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Lesson Study as teacher professional learning at scale among expatriate English teachers in Brunei Darussalam

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Jennyfer Townsend, Louise Pagden and Alisa Gin, CfBT Education Services, Brunei Darussalam

Discourses around teacher professional development (PD) have long framed it as something that ‘is done to the professional’ (Webster-Wright, 2009, p. 11), treating teachers as passive consumers of professional knowledge rather than as active participants. Research, perhaps unsurprisingly, shows that teachers perceive such training to be fragmented and disconnected from the realities of classroom practice (Lieberman and Pointer Mace, 2010). Essential characteristics of effective teacher professional learning have been identified by several international literature reviews: (1) situated in, and addressing challenges of, practice; (2) focused on students’ learning; (3) models preferring instructional practice; (4) promoting active teacher learning and inquiry; (5) involving social and peer learning; (6) occurring in a setting appropriate to goals; and (7) ongoing and sustainable (Darling-Hammond and Richardson, 2009; Van Driel et al., 2012). These core features are taken as leading to increases in teachers’ knowledge, skills and belief, effecting changes to their classroom practices that result in improved learner outcomes. 

Lesson Study as effective teacher professional learning and development at scale

Lesson Study embodies many characteristics of effective teacher professional learning, foregrounding the importance of forming teacher learning networks with the intention of working together on a common knowledge domain. We propose in this study that the peer-collaborative nature of Lesson Study is a significant factor for its effectiveness in being able to evidence changes in local knowledge and explore contextually situated solutions to problems and practices that occur in a particular context (Earl and Katz, 2006; Lieberman and Wood, 2002), such as the unique teaching and learning landscape of Brunei Darussalam. 

Evidence suggests that many elements of effective professional learning that lead to impact at a small scale can present challenges when scaled up (Wyss and Robinson, 2020). These challenges include increased costs, dilution of quality of training, difficulty finding trained and qualified delivery personnel, increased requirements for ongoing and rigorous monitoring, and contextualisation and addressing variation across contexts. The potential of Lesson Study networks to offer a cost-effective ‘sustainable ecosystem’ (Wyss and Robinson, 2020) for teacher continuous learning and development is of interest to any organisation with a large and dispersed workforce. CfBT Education Services is an educational services provider that has been operating in Brunei Darussalam, in partnership with the local Ministry of Education, since 1984. The organisation recruits and manages 200 expatriate teachers of English in 134 local government schools (97 primary and 37 secondary) across the country. The efficacy of Lesson Study in meeting the professional learning needs of teachers at a national scale was of particular interest to this study. 

An ESL-focused Lesson Study among expatriate English teachers in Brunei Darussalam

In 2021, CfBT commenced a Lesson Study approach to the professional learning of its teacher workforce. Of 200 teachers, 184 participated in a Lesson Study based around a common pedagogical theme: best practice in teaching ESL (English as a second language) in the local context. Participants completed a single cycle of a Lesson Study, modelled on Dudley (2013, 2015). Before Lesson Study groups were formed, the teachers participated in professional development workshops, exploring learning theories that inform current ESL best practices, with a view to applying aspects of these pedagogies in their classrooms and evaluating them in terms of their local context. Following the workshops, teachers selected an aspect of best practice as the focus of their Lesson Study and formed small (three- to four-person) learning teams. They were supported by nine lead teachers who coordinated the groups and mitigated the potential challenges in this large-scale study. In a Lesson Study, teachers collaboratively plan a research lesson, with one member of the group teaching it while the rest observe the students and take notes. The focus is on student impact and outcomes: the immediate post-lesson discussions analyse the lesson from the learner’s perspective. The team then decide on which aspects of the lesson were successful, retaining these and modifying those that did not have a positive learner impact. The cycle is repeated until all team members have delivered the research lesson. A final meeting is held to explore new knowledge and understanding, linking this back to the initial research and theories to see whether the Lesson Study appears to support or contradict them. 

Data collection and analysis

A post-Lesson Study survey was conducted, with a response rate of 100 per cent (n=184). A thematic analysis (Grbich, 1999; Braun and Clarke, 2006) of participant responses was conducted by: (1) reading through the datasets and making initial notes and comments; (2) generating initial codes by systematically coding the dataset; (3) collating similar codes and gathering all available data for that potential theme; (4) reviewing themes to check that the dataset supported the identified themes; and (5) refining the themes and their associations and relationships to one another in order to generate propositions. Follow-up qualitative semi-structured interviews using the success case method (Brinkerhoff, 2005) were conducted with purposely sampled outlier cases (strongly positive or negative responses) via Teams (due to COVID restrictions). A follow-up written questionnaire was also completed directly after the interview. The datasets were analysed using thematic analysis and checked against the initial themes generated from the main survey data.

Findings and discussion 

From the analysis of the data, four main themes emerged:

  1. peer-collaborative learning
  2. moving from theory to practice
  3. reflection and discussion
  4. Outcomes related to classroom practice.

 

A major theme that arose in the data was peer collaboration and the value of working in small groups. Although teachers often attend professional development input in groups, this theme suggests that the Lesson Study was perceived to be different in that it explicitly required collaboration. Teachers reflected on the benefits of working together ‘with’ others in small groups, as opposed to doing PD individually within a group. This reflects Van Driel et al.’s (2012) research, which shows that learning is more successful when teachers draw on the expertise of their peers. Within this theme, a smaller number of teachers made explicit links between collaboration and knowledge construction: ‘I get the chance to engage with my colleagues in constructing something meaningful.’ This theme was supported by the success case interview data, with one teacher identifying that ‘the most significant change in my personal development was the collaboration amongst our group’. Another stated that the Lesson Study highlighted the ability to collaboratively work to achieve mutual outcomes as a significant skill for longevity within the national system: ‘To survive long-term in Brunei, I think it’s important to not think of yourself as an island. Contributing towards shared goal helps to view oneself as part of a bigger picture.’ Nonetheless, despite most teachers viewing the collaborative element positively, as in Cordingly et al.’s (2015) meta-analysis, a few teachers found that the groupwork requirement posed challenges to their learning and development. One teacher, for example, remarked in the interview that issues can arise, ‘as everyone needs to take ownership and that doesn’t always happen’. Group formation across school sites was also a significant challenge, as teachers had to negotiate exit from schools during teaching hours and many found it challenging to meet for feedback and planning sessions. 

Another significant theme to arise was the way in which Lesson Study enhanced the association between theory and practice, which can be undeveloped in teacher learning (Juhler, 2018). Responses in the questionnaire highlighted this: ‘We had an opportunity to see the actual theory discussed being used in a real classroom setting.’ This theme was also revisited in the interviews. One respondent noted that the amalgamation of theoretical principles and practical application was the most significant impact from the study. She stated: ‘Theory without practice is useless; however practice without theory could be damaging.’ A significant yet unanticipated finding was that some teachers were surprised at the value of relating classroom practice back to theory.

The value of reflection and feedback, embedded within the Lesson Study process, was another strong theme to arise from the data, which is also reflected in the literature (Dudley, 2013). As well as more general comments about the value of giving and receiving feedback, some teachers commented specifically that the feedback was more effective because it was immediate and related to ‘classroom practice directly’ and ‘enabled us to give one another praise and constructive feedback on the spot’. For another teacher, feedback cycles within the Lesson Study process were perceived to foster ‘a greater understanding of how progress accelerated through the use of approaches used in the study, [which] helped participants [to] be willing to look at their practice on a regular basis and innovate when necessary’ – again, underlining the significance of a student-outcome focus within teacher PD (Darling-Hammond and Richardson, 2009).

It was clear from the study that the opportunities for collaboration, reflection and the application of theory led to significant changes to teachers’ classroom practice. While several of the comments referred to generic pedagogy, the majority referred to developing proficiency in subject-specific pedagogy, a finding echoed in Cordingley et al.’s (2015) meta-analysis of effective PD. Several teachers identified how the Lesson Study led to professional learning that was directly relevant to their specific teaching contexts, a key characteristic also noted by Lieberman and Wood (2002). One participant stated that seeing the impact on students directly in the classroom solidified the learning of the group, as ‘there was no going back now that they saw the positive impact of the approaches’.

Implications for the delivery of teaching professional learning

Despite the implementation challenges discussed previously (Wyss and Robinson, 2020), data from this study suggests that the perceived benefits of Lesson Study among its participants are similar to those indicated in research with much smaller sample sizes (Shúilleabháin, 2015). Benefits do not appear to be diluted as Wyss and Robinson (2020) suggest, although monitoring and evaluation become more complex and time-consuming. A symposium event was held to disseminate key findings from each group, as these will be valuable to other teachers within the same context. The research findings were shared via research summary posters, and a QR code allowed teachers from other Learning Study groups to access the research lesson plans and resources created by all groups. While this study was conducted in Brunei Darussalam, Lesson Study is equally applicable across international settings, as suggested by Uştuk and Çomoğlu (2019). In summary, Lesson Study’s collaborative and reflective approach has the potential to create a ‘sustainable ecosystem’ that leads to long-term professional change for both small- and large-scale PD endeavours.

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