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To improve teaching, give teachers collaboration time, not just pre-made lessons

I recently found myself working with a group of elementary-school teachers to understand just what made a certain lesson on magnetism, well, magnetic.

In a previous version of the lesson, we had designed the central question poorly. Students asked more procedural questions, the pace of work slowed, and the teacher’s work shifted to directing rather than listening to students’ ideas and asking questions. When the lesson’s question was worded well, students’ discussion was intense and determined. We were humbled by the complex relationship between the tasks we chose and the methods we used to bring them to life in the classroom.

As someone who teaches future teachers how to lesson plan, I couldn’t agree more with Sherry Lewkowicz’s recent piece in Chalkbeat that discussed how teachers need to take ownership of their lessons for them to be successful — something that doesn’t need to include planning the lessons themselves. Making edits to lessons, as she notes Success Academy teachers do, is one indication of ownership. But how are teachers supposed to know if those changes worked?

To improve teaching, teachers need more than a reduced lesson-planning burden. Teachers need time and techniques to examine what worked and didn’t work when they edited those lessons.

One way to do that is through “lesson study,” a process of studying student thinking as lessons unfold. In my current role, I collaborate regularly with local elementary teachers in such lesson study, as multiple observers pool observations and collective wisdom to collaboratively edit the design of a lesson, test it with a new group of students, and make more observations to see if it works better. But too few teachers get time or resources to spend on that work — a crucial component of improving the quality of instruction for students. If teachers do not have enough time to plan, having others plan for them is unlikely to result in ownership of their lessons, or prevent them from making changes that unintentionally undermine the lesson.

Teachers are smart. They can study existing lessons, compare them to standards, and modify them if needed based on their understanding of their students’ ideas. High-stakes tests, given at the end of the year, do not help teachers understand how to improve lessons taught in October.

But with regular lesson study, teachers can collect data about how student thinking develops during a lesson and use the data to make informed edits to future versions of the lessons. Imagine what we could build if enough teams built and shared lessons and shared their understanding of the mistakes that were made and how they learned to correct them.

Lessons are never perfect — that is not the goal. Even negative results allow teachers, over time, to focus in on what works and jettison the practices that do not. The goal is continuous progress, creating increasingly deep understandings of the teaching-learning relationship.

If you would forgive a medical analogy, we don’t expect every single surgeon to invent a unique way to perform an appendectomy. Armed with detailed knowledge of the structures and functions of body systems, their professionalism is instead defined by mastering techniques that work and developing good judgment about when to deploy those techniques. Certainly, surgeons come across unexpected problems during these procedures and adjust accordingly. These exceptions, however, are not unique to every patient. They follow professional protocols until they have sufficient evidence that deviation is required.

We must get away from thinking that professional teachers invent their own techniques. Instead, schools should focus on encouraging teachers to master and deploy techniques that are supported by evidence of developing student thinking. City schools should use their new professional development time to make sure teachers can do so.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.