In at the deep end?

Many long-serving teachers will tell you that when they started out they were put in front of a class and told to get on with it. This sink or swim approach was wasteful, in some cases cruel and unfair to pupils. Nick Swift explores.

Teacher observation is now commonplace within the school and by inspectors, Ofsted having retreated from its untenable position of dictating how lessons should be taught, to inspecting what they see, not what they think they should see.

As this change has come about, there has also been a quiet and far more important revolution going on among teachers and educationalists, who have taken the focus away from the individual teacher and placed it on the outcomes of the lessons. This is called “Lesson Study”, or more fully “Research Lesson Study”. Over 2000 schools in the UK are using it and the lesson study movement has grown rapidly from its origins in Japan. A lesson if there ever was one that the profession can do more to elevate its own skills than any amount of inspection.

Lesson study is profoundly different to lesson observation in two ways. First, it analyses the lesson and outcomes in depth, with a view to improving it. Second, and this is the key difference, it is a collaborative and developmental process with peers, and not a one-to-one closed operation. As a result, NQTs as well as experienced teachers are made part of the team very rapidly. Peer support is part of the process. It makes for highly effective continuing professional development (CPD). How much more effective it is to work with a group of peers on the concepts of, say, acceleration, mitosis or pressure than struggle with your own ideas. Some of your ideas may work, but some might not. Is it really possible to have an honest, evidence-based discussion with yourself about why some of your class failed to understand the concepts? Was it you, or them? It is also useful to see where things could be done differently by using other brains to help see through the students’ eyes.

Suddenly I feel in need of an analogy. Imagine if you will a Formula One pit team. The team manager appoints a pit crew director and says: “There you go. You have 20 crew. Get to it.” The end result could not possibly be the best outcome, but with peer collaboration, observation, discussion about alternative methods and yes, looking at others, the team will work its way to the best outcome by looking at the evidence, discussing and analysing data. Not only will the outcomes be better, but the team and director will enjoy improved relationships. Lesson study has profound impact on teacher and student wellbeing as well as educational results. In fact it seems like such an obviously sensible way of working that it should have been used for years. In Japan it has been used for 200 years and is well established in Asia and the US.

There are several great proponents of lesson study. Peter Dudley has been working on lesson study in Camden since 2001 and is regarded as a leading light in the UK.

What is Lesson Study?

Here is a concise summary from Peter Dudley’s blog site.

“Lesson Study is a powerful, professional learning approach that dramatically improves learning and teaching and the practice and subject knowledge of teachers. Originating from the Chinese Confucian tradition, Lesson Study has 140 years of history in Japanese schools and is increasingly used in East Asia, the US and Europe.

It not only produces dramatic improvements in pupil achievement and professional learning, but it is also very popular with all who experience it.”

Peter Dudley’s lessonstudy.co.uk blog site has many resources and presentations showing where this has been successful. The site is free to register. There is a brilliant downloadable Lesson Study: A Handbook on the Site.

This is also a good site from the US at www.uwlax.edu/sotl/lsp/overview.htm.

This all sounds great. Of course there is a cost in time. Groups of teachers discussing lessons need cover and support from senior leadership teams. In fact the cost effectiveness is better than external CPD, because research lesson study develops a new culture in the school that lives on.

Lesson study is advocated by the National College for Teaching and Leadership and the Teacher Development Trust. There is a network of support run by the National Teacher Enquiry Network (http://teacherdevelopmenttrust.org.uk/nten/lesson-study/). Their site also has downloadable handbooks and details of conference support.

The UK seems to be late in adopting research lesson study, but the idea is gaining momentum alongside other ideas about evidence based education, from Ben Goldacre for example. It is interesting to speculate why the Japanese did this so long ago and we did not. In the 21st century we know that open discussion and doing what works is what drives most human activity and that more schools need to catch up.