audience, the close attention to learning and students may be lost.

On a more positive note, exploring the parallels between lesson study and research honors the knowledge and work of teachers. In the push for research-based strategies or practices, teachers are rarely portrayed as sources of knowledge about teaching, just as consumers. Rather than relying on researchers alone to verify what works, lesson study is a means for teachers to develop a sense of professional judgment. Lesson study is a means for teachers to take an active role in generating new knowledge about teaching and learning. It can also ignite their passion and curiosity. Instead of looking only to experts, teachers make sense of their own practice by attending to their students and how they learn.

EW: Have there been any studies assessing the effectiveness of lesson study, and if so, what did they show?

Stepanek: There are some studies, and evidence about lesson study is accumulating slowly. We really need to take a long-term view, because it takes time to learn how to do lesson study well. We are only beginning to understand how teachers learn through lesson study and how it influences teaching practices.

One of the most common areas of influence for lesson study is increasing collaboration -- both the amount of time that teachers work together and the quality of their interactions. Teachers also report that lesson study has been a means for them to deepen their content knowledge and their knowledge about effective instruction. Finally, lesson study focuses teachers on their students. The evidence suggests that teachers are inspired to adopt a student perspective on instruction, instead of focusing all of their attention on what content to teach and how to teach it. The process of examining how students learn and anticipating how students will respond to questions and tasks has an impact on teacher practice that carries over into day-to-day teaching.

This e-interview with Jennifer Stepanek is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Published 02/07/2007