Maths teacher and ‘Learning Innovator’ Shane Borrett, has led a group of 3 maths teachers through a cycle of lesson study. His account of this process follows.
The Japanese have one of the best education systems in the world, second only to South Korea in the latest global education league table. Their success cannot be attributed to one thing alone, but a mainstay in the Japanese educational research since 1870 is the idea of ‘Jugyou kenkyuu’ or ‘lesson study’.
What is a lesson study?
‘Jugyou kenkyuu’, is a Japanese term literally translating to ‘lesson study’. It is the process of a group of teachers collaboratively planning, teaching, observing and analysing lessons. It is a way for teachers to learn from each other in a low pressure environment and has made way into education from east to west over the last decade after the success attributed to it by US researchers in the last years of the twentieth century.
A lesson study consists of a cycle of at least three research lessons that are jointly planned, taught, observed and analysed by two or more teachers. Three is a good number as each teacher can then deliver a lesson and the group can build on what they learn from each one. The diagram below summarises the whole cycle of lesson study:
Initial meeting of the lesson study group
After bribing two other teachers within the Maths department to take part in the lesson study, we sat down and had a chat. We needed a focus. What was the key thing we wanted to improve in our lessons? Personally, for me, I found the class I was going to be observed with, struggle to engage in the lesson and with the work. They were a low ability class and were the class I had the most trouble with, a year 10 class not to be taken lightly! The two guinea pigs I had convinced to join me with the lesson study agreed that they also found that with their less able classes, it could be a struggle to engage some learners, so we decided on this as our main focus.
I was going to teach the first lesson; after all, I had initiated the study and had researched techniques to improve engagement prior to the process. It didn’t take us long to decide on what we felt a perfect lesson to low ability students should look like:
- Enthusiasm from the teacher.
- Praise effort, not outcome.
- Having high expectations of what the students can achieve.
- Lots of short activities
- Variety of resources.
Between the three of us, we came up with these key components to help engage and enthuse students and planned the lesson collaboratively with these in mind.
The First Lesson Study Cycle
Before the lesson, I filled in the necessary information for 3 students on a sheet like the one below and gave it to the two spectators:
The sheet allows the observers to focus on three students. I picked three students who were all very different. Student number one is the classic, ‘Cannot Be Bothered’ student. Doesn’t see the point of school and struggles to engage consistently and produces minimal work. Student number two, ‘The Chatter Box’. A student who can engage but at the first chance will chat and lose focus. Finally student number three, the ‘Quiet Girl’ who generally works well without fuss. On the sheet I explained what they are usually like in lesson and stated the usual outcome I would expect from them, plus the success criteria if the jointly planned lesson was to show an improvement in engagement, which was our focus.
The lesson we planned, I was excited about. The hour was divided into 5 sections of a starter activity, 3 learning episodes and a plenary. Something I had not tried before which came with its risks in terms of the correlation between time spent practising and ability to recall information. I took centre stage and over-acted, over-praised and set my expectations higher than some might think wise, and at the end of the lesson I was pleased. I hardly noticed the onlookers at the back of the room as their focus was on the students as they walked around to check hwo they were doing at different stages of the lesson. Before I knew it, the lesson was over and before the students were allowed to leave the experiment, the two observers questioned the 3 students they were watching. Questions asked were:
- What did you learn today?
- What did you enjoy?
- What did you do well?
- What did you struggle with?
- What would you like to do more of?
- What would you change?
Complete with the students’ brutal honesty, this allowed us, along with the notes of the observers, to plan our second lesson.
The Second and Third Lesson Study Cycle
Once again, my two converted allies and I sat down and we talked about how the lesson went and about the student comments. What came out of the discussion was positive, and although the lesson went well, there was still room for improvement. It was decided that we didn’t plan to use the teaching assistant in any focused way and all of the tasks were done individually with no real peer assessment or group discussion or anything of the like. It was decided that lesson two would build on lesson one with these extra components so we moved onto the second lesson study cycle with this in mind.
After the second lesson cycle came the third and now, here I am, writing about my findings.
What Did I Learn?
Following the complete lesson study, having focused on the engagement of less able students, I came away with a solid template of an ideal lesson. Some of the points I have already mentioned but they are all as follows:
- Enthusiasm from the teacher. If you aren’t enthusiastic about what you teach, the students are less likely to engage.
- Praise effort, not outcome. If a student gets a question correct, it is not a bad thing to praise them, but more emphasis should be placed on the effort and attempt. A student attempting two very challenging questions and perhaps getting the answers incorrect deserves just as much, if not more praise than a student of the same ability who does ten easier questions correctly.
- Having high expectations of what the students can achieve. A key concept in teaching to lower ability students is our own expectations. Research done by Robert Rosenthal suggests that teacher expectations can have a significant effect on student performance.
- Lots of short activities. Students who are less interested or even just students who struggle to focus benefit from concentrating for shorter periods in terms of engagement. This should be combined with repetition to ensure secure knowledge.
- Repetition and practice. Students are often told to revise little and often. This is particularly useful with lower ability students.
- Variety of resources. Students engage with all sorts of resources such as mini-whiteboards, computers, technology, card sorts etc.
- Use of a teaching assistant. A teaching assistant can be used to work with small groups or to help focus one particular student. They are a powerful tool in your classroom.
- Peer/group work. Has limited success with less able students as a student who doesn’t want to engage can coast.
- Feedback. Give regular, focused and specific feedback to the students that tells them clearly what they are doing well and how they can further improve or challenge themselves.
Underpinning all of this is the idea that intelligence can be developed. Students that are less able are often discouraged by low test results or being in a lower set. What they need is a teacher to have these high expectations of them and demand excellence. They need to be taught to embrace a challenge and be prepared to put in effort. During this lesson study, I noticed a shift in attitude with the observed class. They were by no means perfect, but the majority made a positive choice to engage and had a desire to learn because someone took a risk with them and demanded more.
Lesson study is a tool that allows joint planning, observation and analysis. Many teachers will spend their career teaching 30 pupils per lesson, by themselves. They become adept at managing situations, teaching different topics to different pupils and filtering bits of information from the thousands of visual and audio responses they receive in an hour. However, the use of lesson study allows a teacher to see what is going on in the classroom through a different pair of eyes, from a different perspective. It allows the teacher to compare what learning they think occurred with what an objective observer saw, and perhaps, the learning that actually occurred.
What was also positive about the lesson study was even though the other two participants were dubious at the start; they were quickly pleased they took part. It isn’t particularly time consuming (our lesson complete lesson study took 6 weeks) as it is YOUR lesson study and you meet when convenient. Also, the environment is relaxed. There is no real criticism or focus on the teacher. All the focus is on the students and the learning taking place.
Lastly, the lesson study allowed me to gather ideas from other people and to take risks and analyse if these risks paid off. As teachers, we rarely make time to review our own practise yet we constantly tell students that in order to improve they must review theirs. Surely we should be doing the same?