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Types of Lesson Study Cycles & Considerations for Public Lessons

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

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. We have also documented our first three public lesson study events, a 3rd grade lesson on comparing fractions, an 8th grade lesson on negative exponents, and a 10th grade lesson on quadratics.

A 9th grade public research lesson on lines of best fit.

Lesson study events in our network tend to be one of three types. We’ll call them mild, medium, and spicy, although all of them share key features.

Mild lesson study events are the quickest cycles, usually taking at most a day or two to complete. They are completed by a team of teachers or teachers and other educators (inclusion specialists, coaches, administrators, etc…) who meet to plan, observe and debrief a lesson. In the planning stage, the teacher who will conduct the lesson chooses a task and brings recent student work from a group of focus students for the team to analyze. Together they anticipate student thinking, determine a content understanding goal and an equity goal for the lesson, and brainstorm questions to encourage higher order student thinking – connecting, analyzing, extrapolating. After this planning session (usually 1-3 hours), the host teacher teaches the lesson while each team member observes and collects data on the thinking of one of the focus students. Afterward the team collects the student work and engages in a debrief to analyze student data and synthesize their own learning. The key benefits of this type of lesson study cycle – which are also present in the spicier versions – include:

  • Deepening our own mathematical knowledge for teaching. Looking at student work and anticipating student thinking prior to conducting a lesson deepens our own understanding of how students learn and make sense of key math concepts

  • Mathematical understanding goals support lesson design. Selecting a mathematical understanding goal focuses the team and streamlines which student strategies to share during the lesson, what questions to ask, and what data to collect to see if the lesson was effective

  • Building our noticing muscles for equity. Determining an equity goal supports the team in noticing classroom dynamics and their impact on student learning

  • Using student thinking data to guide instructional decisions. Anchoring the debrief in student work samples from the lesson and observations of focus student thinking and interactions, provides concrete data to determine if the lesson achieved the team’s mathematical understanding goal or the equity goal and to guide next instructional steps

In the medium version, teacher teams meet over a series of weeks and engage in a more in-depth research lesson study cycle that we’ve outlined in this blog series. Teachers generate a research question and theory of action and deeply explore a particular mathematical content area. The additional five key benefits of this medium version include:

  • Creating a communal vision. Teachers engage in building a communal vision around their hopes and dreams for their students.

  • Understanding our students and their contexts. There is increased opportunity for teachers to conduct empathy interviews with focus students and develop a more nuanced understanding of focus student contexts and thinking.

  • Authentic inquiry. Inquiry is teacher-driven around pressing problems of practice.

  • Deepening our own mathematical content knowledge. There is time for teachers to explore mathematical content as learners - how concepts build from one grade to the next, and how students make sense of the math concept and build connections to other math concepts they’ve learned.

  • Disrupting echo chambers and pushing our own thinking. Teams invite outside content and equity commentators to observe the lessons and provide feedback to push the team’s thinking.

In this version, the team invites a content and an equity commentator to provide an outside perspective on the lesson and to make us aware of our own echo chambers. What else should we be attending to that we might not have noticed? In this way, the lesson is considered ‘public’, however, it might only be the team and these two external observers during the lesson observation and debrief. We have a number of school site teams engaged in this type of research lesson and teachers have shared that they appreciate the regularly scheduled time to collaboratively explore content and practice.

The final and spiciest version of lesson study we’ve conducted in our context are what we’ve called our public research lessons. We’ve also heard them called ‘showcase’ lessons in other contexts, but shied away from that term, mainly because ‘showcase’ makes it sound like we’ve figured it all out, and none of us actually feel like that is the case. We are all still muddling along in the learning stage! These public research lessons follow the same planning process as the medium research lesson study cycles, but the teams are willing to invite colleagues and community members to observe and learn alongside them. The key benefits we’ve experienced from doing this type of lesson study cycle include:

  • Spreading lesson study as a thoughtful inquiry structure. Experiencing a lesson study event supports other educators in recognizing the value of lesson study and creates a desire to bring lesson study to their own contexts.

  • Creating a shared vision of teaching and learning between the school and the community. Public lesson study events make the complex craft of teaching visible and support the creation of a shared vision of teaching and learning between the school and the parent community.

  • Spreading knowledge about teaching and learning.The lessons about teaching and learning that occur from the research lesson are taken up by participating educators and spread to more contexts.

Whichever version you are interested in, things we’ve learned about planning for the day of the lesson study include:

  • The goal is not to have created the perfect lesson! Keep in mind that it is a research lesson and whatever happens it will be a great learning experience!

  • Prep your students! Tell them that professionals continuously learn and improve, and as professionals, teachers learn and improve by watching and discussing instruction with colleagues. Let your students know that while the observers will be interested in their thinking, they are not there to grade or evaluate them. They are interested in how the lesson sparks learning (or not) and will be using the data they collect to learn more about teaching and learning.

  • If you are inviting lots of people or hosting the lesson in a big space where sound can get lost, try to use a mic. If you plan to have students share with the mic we recommend practicing with one first. We had lots of adorably distracting giggling in one of our middle school lessons as students got used to using a mic to share their thinking during the research lesson.

  • If the team plans to open the research lesson up to colleagues, the community, or if the content and equity commentators have not been significantly involved in the planning process, it is beneficial to hold a ‘pre-brief’ before the research lesson for the team to share their research question, theory of action, their content understanding and equity goals as well as anticipated student thinking.

  • Have your audience attempt the math! Before sharing the anticipated student thinking have them attempt the problem themselves – even just for a few minutes – and then share with a partner. We have found that it increases audience engagement during the lesson if they have attempted the math themselves during the pre-brief.

  • During the lesson we have found the richest data about student learning comes from each team member closely observing and collecting data on one focus student and their interactions for the entire lesson.

  • For public research lessons with lots of observers we have found it useful to break the debrief into two parts. A public debrief and a private extended debrief for the team afterward, where they can look closely at student work and reflect more informally on learning and next steps.

  • Including the audience in portions of the public debrief have yielded rich feedback for the team to consider during their more extensive private debrief. We have used a structure developed by San Francisco Unified where audience members cluster around posters to capture their thinking about what they observed during the lesson. We have had audience members reflect on the following prompts: What evidence of student learning in relationship to the mathematical understanding goal did you notice? What evidence did you notice of students meeting the equity goal? What would you like the team to reflect on during their debrief? What questions do you still have?

  • One of our content commentators, Dr. Libby Butler, asked the audience a series of reflection questions at the end of our first public lesson that were so helpful for synthesizing takeaways we now use them to end all our research lessons. How might you apply your learning today as a...Teacher? Administrator?Parent/Community member?

Click here for our full list of our Tips & Considerations for planning the day of your research lesson.

Previous: Conducting a Mock 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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