Lesson study is a form of classroom enquiry from the Far East that focuses on improving an aspect of teaching and learning through collaborative long-term study. Pete Dudley describes its background and how it has been adapted for use in England
The Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP) project ‘Learning How to Learn in Classrooms, Schools and Networks’ ran from 2003 to 2005. It studied how teacher practice in the use of assessment for learning strategies could be developed and transferred between practitioners in and across 45 schools. Part of the project involved studying a specific approach to professional learning and practice transfer called lesson study.
The research is ongoing but the pilot phase has been completed and is the subject of this article, which describes:
What is lesson study?
Lesson study has its roots in the Far East , where it is practiced widely in China and Japan. It came to the attention of Western educators almost by chance during the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) study in the 1990s. While in Japan, two US researchers, Catherine Lewis and Richard Hiebert, came across the widespread practice of jugyou kenkyuu or ‘lesson study’ amongst teachers and schools.
In a lesson study process, groups of teachers identify an area of need in pupil learning and progress in their classes that is need of improvement. They then enquire into developments in teaching that are likely to have an impact on this aspect of pupil learning. As we will see below, there is wide a range of recent teacher research available for this purpose in Japan.
The group spends between one and three years working together:
In the past nine years, lesson study has been developed in a number of locations in the US. It is also used in the International Quality Education Association (IQEA) project in England and Hong Kong. The research described in this article is the first centrally funded development and research into lesson study in the UK.
Core components of lesson study
Adapted from NCSL, CfBT and TLRP (2005) Network Leadership in Action: Getting Started with Networked Research Lesson Study, p6.
How lesson study operates
American researchers investigating lesson study have found that Japanese teachers tended to have more sophisticated subject knowledge of mathematics and, critically, more sophisticated pedagogic subject knowledge – of how to teach mathematics and how children learn mathematics. This has been attributed at least in part to lesson study.
Lesson study is based on the premise that practice can always be improved as can pupil learning and performance. In Japan, lesson study groups form to examine and improve pedagogy. The groups may involve practitioners of different ages, experience and at different points in the school’s hierarchy. However, in a lesson study group all members are of equal importance to the process of developing and passing on new practice knowledge.
A lesson study group will focus on improving the teaching and pedagogic knowledge of how to teach a particular aspect of a subject through the processes of:
The group of teachers plan a ‘research’ or ‘study’ lesson together, aimed specifically at addressing the problem they have identified using some informed but untried or underdeveloped (by them) technique. Having jointly planned the research lesson in detail, one person teaches the lesson and the others observe.
The lesson is planned with the specific learning of three (or multiples of three – six or nine) pupils in mind. They are typical of different learner groups in the class (say lower, middle or higher attaining in that subject/aspect). Each stage of the lesson is planned with the needs of each of the three in mind and the lesson plan usually becomes the template upon which observations are noted during the research lesson – again in relation to the three case pupils.
One teacher teaches and the others observe – always focusing on the behaviour and learning of the case pupils – what they were predicted to do and learn compared with what actually happened.
Following the lesson the group have a post-lesson discussion at which the learning of the case pupils is discussed in detail using the observation notes.
Evidence from Japanese and US research and from this RTF indicates that this focus on the case pupils helps to focus attention on learning and to deflect attention from the teacher, enabling a freer discussion to occur between members of the group. More open observations can be made, more potential solutions can be offered and more risks taken in discussion and reflections. This is because all members of the lesson study group own the lesson. Furthermore, the debate is not about the teacher – it is about the learning (or lack of it) for which they are all responsible.
In addition, what did not work in the research lesson is as important to discover as what did (especially if it was something everyone at the outset assumed would work).
At the end of a cycle of research lessons focused upon developing and honing a particular teaching approach they may teach a ‘public research lesson’ in front of an invited audience of teachers and advisers from local schools and colleges, in order to share their practice and widen the critique. It can be a citywide event – where the children stay after school and the lesson is taught in the hall followed by a discussion between teachers, pupils and members of the audience about the merits of the approach.
In addition, Japanese lesson study groups publish their findings. These studies are widely read by Japanese teachers who contribute more than 50% of the educational research literature produced in the country. Most Japanese teachers are involved in at least one lesson study group at any one time.
Development of lesson study in England
Between 2003 and 2005 a pilot study was conducted as part of the TLRP Research Training Fellowship to find out the extent to which:
Fourteen schools – both primary and secondary – were involved. They were drawn from local authorities in the North East, East Anglia, London and the South East. These schools represented a statistically representative range of schools with most of the work focused upon KS1, KS2 and KS3.
Over a period of six terms following an initial introduction to lesson study, groups of teachers and senior school leaders conducted lesson studies in their schools. In all, over 100 research lessons were carried out over the course of the pilot. Each term the group came together for a day (two days at the end of each of the summer terms) to compare their outcomes and experiences as well as to develop a model of lesson study in England.
Points emerging from the pilot are listed in the box on the opposite page. The model that was developed by the pilot contained the 10 components shown in the box above.
How lesson study in England differs from the Japanese model
One significant difference in the approach developed in the pilot phase of the TLRP research from the Japanese model was that the lesson study cycle is a lot swifter than the Japanese model which can take well over a year and up to three. The model which emerged through the TLRP pilot took around half a term to a term per cycle.
A second difference is the fact that in the model developed in England, pupils are often involved in the lesson analysis during the cycle as well as at the end. This became an important development in the pilot.
A third difference is that teachers in English schools have not used the public research lesson dissemination method. Instead they have used video snippets capturing key practices in research lessons and embedded them in PowerPoint presentations and developed the outcomes into professional development meetings for fellow teachers. They have also coached other teachers in the techniques developed.
Outcomes of the pilot study in England
The following points emerged from the pilot.
Why is lesson study effective?
Members of the pilot were clear that the distinctive elements of lesson study are:
‘… a research lesson where you can take that part of your practice in a very comfortable and non threatening way, not like in performance management way but with almost like peer group observations, taking the bit that you're not happy with and improving it.’ (Pilot teacher)
How is lesson study different from other classroom action research or enquiry?
Lesson study differs from many other forms of classroom action research or enquiry. Whereas an action research may have a research question seeking to explore the effects of doing x or what happens if pupils are grouped in a particular way, lesson study is always based upon improving an aspect of teaching and learning. The research question is always ‘How can we teach x more effectively to y?
The lesson study process has some very clear steps to follow (see steps 1-10 on the opposite page), even down to the way the post-lesson discussion should be conducted and one reason for its success in focusing and developing improvements has been attributed by researchers and the pilot study teachers alike to this highly structured ‘deliberative’ practice.
Why it is of increasing relevance to teachers, schools and policy makers
Lesson study is aimed at creating new practice knowledge through working in real classrooms with real students – and moving the practice from one classroom to another.
The report of the Learning Working Group (2005) and the 2020 Vision report – the outcome of the Gilbert review (DfES, 2007) are both clear that in order to achieve the potential in the policy goal of personalised learning to improve achievement still further for children and young people and to equip them as effective and confident lifelong learners, we need to develop approaches to professional development which employ deeper teacher learning models, more opportunities to learn within classroom contexts and more opportunities to learn from what works.
The introduction to the Primary National Strategy’s recent guidance for headteachers is clear that it is a combination of well led development of effective pedagogic techniques through classroom contextualised professional learning which holds the key to the next phase of pedagogic improvement. It advocates:
‘CPD which is collaborative, classroom-centred and school-based. This form of professional learning needs to be expertly led. Again the evidence is unequivocal. This form of CPD leads to changes in practice that are tested and secured with children the beneficiaries as the focus of the CPD is on improving their learning. Using these forms of CPD will help us to deepen the professional learning of teachers in their understanding and use of AfL and in improving the quality of learning and teaching in classrooms.’ (DCSF, 2007)
This, in turn, however, will need to be supported by increased ease of access for teachers to examples of what has worked well through such processes and to the outcomes of high-quality research if we are to help protect lesson study practitioners from reinventing wheels.
Lesson study offers a model of professional learning, practice development and transfer which works in the Far East and, according to the evidence gained through the pilot study and through subsequent developments in the field, can work in this country.
While, as with all classroom contextualised approaches to professional learning, such as coaching, the model can provide challenges to leadership, ie how to organise and prioritise allocation of time and resources, evidence from this research suggests it provides a process that enables the development and transfer of practice knowledge that impacts upon classrooms and engages teachers at all stages of their development in primary and in secondary school settings. It also encourages the practice of capturing what has worked and ensuring this informs the professional knowledge of colleagues.
Pete Dudley is director of the Primary National Strategy and a TLRP research fellow. He taught for many years in east London and abroad and was later principal adviser in Essex and deputy director of education in Redbridge. His work on lesson study involved both secondary and primary schools.