How Lesson Study Can Help Us Design More Equitable Classrooms During Distance Learning

Updated: Oct 6


Planning meetings go virtual for our lesson study teams!

This blog series documents how our network of schools became interested in lesson study. We have shared how our lesson study teams got started – by creating a shared vision of their hopes and dreams for students, determining a research question and theory of action, narrowing in on a specific content area for their research lesson, and then exploring the mathematical content and selecting a mathematical understanding goal and an equity goal for their research lessons. After anticipating focus student thinking, and planning their research lesson, teams closely observed student thinking during the lesson, and debriefed what they were learning about the intersections of pedagogy, student understanding, and equity. We have also documented our first five public lesson study events, a 6th grade lesson on how to set up algebraic expressions, a 3rd grade lesson on comparing fractions, a 9th grade lesson on lines of best fit, an 8th grade lesson on negative exponents, and a 10th grade lesson on quadratics.


Resources we’ve used for conducting research lessons can be found here.


As remote learning becomes part of our new reality due to Covid-19, it is critical that schools set up structures to address the inherent challenges and inequities that inevitably occur with online education. Now, more than ever, we need systems that support collaborative inquiry so teachers can test and refine pedagogical practices that center student thinking to promote engagement, support student learning, and affirm and build students academic and cultural identities. In this time of distance learning – and the avalanche of recognition that equity must be front and center for any new systems we design – educators need to create systems that integrate the following three critical components:

  • Social Emotional Learning: to build relationships with and between students that foster authentic connection, empathy, and engagement

  • Culturally Sustaining Teaching Practices: to incorporate culturally responsive and engaging lessons that build students cognitive capacities and affirm and grow students cultural and academic identities

  • Teacher Inquiry & Collaboration: so teachers can test and integrate pedagogies aligned with the above frameworks to ensure student learning in this new paradigm


While integrating any one of these frameworks during normal in-person schooling requires sustained training and focus, it may feel particularly daunting to tackle all three during a time of high stress and uncertainty. However, we believe systems that promote collaborative inquiry focused on deeply understanding student thinking – such as Lesson Study – have the power to build educator capacity in all three areas. Here’s how.


What is lesson study?

Lesson study is a system that supports a group of educators in collaboratively exploring the intersection of content knowledge, student learning, and instruction. There are different variations of lesson study structures, and some of the most well known hubs include Japan, San Francisco Unified School District and Mills College, the CANMEE lesson study model from the California Mathematics Project, and the Lesson Study Alliance in Chicago. While our model is primarily based on the SFUSD/Mills College lesson study work, we have adopted practices and ideas from the other models as well. (You can read about our journey in this blog series.) In our lesson study network, we found that five core student-centered practices of lesson study were critical to maximizing the learning experience for students and educators. They are to:


How does a lesson study structure support the three critical components we need in our teaching now?


Social Emotional Learning practices support the creation of “a caring, participatory, and equitable learning environment” where students and adults build their capacity to manage emotions, set and achieve goals, build relationships, and become reflective learners. One of the core practices of our network’s lesson study structure is to establish an equity goal – usually a goal focused on creating an inclusive and equitable learning environment. Equity goals might focus on ensuring that diversity of student voices are heard from during each lesson, on encouraging students to reflect on their learning process, or on the ways students communicate during class.


For example, a ninth grade research team’s equity goal was that students will listen to, value, and build off each other’s ideas and they tested out different group work structures and questioning strategies to promote student-student discourse.


Another way that SEL practices are reinforced throughout the lesson study process is through the explicit focus on getting to know students and to understand their thinking. Learning about our students' experiences in our classroom (virtual or otherwise!) contributes to an environment of empathy and connection.


Lesson study also supports teachers in testing and refining culturally sustaining teaching practices. By interviewing focus students and studying their thinking, teachers can make connections to their students’ interests and incorporate activities and examples that affirm their students’ cultures and identities in their lessons. This practice builds teacher capacity to utilize students’ cultural capital to build up their students’ cognitive capacity in mathematics (or another discipline). The process of studying student thinking to determine what focus students understand and where their growth edge is, also supports teachers in anticipating what focus students might say or do during a lesson and plan ways to incorporate, highlight, or build off of that thinking during the lesson.


In addition, using student work and observation data to debrief focal student learning during the lesson also provides teachers with an opportunity to reflect on how well their pedagogy met focus students' learning needs and make adjustments moving forward. In essence, lesson study teachers become students of their students’ thinking.


Finally, lesson study supports teacher inquiry and collaboration around the thing that matters most: student learning. Regardless of the form – online, in person, or a hybrid – the goal is to craft lessons and develop pedagogical practices that support student learning and affirm and build students’ academic and cultural identities. Analyzing which teaching strategies support learning – and which ones inhibit it – allows teachers to refine practices that work and build their capacity to systematically improve instruction.


If you are an educator looking to seize this opportunity to design more equitable systems that work better for students, we encourage you to explore how lesson study can generate the changes you’re hoping for.


Interested in developing capacity for lesson study and looking for a manageable on-ramp? Try these practices in your next PLC or department meeting to spark interest and build a coalition of the willing!

  • Encourage educators to conduct empathy interviews with focus students whose thinking they want to understand better and debrief what you learn together.

  • Analyze student work together – what do students understand and how do you know? What should they explore next?

  • Do anticipatory planning for an upcoming lesson together - what might students say and do? What questions could you ask to promote deeper thinking and reasoning?

  • Visit each other’s classrooms to closely observe student thinking and share what you learn.


Previous post: Reflecting on the Research Lesson & Sharing Findings

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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