Sunday / July 21

Teaching Between Desks for Deeper Learning

Increased emphasis on fostering deeper learning for students suggests a fundamental change in teachers’ role and vantage point of instruction. The change requires less time teaching in front of class and more time roving among desks and teams to monitor and facilitate students’ collaborative work and problem solving.

The teacher’s interactions and decisions during students’ independent or collaborative “work time”—choosing what to focus on, how much time to spend with each team or individual, what to say or not say—has a crucial instructional value.

Japanese educators have a specific pedagogical term for describing this mode of instruction called kikan shidō (between desks instruction), carefully distinguished from a separate Japanese term, kikan junshi (between desks patrolling), which focuses merely on checking for right answers and behaviors. In our new book Teaching Better, we describe our first-hand experience with Japanese use of kikan shidō while working full-time as licensed teachers at a Japanese school.


In another article we recently published in Educational Leadership, we expand on a study by O’Keefe, et al. (2006) by illustrating four principal functions of kikan-shidō: (1) monitoring student activity, (2) guiding student activity, (3) organizing materials and the physical setup, and (4) engaging in social talk. We also describe how more intentional use of kikan shidō might help US teachers facilitate deeper learning for all students.



Learning to Teach Between Desks

Teachers in classrooms around the world spend hours of class time each week roving between desks during student activities, group projects, pair work, or individual practice. But how much of this time reflects thoughtful planning and carefully orchestrated assistance? Teachers will need sustained, collaborative learning opportunities and new professional development resources to practice and refine this mode of instruction and facilitate deeper learning. Important questions that help prepare teachers for kikan-shidō include the following:

  • How does kikan-shidō support the learning goals for this lesson?
  • What are my specific goals as I circulate?
  • How will I distribute my time with various groups and differentiate support?
  • What key understandings or misconceptions will I be looking for?
  • What probing questions will I use to check for understanding or advance student thinking?
  • What will I be careful not to say or do that might decrease the rigor of the task?
  • What materials will I need to distribute?
  • When should I engage in brief social conversation with students to provide encouragement and build relationships?

Using collaborative inquiry to plan and reflect on lessons that incorporate these questions is one way to develop effective kikan-shidō practices. Carrying a copy of the lesson plan on a tablet or mobile device during kikan-shidō is also useful; teachers can review the plan on-the-fly during instruction and take notes as they observe students, perhaps even capturing audio and visual examples of student work.

Teacher teams can then discuss these observations in post-lesson reflection meetings. As we describe in our book, they can discuss kikan shidō choices in the lesson, such as the the type of guidance teachers provided during specific moments of student interaction, or which groups they selected to present at the end of the lesson and how kikan shidō observations informed those choices. Did these examples help facilitate a rich discussion on the range of problem approaches? Given the options available from the various approaches observed in observations, what were some other possibilities, and how might they have added or detracted from the culminating discussion?

This kind of deliberate planning and reflection will help teachers develop increasingly nuanced understandings of the choices presented in each kikan-shidō episode and, most importantly, how these choices inhibit or enhance student learning.

To learn more about kikan shidō, collaborative inquiry, and other resources for improving instructional practice, check out our new book, Teaching Better: Igniting and Sustaining Instructional Improvement. Now available from Corwin Press.


Ermeling, B.A. & Graff-Ermeling. G. (2016). Teaching better: Igniting and sustaining instructional improvement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Ermeling, B. A., & Graff-Ermeling, G. (2014, October). Teaching between desks. Educational Leadership, 72(2), 55–60. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. ©2014 by ASCD. Adapted with permission.


Written by

Bradley A. Ermeling is a Principal Research Scientist with Pearson’s Research and Innovation Network and a member of a research team from UCLA and Stanford. He spent seven years working as an educator in Japan, developing firsthand knowledge and expertise with Japanese lesson study, and has published numerous articles on developing and supporting systems for collaborative inquiry and continuous learning. In the United States, he taught high school English, special education, and directed professional learning programs, before shifting his attention to educational research. He was a co-recipient of the 2010 Best Research Award from Learning Forward for his contributions to research on instructional improvement through inquiry teams. He was also coauthor for the article titled “Learning to Learn from Teaching: A Firsthand Account of Lesson Study in Japan” which was named 2015 Outstanding Paper of the Year by Emerald Publishing and the World Association of Lesson Studies. Dr. Brad Ermeling’s current research interests include lesson study and collaborative inquiry, facilitation practices that promote productive struggle, and digital resources that support the study of teaching and learning.

Genevieve Graff-Ermeling is Chief Academic Officer at Orange Lutheran High School, educational researcher and consultant. She spent seven years working as an educator in Japan, developing curriculum and participating firsthand in Japanese lesson study projects. She also taught and designed curriculum at the high school level in the United States. She has held several positions as an external coach and site-based facilitator of teacher reflection, design of assessments, inquiry-based science teaching, and the use of data to inform teaching in multiple subject areas for both elementary and secondary, public and private schools. She has a degree in behavioral science with an emphasis in anthropology and helped lead a medical outreach team conducting research in Honduras. She was coauthor of the autoethnography titled, “Learning to Learn from Teaching: A Firsthand Account of Lesson Study in Japan” which was named 2015 Outstanding Paper of the Year by Emerald Publishing and the World Association of Lesson Studies. She was also an elite runner, NAIA national champion, and competed in the 5000 meters for the 2004 US Olympic trials. Genevieve Ermeling’s current research interests are practice-based professional learning for high school educators, transformative models of teacher professional growth, and methods for assessing and assisting learning through the zone of proximal development.

Brad and Genevieve are the authors of Teaching Better: Igniting and Sustaining Instructional Improvement.

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