Lesson Study Helps Classroom Teachers Better Understand Student Thinking, Learning and Understanding

19 Dec 2022

Melanie Villanueva, a DoD STEM Ambassador, Explores Lesson Study to Understand What Students Know, Learn and Understand

Lesson study is one of the most powerful professional learning practices available to teachers. However, many teachers have never even heard of it, let alone participated in it. UC San Diego CREATE has been an integral part of many programs, sharing this practice with teachers, including at Hilltop Middle School in Chula Vista, California.

The following was written by Melanie Villanueva, a middle school science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Villanueva was selected by UC San Diego CREATE, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year.

It’s 9:00 am on Thursday morning and the eighth-grade students in Melanie Villanueva’s second period class gather outside and wait for the start of class. Today’s class will not take place in their usual classroom but rather in the cafeteria where several teachers, administrators and researchers will observe the lesson and student participation. The students are nervous and excited because in exchange for their cooperation and participation, they have been promised a burger and fries for lunch catered by Five Guys.

The students, teachers and observers are all part of a public research lesson taught at Hilltop Middle School as a part of the CARE Network, sponsored by the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence at University of California, San Diego (CREATE at UC San Diego) and the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. The CARE Network supports San Diego teachers and schools as they seek to increase the number of Black, Latinx, Indigenous or low-income students with a strong academic identity who are on track in eighth grade to graduate high school and successfully enter college and a career.

The program supports a team of teachers at each middle school as they participate in the lesson study process for one semester. Let’s explore lesson study and learn how it can be used to help classroom teachers better understand what their students know, learn and understand.

In the words of American lesson study expert Dr. Catherine Lewis, “lesson study is a simple idea: if you want to improve instruction, what could be more obvious than collaborating with fellow teachers to plan instruction and examine its impact on students? In lesson study, teachers bring their own questions to the table and seek answers from one another, from outside specialists and research and from careful study of students” (lessonresearch.net/about-lesson-study/what-is-lesson-study-2).

Lesson study is a professional learning process for teachers with origins in Japanese elementary education. In this process, teachers engage with each other to investigate their own teaching practices by planning, teaching, observing and analyzing a research lesson to better understand student learning and to ultimately become more thoughtful about their own teaching practice. Lesson study is an inquiry cycle that helps teachers experiment, observe and improve.

Traditional Professional
Lesson Study
Begin with answersBegin with questions
Content driven by outside trainerContent driven by participant inquiry
Relationships are hierarchicalRelationships are reciprocal
Research informs practicePractice is research

In my opinion, lesson study is one of the best professional development opportunities for teachers. Lesson study asks you to think deeply about your practice — why do you say things a certain way to your students and what do you expect them to say in return? How will you know if students are gaining a deep understanding of processes or content? What evidence will you collect and how will you analyze it? Instead of developing curriculum or analyzing test data, lesson study allows teachers to explore and reflect on the heart of what teaching and learning is truly all about.

During the past year, three science teachers from Hilltop Middle School in Chula Vista, California, undertook the lesson study process to examine a goal of helping students feel comfortable and confident in taking academic risks as part of the sensemaking process. Our team spent several months planning, teaching, observing and analyzing the lesson while focusing on this problem of practice: “Students will feel comfortable and confident in taking academic risks (being comfortable, without qualifiers, in sharing an incomplete or complete idea), as making mistakes and revising those mistakes are a part of the learning process.” Our lesson focused on the student learning goal of being able to understand through multiple pieces of scientific evidence that our climate is warming due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions from humans.

Additionally, our theory of action was if teachers provide students sentence frames for making a clear argument and participating in think-pair-shares, then students will confidently make a preliminary argument based on evidence as to why global climate is warming. We hoped that this would result in students being willing to revise the claim and evidence that they originally chose.

In the lesson, students analyzed two claims about the cause of global temperature increases and chose the most probable claim. Students worked collaboratively to select evidence that justified their claim and created an argument supporting the observed global temperature increase.

Our lesson study team decided to collect data and information about what students said as they reviewed the claims. We asked ourselves: “Do their responses to the card sort match responses that the lesson study team expected?” Observers also watched for evidence that students changed their minds and, if so, were they convinced by another student's argument and/or the evidence? What persuaded them?

Lesson study is also an incredible practice for developing strong teacher communities that are focused directly on instruction and learning. With a demanding teaching schedule and a myriad of additional responsibilities at school sites, teachers rarely have time to talk about and collaborate in their practice. Lesson study is so simple and yet can be so powerful. If you’d like to begin a lesson study program in your own school, here is a great place to begin: lessonresearch.net.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation’s STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About CREATE at UC San Diego

Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment & Teaching Excellence at University of California, San Diego (CREATE at UC San Diego) works with its campus colleagues and graduate and undergraduate students to leverage their work and energy to engage K–12 students in opportunities to learn. Some outreach programs also support community college students or teachers. CREATE at UC San Diego’s role in DSEC is to build bridges between DSEC partners, DoD laboratories, and its considerable education network in the greater San Diego area.