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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

How Lesson Imaging Brings Math and Science Instruction Into Focus

By Peter DeWitt — February 16, 2017 6 min read

Today’s guest blog is written by Michelle Stephan, an associate professor of mathematics education with a joint appointment in the College of Education and Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The world is changing rapidly as advances in technology reshape the ways in which humans communicate and reason in the workplace. There is a growing demand for employees who exhibit expert communication and thinking skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning states that to be competitive in the workforce, students will need to develop deep mastery of content such as STEM, language arts, history, etc.

Equally important, they argue that students will need to become more adept at communicating, thinking critically, solving problems and being creative and innovative. These complex criteria have forced educators to re-conceptualize instruction to ensure students are learning these 21st Century skills. Science and mathematics classrooms have been of particular scrutiny since a majority of new jobs will utilize the knowledge and skills from these disciplines.

Inquiry Mathematics and Science. Leading mathematics and science educational organizations (e.g., NCTM and NSTA) have called for fundamental changes to instruction to include a more student-centered classroom. Also, most state standards for mathematics and science education include requiring students to create viable solutions to problems through inquiry and communicate their reasoning (CCSS-M, NGSS). Textbook publishers have created materials that attempt to engage learners in more inquiry activities that foster the development of rich science and mathematics understanding. Along with a shift in educational goals, math and science teachers have been pressed to change from a traditional lecture, information-sharing classroom style to student-driven inquiry. Such a shift has been challenging for teachers because of the lack of resources to guide teachers in their pursuits.

Lesson imaging. Lesson imaging is a way of planning for inquiry math and science classes. Traditional lesson planning typically entails planning a lecture to explain to students how to solve certain problems, choosing practice problems, and then assigning homework problems where students can practice the skills the way the teacher taught them. Inquiry classrooms are radically different in that the teacher has to choose a rich task that engages students to solve a problem or answer a question without lecture. Students utilize their current knowledge and skills to create innovative solutions to a challenging problem. Traditional lesson planning isn’t helpful for these teachers who have much less control over the strategies that will be used to solve the problems/questions.

This is where lesson imaging becomes helpful. The term comes from Schoenfeld (1998) and refers to the activity of mentally imagining how students might solve the problem or laboratory that is presented. In our new book, my co-authors and I list several steps for teachers who lesson image:

1) Unpack the learning goals for the unit as well as the learning goal for the daily lesson. Teachers should read current research on how students understand the targeted math or science concept. For example, teachers who begin to teach a unit on genetics might begin by searching through leading science education journals such as Science Scope or XXXX to find articles about children’s diverse ways of reasoning genetically. Similarly, math teachers can examine Mathematics Teacher or other NCTM journals to find research on how students understand quadratic equations, for instance.

2) A second step in imaging a lesson is to choose worthwhile mathematical tasks or science labs that are rich for students to explore and create meaningful solutions with very little teacher lecture.

3) Third, good inquiry lessons begin with a short launch in which the teacher presents the problem and the students attempt to understand the mathematical or scientific dilemma or exploration. Successful launches include asking questions that help students make sense of the context of the task, but do not show them or give away solutions to the problem. During lesson imaging, teachers should create an image of how the problem will be launched in order to maximize student curiosity and engagement. They should image the types of questions students might ask about the context as well as how they might respond to these questions in ways that do not give away a strategy or solution.

4) Next, teachers should create a list of strategies/conceptions that students might create as they explore the problem/lab. Imaging both incorrect and correct solutions is important. Not only do students learn from their mistakes, but they also learn from hearing other students’ correct solution strategies that might be different from their own. Creating a list of possible solutions and strategies is one of the most helpful tools for inquiry teachers so that they feel armed with a set of possible solutions that have already been vetted for their correctness, reasonableness and contribution to the lesson goals.

5) During the exploration time, the teacher should simply record the different strategies that students creating a palette of rich strategies that can be presented in debrief whole class discussion. In the imaging process, teachers should image the best order for students to present so that their lesson goal for the day is best realized. Notice that the teacher is not presenting the solutions; rather, she is imagining which solutions might emerge from students and hypothesizing the best way to engineer the whole class discussion so the maximum number of students share their reasoning and critique the solutions of others to determine correct strategies and answers.

Lesson imaging is a powerful pedagogical practice of inquiry mathematics and science teachers, but is difficult to do alone. We recommend working with administrators to create common planning time for small communities of teachers who want to work together to image strong inquiry lessons. One of the most difficult parts of the lesson imaging process can be to think of diverse ways that students will engage in the task. It is extremely beneficial to image with colleagues who can offer different perspectives and possible strategies. However, common lesson imaging takes practice and both human and material resources to accomplish.

Administrator Importance. Not only is common planning time crucial for supporting teachers to lesson image, but so is finding teachers who are open and willing to shift their practice away from traditional lecture and planning. As one principal noted, “Lesson imaging requires effective collaboration among a group of teachers in an environment of trust” (Dr. Robin Dehlinger). The right kind of teacher leader and principal can be very effective in facilitating teacher collaboration. The principal can allocate money to purchase innovative STEM curricula that are built around inquiry investigations. She can also provide substitute teachers to allow time out of class for lesson imaging upcoming units. Finally, administrators, including assistant principals, guidance counselors, and teacher leaders, should be advocates for teachers who attempt to make such a significant change to their classrooms. Interactions with parents, community members and district administrators should be supportive and show excitement for the change that is happening in their schools.

In summary, lesson imaging is a practice that facilitates more effective planning for the inquiry science and mathematics classrooms that are needed to help our students become effective citizens and prepared for college and careers. It is a needed shift away from traditional lecture, sit-and-get classes that motivate only a small fraction of students.

Michelle Stephan EdD along with David Pugalee, Julie Cline, and Chris Cline is the co-author of the new book Lesson Imaging in Math and Science: Anticipating Student Idea and Questions for Deeper Stem Learning (ASCD).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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