As an assistant professor in the College of Education at Michigan State University (MSU), I have spent the past six years working with a team of faculty members and doctoral students, and coordinated and taught the senior year and internship year courses of elementary social studies methods. I am also a field instructor. Year after year, we find that pre-service teachers, particularly those specializing in the lower elementary grades, rarely observe social studies instruction in their field placements. In cases where they do have this opportunity, the instruction is often rushed or superficial, reflecting a national trend wherein elementary social studies are marginalized. One response we offer to this problem is a lesson study assignment during the internship year.
The Lesson Study Assignment
The goal of this assignment is two-fold:
- To teach interns high-quality social studies instruction
- To introduce them to a professional development (PD) approach called lesson study
Lesson study is a teacher-driven form of PD designed to improve instruction and advance student learning. In this approach, teachers collaboratively:
- Plan a study lesson that focuses on one goal
- Teach the study lesson
- Observe others who teach the study lesson
- Debrief the study lesson experience
Our lesson study assignment is based on the lesson study approach that I used as a history education consultant for a Teaching American History (TAH) Grant. Under this grant, Dr. Alisa Kesler Lund and I studied how fifth grade teachers use lesson study in history and social studies. We modified the lesson study approach by including a second teaching of the study lesson. The procedure and findings are described in this article. (Click the image to download a PDF of the article.)
The lesson study assignment we use in the internship year follows the lesson study approach we used in the TAH Grant:
- The interns collaboratively plan the lesson in consultation with their mentor teachers, their course instructor and their field instructor.
- One intern teaches the lesson while the other interns observe and collect data.
- All interns debrief the lesson, determine whether the study lesson met its goals, and modify the lesson.
- Another intern re-teaches the lesson while the other interns observe and collect data.
- All interns debrief the lesson and determine whether the revised study lesson met its goals.
In consultation with their mentor teachers, the interns select a social studies topic. They then choose one of the following instructional approaches:
- Use of primary sources
In these approaches, the instruction engages fifth grade students with open-ended questions and involves them in historical research and analysis appropriate to their grade level.
The following is a partial list of the topics our interns have planned and taught:
- Simulations of market economy
- Primary source investigation (e.g., newspapers, diaries and posters) of Michigan’s role in World War II
- Inquiry study of how people positively and negatively affect the environment
- Discussions of classroom and community public issues
Each year we modify the assignment based on feedback from our interns and field instructors. For example, we have changed the instructional approaches and the questions for reflection. We share those changes with our interns to demonstrate how teacher educators (and classroom teachers) reflect on and adapt their practice.
Is Lesson Study Effective in a Social Studies Methods Course?
Our interns report that lesson study has taught them to teach more collaboratively and think more reflectively about their practice. They also say that lesson study is a "selling point" when they interview for teaching positions. In the year that we introduced the lesson study, we asked our field instructors and interns if we should keep the assignment in the course. All field instructors and 83 percent of the interns responded affirmatively. The main criticism was (and is) that lesson study is taught too late in the school year (i.e., the last month of the internship). If lesson study were taught earlier in the internship year, the interns thought they would have more opportunities to use the approach.
One intern’s comments on lesson study are illustrative:
Planning was so exciting and motivating because we all had interesting ideas to share and contribute to the lesson . . . Following the execution and group observation of this original lesson, we met as a team to debrief. It was such an eye-opening experience because there were seven different perspectives present, and it was astonishing to hear the diversity of observations that stemmed from a single, hour-long lesson.
A Critical Teaching Strategy
Lesson study in elementary social studies teacher education helps prepare our interns for the classroom, giving them the opportunity to learn about collaboratively planning, teaching and revising a social studies lesson so that it interests and challenges their students. The principles of the lesson study learned in our course can support these interns in their practice. The basic outline of the five-step lesson study approach can be adapted, as circumstances require.
We encourage teacher educators in social studies (and other subjects) to experiment with lesson study. I have found that, as a research-supported teaching practice, lesson study can be a highly effective instructional method in teacher education.