Matt Karlsen: Introducing Lesson Study
Bringing Content to the Classroom Level
My name is Matt Karlsen, I work at Educational Service District 112, which is a multi-district, multi-county service area in southwest Washington State. We work with districts in about six counties—about 20 school districts. This is the ESD's third Teaching American History grant, and it's the second one I've been involved with. The title of this one is "Causes of Conflict: Digging Deep to Understand American History," and a core component of that is the lesson study process.
In lesson study, a group of teachers come together [and] they decide on some targets that they want for their students—both short-term and long-range goals. They plan a lesson fitting that target. [They] develop a student question which is based around the idea of what do they want students to know over the course of that lesson. And a teacher question, which is more about what do they want to learn about the teaching and learning of history through the cycle. They write the lesson together, and then one person from the group teaches the lesson while the rest of the people observe the lesson being taught. So the attention is not so much on the lesson—because the people observing the lesson already know the lesson—not so much on the teacher, but on the students and how the students are interacting with the activity itself.
Each person in the room might be watching two or three or four students over the course of a lesson. Then everybody gets together after the lesson is taught to debrief. And first talk about what they observed, and what that suggests about whether or not students were able to answer the student question, what it suggests about the teacher question, then look at any student artifacts that [were] created over the course of the lesson—written products or otherwise—and talk about what new insight they gather from that. And then talk about how the lesson might be revised to better deepen student learning over the course of that and in turn what did they learn, more generalizable ideas about teaching and learning over the course of the cycle.
TAH is all about improving the instructional capacity of teachers. And one way to do that is to deepen teachers' content knowledge, so that they know more about the material that they're trying to teach. What lesson study does is that it includes that, and then brings it all the way down to the classroom level. So what's truly meaningful is not just what teachers learn for their own merit, but how teachers can then apply that in a way that really meets the needs of the students. The teachers are the ones who are the ultimate arbiters of whether or not a strategy or an approach is successful, and it's based on how they saw students interact with it.
Planning Lesson Study
Lesson study can take lots of different forms in different projects. The way our current project is organized is a teacher is signing up for an intensive, one-year commitment. Other teachers have the opportunity to participate in some of the project's activities over the course of that year, but aren't involved in the lesson study aspect.
So over the course of the year, we start off in the summer time, we bring in three historians: one historian does a focus on the legal and political history of the theme that we're exploring, another the social history, another the economic history of that theme. Then I work with two teachers—two professors from the University of Portland—and they're focusing on the historical thinking and literacy needs of students and strategies to help students engage with that. Teachers begin the process of planning a lesson during that one-week summer institute. Then in the fall they get together for a couple of evenings and further plan out their lesson, further consider other strategies, and then they do a demonstration lesson in the fall. In the spring we start up again with the addition of a trip. We do a week-long history on location study of the historical theme, and then follow up with another part of the lesson study cycle in the spring. We also have a variety of events with historians over the course of the year connected to the theme, including one with a local partner. The focus is on the regional connection to that theme.
In lesson study the ideal size for a group is about four to six participants, however we have had groups which for different reasons have had fewer or have had more. But it seems as though four to six is the right number of participants for a lesson study group. We've played with our approach in response to the feedback that teachers have given us and in response to the evaluation that we've received from a third-party evaluator.
In our previous project lesson study was written into our proposal, but it wasn't budgeted. And lesson study is something that requires having substitutes for all teachers involved when the demonstration lessons happen. So we worked with professional learning teams and a professional learning team structure of collegial inquiry and collaborative work but without a true lesson study of writing a lesson together and observing the lesson. In this new grant that we're in right now, which we're in the second year of, we've been able to embed it fully into it because it was fully in it in the planning stages and on the budget page. Last year we did a single lesson study cycle with teachers, what we found was we really wanted to do two lesson study cycles with teachers; assuming that a group comes together more fully after having done it through once and will be able to maximize and have a more enhanced experience the second time around.
The organization of lesson study teams can happen in many different ways. One way that it can happen is geography. So again, I'm working with a project that deals with teachers through a very large geographic zone. Sometimes we'll organize teachers based on within a district, or based on within a school; other times it goes based on interest or familiarity with each other. Other times people just fall into each other's arms. We've tired it different ways and we'll continue to try it different ways.
We have had mixed results with the idea of lesson study teams being organized outside of assignment areas. What is important is that everybody who's on the planning team has a vested interest in creating a lesson that they can use in their classroom. That can happen across assignment areas if one person in the group teaches Washington State history and another teaches U.S. history. They can write a lesson together that gets tweaked a little bit for the one setting and a little bit for the other setting. Likewise in vertical age groups, you can have a team with 5th-, 8th-, and 11th-grade teachers if they're looking at the same historical idea but thinking about that across a developmental range, and so they can tweak it. What doesn't work is when a teacher says "Well, that's not really want I teach. So I'll participate in this, I'll give it my best effort, but it's not really what I teach so I'm not going to go anywhere with it. It's not mine." What people need to feel is ownership about the lesson.
Encouraging Mutual Support
Lesson study shares some of the same challenges that are going to be inherent to any aspect of the Teaching American History program; but it has some benefits that aren't necessarily going to be there through other approaches. The challenges for most of our teachers—the teaching of history is something that may be a passion of theirs or an interest of theirs, but they're getting very little external encouragement to deepen their connection to teaching history. If they're a high school teacher, they're also a coach and their administration is typically more interested in the team than in what's going on in the history class. If they're a middle school teacher, then they're typically also a language arts teacher and there's more emphasis on the language arts than on the history. If they're an elementary school teacher, there's more emphasis on everything else except for the history. That said, the collaborative nature of creating a mutual support group through throwing yourself into a venerable situation together creates some bonds that support each other.
In collaborative groups you're always seeking to develop norms that affirm everybody in the group and keep the group moving on a forward moving trajectory. That said, people being people, there can be bumps in the road as to how groups work together. The thing about lesson study is that ultimately the proof is in the pudding. If students take off with the lesson, then you see that and that tells you that that was a good strategy, that was a good approach. If students don't, then you see that, and it makes you reconsider. If teachers are talking about a lesson apart from students their commitments to different approaches are personality driven. When students are brought in, it's harder to say, "I know this strategy works" if it doesn't or if it hasn't been tested.
Assessment and Sustainability
In education right now we are—more so I think than in any point in the past that I'm aware of—very focused on assessment—outcomes. The lesson study process is very focused on outcomes as well, but it's focused on outcomes as a point from which to learn. So you look at student work and you look at student product and you say, "What can we learn from this?" I think that on things that I'm wondering about is how to further create the opportunity for teachers to continue to do the work beyond the length of the project, and looking for opportunity for teachers to share what they've learned with other colleagues and bring other colleagues into the picture. I'm looking for opportunities—some of the other people who are working with the lesson study are able to bring their historians very deeply into the lesson study cycle itself and we haven't been able to achieve that yet. I'd like to find some opportunities to do that.
I started investigating lesson study before I started implementing it into the project. My investigation of lesson study occurred through reading materials, through exploring websites, but also through attending conferences and developing relationships with other project directors who were doing lesson study. I think the project-director-to-project-director communication that I've been a part of has been incredibly helpful to me in developing the work. The ability to reach out [and] find other people who are dealing with similar issues to the issues that you're dealing with, who have similar questions, and who are eager to discuss them together is something that's worth exploring.