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Using Lesson Study principles in a special school to improve teaching and learning

Written by: Alex Tomkins
7 min read
Alex Tomkins, Headteacher, Spring Common Academy, UK; EdD student, University of Derby, UK

What makes a special school different?

Special schools educate students with a variety of needs; most have diverse cohorts and often teach the most marginalised in our school system. The school in which this case study is set is a large special school, with 165 students aged three to 19, mostly presenting with severe learning difficulties, in over 20 different classes. Most special school classes are smaller than mainstream; in this school the largest has 14 students. All students have an education health and care plan (EHCP) and have individualised targets and approaches to ensure that they learn and progress. 

There is no formal training that can prepare a teacher to work in a special school. CPD (continuing professional development) has to be ‘cherry picked’ for the useful parts for a particular child or lesson. Teachers, through experience, build a detailed and often bespoke understanding of teaching and learning (T&L).

At my school, supporting teachers to improve their T&L has been challenging. Traditional observations and learning walks offer an opinion from a small snapshot of learning. Reflections on the usefulness of feedback have led to a rethink in how we can support improvement of T&L in the school. Through COVID-19, we had missed the way in which our staff mixed, mentored and shared ideas. On transitioning from the tight restrictions, we wanted to try something different. 

Lesson Study is a form of collaborative enquiry in which a group of teachers work together to improve their students’ learning. My interest was sparked on reading Sarah Seleznyov’s (2018) ‘Lost in translation? A look at how Lesson Study has been interpreted outside Japan’, and I reflected on how this could be used in my school. The article spoke about the differences in structure and how Lesson Study is used in UK schools. As a special school, we thrive on adapting ideas and personalising approaches. 

How Lesson Study was implemented 

Lesson Study use in special schools is not new (Norwich and Jones, 2014). We wanted a system that allowed teachers to explore T&L together, learning from each other. Our current quality assurance identified many capable teachers, while some struggled to understand learning in their classes. Much of initial training for teachers focuses on pedagogy and the impact that this has in mainstream settings, yet there is little research on the impact of pedagogic approaches with pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities). Lesson study could help us to support these struggling teachers, while offering our experienced cohort some quality mentoring/reflection time. I was conscious to try to stick to five key components of Lesson Study:

  1. identifying themes and groups for improvement
  2. formulating hypotheses and goals – the Lesson Study focus
  3. joint research lesson-planning and observation
  4. post-research lesson discussion, analysis and initial planning for the next research lesson (there will usually be three or so research lessons)
  5. passing on the knowledge gained in the Lesson Study to others (Dudley, 2008).


There are up to nine components shared by Peter Dudley on his webpage. Fernandez and Yoshiba (2012) also talk of the importance of ‘outside expertise’ for Lesson Study’s long-term impact. They explore how bringing in a different perspective can add value to discussions and push thoughts further. In my study, though, due to COVID and limitations on time, we chose to avoid this and have a greater focus on joint planning.

The challenge with introducing any whole-school change is logistics. How are we able to get teachers to meet? How are we going to increase capacity to allow teachers to observe each other? It was a bold task, more so as we were just coming out of COVID restrictions in February 2022. 

Like many schools, time was limited, but I took advice from Luke Rolls’ (University of Cambridge Primary School) account of how he implemented Lesson Study (Hargreaves and Rolls, 2020) and made sure that the project was supported within our CPD time, rather than through additional meetings before/after school. Fortunately, there was a craving for collaborative working, which reduced the potential reluctance of having other teachers ‘observing’.

The big change from the Lesson Study format was that we were not going to focus on one lesson. Traditionally, teachers would all observe one jointly planned lesson. In our school, having too many observers would impact the class and all classes are different. So the value of such detail on one cohort would potentially only have limited impact. It was decided to share and collaborate on the planning of one lesson per teacher in the group, all with a common theme. 

To give a structure and purpose to the project, it was important to select a theme that would work across different classes. Special school classes are often very different, sometimes offering a personalised curriculum or approaches, and can have different pedagogic aims. A common area that the school has been exploring over the past year has been around ‘engagement’, introduced as a core focus in special education in 2015 (Carpenter et al., 2015) and recently becoming an important statutory assessment procedure. In our school we believe that without quality engagement, learning is hard to achieve. With some of our least-able children, learning can be hard to ‘see’, while ensuring engagement can often be ‘seen’ in the classroom. It is a reason why creativity is valued highly and fun is encouraged in lessons. 

Engagement itself can be an abstract concept, though, with teachers having different perspectives. The time spent together focusing on planning and professional discussion through the Lesson Study project aimed to develop a common understanding across the school. 

This was a first attempt at running a Lesson Study project. A half-term was pencilled in for the project. Allowing CPD time and a reduction in other expectations allowed a real focus. Class teachers were divided into small teams, with an attempt to include different experience levels and class groups. Many staff have worked in areas (bubbles) for nearly two years and the project was a good way to see other practice in a focused way. Set pro formas were used, although mostly these were structured around a ‘mind-mapping’ approach. Teachers met early in the term to explore planning. Then, over the half-term, they visited each other’s planned lesson slot, as many of the lessons’ outcomes were planned to be met over the half-term. The ‘open door’ philosophy in the school meant that teachers could observe a different point on the learner’s educational journey. At the end of the half-term, a reflection session was organised, where teachers could reflect on what they saw and explore ‘what went well’ and ‘what could be improved’. The broad focus allowed teachers to pick their lesson; some chose more traditional literacy sessions, others PE and some more unique sessions, such as those using Attention Autism or Tacpac. 

Impact of approach

The impact of the project was measured through the feedback gained from the teacher participants; in the longer term, we would expect traditional learning walks and other assessment processes to highlight the long-term impact. But in this short trial project, it was felt that teacher perspective was important to measure the potential of further studies going forward. 

Overwhelmingly, teachers felt that the process was useful (83 per cent). ‘Time spent together prior to teaching our lessons was worthwhile. Seeing others planning and how they create ideas was helpful and interesting,’ said one experienced teacher. Another ECT teacher commented, ‘seeing other lessons, after exploring the planning, made the experience fuller.’ The senior leadership team was keen to step back from the study, and this showed through the feedback, including, ‘The project was great; although structured, we had time to really talk about a problem or area of learning.’ Another middle lea, shared,You could feel the buzz in the room, a real focus on T&L.’

The 17 per cent who felt that the project could have been better communicated that the time of year was not ideal (other assessment expectations) and the time given felt rushed.

During the post-research discussion (reflection session), each group highlighted any wider thoughts. These included thoughts around our planning documents and use of questioning. The feedback will support our CPD plans going forward. 

Overall, the trial was a success. Yes, we did it differently to the true Lesson Study, but it had impact. Reflecting on the project, I would give more time in the future for the project to run, also trialling a true ‘Lesson Study’ – one lesson-planning approach and allowing each group to develop their own focus. Going forward as a school, we would want to explore the ‘outside expertise’ and to think internally about our expertise and how to utilise this in the process too. 

Finally, my initial reflections on Lesson Study is that it offers schools a structure and gateway to being enquiry-focused. Its clear cycle and process can offer CPD that is appropriate to different class dynamics, approaches and systems. While traditional CPD can often miss the mark, Lesson Study can utilise professionals to empower their positions in the classroom.

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