Don't let lesson study get lost in translation

As the Japanese approach becomes more popular, it is in danger of being diluted. Follow this guide to ensure maximum benefit
5th December 2014, 12:00am


Don't let lesson study get lost in translation

There is a peculiar phenomenon that happens to ideas in education: the further they spread, the more unclear they become. The "lesson study" technique is a good example. In its purest form, it's an approach to professional learning with enormous power to unlock great practice. In some schools, however, it is being used in a very different manner, thanks to numerous misinterpretations and misguided implementations. Let's distil the idea into its original form so that we can all embrace it.

Where does it come from?

Lesson study dates back to the 1800s in Japan, where it was known as a "criticism lesson". The idea is that teachers collaboratively observe and discuss each other's practice. As well as taking place in individual schools, the method has also been used at conferences to demonstrate and discuss lessons.

What is modern lesson study?

The idea of modern lesson study - or research lesson study - is simple. A small group of teachers (three works well) pick an aspect of pupils' learning that they wish to improve on, using data and their professional judgement. They typically identify a need and a group of target pupils. After reviewing research to find effective approaches, they plan a lesson together to implement them. During the planning process, they "zoom in" on two or three pupils to make predictions about how they will react to the lesson. These are known as "case pupils".

One of the group then teaches the lesson as the others observe, focusing on the case pupils and their interaction with peers as well as their reactions to the lesson - no judgements are made of the teacher. At the end of the lesson, the case pupils are briefly interviewed about their thoughts.

Finally, the group meets to review how effective the lesson was. In traditional Japanese lesson study, they then refine the lesson and teach the improved version to another group. An alternative approach is to pick up the key teaching technique or theme and try to refine this during the next lesson in the normal teaching cycle. In both cases, the group repeats one or two more cycles of planning, teaching and reviewing, in order to fully understand, embed and master the new techniques.

Finally, the teachers record their thinking and progress and may decide to share this in a presentation, poster or even a demonstration lesson with colleagues.

Where is it being used?

Lesson study is expanding rapidly. For example, schools across the UK's National Teacher Enquiry Network are adopting it. Hundreds of institutions are involved in large-scale research into its effectiveness through an Education Endowment Foundation project carried out by Edge Hill University. The National College's Test and Learn programme has many more schools engaged in another study, and local authorities such as Suffolk, Brent and Barnet are championing the approach. The University of Leicester is also pioneering its use in teacher training.

What is the evidence?

A recent report by social mobility charity the Sutton Trust into effective teaching highlighted lesson study as a promising approach underpinned by recent US-based research. The strategy also has all the characteristics of effective teacher learning as set out in two recent systematic reviews of what works in CPD: a 2003 report from the UK-based EPPI Centre and New Zealand's 2008 best evidence synthesis.

How can you make it work for you?

Lesson study takes time; it won't be effective if it is rushed. Ideally, the pre-lesson meeting should include up to two hours of discussion time and the post-lesson reflection should take about one hour, although this will vary depending on experience and context. You can mix participants of varying confidence and experience levels, although they will need some coaching to ensure that senior voices do not dominate - this should be a level playing field. Some schools have found that learning support assistants can make excellent participants as they are skilled observers.

David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust and a former secondary teacher

What else?

For further information on lesson study, visit:

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