Introduction – Is Lesson Study worth the effort?
Derek Robinson, Head of Mathematics, Bishop Luffa School, Chichester
“The road is created as we walk it together.”
As a department we have been involved in various forms of collaborative practice for over 12 years and have a culture of working together on “good lessons that work”. We had been one of SMP’s pilot schools for the Interact project and so it seemed a natural, as we were already using MEP resources, to apply to be one of CIMT’s Pathfinder Schools in 2005. Little did we know where that journey would lead us!
The Pathfinder schools project was intended to be a test bed for a new Collaborative Practice model for CPD in which teachers continually worked together to improve their understanding of effective teaching and learning. It involved meeting together regularly to observe, analyse, discuss and reflect on each other's mathematics lessons in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support. It was suggested that it could also involve collaboration in lesson planning but was intended to focus on 'normal' lessons, not specially planned ones much in the spirit of the TIMSS study of 1999.
Although our head teacher was supportive of the concept, he was unwilling for us to be released from our normal timetables so the meetings initially took place after normal hours. Likewise we were unable to physically watch lessons through timetabling constraints but we were offered the facilities of Mike Hindle from CIMT who not only advised us on our teaching and learning approaches but also agreed to film the lessons.
The department were totally against the idea as they felt they were already incredibly busy and “initiatived” out! CPD in school has a history of something being done to the teacher rather than something that is ‘owned’ by the teacher themselves. Nevertheless they agreed to meet Mike who explained that this was not another top down initiative but a chance for the department to shape their own CPD programme to match their own needs. He described this as a ‘bottom up’ approach where everyone is seen to be of equal importance and everyone has something to offer the others.
So the journey began. Initially we followed CIMT’s model in that we filmed fairly normal lessons, copied them onto DVDs and distributed them within 24 hours of the lesson. We then met to talk about what we had seen. Our initial focus was on the balance of teacher/pupil talk.
- Were we asking the right sort of questions to provoke in depth discussion between the pupils?
- Were we then giving the pupils adequate time to discuss these questions?
- Were we giving them enough time to explain their thinking to the rest of the group?
Initially the answers were no, no and no!
These answers made us realise that actually we needed to jointly plan the lesson with this in mind rather than use “ordinary” lessons and so we began to move towards “lesson study”. Of course, we didn’t really understand the real meaning of “lesson study” until much later and, indeed, we are still learning but we were on the way.
I was lucky enough to go with Mike and 10 other teachers to Japan to look for ourselves at how the Japanese organise their CPD around the “lesson study” model and, although I didn’t realise it, I was beginning to discover what “lesson study” was really about. It is fair to say that none of us in Japan appreciated what we were really seeing until many months later but, for me, it certainly planted a seed to find out more. Since returning from Japan, I have read every piece of literature I can find about lesson study and begun to investigate along with my long suffering department (and Mike) whether lesson study can work in the UK and whether it is worth the effort.
This time the answers are yes and YES!
Fortunately we were given a grant from the NCETM to document our findings and share them with their on-line community.
We now know much more about the process and rationale behind lesson study as well as many of the pitfalls – one of something Catherine Lewis describes as educators who prematurely think they are “experts” at lesson study once they have been on a course or worked through one cycle. This is a definite warning for us in the UK if lesson study is to become a powerful means of improving our teaching and more importantly our students’ learning!
Lesson study is really about a team working together to design lessons that enable the researchers (and that means the team and others) to collect and data and hence learn more about “how students learn”.
Taking this out to other local schools....idea of forming a lessons study group in the district.
As we have progressed along our journey we feel that there have been a number of lessons that we have learned.
- One of the key aspects of lesson study is to improve the students’ interest, eagerness and attitude towards mathematics. This is at the heart of all our research lessons.
- Different schools and departments have different histories and cultures. In many ways we had an advantage as we had a history of working together as a department. Not all schools or departments will be so fortunate. The first lesson that we have learnt is that you have to recognise where you are and start from there. Getting people to talk together and share ideas is the first step.
- If lesson study is to become part of the culture, initially there is a need for someone to be passionate about collaborative practice and that this is worthwhile.
- Most lesson observation tends to be judgemental. Very few teachers encourage other teachers to simply watch their lessons and discuss pupil learning. This is not the case in many other countries where teachers are encouraged to improve their own skills by watching others teach. Lesson study is an extension of this process but also involves joint planning.
- It’s OK to make mistakes. One common concern expressed by teachers is “what happens if the lesson goes wrong?” Mike stressed that the film belongs to the teacher and they have the power of veto. In reality, even lessons that go wrong can be a learning experience for everyone. One of the benefits of lesson study is that the lesson belongs to everyone having been planned by a group of teachers rather than just one. Any problem is therefore a joint problem.
- There is a lot written about Lesson study: different approaches; different emphases; different strategies. It is important to try and remain focussed on the important things and to try not to get too bogged down in detail. Don’t forget why you are doing it. We are trying to improve the quality of the teaching and learning in the classroom.
- There is a well known concept in Japan of a ‘Knowledgeable other’ - someone who knows about lesson study and can support and advise the school. This can be incredibly helpful particularly in matching current research to specific topics. In Japan there is a strong link between schools and universities and it is often through this link that such support is provided. This could be developed further in this country.
- Lesson study in Japan is also known as ‘research lessons’. It is more than just about improving one lesson. It is about designing lessons that make students’ thinking and learning visible. Effective lesson study is about improving our ability to gather evidence about how students learn. The last column in the example ‘research lesson’ plan reflects this.
- Effective lesson study takes both time and support from senior management. It is a challenge for school leaders to think about CPD in a different way and to find ways to support teachers who are pursuing these ideas. Creative use of INSET time is one possible way forward.
Benefits of Lesson Study at Bishop Luffa
- Maths has become one of the favourite lessons for most students in the school. This is not just the high achievers! This is reflected in a huge increase in numbers studying maths in the sixth form.
- What is truly great about our work in lesson study is the effect it is having on all of our teaching. From the most experienced teacher in our department to the newest NQT, we all believe that this is the most effective CPD programme that we have ever encountered. We have all changed dramatically!
- We work much more effectively as a team in all aspects of school life. We trust each other and are more prepared to share both difficulties and successes.
- Japanese Research lessons are based on a problem solving approach which involves collaborative work by the students carefully guided by then teacher. This is very much in line with current thinking and is central to the approach taken within the new National Curriculum.
- The Japanese see solving problems as being much more than simply a goal as part of learning mathematics. They see it as a major means of learning mathematics. Students not only solve problems to apply their mathematical skills but also to learn and even create new mathematics.
- It has challenged our view on what it actually means to do maths. We now firmly believe that most, if not all, important mathematics concepts can be taught through problem solving. We believe that “doing maths” means the students attempting tasks for which they have no prescribed or memorised rules to help them.
- It has challenged our view on what it means to teach maths. In the past much of our teaching was based on demonstrating a procedure and then assigning similar problems for the students to work through. We now try to present a well chosen problem without first demonstrating how to solve it. The students then create and share their own approaches to solving this problem.
- It is changing the way that the school thinks of CPD. The whole school is moving away from a notion of CPD being all about courses towards a more collaborative model based on lesson study.
- It is changing the way the whole area does CPD (West Sussex) Following a presentation by Mike and Derek, at the West Sussex head of maths conference, six schools individually decided to adopt the same model of lesson study. In addition, one member of each school is taking part in a county wide lesson study group. This is to ensure that everyone remains focussed on the true meaning of lesson study. See above.
- We are linking our work to MA modules at the University of Plymouth.
- Exploring accreditation
- Developing practice through a project
- Understanding then use of data
- Critical reflection on practice
The open house allows a school to share its lesson study work with other schools, although not all schools in Japan conduct open houses. They are so popular that many observers watch from the corridor or through the window. Invited guests (usually teachers and principals), meet with the lesson study team before the research lesson and are taken through the thinking behind the lesson and what to look out for in the lesson. They are given a very detailed lesson plan and are asked to observe how the pupils are learning. The lesson is then taught and observed by all. There is then a tea break followed by a formal review of what has taken place in the lesson with special emphasis on “seeing the lesson through the pupils’ eyes”. Bishop Luffa School will be holding their first Open House later this year.
Developing a Lesson Library
Bishop Luffa is building up a library of lesson videos along with lesson plans and reflections. This is an invaluable resource enabling colleagues to revisit lessons and reflect on different approaches to teaching. This is especially useful for teachers who might be asked to teach a topic for the first time. The possibility of seeing and reflecting on another colleague’s lesson is really valuable.
- Chichester university - presentation to PGCE students
- Head of maths conference in West Sussex
- Lesson Study presentation at Cambridge for the National Centre
- Bognor Regis Community College
- Work with the Partnership Development Schools initiative in Brighton as part of a TDA initiative
- Presentations at Bishop Luffa - to a non mathematics audience
- Open House planned for later this year
If you are interested in finding out more about lesson study then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I will be updating the NCETM portal blog regularly to inform you of our progress and hope to publish a regular newsletter shortly.