Why Lesson Study?

Imagine a football team operating like a faculty at a school site.

Players (teachers) gather at the beginning of the season (school year) for some team-building and some pep talk (fall PD) about goals and visions for improvement from their coach (principal).

The players then study a playbook (curriculum) and some plays (instructional strategies) and maybe they practice them.  Maybe they don’t.  Once the season starts, they hardly ever observe each other run drills (routines).  They definitely don’t scrimmage together.  The coach may walk around once or twice, check some boxes on a list, and give that feedback to a player, but rarely does the coach model techniques or facilitate collaboration and discussion between players.  Furthermore, while players talk about the plays in the playbook, they never really work on running the plays together and learning from a collective experience.

The players practice all year for one single game (student testing) that they don’t even believe is worth playing but everyone makes them prepare for it anyway because how else could they measure their effectiveness except through standardized test data.  The players won’t find out until 4 months later how they did and how they compared to other teams (schools) in the league (district).  Except by then, the offseason (summer break) has happened, players have shifted teams, new playbooks have been adopted, perhaps new coaching has been hired, and it’s time to start the whole process again.

The season concludes without any player ever watching another player play.  How stupid is that?  That football team is guaranteed to suck, and the players would be miserable.

How sports teams get better:

  1. They build a collaborative culture of teamwork.
  2. They deliberately practice skills and reflect on ways to get better.
  3. They observe each other practicing, give feedback to each other, and encourage each other to get better.  They receive individualized feedback and guidance for improvement from a trusted and caring coach.
  4. They play a game as a team and cheer each other on.  They embrace struggle.  They take risks.
  5. Win or lose, they reflect on their individual and collective performances, analyze game film, and set goals for improvement.
  6. Repeat.

I realize this isn’t earth shattering news and that I shouldn’t expect calls from front offices looking to offer me a consulting gig.  And, indeed, this simple collaborative cycle (spiral?) of plan, do, reflect and plan again is applicable to teams in all sorts of professional arenas including the classroom.

My point is:  Ending a school year without watching other teachers teach doesn’t seem like a good plan for getting better as a team.

Why Lesson Study?

Because teaching math effectively is a demanding task that requires a high degree of craftsmanship and focus.  If teachers are going to become better at creating classroom environments filled with learning opportunities where all students have opportunities to develop their mathematical mindsets, they need opportunities to deliberately practice the craft of math instruction together.  Part of this deliberate practice requires teachers collaborating on lesson design, observing students learning in each other’s classrooms, and reflecting on the effectiveness of the cultural norms and instructional strategies they are using in their classrooms.  If we are to improve our craft of teaching mathematics, we must grow together in our work through collaboration, observation, and reflection.

Lesson Study ensures that we practice together and shifts our thinking from this…

to thinking like this:

And our practice of collaboration from this…

…to this:

Why Lesson Study?  Because that’s what good teams do.  A sports team that doesn’t practice together, work together, collaborate together, reflect together will not become better at what they do.  The same is true for teams of teachers.

Join me in the conversation.  What did I miss?  Let’s get better together.

How can we bring Lesson Study to your school?  Find out more here.

11 thoughts on “Why Lesson Study?

  1. SPOT. ON: “The coach may walk around once or twice, check some boxes on a list, and give that feedback to a player, but rarely does the coach model techniques or facilitate collaboration and discussion between players. Furthermore, while players talk about the plays in the playbook, they never really work on running the plays together and learning from a collective experience.” Lesson Study is integral to real development – perhaps because it’s in the diversity of vision from a variety of talents that we will be able to find the ability to teach one class and have 25 students learn. I think we all have biases that either lead us to consider the student just like ourselves or the student who is the opposite of our selves- which leaves out many. From connecting to representations of the math to reflecting on the misconceptions that will arise to designing that moment of surprise, the beginning stages of Lesson Study in and of themselves are golden for developing all walks of teachers. But the cherry on the sundae is FOR SURE the cooperative and collaborative analysis of the lesson, which is no longer about a teacher – it is about a craft, a science, an art. Lovely post.

    • Joanna! Thanks for the great comment. You’ve got me thinking: “Lesson Study is integral to real development – perhaps because it’s in the diversity of vision from a variety of talents that we will be able to find the ability to teach one class and have 25 students learn. I think we all have biases that either lead us to consider the student just like ourselves or the student who is the opposite of our selves- which leaves out many.”

      I’ve been thinking of writing a post on this point and want to put this out there to bounce around. Borrowing some of your language, here’s a quick sketch. The metaphor involves how our eyes have “a diversity of vision”…we see colors because we have cones in our eyes. And each of those cones has a natural resonance (a frequency) that it likes to wiggle at. And different colors of light have different frequencies. So we see color because the color tickles certain cones and our brain tells us what we see. (Note: Any neuroscientists want to fact check all that for me?) Some people are color blind because they don’t have some cones at some frequencies. But in the general, sunlight is amazing because it’s full spectrum lighting that gives us a brilliant diversity of vision.

      Connecting the metaphor to math teaching and your note about bias: Our students math minds have “cones” and they learn best when those cones are wiggled by a learning experience (pedagogy) that resonates with them. I’m wondering if we have a bias to our own math mind cones and that bias affects our instructional choices?

      Do we teach to the math student we were?

      Maybe my students are bored; maybe I’m not “emitting” a pedagogy that resonates with them and gets their brains “seeing” math.

      Anyway, bias, vision, teaching. I’m pondering. Thoughts?

      • So – I’ve been thinking about writing more about this too since your initial post really got my gears turning. I actually don’t agree that students learn best when a pedagogy resonates with them. I think they learn most comfortably. BUT I think it’s super important (in order to learn best) to (1) be occasionally immersed in a new modality/representation/pedagogy and (2) to connect the comfortable approaches to the uncomfortable. Because learning deeply requires stretching, yes?

        • I guess I’m really asking how we define “best” learning… 🙂

          • and I’m pushing at the notion that we need to personalize to each student’s preference… which leaves us less ability, collectively, to communicate and connect. Instead, we should be more mindful as teachers to be aware of our own bias – and to regularly overcorrect… (maybe? still working this out!)

          • We’ve seem to have broken my reply feature so this is in reply to your next comment. I could get behind what you’re saying here: “Instead, we should be more mindful as teachers to be aware of our own bias – and to regularly overcorrect…”

          • Now I’m rethinking how to frame open styles of teaching and lesson design. We need openness because we need different math minds all adding the classroom discourse. That’s the only way we make and see vision….through diversity of thought expression.

  2. The administrator who had the most influence on refining my practice slowly brought down our affective filters by having all of us (across curricula) do informal walkthroughs with her first. There were only 20-25 of us at the whole school, so we went as mixed subject groups of 3-4 and observed one another a few times first (roving sub). No formal documentation, save for a copy the school goals, and the teacher got a synopsis of the collective feedback. A lesson study within our departments then felt like a more natural progression for teachers who were nervous and apprehensive to the process at the start. Having the lesson study within our teams felt safe because we knew the feedback would improve our PLCs and individual classrooms. Great read!

    • Thanks! Yeah, there seem to be many smaller steps to take toward lesson study, walkthroughs (or learning walks) can be that small step. Affective filter reduction is key. Are you still doing lesson studies at your site?

  3. I agree that collaboration is crucial for professional growth. Many of our PDs this year were centered around students’ work. We also implemented some common routines (Number Talks, WODB) and brought students’ voices back to the group.
    While I discussed the possibility of the teachers observing and discussing work together with our administration, I do understand why it might be difficult to implement.
    Not everyone will want to open their classrooms. I teach 50 kids with the teaching partner, so I am used to having another adult human being in the room who can give me feedback/suggestions. I know some people find it stressful and more stress should not be a desired outcome. The second challenge is that the school budgets are stretched thin. We have 30+ classrooms in our school and it would be very challenging financially to organize something regular. I wish it was a norm in the system with time and sub coverage unquestionably available to implement lesson studies, but at the moment it just isn’t the case.

    • Great comment! I’m wondering how we normalize the practice of opening our classrooms to others. (Part of what #ObserveME is trying to do.) And how do we inspire the reluctant to go out and observe others instead and then reflect with a coach? What is it about teaching that makes us so afraid, so anxious to open up? It’s like we can only talk about the practice of teaching in the third person. Are there other professions that have overcome this hurdle?

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