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 Program (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 lesson study is
  • how it works, and
  • why it is of increasing relevance to teachers, schools and policy makers.

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:

  • planning interventions in lessons which may improve pupil learning
  • teaching and collaboratively closely observing these ‘research lessons’
  • carefully discussing the outcomes, and
  • writing up what happens – ‘failures’ as well as ‘successes’.

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

  1. Ground rules for working in joint research mode.
  2. Use of case pupils (three or multiples of three).
  3. Identification of what you want to learn and why – your research or enquiry focus.
  4. Connecting with and drawing on what is already known about your focus.
  5. Joint planning.
  6. Joint observation (and data capture).
  7. Discussion, analysis and recording of what has been learned by case pupils and by researchers.
  8. Capturing and distilling practice/data (eg using video, stills or audio).
  9. Finding ways of helping others to learn from what you have learned – innovated, refined or modified.
  10. Creating an artefact to convey this (a staff meeting, a PowerPoint, a video, a coaching guide) and using it for real.

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:

  • group analysis of need (pupil learning)
  • analysis of where the pedagogic knowledge gaps are in their practice (based upon evaluations of pupil performance), and
  • what recent research has to say about developments in this area.

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 behavior 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:

  • the Japanese lesson study model could translate to the English context
  • schools and teachers would find the model useful for improving practice
  • teachers would find ways of collaborating not only in the lesson study but also in the sharing of what had been learned with others
  • there was evidence that lesson study improved learning outcomes for pupils.

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.

  • Lesson study was found by all teachers involved to be an engaging and replicable process for innovating, transferring and improving teaching and learning practices.
  • The process was developed and used successfully in the core subjects in Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 in schools ranging from those in challenging circumstances to others in more affluent areas. Some schools were addressing performance issues at the time, while others had among the highest value-added scores in the country.
  • Both school leaders and teachers in schools involved in the study strongly believed that the lesson study process encouraged risk-taking and a culture of professional learning both from what does not work as well as what does. Participants valued the fact that a research lesson is jointly owned by participants and felt this increased the likelihood of risk-taking and learning.
  • The lesson study process proved useful for transferring practices across subject areas in ways previously not encountered or envisaged by participants. (A number of lesson studies involved teachers from for example the science and music department in a school and the MFL department and a science department. Lesson study may, thus, have a significant role to play in tackling within-school variation.
  • The process was found to help teachers – experienced and less experienced – to ‘see things differently’ (project member); to be able to view their own practices critically without being blinded by familiarity or ‘blinkered by… assumptions about [their] immediate settings’ (Desforges, 2004).
  • The process was viewed positively by participant teachers and leaders, as a mechanism which lends itself to cross-school and cross-phase working, particularly as a result of the fact that the unit of study and delivery is a ‘lesson’.
  • Teachers in their first three years of teaching found that engagement in the process gave them an opportunity to engage in ‘deep’ professional learning, not offered by existing models such as the standard diet of the induction year. It was used enthusiastically by participants in the Graduate Teaching Program whose managers felt it provided valuable structured opportunities to learn from more experienced colleagues while actively engaging with them in joint teaching, observation and analysis.
  • The process provided a useful means of addressing common questions and problems encountered by teachers in pedagogic fields of metacognition found within assessment for learning and thinking skills.
  • In all cases, teachers found that the value of the lesson study was significantly increased when pupils were involved in the process themselves.
  • There was evidence of significant positive effects upon pupil progress and outcomes and no evidence of negative effects (for example in one study all but one pupil in a class using lesson study attained one National Curriculum level above that predicted for them).
  • It is not unreasonable to infer that the lesson study process – the design study located within a basic unit of practice which seems to perform well across schools and across departments – could be developed in multi-agency contexts.
  • Schools and networks of schools involved in the project are now building lesson study into their school improvement strategies and their CPD models (Dudley, 2005).

Why is lesson study effective?

Members of the pilot were clear that the distinctive elements of lesson study are:

  • increased risk-taking is enabled, through sharing the ownership of the lesson and its outcomes – which contrasts sharply with much of the effects of inspection and performance management oriented observation which can lead teachers to play safe:

‘… 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)

  • multiple perspectives all focus observations on pupils and their learning – this has the effect of slowing down the frenetic rate of classroom interaction allowing more of the learning processes to be seen, captured and discussed
  • the process of joint planning, teaching and analysis allows teachers to learn directly from each other as they undertake the research lesson. Many teachers in the pilot adapted the lesson study approach in order to coach colleagues in the techniques developed in the lesson study.

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 personalized 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 contextualized professional learning which holds the key to the next phase of pedagogic improvement. It advocates: ‘CPD which is collaborative, classroom-centered 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 contextualized approaches to professional learning, such as coaching, the model can provide challenges to leadership, ie. how to organize and prioritize 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. References

  • DfES (2007) 2020 Vision, London, DfES Publications
  • DfES (2007) Leading Improvement Using the Primary Framework, London, DfES Publications
  • Desforges, C (2004) ‘Collaboration: Why Bother?’, Nexus, 3, 6-7. NCSL, Nottingham
  • Dudley, P (2005) ‘Final Report of the NCSL, TLRP’, CfBT Lesson Study Pilot Project, (unpublished)
  • More detailed guidance is found in NCSL, TLRP, CfBT (2005) Network Leadership in Action: Getting Started with Networked Research Lesson Study