Look, listen, learn and share
Having just one teacher officially observing as you give a lesson can be unnerving. But imagine working in front of an audience of dozens of other teachers, each scrutinising what you are doing and how effectively it is helping your pupils to learn.
This may sound stressful and intimidating, but throwing your doors open to other teachers in this way can transform pupil progress, research suggests. It can also improve teaching and turn schools into centres of enquiry.
The technique is called "lesson study". It is a form of action research, and involves systematic and careful observation of lessons, focused on children and their learning rather than the teacher. Lesson study involves groups of teachers collaboratively planning, teaching, observing and analysing learning and teaching in research lessons. They share their findings with other educators.
It is common in Japan, where a classroom can be crowded with teachers taking part. The technique has been used in the country since the 1870s. Schools there even conduct "open house" lessons, where invited guests come to watch.
The rest of the world started taking notice of this Japanese innovation when people realised it could be contributing to the high standards of educational achievement in the country. Lesson study is now used across the Far East, Middle East, US, Sweden and Northern Ireland and has been gradually taking root in Britain.
Central Bedfordshire Council is believed to be one of the first organisations that helped to introduce lesson study to the UK. Pete Dudley, its acting director of children's services, estimates that 2,000 schools in England are now using the technique.
"What hundreds of teachers have said to me is that lesson study promotes teacher learning, because you focus on what the children are learning more than how the teacher is performing," Mr Dudley says. "Because a research lesson is jointly owned, it is OK if aspects go wrong. You learn from that.
"Lesson study allows schools to create a culture of teacher learning through talk, of detailed thinking and reflection about learning and teaching that leads to real improvement for pupils. And it is fun."
There is a strong tradition of pooling knowledge and expertise in Japan, where experts work together to solve problems. Lesson study can involve large groups of teachers, plus observers.
In the UK, where there is a different educational culture, lesson study groups are smaller - often made up of three to five people. But some schools hold Japanese-style open-house lessons.
Advocates of lesson study say it encourages teachers to take pedagogical risks. It allows them to come up with their own solutions to classroom issues. The group identifies something they would like to improve - for example, pupils' understanding of a subject. They then search for evidence about what might help to tackle this problem and use this research to plan a lesson that can help them to achieve their aims.
Mr Dudley, who is also a visiting professor of education at the University of Leicester and a former primary director of National Strategies, says it is important that teachers first establish protocols about the way they are going to work.
"They must be able to bare their souls to each other if they are going to improve," he says. "They must not criticise each other. They must create a safe space, where there are ground rules for discussion."
Focus on pupils
After the lesson, the group meets to discuss and analyse the lesson. Teachers talk about what they have seen the pupils learn, or not learn, and why - not what they have seen the teacher teach.
The involvement of pupils is crucial to the success of lesson study. The group of teachers identifies about three "case" pupils to observe, and at the end of the lesson they interview them to discover what they thought of it.
"Teachers often find they learn profoundly new things about how their pupils are learning and have to make significant reassessments of them as learners," Mr Dudley says.
The group then refines the lesson. When they learn something of value, they share it with other teachers, so they can adapt it and use it in their own classrooms.
John Gardner, professor of education at the University of Stirling, says the peer-to-peer support teachers get through lesson study can help them to solve problems and address challenges.
"It creates a focus within schools - the solutions come from teachers themselves and not from an expert telling them what to do," he says. "There is no way the teachers perceive lesson study as a method for monitoring their performance because they have designed the lesson. The observation is carried out by others who have designed the lesson. And the teacher knows they could be next to teach it."
Sue Teague, head of Caddington Village School in Luton, a school for three- to 13-year-olds, used lesson study to monitor pupils in key stage 3 (S1-3) who were underachieving. She found some pupils to be "learning evaders" who use their own strategies to duck out of participating. Teachers now make sure pupils cannot do this by giving them responsibilities and specific instructions.
"The lesson study was like a micro-observation of these pupils, rather than the quality of teaching, so it was very different," Ms Teague says. "Teachers found it very liberating and interesting. The quality of feedback we got was so powerful and it helped the group bond as a team.
"We knew our solution wasn't just someone else's idea. We found out the information ourselves and we know it will work for our children and our school."
Lessons put in slow motion
According to Mr Dudley, using lesson study gives teachers a "slow motion" view of their work, allowing them to "assemble a mosaic of observations, a composite of what not one of the group could have seen alone".
"The Japanese say a lesson is like a fast flowing river, and teaching a lesson is like negotiating a canoe through the rapids," he says. "You have a plan but you need to make hundreds of decisions as you teach that you can't plan for.
"Teachers say lesson study enables them to see their pupils with fresh eyes. It helps them to switch off some of the filters they created in their early careers to cope with classroom complexity and to see their pupils' learning in a new light. And this enables them to improve the way they teach them. It is Assessment for Learning under a microscope.
"Even in schools that have experienced significant failure, lesson study has proved effective because it unlocks teacher practice knowledge and allows it to travel between classrooms," says Mr Dudley.
However, lesson study does need the backing of school leaders, who have to make adjustments to timetables to allow teachers to work together in the classroom.
John Elliott, emeritus professor of education at the University of East Anglia and president of the World Association of Lesson Studies, says that schools wanting to introduce lesson study need lots of interest from teachers and "significant investment on the part of leadership and management".
He also advocates getting support from a university. "Lesson study can create an amazing culture of collaboration not only between schools, but across schools," Professor Elliot says.
As lesson study is intense lesson preparation, in schools in England it is usually done in planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. However, school leaders should be aware that it can be tricky arranging PPA time so that groups of staff all have a slot at the same time.
Dave Goode, assistant principal of Samuel Whitbread Academy in Bedfordshire, introduced lesson study last year. Heads of department were each asked to put three teachers together for a lesson study group.
He says it is important to stress to teachers that the aim is to work together to "rediscover the joy of teaching and learning together", rather than lesson observation. Their work is linked to each department's improvement plan.
"The process is not perfect, but it has been consistently rated by teachers as some of the most exciting stuff they have done," he adds. "Heads of department want it to continue, to become part of what it means to work at the school."
Lesson study can give teachers the power to change their own practice. Having the chance to take these risks and experiment is no quick fix, but it could be the answer to certain educational challenges.
- Choose a group of teachers - three works well - who will enjoy the challenge of lesson study. It can also help to involve a member of the senior team.
- Give teachers dedicated time to plan the research lesson.
- Protect their time on the day of the research lesson and make time for a post-lesson discussion.
- Nominate children to evaluate the lesson and give verbal feedback.
- Keep paperwork to a minimum, but keep a record of your work.
- Plan a timetable for lesson study activities for the year.
- Make sure the group has opportunities to share what they have developed with other colleagues.
- Keep the lesson study group and the class you work with consistent.
- Use members of the group as lesson study champions to develop further groups.
- Videoing pupils' feedback allows teachers to pause or rewind their comments.
- Write down what you want each pupil to be able to do by the end of the research lesson.
- Create a "learning wall" where a lesson study group can display their work.
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Improving Practice and Progression Through Lesson Study (2008).
The National Strategies Primary, former Department for Children, Schools and Families.