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From observed to observer: five questions about lesson study

If you’re fed up of being a passive victim of lesson observations conducted by the senior leadership team and you’re thinking there must be a better way of improving your teaching, then there may well be an answer from 19th-century Japan: "lesson study".

As David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, explains in the 5 December issue of TES, this is a peer observation approach in which teachers work collaboratively to improve their practice through watching and adapting each others’ lessons.

What to know more? Here are five questions and answers Weston believes you should bear in mind if you are going to give it a try.

1. 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.

2. 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 and choose case students to focus on.

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

3. 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.

4.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.

5. 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.

Read the full article in the 5 December edition of TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents

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