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In 1960, my grandmother Hattie was the sole teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Michigan. She was responsible for 25 students spanning eight grades. Her outgoing nature led her to cultivate a social gathering of colleagues from other small towns to discuss their teaching practices. That was the extent of her professional development.
Much has changed over the last 50 years—technology has advanced social networking beyond my grandmother's wildest dreams, and the standards-based movement has ushered in high-stakes assessments that demand a new approach to improving instruction. Additionally, as Response to Intervention (RTI), also known as Scientifically Research-Based Interventions (SRBI), gains momentum and generates a growing market for online progress monitoring and digital assessment data, the demand for high-quality classroom instruction remains a national challenge. Now, more than ever, teachers need professional development embedded into their daily work that helps them change their beliefs and practices.
Like many school districts, Westport has explored various forms of professional development. For years, we invited expert consultants to present to a large group of teachers. Some teachers questioned its value and time. From their perspective, it was interesting and for some even inspiring; however, the ideas were not easily transferable to their own work with children. For new teachers it was often overwhelming. One teacher acknowledged, "I used to walk away from those professional development days feeling that there was so much that I needed to change, that I ended up changing nothing."
Alternate models of professional development can support teachers' changing beliefs and practices about how to reach all students.
Benefits of Lesson Study
Lesson study is a form of professional development in which a small team of teachers collaborate to plan a research lesson. It provides a systematic process that involves four steps:
In 2009–10, three groups of teachers from Westport, Conn., participated in a research project under the direction of Catherine Lewis and Rebecca Perry of the Mills College Lesson Study Group. As the building math administrator, I agreed to facilitate lesson study with a team of five 5th grade teachers who had different teaching experiences, instructional styles, and student academic levels. I hoped to discover if lesson study could provide a process for professional learning that would support diversity among teachers and students.
Mills College researchers provided resources to support teachers' lesson study work, including their study of the mathematics of fractions, as well as their planning, implementation, and revision of a classroom fractions lesson. Among other things, the materials emphasized the conceptual understanding that fractions are numbers on a number line, not just parts of wholes. Through lesson study, the group had collaborative experiences of reading articles, studying sample lesson plans, and viewing demonstration lessons on DVDs prior to designing their research lesson. These shared activities provided a low-risk environment where teachers could support one another in their collective learning. The materials also served as a resource to illustrate mathematical ideas and thus strengthen teachers' math knowledge about fractions.
The process of designing the research lesson using these resources empowered the teachers to reexamine their typical way of teaching fractions. By staying focused on the lesson's objective, they discovered that their typical instruction, overloaded with many activities, often emphasized students using procedures rather than understanding concepts. They also saw the value of giving students more time to explore mathematical relationships, as a way to grow their conceptual understanding of fractions. This was particularly effective with struggling students.
Effect on Classroom Instruction
The introduction of the lesson study model at our school has provided teachers with a unique experience to fine-tune their classroom instruction. During the process of collaboratively designing a research lesson for their students, teachers had an opportunity to strengthen their effectiveness as reflective practitioners. I watched the teachers' collective learning curve grow as the group discussed the importance of each lesson element to the final lesson plan. One teacher commented, "I realize now that when I feel the students understand what I am teaching, I need to ask them to explain their thinking. Sometimes I get a response that clearly shows their confusion."
The lesson study model effectively improves the instructional capacity of school staff. It values the fact that teachers are learners and can grow best in a professional learning community that harnesses their collaborative energy and knowledge. The joy for me as an administrator was discovering how the lesson study process let me be a catalyst, coach, and witness to each teacher's professional growth.
My grandmother Hattie, a woman ahead of her time, would have certainly embraced this new vision of professional development!
Students working with fractions
The 5th grade lesson study team
Anne Nesbitt is the assistant principal and math administrator for King's Highway Elementary School in Westport, Conn.
ASCD Express, Vol. 5, No. 25. Copyright 2010 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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