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Lesson study as an effective process to develop evidence-informed teaching practice of trainee and early career geography teachers

Written by: Amanda Bell
11 min read

Perhaps more than ever before, there is a real opportunity to develop communities of professional learning that instil habits of collaboration, deep thinking and critically reflective practice in our early career geography teachers. The current strength of partnerships between school clusters, academy chains and multi-academy trusts means that the practices and habits that trainees begin to develop during their initial teacher education (ITE) can be effectively embraced and taken forward in their early careers to drive effective and evidence-informed practice in our geography departments. The necessity of depth of knowledge for geography teachers, in terms of both pedagogical content knowledge and subject-specific knowledge, has been widely seen as essential and is now a commitment in policy through the education inspection framework (Ofsted, 2019), the ITT core content framework (DfE, 2019), which is the minimum entitlement for trainees, and, more recently, the draft initial teacher education inspection framework and handbook (Ofsted, 2020). This article explores whether geography teacher educators and school colleagues might work collaboratively, using the process of lesson study, to instil these practices of development of geographical pedagogical content and subject knowledge, and subsequent critical reflection (Lofthouse, 2018) of its application, into trainee and early career teachers’ own professional subject identity.

Winch et al. (2015, p. 213) argue that the ‘textured nature of teachers’ professional knowledge, requires a textured model of teacher education’, with educational research, past experience and the development of one’s own professional knowledge through critical reflection all playing a part. In a similar manner to other ITE educators, I employ a variety of methods of revisiting and interleaving these practices throughout the year, through both centre-based and school-based training.

What is lesson study?

Lesson study is a model of professional development that has been used in Japan for over 100 years to improve student outcomes. In essence, lesson study is the process by which deep reflection and revision of teaching practice occurs through cyclical research, planning and teaching a lesson, reflection and revision (Lamb, 2015). Over the last decade, it has been adapted from its traditional form to be used in school settings internationally, in adaptations that suit the particular educational contexts and foci (Dudley, 2015). Whilst the Education Endowment Foundation’s evaluation and summary (Murphy et al., 2017) of a particular version of lesson study, explored in Key Stage 2, found no impact on pupil progress, it did identify the benefits perceived by the teachers involved in the process. Both before and since then, a number of smaller-scale studies exploring the impact of lesson study, examined in differing contexts and phases, have found a range of benefits; indeed, Wood and Rawlings Smith (2017, p. 94) highlighted that lesson study had provided ‘opportunity to find time to engage in genuine and critical debate about pedagogy, subject content and student learning [and that] lesson study can have a sustained positive impact on classroom practice and curriculum development’. Researchers and research schools, such as the Southwark Teaching School Alliance (Seleznyov et al., 2019), the Teacher Development Trust (Weston, 2017) and Godfrey et al. (2018), have been exploring how impact can effectively be evaluated and the process refined to support teacher development and student progress.

Lesson study in ITE

Within ITE, the uptake and use of lesson study has been on a much smaller scale, largely due to the challenges posed by time (to undertake a number of cycles) and the logistics of trainee placement (Lamb, 2015). Despite this, a number of studies have emerged over the last few years that demonstrate successful adaptation of the process to the benefit of trainee teachers’ professional development, their subject-specific knowledge and their pedagogic literacy (Cajkler et al. 2013; Cajkler and Wood, 2015 Leavy and Hourigan, 2016).

Supporting subject specialist knowledge

A concern of the geography educator community is the dilution of subject expertise in ITE (Tapsfield, 2016). The commitment to ensuring the subject expertise of teachers at all levels is clear in various policy documents and is a welcome development, moving from more generic pedagogy to that of the geography specialist. Healy et al. (2020) highlight this sustained concern with regard to lesson observation feedback provided by mentors and its imbalance towards the logistics of lesson structure and classroom behaviour, which perhaps reduces the opportunity for deep subject-specific dialogue around the what and why of lesson and curricular content (Brooks, 2017). Healy et al. (2020, p. 22) also make the case for further research: ‘… we need a better understanding of the mechanism by which mentors can support teachers (trainee and early career) to develop subject identity and understanding through and beyond written lesson observation’.

It is here again that lesson study can play a part in instigating deep conversations for geography teachers of all levels of experience, around decisions of curricular content, student access of geographical knowledge and the how of instilling this into students’ long-term memory and ability to think geographically.

There are a plethora of ways that lesson study may be used as a structured process of supporting trainee and early career teachers’ development. An example to consider is in the challenge that teachers face to recontextualise the disciplinary knowledge acquired by research and at degree and postgraduate levels  in order to acquisition knowledge suitable for students to access in the geography classroom, discussed in Roger Firth’s chapter in Debates in Geography Education (Jones and Lambert, 2018).

Hierarchical lesson study

Forms of lesson study in ITE have tended to focus on a mentor (expert)–student teacher (novice) relationship, which benefits from the subject-specialist and pedagogic knowledge and skills of the mentor. These studies have shown benefits to both mentor and trainee, similar to those lesson study cycles undertaken in school settings, and, in addition, have engaged trainee teachers in all aspects of teacher noticing (Leavy and Hourigan, 2016). Indeed, the need for input from stakeholders with specialist expertise in forming a strong geographical identity is widely acknowledged in the geographical community, and Brooks (2017 ,p. 49) sets out the important role that the mentor–trainee relationship plays in ITE in terms of exploring a trainee’s own professional compass, by challenging their ‘geographical understanding and their preconceptions for teaching and learning’. Brooks (2017) also, however, argues that ITE should equip teachers with the tools to do this for themselves, with the challenges of a replication of the practice of experienced practitioners and the practices of compliance to meet the Teachers’ Standards not necessarily translating to a nuanced understanding of why, for example, some approaches are more appropriate in some topics or contexts than others. Thus, as Cajkler et al. (2013, p. 538) put it: ‘Learning to teach is not just a matter of following procedures or instructions by repetition or imitation.’ Research using this hierarchical structure of lesson study has identified similar challenges for both mentors and trainees, where the power imbalance leads to mentor imitation and trainees working in parallel with mentors, rather than in deep collaboration (Cajkler and Wood, 2016).

Peer lesson study

To mitigate the effect of these power imbalances, in the University of East Anglia PGCE geography ITE programme, I now use the peer-to-peer lesson study cycle, identified as beneficial on a number of developmental levels by Lamb (2015) in her research surrounding ‘embedding the cycle in the training of physical education PGCE trainees’, to develop trainees’ ability to apply subject-specialist knowledge and content knowledge outside of the more formal trainee–mentor arrangement. The merits and potential of building in habits of lesson study, which can be embraced by the trainees themselves, are of particular interest. This ‘habit of inquiry’, when ongoing, sets teachers as ‘the agents and source, and not the objects of reform’ (Winch et al. 2015, p. 207). The independence and the increasing ownership that trainees can take of the process during their training (a 10-month period for our PGCE programme) will, I believe, set them up with good-sense habits later on (Winch et al., 2015).

This model of lesson study is structured with one trainee teacher taking on the role of the ‘expert’ in the specific subject content and pedagogical content knowledge that trainees have chosen to explore (specific to the development of their subject knowledge and subject pedagogical needs in the context of the curriculum in their school placement), whilst another has the role of ‘novice’ in a joint professional enquiry.

  1. The expert undertakes further literature review on the area of subject expertise
  2. Joint planning between novice and expert takes place
  3. The lesson is taught by the expert (in their placement school), during which the novice takes on the role of observer, focusing in on a particular group of students, e.g. high prior attainers (depending on the clear focus of intention of the lesson study), and observes their learning and response to the lesson
  4. Following the lesson, both expert and novice reflect on and evaluate the learning that took place in relation to the teacher’s actions in the lesson
  5. The lesson plan is then refined and the lesson taught again to a parallel class, this time by the ‘novice’ (in their placement school), with the mentor as ‘expert’ observing
  6. Again, this lesson is evaluated and the plan can be further refined as necessary.

This cycle of lesson study is then repeated, with the roles of novice and expert swapped and different area of specific subject content being focused upon.

Within the training year, any potential limitations of the process can be mitigated. Of course, consideration must be given to workload. Pre-planning and time spent preparing trainee teachers for reflective conversations, observation and exploring the literature can be undertaken in centre-based time, drawing on the teacher educator as expert. The evaluations and associated discussions are part of effective reflective practice. Trainee teachers benefit from experiencing an additional school environment and student context, beyond that of their own placements (Lamb, 2015). Whilst it has been noted that time to undertake lesson study cycles and timetabling can be potential barriers to the process, with careful planning and a little creativity, the process can be developed in a scaffolded and structured approach, to support trainee teacher movement from surface reflection of the self during early training towards reflection of the learner as training progresses (Lamb, 2015).

Peer lesson study provides symmetry and balance to the relationship and thus, for trainees and early career teachers, creates a low-stakes, mutually supportive, non-judgemental and safe space in which peer collaboration can take place, leading to a sense of solidarity (Lamb, 2015) and the formation of communities or practice that are valued by teachers undertaking lesson study in schools (Wood and Rawlings Smith, 2017; Huang and Shimizu, 2016). Indeed, use of peer models of lesson study are widespread in UK schools, and the benefits of the process for teachers mirror the benefits found from research with trainees, with the cyclical process providing CPD and opportunities to develop subject teacher practices away from the processes of performance management.

Concluding comments

As ITE geography educators and curriculum leaders, we need to create innovative ways of instigating these deep dives into our trainees’ own practice during the training year, to instil habits of deep reflection, development of subject-specialist knowledge and use of pedagogic literacy in order to ensure that students can access and benefit from this knowledge over time. Alongside this, facilitating professional communities within our subject, where these habits and processes of reflection and refinement are embraced, is key to long-term improvement within the geography classroom and to enabling trainees to effectively explore their own development of professional subject identity (Lamb and Aldous, 2016; Brooks, 2017) during their early career. I will be supporting my trainees’ engagement with a combination of peer micro-teaching lesson study (Griffiths, 2016) in university and peer lesson study during their Placement B, promoting a safe and low-stakes environment in which to reflect and explore subject knowledge, pedagogy and practice, passing on the reigns of ownership of lesson study and their professional inquiry over to them for their early career and beyond.


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