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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Collaborative Lesson Study’

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 09, 2019 11 min read
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Vicki S. Collet agreed to answer a few questions about her book, Collaborative Lesson Study: ReVisioning Teacher Professional Development.

Vicki Collet is an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Arkansas whose past experiences include classroom teaching, intervention, instructional coaching, and district leadership.

LF: What are the similarities and differences between how you talk about Lesson Study in the book and how Lesson Study is commonly practiced in Japan, which is where most of us have probably heard about its use?

Vicki Collet:

Just like in the U.S., there’s a lot of variability in how Lesson Study is practiced in Japan. Lesson Study can be a few teachers sitting together in a classroom or thousands of teachers watching a video of a research lesson in a huge auditorium. In Collaborative Lesson Study, I encourage an approach that is up close and personal. Observation during this type of Lesson Study is a 3D experience. We can lean in to listen to a small-group conversation and then shift our focus intentionally around the room. We can be selective about our noticings. It’s part of the luxury of being an observer in the classroom, rather than the one making it all happen. Teachers rarely get this luxury, and it can be a real learning experience! I think such observation was core to Lesson Study when it originated in Japan and I want to stay true to that core whenever possible.

Some of the differences between Lesson Study in Japan and the way I talk about it in Collaborative Lesson Study are the emphases on teacher empowerment, flexibility, and understanding. In the book, I describe how Lesson Study values teachers by supporting them as agents of improvement in their own classrooms. Instead of focusing the Lesson Study process on identifying specific lessons that can be replicated step by step, the book describes a process that helps teachers identify effective practices that can be used flexibly to meet the needs of the varied students we teach.

My classroom isn’t like your classroom and my school isn’t like your school, so it’s important to acknowledge and build on these differences rather than trying to create cookie-cutter lessons. Finally, there’s an emphasis in the book on teaching for understanding—for deep, lasting learning. We live in a world where facts are ubiquitously available, but understanding can’t be Googled. Students develop understanding when they have opportunities to actively construct, compare, collaborate, create, and contribute. These are the kinds of activities we target during Lesson Study, because we want the learning to be visible and tangible for the observing teachers. And Lesson Study is about building teachers’ understanding, too. Our understanding increases as we learn from and with students and colleagues through the Lesson Study process.

LF: Can you give a brief description of the key elements of a Lesson Study?

Vicki Collet:

Sure! The process I describe in Collaborative Lesson Study includes six phases.The first is Study. After choosing a focus for Lesson Study, we find out what is already known about our topic. Professional literature, curriculum guides, and teachers’ manuals can inform the work. Teachers may also want to call on subject-matter specialists, like instructional coaches or university faculty. We don’t have to invent something new! Our focus is on finding what will work best. Perhaps the most important information we collect is data about our own students. A quick pretest helps us know where to start with instruction.

Next, we Plan. During collaborative planning, we consider what we learned through study and we brainstorm possible approaches for meeting lesson objectives. We think about challenges when we have taught this content or skill in the past. What misconceptions might students have? What do they already know? It’s helpful to build on routines that are already in place in the classroom. We also think about relevant materials (texts, manipulatives, organizers). Most importantly, we want to include strategies that will make thinking visible. What will students do and say so observers can collect evidence of students’ depth of understanding while the lesson unfolds?

One of the key aspects of Lesson Study, as I describe it, is this opportunity to Observe a collaboratively planned lesson. We meet together before the lesson to revisit the questions that guided our planning. As we review the plan, we talk about what to watch for, thinking it through from students’ point of view. We also plan how we’ll take notes that become evidence of student learning. During the lesson, observers should not talk to one another, to students, or to the teacher, but they should get close and listen, shifting attention around the room. We want to take careful note of the learning that is going on. We are there to watch the teacher and students navigate the complexities of teaching and learning.

Next, we Reflect. Right after the observation, it helps to take some time for individual reflection. We review our notes, marking things that seem important, and write a brief reflection. We think about what went right—things we would do again. After individual reflection, we think together about the lesson. We give descriptions of what was heard and seen. The focus should be on students’ responses. We talk about what we noticed and why it matters. As others share, we ask clarifying questions. The conversation helps our group make meaning of what we have seen and deconstruct best practices.

The next step is to ReVision the lesson. As my capitalization and italics emphasize, Lesson Study creates a new vision for instruction! Our observation and reflection have given us insight about content and approaches and foresight about adjustments we might need to make in our own classrooms. The lesson becomes a microcosm for understanding instructional practices that can then be broadly applied. We think about what worked, what to discard, and what to modify. Having seen the lesson in action, we have a clearer vision of what it could be, with modification. We want to think both macro and micro as we reVision our lesson. Would the lesson benefit from overall restructuring? Are there places where some fine-tuning is needed?

The final phase in the Lesson Study process is to Reteach. It’s a chance to capture and develop the ideas we’ve discussed and recreate them in our own classrooms. A reteach lesson gives us the opportunity to continue asking questions and to reflect on both successes and failures. Then the Lesson Study cycle begins again!

In Collaborative Lesson Study, I’ve included examples and templates to guide you through each phase of the process, but those are the basics!

LF: How do teachers do Lesson Study in schools where very little, if any, time is set aside for collaboration?

Vicki Collet:

Fortunately, most schools and districts are now recognizing the value of collaboration and building some opportunities for joint work into teachers’ schedules. But even in schools with scheduled collaboration time, it can be hard to find time when all teachers in the Lesson Study group are available for the classroom observation. In Chapter 2 of Collaborative Lesson Study, I give lots of tips for scheduling the work. These include restructuring schedules, altering staff utilization, or adding or buying time.

Organizing available time differently can open windows for Lesson Study. Many principals have adjusted the complex school schedule to build in regular time for collaboration. Sometimes, it takes creativity to make it happen! One school took the professional-development days allocated on the district calendar and divided them up into chunks. Instead of having one day each quarter for PD, teachers stayed after school eight times for an extra hour. This time could be used for most phases of the Lesson Study cycle. Late-start and early-release days are another option, but these really require community buy-in!

Altering staff utilization is an option that can open up time for the all-important observation phase. We can think flexibly about how students are grouped and who is serving them. For example, when 4th grade book buddies visit their 1st grade friends once a month, the 4th grade team can conduct an observation. Another school has utilized school staff, parent volunteers, and community partners to involve students in monthly community-service projects while their teachers collaborate and observe. In some schools, special-subject teachers plan block experiences that engage students in integrated opportunities for music, visual art, and movement. While students experience these extended enrichment opportunities, teaching teams work together. Similarly, an administrator-conducted pep assembly that celebrates students’ efforts (both academic and social) can provide time for teachers of the same content to collaborate.

Even though it might require funding, adding or buying time might also be an option. With careful planning, hiring a couple of substitute teachers who rotate through different classrooms can provide time for observations for several Lesson Study groups. Adding time to a teacher’s already-busy schedule isn’t usually a great option, but teachers could come early or stay late to participate in most phases of the Lesson Study cycle. Targeting professional-development funds to pay teachers for work beyond contacted hours is an option to consider.

In the book, I’ve also included suggestions for how teachers without any of these supports can pursue Lesson Study, either individually or with a group of peers. Making time for Lesson Study might require flexibility and creativity, but it’s worth the effort!

LF: You talk about the importance of integrating cultural responsiveness into Lesson Study. Can you say more about what that looks like?

Vicki Collet:

I’m so glad you asked this question, Larry! I believe teacher judgment and responsiveness should be at the very center of curricular decisions. We are working in an era where teachers are sometimes treated as deskilled technicians, but during Lesson Study, I emphasize the thinking role of teachers as they continually adjust instruction to align with students’ cultures, interests, and needs. There’s no such thing as the perfected lesson that can be served up again and again, because the students sitting in front of each teacher are different! Lesson Study helps us figure out how research-based practices fit within our own classrooms.

Cultural identities, practices, and tools that students possess are a rich resource for learning. Based on their cultures and past experiences, students have different ways of knowing and doing. Culturally responsive teachers adjust their teaching to the background of their students, instead of requiring the opposite. Lesson Study can be a support for responsive teaching.

Responsive teachers reinvent educational theories and best practices and adapt them to the needs, interests, experiences, and cultures of their students. During planning, responsive teachers choose activities and materials that help them recruit their students’ knowledge in order to meet learning objectives. They adapt and adjust as they plan and teach. In the midst of instruction, when a teacher listens to students’ responses and builds from their background knowledge, he is being responsive. When reflecting together after a research lesson, we can examine the teacher’s in-the-moment decisions that accounted for students’ cultures.

In Chapter 9 of Collaborative Lesson Study, I share examples of how Lesson Study increases teachers’ awareness of students’ cultural resources. At Stilwell High in Oklahoma, Lesson Study helped teachers tune in to some Native American students’ nonverbal ways of communicating. During their research lesson, when traditional Cherokee students were in a group together, they collaborated in ways that were natural for them and very effective. Without Lesson Study, this would have flown under our radar! But we were able to notice and name it during reflection, which increased our own cultural knowledge and gave us important information for future instruction.

In the United States, over 80 percent of teachers are white, middle-class, and monolingual (U.S. Dept. of Education, 2016). So most teachers in today’s schools, although well-intentioned, may be quite unaware of the cultural knowledge and practices that their students bring from their homes and communities. Looking closely at learning through Lesson Study can lead to additional differentiation of lessons and new understandings about how culture influences instruction. Noticing the variation within our own classrooms spurs ideas for how to take advantage of our students’ unique cultural resources.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Vicki Collet:

Thomas Guskey (2005) said, “The hard lesson we have gleaned from analyzing various waves of education reform is that it doesn’t matter what happens at the national, state, or even district level. Unless change takes place at the building and classroom levels, improvement is unlikely” (p. 40). School improvement efforts must focus on the local and include professional learning for teachers. Lesson Study fills the bill! It is professional development that is done by teachers, not done to them. It comes from the inside out, not from the top down. Instead of providing professional development, Lesson Study supports it. I’ve been working with teachers in Lesson Study for over a decade and I’ve seen dramatic results in teacher learning and student achievement. And Lesson Study is beautifully simple, so it is a process that can be sustained! Lesson Study is not a quick fix. It is a cycle for instructional improvement that pays ongoing dividends.

LF: Thanks, Vicki!


Guskey, T. R. (2005). Taking a second look at accountability: Strong evidence reflecting the benefits of professional development is more important than ever before. Journal of Staff Development, 26(1), 10-18.

U.S. Department of Education. (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/stateracial- diversity-workforce.pdf

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