Lesson Study: Five steps to success in the primary setting

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
Pupil-focused: In Lesson Study, teaching staff plan and observe lessons together, focusing on how pupils are learning and identifying and overcoming potential obstacles

Lesson Study, a collaborative, pupil-focused approach to CPD, is gaining popularity in the UK. Maria Cunningham discusses how to implement Lesson Study effectively in a primary school setting

When thinking about how to enhance the quality of teaching and learning, it is often useful to look internationally at what the most successful countries are doing. What can we learn from alternative education systems around the world? And how can we successfully adapt this to a UK context?

Japan, for example, has been described as “a laboratory for the idea of continuous improvement of teaching practice” , and its national model of teacher enquiry, Lesson Study, is at the absolute crux of this.

In recent years, Lesson Study has been gaining popularity throughout the UK as a type of CPD and school improvement more broadly. However, adapting the model for UK schools is not without its difficulties in an education system still trying to shake off traditional top-down cultures of CPD, where lesson observations are often synonymous with grading, teacher accountability and appraisal systems.

At the Teacher Development Trust, we have seen that when implemented and embedded carefully, Lesson Study can have transformative effects. As the focus of lesson observations shifts from scrutinising teacher performance to really honing in on pupil learning and progress, culture within departments and schools becomes more collaborative, developmental and conducive to teachers’ engagement with research. Here are our top tips for getting Lesson Study right, particularly in a primary school setting.

Step 1: Switch to a pupil lens

The aim of Lesson Study is to help your teachers improve their practice for the specific benefit of a particular group of pupils, in a pre-identified area of learning or behaviour. This requires a close diagnosis of pupil needs, which can often play to the strengths of a primary school structure where teachers tend to be far more familiar with their students and their potential barriers to learning.

All staff taking part in the enquiry, be it teachers, leaders or support staff, should be encouraged to step into the shoes of pupils and ask themselves a range of key questions:

  • How are individual pupils learning and behaving in their lessons?
  • How are they each experiencing the lesson in a different way?
  • What obstacles or issues are standing in their way?
  • How do teacher preconceptions of these issues compare to the reality for this group of pupils?

It is often tempting to want to jump straight in and try out a new approach or intervention that you may have heard about in a book, online or from a colleague at a conference. Yet our experience suggests that the greatest success in Lesson Study comes if you pause and put effort in to understand and analyse the underlying issues for your learners. Getting teachers to ask the question “what would success look like?” can be an effective way of clearly identifying the anticipated change they would like to see in their pupils.

Step 2: Use your support staff

Primary schools are at an advantage when it comes to planning a Lesson Study programme in that they generally employ more support staff, including HLTAs. This not only benefits the model in terms of greater flexibility and cover assistance to free up teacher time, but it can be a great way to grow expertise among support staff by including them in enquiry groups.

We advise schools adopting this approach to phase-in support staff involvement gradually. They might initially take part in just the observation and planning stage, then with the support and mentoring that should always form part of Lesson Study, you can entrust and empower support staff to have more direct involvement in the enquiry itself.

One of the most sure fire ways to ensure your Lesson Study makes an impact is to make it the driver behind all CPD and involve all staff across the school, yet be aware in your role as a headteacher that this needs to be met with an inclusive group culture. Effective Lesson Study is non-judgemental – no matter what level of experience, expertise, or seniority, all members of the group are equal participants and everyone should be willing to be vulnerable and explore ideas for the benefit of pupil outcomes.

Step 3: Clever collaboration

Carrying out Lesson Study in a primary school offers a unique opportunity for teachers to cross-collaborate between key stages and subject areas. Grouping teachers of different year groups can be an invaluable way to enhance their understanding of pupil trajectories and to prepare children across the school for the progression from one key stage to another.

Equally, teachers with particular specialisms, for instance, forest learning or a particular knowledge of speech and language needs, might unexpectedly be able to transfer this expertise to support pupil engagement in other disciplines or subject areas.

Introducing collaboration time needs constant monitoring and leadership, so be sure to keep your ear close to the ground to see what competing pressures and issues are cropping up. Commonly, leadership teams start the year seeing collaboration as a priority but then staff members feel the commitment to collaboration slip during the year – avoid this by maintaining a clear focus and don’t expect everyone to be enthusiastic about collaboration to start with.

Train facilitators, encourage coaching-style conversations, be clear about use of meeting times and use a critical eye to scrutinise every single demand on staff time that may prevent Lesson Study taking place – each email, each request, each report, each meeting will reduce effectiveness of collaboration time (either directly or indirectly).

Step 4: Provide enough time

There’s no denying that collaborative enquiry is an intensive process and needs a strong commitment from school leaders if it is to work successful. One way to reinforce this is by dedicating one or more whole-staff meetings to Lesson Study, which will also enhance understanding and staff buy-in to the model. In particular, as a school leader it is fundamental that sufficient time is set aside for teachers to meet regularly to observe, reflect on observations and collaboratively plan future lessons.

In the most successful schools, Lesson Study is integrated into the timetable, while cover is made available to release teachers for observation and planning. Other aspects of their workload are also carefully reduced and monitored to ensure that they have the time to prioritise this work. Some further ideas used by TDT Network schools include:

  • Scheduling teacher non-contact periods so that groups can work together. Where teachers and unions agree, planning, preparation and assessment time could also be used.
  • Scheduling music, sport, art, reading sessions and/or religious observation, etc with external facilitators, releasing teachers for Lesson Study.
  • Timetabling similar classes together (e.g. key stage 2 literacy periods) so that teachers can more easily swap classes or see each other’s lessons.
  • Introducing disaggregated INSET days, twilight or dawn sessions dedicated to co-planning, or asking a few classes to come in for a small part of an INSET day to be peer-observed.
  • Using assembly times with fewer staff and/or teaching assistants and external facilitators.
  • If there are common tests/assessments, sitting pupils together in larger groups and freeing up other teachers.
  • Being creative at certain times of the year, e.g. using days where larger groups might be taking common tests or assessments, school trips, when year 6 are visiting secondary schools, and when pupils might be watching plays or demonstrations in bigger groups.

Step 5: Get expert support

To ensure that Lesson Study is as effective as possible, participants should choose an enquiry project that is underpinned by research. Engaging with evidence and academic reading is something that many teachers have not done since university and can seem like a daunting process to many, so ensure that there is structured support for staff while still challenging their thinking.

There are various ways to facilitate research engagement in your school, including sharing recommendations from colleagues and online (e.g. Twitter, blogs etc), investing in teachers’ access to educational databases such as EBSCO (provided through TDT Network membership), or arranging visits to other schools and/or training sessions to share best practice.

Pete Dudley, often seen as the person responsible for bringing Lesson Study to the UK, offers a wealth of resources and advice on his website (http://lessonstudy.co.uk/) while organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation tend to provided research syntheses compiled and filtered by academics.

After a few cycles of intervention lessons, where lessons have been planned and observed collaboratively, it is useful to bring in some expert input. This external partner or “expert other” might direct teachers to the best evidence-based approaches to extend and augment the enquiry project and refine the Lesson Study process.

  • Maria Cunningham is network support officer at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for professional learning in schools. She is a former primary school teacher and supports schools across the TDT Network with developing their CPD processes. Email enquiries@tdtrust.org

Further information

The Teacher Development Trust will be running professionally recognised courses on Lesson Study in London and Sheffield across the 2017/18 academic year, starting in October. For information about the Implementing Lesson Study course or (for more experienced practitioners) Leading a Lesson Study Programme, visit http://tdtrust.org/eventslist


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