Despite long-standing calls for improving student learning in developmental mathematics, the widespread developmental education reform movement focuses very little on supporting faculty to adopt new pedagogical practices. To fill this gap, the Community College Research Center (CCRC), Education Northwest, and mathematics faculty at three community colleges in Oregon collaborated on a project to adapt lesson study, a professional development approach used in K-12 mathematics, for use in higher education. We collected survey, observational, and interview data on lesson study implementation and its influence on faculty teaching practice in developmental mathematics. We found that lesson study is different from typical professional development opportunities available to postsecondary faculty and provides a framework for faculty to take collective ownership over examining and improving student learning.
What is Lesson Study?
Lesson study is a structured, collaborative approach to teacher inquiry that examines how lesson design and instructional choices influence student thinking and learning. The goal of the process is to learn about practices that can lead to improved student learning.
Lesson study teams work in cycles consisting of four stages:
- Studying and planning a lesson
- Teaching, observing, and debriefing the lesson
- Revising and reteaching the lesson
- Reflecting and reporting on the results
Each of these stages is guided by a set of protocols that invite faculty members to investigate evidence-based practices, look closely at how students engage with lesson content, and consider what students do and do not understand. During the cycle, faculty engage in a series of meetings, classroom observations, and preparatory work that takes up to 20 hours and may be completed over the course of several months.
A distinct model for professional learning in higher education
Among a total of 90 developmental math faculty survey respondents, almost 90 percent reported receiving some form of professional development prior to the lesson study project. In interviews, most faculty reported access to professional development funds, which could be used for conference attendance or tuition reimbursement, and all faculty and administrators described workshops, speakers, and events hosted by their college. Most professional learning experiences were pursued by individuals rather than groups of faculty working together. Among survey respondents who participated in any professional development in the year prior to the start of the project, 41 percent reported participating in professional development that was collaborative. Typical on-campus professional development offerings are relatively low-intensity, such as a one-hour workshop or a one-day in-service. Only 26 percent of faculty reported receiving more than 15 hours of professional development in the previous year.
Lesson study is different from these typical professional learning opportunities for its intensity and focus on collaboration. While some faculty in our study had experience with faculty inquiry groups and other collaborative structures in higher education like Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), lesson study is distinctive from these approaches too. Lesson study takes a highly structured approach to improving discipline-specific teaching practices. The lesson study protocols invite the faculty team to identify collaboration norms, direct the team’s attention to long- and short-term learning goals, require teams to make collective decisions about detailed instructional plans, and provide faculty with an opportunity to closely observe student learning.
Twenty-two faculty participated in the lesson study project. A large majority indicated that lesson study improved their curricular materials (91 percent), helped build their professional community (87 percent), and developed their understanding of how students think and learn (72 percent). Lesson study’s distinctive features--the intensive collaboration, its focus on disciplinary teaching, and the prescriptive structures and protocols--contributed to faculty’s satisfaction with the model. Even faculty with strong professional relationships with colleagues reported challenges with talking deeply about instruction before engaging in lesson study:
That part has been missing: like, looking actually at student work, or talking about how students are engaging in this deep way. We did talk about how students are going to have trouble with this type of problem, but why. Why are they having trouble? We never really had a method to go deep into that. (Faculty interviewee)
Lesson study provides a structure for departmental colleagues to take collective ownership over examining and improving teaching and learning:
Professional development means taking your contracted [professional development] funds and going on a plane somewhere and going to a conference. And that's the way we think about it. And so it's a very foreign idea to propose that we spend that money on ourselves, paying for our time to talk to each other and tap into the deep wells of expertise and care that we have on our campuses. (Faculty interviewee)
Given the intensive demands on mathematics faculty, particularly those teaching developmental courses in the midst of reform, taking collective ownership over improving learning is challenging. Lesson study provides a set of structures for doing so.
For more information about the research study, check out CCRC’s lesson study project page. For a complete list of lesson study implementation resources, including materials for facilitators and video testimonials from community college mathematics faculty, check out Education Northwest’s lesson study page.