Determining a Research Question and Theory of Action

Updated: Feb 5

This is the fifth post in a series about using lesson study to conduct a research lesson. In the first post (Lesson Study: A Year of Learning) we share what inspired us to try lesson study, and in the second post (Laying the Groundwork for Lesson Study) we share how our lesson study research teams formed. In the third and fourth posts (Hopes and Dreams for Students & Looking at Student Work) we share details and takeaways from the first two planning meetings.


Students working on a quadratics problem during a 10th grade public lesson study

In the third meeting, the lesson study research team determined a research question and a theory of action to explore during their inquiry cycle. They had shared their hopes and dreams for students during the first meeting, and narrowed in on a possible research focus which provided a unifying “north star” for the group. After dreaming big, the team decided which teacher would conduct the first research lesson, which class would be the focus of the research lesson, and chose focus students from that class to make data collection manageable. Ideally each member of the research team has one focus student whose thinking they get to know deeply over the course of the inquiry cycle. To facilitate this, each teacher conducted an empathy interview and looked at work samples from their focus student during the second meeting to better understand their student’s mathematical strengths, understandings, and areas for growth. Using the “north star” research areas and their students’ strengths and areas of growth, the team now had a solid foundation to determine a research question and generate a hypothesis/theory of action to explore it.


The research questions that have yielded the most significant learning for our lesson study teams have been questions that:

  • the team genuinely doesn’t know the answer to already

  • are focused on how to support student understanding of a particular concept, OR, how to develop a particular classroom learning culture

After looking at examples of research questions from lesson study groups elsewhere, each member of the research team wrote down a research question related to the “north star” research area they had communally identified during the first meeting. Then using the “star method” of voting again, they selected, discussed, and word-smithed their favorite option. The research question that emerged from this process was: How can we help students see each other as co-constructors of mathematical ideas and help them find value in collaborating with others?


Other examples of research questions from lesson study teams across our schools include:

  • How do we create a class culture where partial understandings and making mistakes are a normal part of mathematical learning? (elementary team)

  • How can we build students’ confidence through explicit practice in justifying and evaluating mathematical arguments? (middle school team)

Once the team settled on a research question, the next step was to determine a theory of action, or a hypothesis to test out during the research lesson. A theory of action has the following format:

IF WE AS TEACHERS____________________ (teaching moves),

THEN _______________________ (goals for targeted students),

RESULTING IN __________________________________ (how student learning/experience will improve).


To explore their research question about students seeing each other as co-constructors of mathematical ideas, the research team crafted the following theory of action:

  • IF WE AS TEACHERS anticipate how students might think about a problem and model how to be a skeptic, THEN students will challenge and build on each other’s ideas, RESULTING IN students developing stronger mathematical reasoning skills that support their co-construction of mathematical ideas.


The elementary team exploring how to create a class culture where partial understandings and making mistakes are a normal part of mathematical learning, came up with the following theory of action:

  • IF WE AS TEACHERS implement routines for celebrating and valuing partial understandings THEN students will internalize that it is ok to make mistakes when learning math, RESULTING IN a class culture where mistakes are seen as an equally valuable part of mathematical learning.


And the middle school team exploring how to build students’ confidence through explicit practice in justifying and evaluating mathematical arguments, came up with:

  • IF WE AS TEACHERS regularly propose an incorrect solution and ask students to explain why it is incorrect or correct, THEN students will improve their justification skills, RESULTING IN increased confidence in their own explanations and richer discussions.


Each of these theories of action served two functions for the lesson study team. The first was providing a hypothesis for the team to investigate through the design of their research lesson, and the second was that the theory of action highlighted one or more teaching practices that each member of the team could start testing out in their own classes immediately. For example, teachers from the elementary team could brainstorm different teaching routines that celebrated or explored student partial understandings, or the middle school team could test out routines such as ‘my favorite no’ or pose incorrect answers themselves as teachers and ask students to critique their reasoning. In essence, each teacher in the group had access to their own “laboratory” where they could test practices and bring data and ideas back to the lesson study research team throughout the research lesson design process. This served to accelerate learning and refine the design of the final research lesson.



For educators looking to try lesson study in their own contexts, we found that:

  • The research questions that yield the most significant learning are ones that the team doesn’t already know the answer to and are focused on how to support student understanding of a particular concept, or, how to develop a particular classroom learning culture

  • A good theory of action provides ideas for teaching strategies that all team members can test out in their own classrooms which can accelerate the group’s learning!

Happy planning!


Previous week: Looking at Student Work

Next week: Exploring Mathematical Content and Determining a Mathematical Goal

Daisy Sharrock works at the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education, and is part of a Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative-sponsored research team that is currently engaged in the following study: Leveraging the Power of Improvement Networks to Spread Lesson Study. Read more about their current study here. We are grateful to JFF, KnowledgeWorks’, and the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative and its funders for their support. Learn more at sclresearchcollab.org


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