Improving Teaching Does Improve Teachers: Evidence from Lesson Study

Article excerpt

We comment on three aspects of Hiebert and Morris's article, "Teaching, Rather Than Teachers, As a Path Toward Improving Classroom Instruction." First, we add modestly to their ideas about why teachers, instead of teaching, receive so much attention. Second, we support their call for a focus on improving teaching (we suggest teaching and learning), and we discuss evidence that such a focus improves teachers as well. Finally, we argue that teachers need practice-based, collegial learning structures.

Hiebert and Morris advance several explanations for the dominant focus on improving teachers (rather than teaching). We add one more explanation: policy makers' disappointment with many results of investments in instructional materials and interventions. A number of curricula "proven" effective in rigorous small-scale research have not succeeded when tried more broadly (e.g., What Works Clearinghouse, 2009, 2010). So, the logic goes, the problem is the quality of the educators who use these "proven" curricula and programs. However, many U.S. educators lack three very basic supports needed to implement any program well: high-quality instructional resources (especially teacher's manuals), practice-based opportunities to learn, and collegial learning that enables development of shared knowledge and commitment among teachers. Our research on U.S. lesson study shows that when such supports are made available to teachers, they are able to improve their knowledge, to build habits and dispositions that support improvement, and to improve student learning (Perry & Lewis, 2011).

A Brief Background on Lesson Study

Lesson study is an inquiry cycle conducted by a team of teachers that is centered around a "research lesson"--an actual classroom lesson designed to investigate and improve the teaching of a particular topic (Lewis & Hurd, 2011). During the research lesson, team members gather data on student thinking and learning, studying selected students to see how their thinking evolves (or fails to), and what aspects of the lesson design enhance or pose barriers to learning. Team members present these data during a postlesson discussion, drawing out implications for teaching and learning the specific topic and for teaching and learning more broadly.

In Japan, lesson study occurs as a school-based, district-based, and national activity, with the different layers working synergistically, to allow innovations to spread across the country through live public research lessons (Lewis & Tsuchida, 1997). The Japanese mathematics teaching through problem solving that attracted such attention through the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS; StiLler & Hiebert, 1999) video study was developed, refined, and spread through public research lessons. In addition to spreading the annotated instructional plans highlighted by Hiebert and Morris, public research lessons provide an opportunity to see, critique, and refine how the plans are actually brought to life, to meet colleagues who can be called on when questions arise, and to build a shared commitment to the ongoing work of changing one's practice. For teachers, watching lessons from the student's perspective can build knowledge of student thinking and motivation to improve their own instruction. A Japanese teacher in her 10th year of teaching recalls how, early in her career, she cried after seeing a research lesson taught by her fellow first-grade teacher:

I felt so sorry for my own students. I thought their lives would have been so much better if they'd been in the other teacher's class. You realize you have had a big impact on your students. You see how authoritarian teachers have very quiet classes. Teachers who value students' ideas have very active classes. You see how teachers are creating a class, not just teaching a lesson. (Lewis & Tsuchida, 1997, p. 16)

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Three Supports Needed to Improve Teaching

Although Hiebert and Morris make the case that annotated instructional products and common assessments are needed to improve teaching, we identify an overlapping and somewhat broader set of supports, illustrated in Figure 1: high-quality instructional resources (including teacher's manual and assessments), structures for learning within practice, and collegial learning. …