Teaching Opinion

Lesson Study Works! An Interview with Dr. Catherine Lewis

By Anthony Cody — October 25, 2011 8 min read
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Research consistently shows that teacher effectiveness and satisfaction with our work increases when we are able to engage in deep and meaningful collaboration. Earlier this month I wrote about one model for this sort of work, Teacher Action Research. Today I am sharing an interview focused on another model, Lesson Study. Both of these models have a strong history in the Oakland public schools. At Mills College in Oakland, distinguished research scholar Dr. Catherine Lewis is a national expert in Lesson Study, who has studied the practice for more than a decade, and worked with thousands of teachers in the US to bring the model to life here. I asked her to describe how Lesson Study works.

What is Lesson Study?

Dr. Lewis:
Lesson study is a collaborative approach to instructional improvement. In lesson study, a team of 3-6 teachers works together to:

  • Consider their goals for student learning and students’ long-term development, and identify gaps with current reality.
  • Examine research and curriculum related to a pressing need in student learning, and collaboratively plan a “research lesson” to study and advance instruction with respect to this issue.
  • One team member teaches the lesson, while other team members collect data on student learning during the lesson.
  • Teachers use the data collected during the lesson to learn about student thinking, about the teaching of the particular topic, and about teaching and learning more broadly.
  • In the process of these activities, teachers build shared knowledge about teaching and productive, supportive relationships with colleagues.

How do teachers begin Lesson Study?

Dr. Lewis: You can learn more about lesson study by looking at a website such as www.lessonresearch.net or www.teachingamericanhistory.us/lesson_study/index.html. You can read the handbook Lesson Study: Step by Step, which includes a 22-minute DVD of U.S. teachers conducting a whole lesson study cycle.

Another great way to learn about lesson study is to sit in with a lesson study group in your area, or attend a lesson study conference that includes public research lessons. Upcoming events are posted along with a list of lesson study groups.

What sort of work is involved in preparing the lesson?

Dr. Lewis:
Lesson study is not about developing new lessons from scratch. It’s about studying the best available lesson plans for your chosen topic, and “tweaking.” An important part of lesson study is to anticipate student responses to the lesson activities, considering what students currently know and what misconceptions they may bring. What well-formulated questions and activities will help students advance their thinking? Team members can build their knowledge of student thinking during the lesson planning phase by providing tasks or writing prompts to students and looking at the student work together. Team members should also try the lesson task themselves, considering how their students might approach it, and gain insights from seeing colleagues’ thinking.

How do teachers overcome their fear of being judged by peers?

Dr. Lewis: Lesson study is about study of student thinking and learning, not about evaluation of teaching. Make sure you use a lesson observation and discussion protocol, like that found in Lesson Study: Step by Step, to set up from the start a culture of focus on student learning. Observation focuses on student thinking and actions, and on unpacking the elements of lesson design that enabled students to progress, or posed barriers. Observation does not focus on “teacher moves.” Collaborative work prior to the lesson plan ensures that the lesson is “our” lesson, not “your” or “my” lesson. A good way to start your lesson study work is by agreeing on norms and setting up rotating roles. You can find protocols for both these activities in Lesson Study: Step by Step.

What happens when teachers observe a lesson?

Dr. Lewis: When teachers observe a lesson, they collect specific data agreed on in advance by the team. Usually, they observe one student (or one partnership or group) over the course of the entire lesson, in order to see how students’ thinking progressed (or failed to) and what were the key lesson elements that provided supports or barriers. Teachers do not assist students or interfere with the lesson. Teachers are an extra set of eyes and ears, not an extra mouth or hands!

What happens following the lesson?

Dr. Lewis: Shortly after the lesson, the team holds a “post-lesson discussion” that follows a structured protocol (see Lesson Study: Step by Step). The instructor speaks first, noting any challenges or areas where the lesson did not go as planned. Team members then present data collected during the lesson, focusing on questions agreed upon by the team. For example, the team may discuss how students used primary source documents, and what inferences they drew from them, or what strategies students used to compare the area of two rectangles. If the lesson involves student written work, the team may spend the beginning of the meeting reviewing it. For example, teachers may study how students used counterarguments in their essays, or how they explained a change in temperature.

What kinds of things do teachers learn from lesson study?

Dr. Lewis: Lesson study supports the growth of individual teachers, and also supports the growth of teachers as a professional community. Individual teachers grow in their knowledge, instructional practices, habits of mind, and sense of efficacy. Some quotes from U.S. teachers asked to reflect on their lesson study work illustrate the impact of lesson study on teachers:

Mathematically, I learned a lot about fraction concepts. I've always understood how to work with fractions but didn't understand all of the "why's" behind the procedures.
Since the lesson study I have been much more aware of the ways in which I tend to focus too much on completing the activity or playing the game, and my...teaching has become more purposeful and focused as a result.
I am including more presentations, and problem solving. My students are thinking more. I am finding some resistance. They want the formula and to repeat back to me. But I think they are growing.
[The students] may have more ability than I thought.
I think this was my 7th or 8th cycle of working with lesson study and every time I am amazed at the amount of growth and learning that happens professionally for me...the biggest impact for me is having more ears around the room listening to the students' conversations and what they are actually thinking.

The professional community (at a school and more broadly) changes as teachers become more willing and able to share their instructional knowledge and challenges with each other. As one veteran teacher put it, “Lesson study changes how teachers talk to each other around the water cooler.” Teachers see how students’ development depends on the efforts of many teachers, over many years, and they become committed to improving colleagues’ practice, as well as their own practice. They think in terms of “our” students, not “your” and “my” students.

[I learned about] working with colleagues - In order to build new effective relationships with colleagues it's best to do it in the context of student thoughts and evidence of student work.
In the past, a lot of us never really thought about two grades down the line and how what we were teaching affects them. And now we really are.
Great trust has developed over time that allows us to be both teachers and learners with each other. Isn't that what it's all about?

How does this affect student learning in the schools where it is done?

Dr. Lewis: Students at a California elementary school that practiced school-wide lesson study in mathematics over a 4-year period increased mathematics state test scores at more than triple the rate of other schools in the district (Lewis, Perry, Hurd, & O’Connell, Lesson Study Comes of Age in North America, Phi Delta Kappan 88:4, 2006: 273-281.)

A recent randomized, controlled trial (download report here) found significantly greater gains in mathematical knowledge by teachers and students in the group assigned to lesson study (with high-quality mathematical resources) than to comparison groups. Teachers also showed significantly greater increases in reported collegial learning effectiveness, expectations for student achievement, and the perceived relevance of research for practice.

How is Lesson Study taking hold in the US?

Dr. Lewis: Lesson study has now persisted in the U.S. for more than a decade in many locations, often as a teacher-led, grassroots movement, although there has been support from local foundations, universities, and other organizations in some areas. Annual conferences with public research lessons are held in several regions of the United States, including Chicago, New York, and several places in California (see here and here).

Teachers in the Oakland Unified School District (California) have been national pioneers in the use of lesson study in history and social studies, and have inspired several similar efforts in other regions of the United States. The model pioneered by OUSD educators includes presentations by university-based historians to help support teachers’ historical inquiry. Teachers use shared assignments or prompts to gather evidence on their students’ historical thinking and knowledge, and lesson study teams then use this information to develop inquiry questions about student learning. For example, teachers investigated such questions as:

  • How well can students use an immigration story to understand a larger historical movement? ( A focus on making generalizations and inferential thinking.)
  • Can 5th grade students develop a nuanced understanding, through multiple perspectives, of freedom in the South before the Civil War?
  • How can we help students understand that it is possible to tell different stories and come to different conclusions about the same event?
  • Given a variety of documents, how can we help students identify and understand the debate around the decision to go to war with Mexico, and also how do we help students understand how debate is a key component of the democratic process?

Oakland teacher leader Stan Pesick wrote this article describing the work there in greater detail. And this video shows Oakland teacher Carin Geathers debriefing a lesson focused on freedom.

What should happen next in Lesson Study?

Dr. Lewis: In Japan, teachers lead the policy implementation process through lesson study. Lesson study provides a proving ground for reforms like the Common Core State Standards. Lesson study groups receive small grants to study the reform (often working with university-based colleagues) and bring it to life in public research lessons, where thousands of teachers can see and discuss actual lessons, and quickly build a shared knowledge base about the subject matter, student thinking, and what does and doesn’t work to implement the reform well. With experienced lesson study groups now working across the United States, we could do this here. We could recognize that we learn to teach better through cycles of planning and doing instruction, analyzing students’ responses to our instruction, and honing our instruction.

No stick or carrot can match the motivational power of seeing students’ deepen their thinking and build their persistence in response to improvements we have made to our instruction. Teams of lesson study practitioners across the United States know this. I hope policymakers will figure it out soon.

What do you think of Lesson Study? Have you had success with collaboration of this sort?

Image credit to Dr. Catherine Lewis, used by permission.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0207259 and Department of Education Institute for Education Sciences, Grant No. R308A960003. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funders.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.