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Lesson Study: When Teachers Team Up to Improve Teaching

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Fifth grade teacher Marna Wolak starts her lesson off with a whole group number talk. (Katrina Schwartz/MindShift)

Marna Wolak’s fifth grade students at Sanchez Elementary in San Francisco are gathered on the rug for a “number talk.” Wolak is getting her students thinking about fractions, noticing patterns and explaining their thinking to one another as a group before sending them off to work on a new topic - dividing whole numbers by fractions. The problem for today deals with origami stars. Students are told they have six pieces of paper, but it only takes one fifth of a piece to make one origami star. How many stars can they make with six pieces of paper?

Wolak instructs students to work on the problem individually first, showing various ways they might solve it. She tells them they’ll get a chance to share their answers and think through the problem with a partner in a few minutes. This is a familiar math lesson scene, but on this day there are five other adults in the room -- including two Sanchez teachers -- observing how students tackle the problem as part of Wolak’s lesson study group.

It’s clear that students are a little shy of all the visitors, but Wolak has prepared them, explaining that the other adults are interested to see how students are thinking about the problem so they can improve their teaching. Kids seem content with this explanation, but also more subdued. As they get to work, the observing teachers scribble detailed notes about strategies kids are trying, where they might be going off track, and later how well they discuss their thinking with a small group.

“I’m noticing a student taking an example from the number talk and saying ⅕ x 6 is 1/30,” said third grade teacher Lauren Christensen in a whisper to an observer. But then she noticed the student starting to draw and said, "maybe there was a feeling of, 'I don’t think that’s the correct answer, so I’m going to try another way.'”


This kind of detailed observation of student work is the focus of a kind of professional development called lesson study. Wolak can better understand how her students are thinking by having other teachers in her classroom focused on the students (as opposed to evaluating her performance). The teachers are looking for misconceptions, but also interesting ways students approach problems and how well they can talk through what they did.

Third grade teacher Lauren Christensen observes fifth graders as they work on a problem individually.
Third grade teacher Lauren Christensen observes fifth graders as they work on a problem individually. (Katrina Schwartz/MindShift)

Many students in the class got the correct answer, but fewer were able to explain why. Many seemed shy to talk through their answers and didn’t want to push each other on their thinking either. After the lesson, the adults convened to debrief what they saw, identify trends and offer ideas about where the misconceptions might lie. There’s a consensus that the number talk may have confused kids, making them think they were supposed to use a number line to solve the problem, even though that strategy wasn’t helpful for this problem.

“This made me wonder how much our students are influenced by what we do that morning or the most recent thing,” Christensen said as part of the debrief. “It felt like during the number talk there was some steering towards Kiara’s thinking about a number line, so I’m wondering if other students were thinking number line is something I should definitely be using today.”

This is useful information that Wolak and the other teachers can use as they plan future lessons. And it’s not necessarily something Wolak would have known without this observation period. Now, she has useful data points for when she revisits the lesson, so she can thoughtfully advance her students' understanding.

“Our goal is higher student achievement and we’re not going to achieve that in isolation, I feel, we’re going to achieve that as a team strategizing, creating lesson plans, seeing what worked and what didn’t, trying something new, and keeping our eyes on how students are learning,” Wolak said. “That invigorates me.”


Lesson study is a common professional development practice in Japan and is slowly gaining popularity in the U.S.; there's even a lesson study app now. In San Francisco, many teachers are using the practice to help shift teaching practices towards the requirements of the Common Core State Standards. The Sanchez Elementary school teachers have been focusing on several points of mathematical practice throughout the year. They want students to find an entry point into the problem, persevere through difficult tasks, and explain their thinking to one another. After each observation the teachers discuss what they saw and brainstorm ways to keep pushing their students on these skills.

“The time to plan with colleagues and then observe each other, discuss what worked, what didn’t work, that might not just be for that lesson,” said Wolak. “What you learned trickles into other lessons. If you’re interested in improving teaching and learning in your classroom then it’s worth the time.”

In the San Francisco Unified School District, about 20 percent of schools are using lesson study in some capacity. The practice is part of the district’s master teaching program, of which Wolak is a participant. At schools with a master teacher, at least one group of three to four teachers is doing lesson study as a way of sharing professional ideas. San Francisco is also part of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to do whole-school lesson study at five sites. Oakland Unified and Chicago Public Schools are part of that grant as well. Researchers from Mills College will be working alongside these districts to document and assess how well the practice works.

“It’s really powerful to have other educators’ ideas,” said Christensen. “I always learn something new. And it always causes me to think in another way.” The process has helped Christensen see how important lesson design is to achieve a learning objective. In one of her lessons she tried to engage her third graders with the math by framing it as a video game, but after getting feedback from the observing teachers, she realized the details she added to make the problem exciting detracted from the math.

“In my lesson it was engaging in how it was designed, but there were some barriers to student learning that had it been the same thing designed in another way, would have been more successful,” Christensen said. She also likes that lesson study has created an ongoing learning community for her. Even though Sanchez has a collaborative school culture, teachers are still often alone in their rooms with their students.

“You can get so wrapped up in this own little world of yours with the students you teach, and the opportunity to see how another person is teaching and to see what’s working or not working is really invaluable,” Christensen said.

Fourth grade teacher Luis Novoa is in his first year of credentialed teaching, although he taught with an emergency credential before that and has been involved in various aspects of education. For him, the non-evaluative nature of lesson study has been a nurturing environment to learn from colleagues and grow in his first year.

Fourth grade teacher Luis Novoa observes fifth graders working on a fractions problem.
Fourth grade teacher Luis Novoa observes fifth graders working on a fractions problem. (Katrina Schwartz/MindShift)

Novoa is a product of the San Francisco public schools and identifies strongly with his bilingual students and their families. He has a strong classroom culture and relationships with students, but has found lesson study to be a great way of learning some of the more technical aspects of teaching from his colleagues. Lesson study observations of his classroom have helped him understand and build upon how much students learn from one another.

“I’ve noticed they don’t have those abilities to have that conversation and explain what they’re doing,” Novoa said. “So I’ve given more sentence frames. We’ve taken time on discussing how conversation works. What’s the difference between a normal lunchroom conversation and an academic conversation?” He’s pushing students to ask questions, discuss their ideas and listen closely to one another. And now, towards the end of the year, he thinks all that work on how to communicate about learning is paying off. Lesson study helped him hone in on why students were having difficulty talking to each other and he was then able to support them until they improved their skills.

Lesson study is very different from other professional development, Novoa said. While an outside expert’s ideas might be interesting and helpful, there’s no follow up to see how students reacted to it. “[Lesson study] is what we need to get better at our practice,” Novoa said. He’s grateful for the ability to think through what happened in the classroom and improve upon it, instead of just assuming that it worked.

Increasingly education leaders are seeing lesson study as a powerful way to grow teacher-leaders willing to try new things and continually improve. The process helps to create a supportive environment within a building that bolsters the hard work of teaching. But it requires leadership from principals and districts.

Teachers need time to plan their lessons together, observe one another’s classes and to debrief after the lesson. In order to give them the time they need, the school or district has to pay substitute teachers and allocate planning time. At Sanchez, the model has gained traction and the principal has decided to allocate professional development money and time to implement lesson study school-wide as a central part of its professional development.

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