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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

Lesson Study at Portland Community College: Is a Collaborative Approach to Active Learning Sustainable?

Students write on a white board. The

This post is the fifth in a series that brings you inside the classroom to understand more about high-quality instruction in community colleges. You can read the rest of the series here.

Michele Marden teaches developmental mathematics at Portland Community College (PCC) in Portland, Oregon. Marden and her colleagues are participating in Lesson Study, a professional development intervention designed to bring instructors together to build their knowledge about effective teaching practices and to craft lesson plans that work better for students. In this Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, Marden describes her experience participating in the intervention and discusses how Lesson Study affects both students and instructors.

Q: What motivated you to participate in Lesson Study?

A: I really like working with others in a collaborative setting, and there are not many opportunities to do that. The other faculty who were interested are some of my favorite people to work with, so that was a motivator, too. Several of us had created handouts for students in Math 58/98 [PCC’s developmental math literacy pathway] to replace book sections that were not working well. I thought this would be a good opportunity to develop better materials for students and one day replace the copyrighted book with a free or reduced price Open Educational Resource (OER).

Q: What was lesson development like for developmental math before you began this project?

A: For the most part, it was and still is individually done. There are some pockets of collaboration, but they often come and go. My first year teaching 58/98, we would meet to discuss stuff. But it would be basically sharing things like, “Students struggle with x, and they do okay with y. This problem here is a terrible problem, don’t do it. This one's okay. Here is a handout that you might want to use.” Sometimes we discussed how to help students with typical misconceptions, but we didn’t go as in-depth as we do in Lesson Study. We also didn’t collaboratively develop a lesson or look at actual student work.

Q: What has been your experience with the collaborative, professional development component of Lesson Study?

A: It's really been helpful. Lesson Study is one of the most meaningful professional learning experiences I have had in my career and the best for actually making changes to practice. We have seen improvement in our processes and in student learning in just one year, which I think is quite impressive. I find it interesting to see how sometimes we think differently about certain topics or we have different learning goals for our students. When we work in isolation, often we don't recognize that we might have different values or different expectations, which can create tensions between faculty when they are discovered. In Lesson Study, we build the necessary trust to do deep, collaborative work that lets us manage any tensions or differences that surface. The trust-building also helps address the inherent inequity between job secure [full-time] and job insecure [part-time] faculty by giving equal voice when sharing ideas and sharing student observations. We need more places where part time faculty are heard and have a seat at the table.

Q: How is the student experience different under Lesson Study?

A: The book we use supports active learning in student teams. However, the lessons that we develop through Lesson Study are less scaffolded than what the book does or what we were doing in our handouts. We ended up with three back-to-back activities from the first three cycles of Lesson Study, and it was interesting to see how the students improved in both their ability to manage a “group worthy,” less scaffolded problem and their ability to write up their thinking with minimal instructor guidance.

Q: What do you mean when you say past lessons were scaffolded?

A: The book we're currently using takes an interesting problem and really breaks it up and guides the student. First they do a small bit of the problem, then the next bit of the problem, then the next bit of the problem, until completion. But when we did our activities, we really threw them in, like, "What are you going to do with this thing? It's complicated, and it's got a lot of pieces to it. How are you going to think through it?" They had to bring what they know individually from their lived experiences, share ideas, and discuss them with their team.

Q: Have you encountered any unexpected challenges in implementing Lesson Study?

A: Prior to the last five years, I basically taught as I was taught: using a lecture-style, teacher-centered approach. I attempted to move from this to a more student-centered, student team-based approach, but it was difficult using a traditional book. The Math 58/98 book is intended to be taught in more of an active learning style.This helped significantly, but I still struggled to use questioning to guide students when they had misconceptions, rather than telling them how to solve something. We have discussed at length how we can better build on students' knowledge and comments, whether or not they are correct. I believe we all have improved on taking student comments that are not quite correct or are even really way off and building on them in a way that values the student’s contribution, helps create mathematical dialog, and avoids shaming.

Q: How is your team ensuring this work is sustainable?

A: Well, that was my question going into it for administrators. I never got a clear answer, and here we are toward the end and there's still not a clear answer. Each of the three Oregon colleges shared ideas with each other about how we could sustain this work. The ideas for my college were given to our dean and include thoughts on how we could use Lesson Study to address the low pass rate in our STEM developmental ed courses. While there is support at the dean-level, my guess is the college is not going to give the funds and time needed to continue the work, much less make this happen at scale, at least not now, maybe never. I feel like this experience will be yet another good idea that will soon die. I find it depressing that education seems to be caught in a cycle: Colleges send out a passionate call to address student success and learning; faculty try various things, usually with minimal support, especially for the job-insecure, majority part-time faculty; and when faculty do find something like Lesson Study that has high long-term potential to bring change to teaching practice through rich collaboration, the administration rarely gives the needed support to create systemic change at scale. Of course there are many reasons for this, but the cycle is a destructive one that usually ends with faculty becoming increasingly bitter and frustrated. I hope I’m wrong and the cycle will be broken with ongoing support for Lesson Study! We’ll see.

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