Lesson Study: Improving Science at Willow Field Elementary School

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Students investigating how the liquids move and change in bottles as they roll down a clipboard ramp. A data collector and teacher Sue Osborne (blue shirt) watches the students' reactions.
Students investigating how the liquids move and change in bottles as they roll down a clipboard ramp. A data collector and teacher Sue Osborne (blue shirt) watches the students’ reactions. Microphones connected to iPods are used to record students’ discussions and utterances.

One of the biggest factors in positively impacting student learning is teacher’s self efficacy and skill in communicating quality instruction.  If you aren’t a natural communicator, this isn’t the easiest skill set to develop. With an increased emphasis placed on ELA (English Language Arts) and mathematics instruction at the elementary level, science instruction seems to have fallen through the cracks.  The teachers at Willow Field Elementary in Liverpool, NY have developed a proposal to address that very issue.  How do they plan on doing this?  Through “Lesson Study.”

What is lesson study?

It’s also known as kenkyu jugyo in Japan, where the technique was developed. It’s focus is on teacher collaboration to discuss learning goals and planning actual classroom lessons.  This is followed by observation and revision so that other teachers can benefit from it. According to their original proposal, a lesson study cycle begins with a team of educators who determine the content on which they want to focus for the purpose of preparing a research lesson. In this case, it is with a focus on science education, though the model can be adapted to fit any subject.

Graphic from National Teacher Enquiry Network's What is Lesson Study?
Graphic from National Teacher Enquiry Network’s What is Lesson Study?

How does the project work?

The project team meets regularly to study and discuss the national, state and local standards and reviews educational research regarding the content. In Willow Field Elementary’s case, they’ve been studying the new National Framework for Science Teaching, recent journal articles from the field of elementary science education and consulting with the Department of Science Teaching at Syracuse University to become more knowledgeable in elementary science content and teaching practices. Using what they’ve learned, they will collaboratively write a lesson plan, which will be taught to a group of students while at the same time having the lesson video taped for further discussion. All of this is done with the end goal of improving instruction.  How specifically? By starting to teach more science than in the past, teachers gain comfort and improve teaching effectiveness. When combined with studying the national framework, research literature, and the data they have collected about student’s learning process and outcomes, teachers can more easily pass on what they have learned to other professionals.

What did the teachers study?

Three questions, specifically, are guiding teacher learning in this project.

  1. How do we design science instruction that makes students’ thinking visible?
  2. How can we meet our students’ needs and simultaneously address the new science framework?
  3. How will evidence of students’ learning be used to help us revise our original lesson?

How did they find the time?

Because lesson study requires teachers have time to plan, observe and reflect with each other, scheduling is difficult. With the logistical challenges inherent in this model, they have certainly faced an uphill battle.  Gearing up in August was required; team members needed time to plan. The project went into full swing of September 2012 with nine elementary school teachers and a building principal meeting a Syracuse University doctoral student and science education professor to discuss the overview of the Lesson Study process to those new to the method.  Shortly after, they met to determine their over all research focus.

Their goals:

  1. Students will be problem-solvers.
  2. Students will be inventive, creative and curious.
  3. Students will be risk-takers.

To help focus their efforts, teachers broke into three smaller teams, each dedicated to a grade and content specific focus.

  • 2nd Grade Science- Understanding the Specifics Matter (two second grade teachers, doctoral student)
  • 4th/5th Grade Science- The Force of Magnetism (two 4th Grade and one 5th Grade teacher)
  • 6th Grade Art – Observational Drawing to Support Sketching in Science Notebooks (two Art teachers, one 6th Grade and one 3rd Grade teacher)

Once the teams were in motion, they could follow the traditional model for the next semester. So after a year and a half of the program, how is lesson study impacting the students and teachers of Willow Field Elementary?

Students observing the properites of a liquid in bottles before investigating them as a data collector looks on.
Students observing the properties of a liquid in bottles before investigating them as a data collector looks on.

Impacting teachers, students, and administrators

With time, support and resources for lesson study, what were the teachers of Willow Field Elementary able to achieve?

  • Teacher participants gained further pedagogical content knowledge with regard to science content knowledge, observational drawing and uses in science and, constructivist methods of teaching elementary science (versus direct instruction)
  • Teacher participants expressed increased self-efficacy and confidence
  • Students gained experience collecting data
  • Students benefited from the many revisions to the lesson during the lesson study cycle
  • Students engaged in authentic scientific experimentation
  • Students gained content knowledge
  • Students who volunteered on the Professional Development Day had the benefit of seeing their teachers as learners.  They also experienced pride in playing a role in their teachers’ professional development.

In their project update, members wrote “Our lesson study team garnered increased support from the district administrators.” Seeing the model in action “allowed them to recognize the benefits of lesson study as an authentic model of professional development.”

Teachers debrief after a second grade lesson study..
Teachers debrief after a second grade lesson study.

How could the project be improved?

With all of the positive outcomes, members reflected on ways to improve on their experience. They found it especially challenging to differentiate lesson study for the experienced and novice participants, though in future iterations this problem may simply solve itself through teacher collaboration.  Scheduling and logistics, as always, was a nightmare.  But the biggest problem they faced was that the current school structures do not support lesson study mechanisms. In order to widely adopt this model for nationwide consumption, a massive overhaul of our education system would be needed.  However, for the individual school this method can prove invaluable in improving teaching and communication skills thus facilitating improved learning.

Further Reading

Schools in the News using Lesson Study

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