Make Lesson Study Meaningful

I had the opportunity to give a talk at CMC-South in the fall of 2017 about my work conducting lesson studies.  About 40 inspiring educators showed up to geek out with me and learn about ways to generate teacher buy-in so that teacher learning made during lesson study leads to lasting professional growth.  This post contains a quick outline of part of my talk and the resources I shared with participants.  Please feel free to use the resources in your own work conducting lesson study.  I’d love to hear feedback.  Let’s get better together.  If you want to know more about my approach or have me conduct the process with your staff, please shoot me an email:

We Teach Who We Are

Teaching is a practice of identity.  In other words, we teach who we are.  As a result, our classrooms are often at the intersection of the personal and the public.  How we relate to young people, how we foster classroom culture, how we create community and structure our norms, and how we craft lessons for our students are all processes that come from deep rooted assumptions about who we are as teachers, who we perceive our students to be, and why we do what we do.  Our identity drives the purpose behind our practice.

To make shifts in our practice means that we must make shifts in our identity.  And that is uncomfortable.  On the one hand, it takes focused deliberate practice which requires maximum effort.  On the other hand, it invites vulnerability and discomfort because it must be done with others.  To teach in front of someone, to practice our craft as instructors, is an intimate act.  It can be terrifyingly debilitating, especially if the observers are not trusted colleagues, coaches, or leaders.

But observing each other practice is what good teams do.  Good teams embrace struggle together, learn from each other, and share their growth.  They practice together.  Ending the school year without embedding opportunities for teachers to observe each other’s classrooms does not seem like a good plan for getting better as a team.  This is why lesson study is such a useful tool.

Often times, the lesson study process dives quickly in to lesson objectives, measurable student behavior, and lesson planning and ignores the necessary grounding work that is required.  We must go slow at first if we are going to go deep.  Teaching holds a mirror to our soul after all.

(Note:  You can find all my resources here including templates for teachers and facilitators.)

How I Go Slow:  Purpose

After clarifying the lesson study process, answering any clarifying questions, and setting the norms and roles, I use this Passion Profile activity.  I invite teachers to read through the document and underline language that resonates strongly with them.  After reading all the profiles, I invite them to choose one or two passions that are near the top of the list and share with the group.  Why do you teach?  I try to capture the language as they are speaking.  At the end, I have them think about the overlap between their professional identities and anything else they notice and wonder.

This 30-60 minute activity does three very important things:

  1. It honors the presence of each individual at the table.
  2. It builds the trust and vision necessary to grow as a professional community.
  3. It provides coaches and colleagues with the language that they can use to support each other’s professional growth moving forward.

The last point is what makes lesson study a “bottom-up” professional opportunity rather than a “top-down” mandate.  Lesson study is something teachers do and create.  It is not a process that happens to them.

Here are what some teachers have shared about why they’re teachers:

  • My teaching is an act of social justice.  I teach because I grew up in this community and I want to help my students achieve dreams.
  • I teach because my students have a right to a good education and access to a better life.
  • I teach because it fosters a sense of purpose in me.
  • I love to teach concepts in a way that are explored by my students.  I want an empowered learning culture in my classroom.
  • I give my all in order to make the day worth it.  I want my kids to learn something meaningful everyday.

Now imagine starting a lesson study process without doing this activity?  How much meaning and purpose would go unnoticed and unappreciated?  We must go slow to go deep.

How I Go Slow:  Practice

After allowing teachers to express their purpose (individually and collectively), I have them unpack their thinking about their practice.

I ask teachers to silently ponder and write some notes in response to the following prompt:

You’re witnessing the best math lesson ever.  What does it look like?  Specifically, what is the teacher doing, what are students doing, and what does the classroom energy feel like?

I invite teachers to take turns sharing one thing at a time, capturing the language as the sharing unfolds.  After everyone has shared everything they want to share, I invite them to see the overlap in their vision for the ideal classroom.  To help focus the work of the group through the lesson study process and draw closure to this activity, I ask:  Of these things, which ones might be most important to your work right now?

Here are some examples of what other groups of teachers have said about their ideal math classrooms:

  • Every student is inspired, participating, motivated, engaged.
  • Teacher continually monitors student thinking and facilitates with purposeful questions.
  • Student discourse (thinking) drives much of the classroom discussion.
  • All students are doing math because the lesson demands it, not because the teacher enforces it.
  • There is a productive “hum” in the classroom as students make meaning for themselves.

Aligning Purpose and Practice

While the first activity helped teachers clarify the common purpose, the second activity helped teachers to clarify the goals of their practice.  For teachers to be most effective, they must feel alignment between their purpose and their practice.

Parker Palmer calls this alignment “integrity.”  To clarify, we don’t mean integrity in a moral sense.  Instead, we mean integrity as a way of describing the strength of a structure or a system.  Buildings survive earthquakes because they maintain their integrity.  The Titanic sunk because it lost its structural integrity.

If there isn’t a strong alignment between our purpose and practice as educators, then we begin to feel pulled apart; we lose our integrity.  There are many forces at all levels in public education that restrict our ability to do our work.  There are paradoxes that pull at us and weaken our integrity, that invite doubt and turmoil into our work.

Here are some frequent examples of conflicts I’ve heard:

  • I can either meet the needs of my struggling students and spend more time on a concept or move forward to meet the needs of my stronger students that are ready.  But I can’t do both.
  • I want my students to be engaged and excited, but I have to teach the textbook.
  • My students haven’t learned the content yet, but I need to stick to a district pacing plan.
  • I want my students to be creative thinkers, but I need to prepare them for the standardized test.
  • I want my students to learn from their mistakes, but I also have to grade their assessments.

For lesson study to be successful, we must help support teachers to identify these restrictions and paradoxes in their work.  After conducting the first two activities above, I ask the teachers:

In what ways does your existing curriculum restrict your ability to create these classrooms?  What other forces (paradoxes) are restricting your ability to create these classrooms?

These questions serve as a powerful pivot for teachers to think about the struggles they are facing.  While these struggles are professional, they are also very personal because we teach who we are.  And we face failure and challenge at every turn throughout the academic year, school day, or math lesson.  If the Passion Profile activity is done well, the teachers will persevere through this sense of vulnerability and the lesson study work can be meaningful.  If we do not do this grounding work first however, we run the risk that lesson study not only lacks meaning for teachers, but also creates more conflict than it resolves.

Maintaining Integrity

In order for us to navigate the obstacles that threaten our ability to do our best work, we must shift from “either/or” statements of paradoxes to “both/and” questions of integrity.  Good questions hold us together because they focus our work on aligning our purpose with our practice.

Good research questions also focus the lesson study for groups of teachers and help ensure continuity of the growth and learning throughout the school year.  They also provide transparency about the purpose of the work.  Everybody is clear about how they are all trying to get better together.

Here are some examples of research questions teachers have created with me over the years.

  • How do we create lessons that raise the abilities of both struggling students and achieving students?
  • How do I raise both the academic achievement of a child and also raise their self-esteem?  (Rita Pierson asks this question in her Ted talk.)
  • How do we create lessons where all learners are engaged, confident, sharing thinking, and experiencing “Got it!” moments?
  • How do we open up lessons for more student choice and voice while also providing a learning opportunity with a clear objective?
  • What are the qualities of a lesson design where student thinking drives the classroom discussion and also informs the direct instruction?

What Lesson Study Looks Like

There are many views on what makes a “lesson study.”  Because there are so many restraints on time, money, and resources, I take a very open view about what the process looks like.  Fundamentally, I believe in the power of getting teachers in each other’s classrooms looking at student engagement and student learning.  We need to do more of it.  If those observations are happening around an established and clear research question and teachers are meaningfully reflecting on their practice together with a trusted coach, then that, at it’s core, is lesson study.

Whatever it looks like at your site, I’m arguing that time and attention needs to be paid to unpacking teacher identities and the passions behind their work.  Conducting these activities first will make your lesson study richer and more meaningful for your teachers.  Furthermore, they will be able to go deeper in to refining and improving their practice.

An Example

(Note:  You can find specific examples of lesson study work I’ve created with teachers here.  And you can also find templates for teachers and facilitators.)

When conducting lesson study as a consultant, I find that two days to start the process is ample enough time with a team of 3-5 teachers.  I usually spend 1-2 hours in the morning of the first day conducting the activities listed above.  I then spend a few hours diving in to the current content teachers are teaching.  It’s always good to do some math as teachers and think like learners.  Before the end of the day, I craft a lesson with them around their goals for the classrooms they want to create.  On the second day, we take turns teaching the lesson, observing student learning, and finding answers to our research question.  We can make revisions to our lesson throughout the day to refine our own learning.

At the end of the second day, I ask teachers to reflect on all of their learning from the process and how they’ve grown individually and collectively.  In particular, I ask them to think about what they learned about their research question and what they want to practice more deliberately moving forward.  This allows teachers to craft the language around their own learning and their practice moving forward.  Coaches and colleagues can use this language as a way to focus future observations and reflecting conversations.

After this two-day investment, I encourage instructional leaders to find ways for teachers to continue the work within the structures of their busy schedules.  At the middle and high school levels, I invite teachers to commit to 20-30 minutes a week to observe their colleagues teach and reflect at lunch with each other or a coach.  At the elementary level, I invite principals to find 20-30 minutes of coverage a week so teachers can get in each other’s classrooms and observe.

This is just one method to implement lesson study.  I’ve seen principals conduct the Passion Profile and Ideal Classroom activities in grade level teams at Fall PD.  From there, groups of teachers (grade level, department, PLC, etc) enter the school year with their own research question to guide their observations and instructional work.  Teachers plan and design lessons during their collaborative time embedded in the school year.

An Invitation

Feel free to try out my resources and give me feedback.  What works?  What might need improvement?

Help me get better.  What are your thoughts and reactions?  What strategies have you shared?

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