This article describes and analyzes an instance of lesson study, a form of professional development originating in Japan, carried out in a small Jewish school. Through comics and prose, we document a cycle of lesson study that grew from Phoebe Potts’ questions about teaching and learning at the Sylvia Cohen Religions School at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucestor, MA. We situate lesson study within the broader framework of practitioner research to show how the collaborative professional work in which Phoebe engaged with her teachers is a form of collaborative practitioner inquiry.
To convey the depth of experience in this lesson study cycle, we use both graphics and text. Jennifer Lewis, associate professor of education at Wayne State University and an expert in lesson study, describes the lesson study process. Phoebe Potts, education director at Temple Ahavat Achim and a graphic writer, shares images of lesson study in her tiny, part-time afternoon school. Together the narrative and the graphics distill the essence of the experience. The graphic representations make vivid significant moments that teachers experienced along the way and allow Phoebe to narrate her internal dialogue as lead learner and facilitator of teachers’ learning. The text situates lesson study in the tradition of practitioner inquiry and highlights critical features of the process and its impact.
Phoebe’s point of departure was her own problem of practice: How could she bring teachers in her bite-sized school together to work on a shared problem of practice? She felt the need for a more collegial and supportive teacher learning community. In addition, she wondered how to provide meaningful Jewish learning experiences for the staff, students and families in the school. Lesson study provided a collaborative structure for investigating these questions.
Together, Phoebe and her teachers learned Jewish content, co-planned a lesson about that content, and then observed one another that lesson. They gathered data during the observed lesson and analyzed evidence of student learning in relation to their goals. Through their joint inquiry, they created a Jewish learning experience that captured the imagination of the students, families and lay leaders in the school. Lesson study was the container for their collaborative practitioner inquiry.
What Can We Learn from This Case?
Phoebe’s graphics show the ways in which lesson study represents a robust form of collaborative practitioner research. The emphasis on gathering evidence on which to base judgments about teaching and learning, the disciplined inquiry towards the improvement of teaching and learning, and the collaborative nature of the enterprise, is evident throughout the lesson study cycle conducted at the Sylvia Cohen Religious School. It is also a window into the creative adaptation of what is often a year-long process in Japan to a manageable process in a small congregational afternoon school in the US. Lesson study, with its prolonged cycles and long-range theory of action can seem out of reach and overly ambitious. Phoebe’s school showed us how the core qualities of lesson study-–-shared inquiry into live practice, and commitment to examining evidence – can be realized while the surface features are adjusted to be workable in a particular setting.
Lesson study is conducted in public and private schools around the US and around the world, including in Israel. To be effective, each version must be responsive to the particular circumstances of the setting. At one of the Yachad schools in Israel, a lesson study team of teachers worked on improving Bible study over a period of several years through iterative cycles that deepened teachers’ knowledge on this single topic. The cycles were relatively quick – sometimes teachers would plan a lesson together in a single meeting – and they did multiple cycles of planning and observing in short order. The key elements – shared inquiry and use of evidence – were present in that adaptation as well.
Phoebe’s school shows another adaptation that maintains the integrity of lesson study, translating its elements to fit her particular context. As her school has continued to conduct lesson study, the length of cycles and the quality of shared study have grown. These examples offer school leaders new ways to think about creative adjustments they might make to bring lesson study into their schools.
The lesson study work at Phoebe’s school also shows how lesson study is a form of practitioner research in which local, particular knowledge offers generalizable findings for others. The lesson study team generates and analyzes evidence of learning, and that evidence becomes the basis for the conclusions teachers draw about teaching and learning. Lesson study lends a research stance to teacher learning, something not always present in all forms of professional development. Teachers in lesson study are collectively engaged in an inquiry which begins with a question they have about teaching and learning. They develop a hypothesis in the form of a lesson plan, and then test the hypothesis by teaching and observing the lesson. Then they analyze the artifacts of the lesson, generating new knowledge about their original question. Rather than transfer known information from facilitator to teacher, lesson study mimics the scientific process by enabling teachers to create new knowledge. Teachers at Phoebe’s school have new knowledge about the relationship between particular texts and the affixing of mezuzot to homes in their community, but they also have generalized knowledge about text study and the enactment of shared rituals.
This case offers readers ideas about the specifics of one lesson study cycle in one school, but also some general principles for how teachers anywhere can deepen curiosity about texts that were previously opaque or uninteresting. We learn about how a small school can develop a vibrant culture of collaborative learning even if the faculty is tiny. To extend what we know about how teachers learn in this form of practitioner research, we would want to find out more about how this experience informs the way teachers at Sylvia Cohen Religious School use what they learned in this cycle, and what others can learn from it. What did the teachers there carry forward from the experience, how does it appear in their teaching, and how did the ongoing cycles of lesson study pick up from where this cycle left off?
Through graphics and prose, we hope we have brought to life the ways in which lesson study is a paradigmatic example of collaborative practitioner research that can lead to valuable gains in teacher learning. Phoebe’s drawings show the ways in which lesson study represents a robust form of collaborative practitioner research. The emphasis on gathering evidence on which to base judgments about teaching and learning, the disciplined inquiry towards the improvement of teaching and learning, and the collaborative nature of the enterprise, is evident throughout the lesson study cycle at the Sylvia Cohen Religious School. We also get a window into how one school leader adapted what is a year-long process in Japan to a manageable process for her small US congregational afternoon school.