Welcome to the Teaching and Learning Lab: Classroom-based Professional Development

Steven LevyThe CACE Roundtable, The Teachers' Lounge1 Comment

We would like you to teach six demonstration lessons, one to each of our classes kindergarten through fifth grade. We want to observe a science lesson on forces in kindergarten, reading comprehension in first grade, square measurement in second grade… We want you to teach each class for 45 minutes with five or six teachers observing, then spend the last 15 minutes debriefing with them. We would like you to show us how to do inquiry learning and project-based education.

This was an invitation I received to “perform” some professional development. I welcomed the opportunity to return to the classroom to teach. Even the six lessons didn’t bother me: these would be a stimulating challenge. But teaching inquiry and project-based learning in 45 minutes with a 15-minute debrief? A camel through the eye of a needle.

I needed at least an hour. And then another to debrief.

Observing good models of teaching can be helpful, but the whole idea of demonstration lessons is problematic. On the one hand, you do want to learn new ideas that might help you become a better teacher. On the other hand, “Who is this person? Who does this ‘expert’ think he or she is coming into my room and showing me up with some fancy lesson?”

My description is perhaps a bit extreme. But there is something in our egos that tends to compare ourselves with others. We might not fully rejoice to see the “master” come into our room and do something successfully with my kids that I haven’t been able to do all year. Besides, anyone can come in and do one lesson.      

Here is another problem with demonstration lessons. The moves of master teachers are often subtle, not easily discernible. They see a different playing field than a novice. Like a chess champion, they see the whole board, remembering each move and anticipating six moves ahead. They have deep knowledge of the content and skills students need to master and how to support them to succeed. A novice teacher watches the usually unruly and disengaged class engrossed and attentive and attributes it to some kind of magic. How did the performer work that trick? Not easily transferable.

So my real challenge was not so much designing six lessons as diffusing the inherent tensions in the “observe-the-master” format. How could I create a collaborative atmosphere where teachers and I could explore teaching and learning together in a live session with students?

This dilemma inspired the Teaching and Learning Lab. Instead of teaching for 45 minutes and debriefing for 15, I asked the principal if I could just teach the whole hour . . . but it would be a different sort of teaching. We would teach and debrief at the same time.

I began each class by asking the students, “Are any of you on a team of some kind? A sports team, a music team, a dance team?” Many hands waved in the air. “What does your team do to get better?”

“We practice!”

“And what is it about practicing that helps you get better? What can you do in a practice that you can’t do in a real game, a concert, or a performance?”

“We can try things over and over again.”

“Great,” I encouraged. “What else can you do?”

“We can stop when something bad happens and talk about it.”

“We can focus on one thing at a time.”

“We get to know our teammates and what they are good at and how to work better together.”

“Terrific!” I reply. “You might not be aware of it, but your teachers are also on a team.” I point out the six teachers observing in the back of the room. “What do you think they are trying to get better at?”


“Right, and just like you told me in basketball—that you could work on specific skills like dribbling, passing, shooting, what specific skills do you think teachers work on to become better teachers?” The teachers all lean in now.

“To give good directions.”

“To be nice.”

“To know what they are doing.”

“To explain things better.”

“To help all the kids understand.”

“Practice what they are going to do before they do it in their class.”

 “Give us a chance to figure it out on our own–not just tell us stuff.”

“Show how stuff matters, like math.”

(I love this part where the teachers listen to what their kids say they need to practice).

“Your teachers are a team trying to get better at teaching. And you are kind of a team in this class, trying to get better at learning. What I want to do today is have a practice lesson.  It’s not a real lesson, just a practice. That means we can do all the things you said you can do in a practice to get better. We can stop and talk about something that just happened. We can stop and try something over again. We can work on one thing at a time.”

“What do you mean?” the students wonder.

“I will begin to teach the lesson, but anyone who wants, teachers or students, can give the timeout signal at any point and we will stop and talk, or try something over again. So I might be teaching you, and stop for a minute to talk with the teachers. Then I’ll come back and teach you some more. Is that okay with you?” Lots of eager nods. I begin the lesson.

Usually, I have to be the first one to call timeout. “Okay, teachers, you just heard three responses to the question, “How many dimensions does something need for us to be able to see it in physical space? What did you think about the students’ answers? What should I ask next?”

Or I might stop the lesson to ask a student a question. “Daniel, why is your head down on your desk? What’s that about? How come you think you can do that here? What do we need to do to help you be more engaged?”

Once they see how it works, teachers (and students) begin to participate.

“Why did you ignore Julia when she was standing up on her chair?”

“Why didn’t you tell them how to do it before giving them that problem?” 

“Why did you respond like that when…”

We stop the lesson. I tell the students I am going to talk with the teachers, and I’ll be back to continue the lesson in a minute. “Is that all right?” Then we teachers talk while students listen in.

Pacing is a challenge; we can’t talk too long and risk losing students’ attention. But mostly they are fascinated to hear their teachers analyze the situation. We may talk for a couple minutes (an eternity in kindergarten), then I return to the lesson.

At the end of the lesson we debrief with everyone. Teachers share something they learned, or something they want to think more about. These educators share great insights, but I especially love what the students have to say about having a “practice lesson.”

“I like having a practice lesson. I felt like I could raise my hand and say something and it would be okay if it wasn’t right.”

“Wow! I didn’t understand a lot of what you talked about, but I never knew teachers thought so much about stuff. I just thought they came in and taught.”

The teachers may not have learned how to do inquiry learning or project-based education. But they saw their lessons through the eyes of the students. They saw how the culture shifts when they are transparent and vulnerable.  Hopefully, they will work more intentionally with students to make learning engaging and meaningful, to build a more Kingdom-like culture where everyone is valued (“Let the children come to me”) and committed to play an active role in the community of learners.

I have conducted the Teaching and Learning Lab a number of times now. Some schools have taken it up as a practice among their staff. Instead of teachers just visiting each other’s classrooms, they make this interaction a Teaching and Learning Lab. This method has proven to be an effective, efficient, and engaging form of professional development.

Being vulnerable with, and supportive of, one another helps create a truly collaborative culture. There is an inverse relationship between the distance the professional development occurs away from the school and the ability to transfer that experience into classroom practice. Using the classroom itself as the forum for sharing observations and questions about teaching and learning provides an immediate context in which to practice and improve our craft. 


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (steven.levy@cace.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.

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