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Laying the Groundwork for Lesson Study

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Lesson study is a robust form of teacher professional development that supports collaboratively improving practice through teacher inquiry focused on student thinking. Opportunities to engage in lesson study abound in education. The most compelling reasons to engage in lesson study come from pressing problems of practice identified by teachers themselves. Questions such as: How can I facilitate rich discussions in my math class? How can I more effectively support students in developing a deep understanding of scientific modeling? and How can I build student capacity for understanding complex texts? are all rich areas for teachers to explore together through lesson study.

However, sometimes the nature of the profession provides an important external reason to update our teaching practice. Research findings illuminate new pedagogical practices that better align with the neuroscience of how students learn, districts adopt more inquiry focused curriculum, or content standards are updated. All of these reasons are also useful starting points for educators interested in developing a supportive environment for instructional improvement.

In our organization, lesson study grew out of a desire to explore new pedagogical practices. A group of teachers in our organization were participating in our Mathematical Agency Improvement Community (MAIC) – a networked improvement community composed of teachers from four Southern California school districts dedicated to abolishing the phrase “I’m not a math person.” The teachers were testing out evidence-based, student-centered mathematics practices in order to create learning environments where students felt a sense of belonging “I believe I am part of the mathematical community, “ a sense of confidence, “I can succeed if I put in the effort,” and felt that what they were learning was relevant, “I feel intellectually engaged and challenged.”

It turns out that learning how to teach using more student-centered practices is actually incredibly challenging. Facilitating that first whole class discussion – even for the most philosophically aligned teacher – can be a deflating experience. Status issues between students become painfully apparent. With some students feeling comfortable enough to share, while the rest take the safe, silent route to avoid being wrong in front of their peers. Valuable mathematical insights stay hidden in student brains, never to see the light of day. It quickly sinks in that in order to teach the core math concepts in our curriculum, we also need to support students in building their mathematical identities – which can require overcoming years of instruction that has convinced some students that they are not a “math person.” This challenge can feel overwhelming at best and downright impossible at worst. In our network even the veteran teachers felt like first year teachers and there was a strong desire to see the practices in action with real students.

This desire led to our first lesson study cycles. With a few brave volunteer teachers – and with the public understanding that we were all learning how to do this together and that no one had it figured out yet – we integrated opportunities for teachers to test out the practices with their students during our network convenings. In groups of 4-8, teachers engaged in anticipatory planning for a lesson that incorporated one of the student-centered practices, decided on data to collect, and then one teacher taught the lesson while the other teachers observed focus students and collected data. The team debriefed afterward, sharing observations and thinking about next steps. This structure formed the basis for our quick lesson study cycles, often occurring over one or two days.

Teachers overwhelmingly found the time planning, observing, and debriefing a lesson together useful. These early cycles also served to normalize the process of planning a lesson together and observing each other teach. When we proposed creating a research team to conduct a more in depth research lesson study cycle culminating in a public lesson, a number of teachers were willing to participate. Our first research team consisted of five teachers, two math coaches, and a facilitator. The group met for an hour once a week to decide on an inquiry question and design a research lesson. In the first meeting the group decided on norms to guide their time together, selected a date for their public lesson, and identified their students strengths and areas of growth. We had our first lesson study research team!

Our Elementary Lesson Study Research Team during one of their planning sessions.


For educators looking to try lesson study in their own contexts, here are our key learnings about creating an interest in lesson study:

  • Build from authentic teacher inquiry or a professional need

  • Build a culture of collaboration by making time for teachers to anticipate student thinking and/or look at student work together

  • Provide opportunities for teachers to observe each other and discuss teaching in an non-evaluative environment

  • Appoint a facilitator and/or provide resources (like the meeting agendas linked off of this document) to support the research team through planning their first research lesson


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

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