Lesson Study

Using Evidence to Inform Practice

About the Author

I'm Angela Stockman, founder and director of WNY Education Associates and the WNY Young Writers' Studio. In my former life, I taught English Language Arts, remedial reading, and reading and writer's workshop at Mayville High School and Amherst Middle School. I've been a professional development service provider to schools throughout and beyond western New York State for twelve years. Please feel free to contact me through any of the avenues available to you here.

Shifting Mindset

Lesson study is a professional development protocol adapted from the work of Japanese educators. It enables small groups of teachers, administrators, and even students to design, review, observe, analyze, and refine authentic units and lessons.

During lesson study, the effectiveness of a lesson is assessed. The focus is not a single teacher's practice or performance but rather, on the way that a collaboratively designed lesson or unit performs in service to learners. In my experience, this approach significantly reduces the anxiety that often accompanies other professional development approaches, including event-based workshops and one-on-one instructional coaching. This leads to other critical shifts in mindset.

Rather than approaching professional development as a series of events wherein an expert delivers content to participants in order to ensure compliance, lesson study returns learning to the center of the professional development experience. Teachers collaborate with facilitators to design a lesson or a unit. The design aligns to their vision while attending to the Common Core Learning Standards and the six shifts that underpin them. Important discoveries are made regarding the connection between what teachers and students value and the potential for the Common Core to empower them. Teachers and students assume an inquisitive stance within the classroom as the facilitator teaches the lesson, capturing specific observations and anecdotal data. Opportunities for quality formative assessment are embedded within the lessons, and after they have concluded, the group establishes criteria-specific hunches about the strengths and needs of learners, using the varied data that was collected. Action plans are designed in response to what is learned, and teachers return to their classrooms better prepared to leverage student strengths and intervene in response to their needs.

Executing a Lesson Study: The WNYEA Approach

Phase One: Developing Hunches About the Needs of Learners

This phase requires teachers to use evidence to support their hunches about the strengths and needs of learners. Evidence may include trends noted in the behavior, learning, and work of students. Similar data may be examined relevant to the behavior, learning, and work of the teachers involved in the study. As data are examined, the following questions are often pursued:

  • What are our strengths, gifts, and talents? What are those of our students? How do we know? How do might they compliment or conflict with one another? What else can we learn about this? What evidence could we gather during our study?
  • What does our current evidence suggest about our needs and the needs of learners? What else can we learn? What evidence can support that learning?
  • What does our current evidence suggest about the quality of the data that we are using to inform our interpretation of student strengths and needs? We do need to learn about assessment and data in order to develop increasingly accurate hunches?
  • We are about to commit to improving learning and performance relevant to specific and critical skills and content. How do we determine which skills and content are most critical?


Once the group has defined a set of meaningful learning targets from the data explored in phase one, they collaboratively design a unit or a lesson to study. When units are designed, teachers purposefully determine which lessons within the unit will be observed and debriefed. When lessons are designed, the group commits to observing the lesson in its entirety.

Ideally, groups work together to reach consensus about how each lesson will unfold, relying on their own vision, previous practices that led to improved performance, and research-based practices that hold promise. This phase of the study provides opportunities for teachers to unpack the Common Core Learning Standards and the six shifts that underpin them. In my experience, this is critical, as the standards and the shifts often prove themselves to be powerful interventions that can serve as catalysts for improved performance. They can also inspire far higher levels of engagement.

Once the design work is over, the group begins to anticipate how students will respond to it. Predictions are made about their behaviors, and potential points of difficulty are surfaced. The group decides how the facilitator will attend to these issues, should they arise during instruction.

At the end of phase two, the group determines what data will be captured during the lesson and who will make a study of each point considered. For instance, initial Common Core lesson studies might involve a careful observation of any the following questions. Teachers should be invited to study just one thing from this list, and care can be taken to ensure that each element is attended to by at least one (or ideally two) people within the group. This is also a good time to distinguish observation and data collection from drawing conclusions or forming judgments. Phases two and three are about the former rather than the latter:

  • How is the learning target made clear to students? What do you notice about student behavior relevant to this target?
  • How does formative assessment take place during the lesson? What do you notice about students as they engage in formative assessment?
  • How is the total, active participation of all students accomplished? How is this accomplished in ways that do not threaten or shame learners?
  • How are students of varied ability levels engaged in the close reading of sufficiently complex text?
  • How is background knowledge BUILT via text rather than activated via talk? What do you notice about students as they move through this experience? Where do you notice learners connected back to this text later in the lesson? How?
  • What questions are asked during this lesson? Script them, as well as student responses.
  • How is writing used as a vehicle for critical thinking and analysis during this lesson?
  • What did you notice about readers when asked to read independently? What did you notice about readers when supported by shared reading experiences?
  • What do you notice about levels of engagement and displays of frustration throughout the lesson?


During this phase of the study, the group moves into the classroom. One member of the group (typically the facilitator at first) teaches the lesson as the other members of the group observe, capturing the data they committed to during phase two. This type of observation puts the learning targets, the instructional plan, and the learners themselves at the center of the study, as opposed to making the behaviors of the teacher the focal point. During this phase of the work, teachers may quietly wander the room, look over the shoulders of learners, listen in on small group discussions, and discretely photograph the work of students and teachers. They may not interact with learners, ask questions, or coach their thinking or work in any way, though.


Phase four begins when the teacher of the lesson shares nonjudgmental observations relevant to student learning, work, and behavior. Others follow suit afterward, sharing observations and points of data captured. The relationship between instruction and student learning is revealed at the beginning of this phase, and enabling all participants to share abundant connections without rushing to judgment is critical.

Once observations are shared without judgment, reflection may begin and personal perspectives can be shared. From there, the group formulates hunches about performance relevant to the learning targets. Evidence must inform these hunches and can be drawn from the anecdotes captured during the observation, photographs, student work samples, and other formative assessment findings.

Making meaning from the data captures enables lesson study participants to define specific implications for ongoing work.

Not as Simple as it Seems

Executing an effective lesson study requires skilled facilitation. At first glance, moving through each phase of the work may seem simple. However, abundant opportunities for disagreement present themselves each step of the way. For this reason, lesson study is never the first professional learning experience I initiate with new groups of teachers. It is one that I have learned to offer to just the right groups at just the right time. When does this typically happen?

  • As teachers are exploring the Common Core Learning Standards or shifts for the first time, and they reveal high levels of frustration or confusion relevant to "how they would work" in their own classrooms
  • As teachers begin sharing specific hunches about the needs of their learners and demonstrate interest in designing higher quality interventions
  • As teachers reveal anxiety over lesson or unit design and propose doing this together
  • As teachers or administrators reveal that traditional instructional coaching models are not taking root or worse, are increasing levels of concern or even resistance

In order for lesson study to work, facilitators must continually grow their expertise relevant to collaborative learning and team building. Those who have varied and extensive experiences with facilitating learning communities and executing varied instructional models have a wisdom of practice that informs their work and a toolbox of tested protocols that support their efforts. People like this are often hard to find, though. In the absence of their guidance, those facilitating or participating in lesson studies must investigate and adopt clear protocols for each phase of the work above. The National School Reform Faculty offers a variety of meaningful protocols to their readers. Lesson study teams might also find Joseph McDonald's text valuable as well.

Contact Angela Stockman

If you found this piece informative and would like to talk more, feel free to contact me. My work with lesson study is ongoing, and I'd love to share what I'm up to and get some feedback from you.