Making Instructional Shifts with Video Cases

April 29, 2016

We’ve all been there. In the current education environment, we’ve all faced the challenge of figuring out how to translate instructional shifts from theory to practice. Is this even feasible in a real classroom? How will that work with my students? Variations of these questions are coming up frequently, I suspect, for educators all over the country right now. At least they are in my world, as they represent common concerns voiced by my colleagues and peers as we determine the best ways to support deeper learning that’s reflective of changing state standards.

They are valid concerns as well, coming from teachers’ healthy skepticism of reform ideas (of which there have been way too many). After all, it is easy to describe a new set of instructional strategies on paper, or for a university researcher to demonstrate the impact of some innovative curriculum in a controlled context. But to put these ideas about instructional shifts into practice is complex—and always imperfect.

So, how do we translate what we read, hear, and know we need to do into action in our classrooms, with our students? For me, the answer is through visualization and collaboration.

Working Together to See a Shift

I have the privilege to be part of a community of mathematics teachers from grades 4 through 9 who meet once monthly to learn with and from one another. We work together to continually improve our instructional skills and create lessons that promote productive and equitable student discourse. The teachers all work in a southern California community, with students who are primarily Latino, and are all looking for ways to draw on students’ knowledge of their culture and community to increase interest and achievement in mathematics and science. We share examples of lessons that went well, and those that flopped, along with student work to examine. The conversation and reflection in our group is driven by teachers and focused on what works for students in their classrooms.

But we did not start here. We began our journey as mostly strangers—teachers from four schools across two districts together with two university faculty. All had different experiences, needs, and perspectives. To help bridge that gap, and facilitate discussion, I have come to rely on video as a tool for teacher reflection and professional learning.

Authentic, unvarnished videos of classroom lessons—not over-produced, deliberately edited, or artificial in look and sound—provide genuine views of varying teaching methods, in action, in varying classroom contexts. They help set the stage for meaningful discussion because we can see instructional strategies in practice before our eyes.

Making the Most of Video Cases

Video case studies can be highly useful in demonstrating effective teaching strategies, but only if the discussion around them is intentional and reflective. Some basic guidelines to consider in making the most out of video resources include:

  1. Ensure there is a range of classroom environments depicted. Although not every video must mirror the demographics of the schools the teachers work in, it is important to use examples that reflect the diversity of the teachers’ classrooms. When teachers see students who are similar to their own engaged in deep learning in relevant subject areas, it has a powerful effect.
  2. Use analysis tools to guide reflective conversations. A structured tool like the TEACH MATH Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching Lesson Analysis Tool (which can be adapted for other content areas), can help focus the conversation on specific categories—for example, “Math Discourse” and “Power and Participation,”—and spark deeper, more meaningful analysis of the ways in which a lesson’s design and implementation supports all students in taking active roles in making sense of mathematics through reasoning and discourse.
  3. Be specific in reflection, not general. Focus discussion on evidence related to a specific category from the lesson analysis tool, rather than on general comments or observations about the clips. This helps to emphasize important aspects of the lesson that connect to individual professional learning goals. Importantly, the talk should not be about the teacher in the video, but about what can be learned from viewing the lesson to inform our own instructional shifts.
  4. Consider selecting two complementary videos to use as focal points for discussion. One way to help spark lively discussion is to divide the group in half, with group A watching a clip with an eye toward one specific category of evidence, such as Math Discourse, and group B with an eye toward another, such as Power and Participation. The two groups talk among themselves before sharing with everyone, then switch categories to repeat the process for the second video.
  5. Make time for individual reflection and short-term goal-setting. Allot time for each person in the group to reflect on the discussion and, relative to their own practice, set short-term goals that are specific and attainable. This helps to make changing practice feel more manageable since the big-picture view of instructional shifts can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s important to take time to think about small steps that represent the start of a longer journey.
  6. Encourage teacher participants to contribute video clips from their own classrooms. Once teachers become comfortable with the experience of viewing a video case study, analyzing, and participating in reflective discussion, encourage them to contribute their own videos. The increased openness and willingness to share will help spark rich, spirited, and productive discussion driven by teachers sharing their personal practice to help each other learn and improve.

In my group, one or two teachers each month now share video clips from a recent lesson to stimulate conversation about instructional practice, lesson design, and student learning. Through visualization and collaboration, video case studies have created a new, enriched experience for us all. I encourage any educator interested in incorporating video into professional learning programs to explore the National Board’s ATLAS resource—an online library featuring over 1,000 video cases of Board-certified teachers in the classroom paired with reflective commentary—by signing up for a free trial and digging into the wealth of visual materials currently available.

If discussion in professional learning environments is limited to the words on a page, or abstract references to what happens in a classroom, the true development of new skills and strategies will not be very deep. But if we offer teachers opportunities to see examples of others like themselves in action, with classrooms full of students like their own, the conversation makes an important shift—from a debate about why something may not work, to a reflection about what is possible, and how to make it happen in one’s own classroom.

Mark Ellis, NBCT

Mark is a Professor in the College of Education at California State University, Fullerton where he directs the Mathematics and Science Teacher Initiative and is Principal Investigator (PI) or co-PI for four externally-funded projects involving innovative approaches to teacher preparation and teacher development. He served on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Board of Directors from 2011-2014 and contributed to the development of NCTM’s Principles to Action: Ensuring Mathematical Success for All. In 2015 he received NCTM’s Linking Research to Practice award as co-author of the Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School article, “Multidimensional Mathematics Teaching.” Prior to entering higher education, Mark taught mathematics in grades 6-12 in northern California public schools for six years, earning National Board certification in early adolescence mathematics in 1999.  All of his work is driven by a belief that every student has the potential to be successful in learning mathematics and a commitment to ensuring this potential is fulfilled in every classroom.