Corina Seal describes how research lesson study was established at her school and has become embedded in its research and development activitiesSweyne Park School

The Sweyne Park School is a successful leading edge, training and specialist school in Essex. The school is a member of the South Essex Networked Learning Community and the lead school of a partnership development schools cluster focusing on improving quality and retention in mathematics and science ITT. In 2006 Sweyne Park School was awarded Investors in People Champions status. Sweyne Park School was used as a case study for CUREE’s coaching and mentoring strategy.

Research lesson study

Research lesson study (RLS) is a form of collaborative enquiry which is widely used in Japan and USA and which has a growing following in the UK. RLS is undertaken by small groups of teachers. The research group identifies a development need, accesses the public research knowledge base and formulates a research question. They will identify case pupils (usually three) to represent a range of pupils in the class (for example a high-, low- and middle-ability pupil) and jointly plan the lesson with these case pupils in mind, identifying expected outcomes for each case pupil. One member of the research group will then teach the lesson while the others focus on observing the case pupils. Data can also be collected via audio or video recordings, pupil questionnaires and interviews. The research group will jointly analyse the data, comparing expected outcome to observed outcomes before sharing findings with a wider audience. In Japan the research group will repeat the lesson while other staff watch, whereas in the UK the normal process is to share findings and recommendations via a multimedia presentation, including video clips. RLS often consists of a sequence of several lessons, each building on the findings of the last.

Composing the initial questions

In 2003 the NCSL’s Networked Learning Group (NLG) invited schools from across the country to form a research lesson study group. Sweyne Park was one of these schools. Two members of staff were invited from each school: a member of the school’s leadership team and an enthusiastic classroom teacher (I was chosen as the latter as I had recently completed my MA and had done some research into group work in maths).We decided to ‘start small’ when introducing research sessions to Sweyne Park School and to set up the first RLS in the mathematics department. To give the study wider relevance and impact we decided to address two whole-school priorities – emotional intelligence and peer-assessment, while also addressing the particular needs identified by the Mathematics department. A whole-school focus on literacy skills had helped the department to highlight the difficulty many pupils found when communicating their thinking and reasoning in extended investigative tasks and GCSE coursework. An increasing emphasis on proof and justification in the mathematics curriculum also brought the need to develop pupils’ clarity of reasoning and communication to the top of their list of priorities. Members of the maths department were aware, both through our own experiences and through research, that getting children to talk about what they are doing enhances their ability to think about the task and that group work is more effective than competitive or individualistic goal structures. After much debate the first research question was refined to ‘How can we encourage pupil dialogue in collaborative group work?’ A research group of three teachers was formed in autumn 2003, a Year 8 maths set was selected, and the first study was underway.

The research lessons

The first research lesson involved pupils working on an investigation taken from a text book (the task could have been completed by individuals working alone). Some pupils worked in mixed groups (mixed gender, level of emotional intelligence and mathematical ability) while others were in more similar groups. No specific guidelines were given on how to tackle the task. As well as observing focus pupils (chosen on the basis of their observed interpersonal skills), audio recordings were made of each group and video shots taken of pupils working in their groups. This was a ‘baseline’ observation representing a typical attempt at ‘doing group work’ within the department. After the lesson, pupils filled in questionnaires on their feelings about working in groups. After transcribing over two hours’ worth of audio recordings (in later lessons observation sheets with time sampling were used instead!) the research team were faced with the problem of how to analyse the quality of pupil dialogue that had taken place. An adviser from the NLG suggested that we looked at the work of Neil Mercer (1995). This enabled us to categorise the pupil talk into cumulative (characterised by repetitions, confirmations and elaborations), disputational (involving disagreements and individual decision-making) and exploratory (pupils explain and justify their decisions). Analysis showed that the majority of talk was cumulative; this type of talk was especially prevalent in mixed groups. Exploratory talk was the least represented but was more common in single-gender friendship groups. Pupil questionnaires revealed that pupils found the experience of working in mixed groups less productive with some reporting feeling ‘left out’ of discussions and others reporting that some members of their group had not pulled their weight. The research group then turned its attention to how exploratory talk could be encouraged. In the second research lesson changes were made to the mixed groups so that pupils were in single-gender groups which were more matched in their interpersonal skills and mathematical ability. The results of the pupil questionnaire were shared with the pupils and, through a class discussion, a set of ‘guidelines for working in groups’ was established. Pupils again worked on a ‘text book’ task. There was a higher proportion of exploratory talk in both new and established groups in this lesson, suggesting that both pupil grouping and the provision of guidelines had made a positive impact on the quality of pupil talk. The research group completed three more research lessons (involving different KS3 and KS4 maths groups) in which they developed and evaluated:

  • problem-solving tasks designed to promote collaboration and dialogue
  • the use of open-ended assessment criteria and peer-assessment
  • the use of ‘tokens’ to purchase information for the group.

Each of these measures had a positive impact on the quality of pupils’ dialogue. Once the first two maths research lessons had been completed and analysed and a presentation including video clips prepared, the outcomes were shared with three other departments. This was done via established research and development working parties with RLS presented as a tool to support an established initiative (raising pupils’ achievement). This resulted in three further research groups being established in science, MFL and D&T. Findings were shared with the South Essex Networked Learning Group which led to sharing of methodology and findings across schools and the establishment of further research groups. Research lesson study is now well established in the school and network. Seven network primary schools have adopted RLS as their methodology for a joint project for developing pupils’ problem-solving skills in mathematics. Sweyne Park School has embedded RLS in its personalised CPD programme and all newly qualified and GTP teachers complete a small-scale research project using RLS.

Lessons learned during the establishment of RLS at Sweyne Park School

At maths department level:

  • Collaborative enquiry is a time-consuming but highly relevant and valuable form of CPD.
  • Academic research is relevant to collaborative enquiry but needs to
  • be made easily accessible to classroom practitioners.
  • Teachers can influence the quality of pupil dialogue through structuring pupil groups, working with pupils to establish guidelines and choice of task.

At whole-school level:

  • The involvement of a member of leadership team in the process proved invaluable as this led to RLS being embedded in the whole-school research and development process.
  • ‘Starting small’ worked well. In this way RLS could be introduced to the whole staff as something which had already proved of value to groups working within the school.
  • Involvement in collaborative enquiry was not perceived as an additional burden or demand because it was initially adopted as a tool for developing and evaluating existing initiatives.
  • Establishing a broad focus for the school (taken from the school development plan) made sharing findings across departments more constructive. For maximum value, however, research groups need to be able to define their own detailed focus.
  • The availability of a ‘critical friend’ to give advice is invaluable.
  • Joint enquiry across networks is difficult but worthwhile.

Structuring collaborative enquiry

Collaborative enquiry is increasingly being identified as a way of teaching that moves away from teacher directed practice; in other words away from the teacher standing at the front of the class, imparting knowledge and then asking questions. Arguably this model of teaching can encourage participation from a certain group of students and potentially disengage those, who for a variety of reasons (shyness, lack of confidence, little understanding of the subject matter) feel unable to contribute. Whilst the majority of teachers use ‘group work’ as a means of widening student participation in lessons, as this case study shows, more structured collaborative work has been shown to achieve more positive results. One of the key proponents of the creation of structures in collaborative enquiry is Dr Spencer Kagan. His approach is based on four key principles, described by some teachers as PIES:

  • positive interdependence
  • individual accountability
  • equal participation
  • simultaneous interaction.

The structures that he has devised in order to facilitate these principles are designed to prevent students who have been asked to work collaboratively (in ‘teams’) from either dominating or opting out of any discussions, (as can occur if groups are simply asked to ‘work together’). Research has shown that structuring collaborative enquiry, not only widens participation, but also successfully improves the climate for learning.

For more information and for examples of Kagan’s collaborative structures go to

For further information see:

Feldman, G (1980), Beyond Universals in Cognitive Development, New Jersey: Ablex

Mercer, N (2005), The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk Amongst Teachers and Learners, Clevedon, Multilingual Matters