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Using Lesson Study to promote professional learning across a network of schools

Written by: Stef Edwards
8 min read

Establishing a professional learning community is a cornerstone of Learn-AT’s organisational mission, both as a trust and as a teaching school. Since Learn-AT launched in 2016, the development of a pervasive learning culture has been a strategic priority. Promoting research-informed professional learning (RIPL) that meets the professional standards for CPD (DfE, 2016) is a key aspect of this work. At Meadowdale Primary School in 2017/18, we used Clarke and Hollingsworth’s (2002) model of interconnected professional growth as a tool to evaluate our CPD provision. The extent of connections made between four key domains is an indicator of the quality of the professional learning activity:

  1. External Domain – engagement with external sources of information, e.g. research literature or a subject specialist
  2. Domain of Practice – opportunity for professional experimentation, e.g. application and evaluation of professional learning in classroom practice
  3. Domain of Consequence – salient outcomes, e.g. impact on pupils’ and/or teachers’ learning
  4. Personal Domain – relates to teachers’ knowledge, beliefs and attitudes.

Lesson study (LS), when skilfully facilitated and supported by specialist expertise, and when adequate time is provided for teachers to take part in a period of relevant study, can provide a CPD context that promotes strong connections between the domains of Clarke and Hollingsworth’s (2002) model (Perry and Boylan, 2018; Mynott, 2018; Seleznyov, 2018; Takahashi and McDougal, 2016).

Lesson study is a form of collaborative teacher learning that forms an integral part of system-wide strategic approaches to improving teaching in Japanese schools (Fernandez and Yoshida, 2004). It is increasingly prevalent in the UK and appears to provide contexts in which teachers can focus collaboratively on pupil learning, approach lessons critically, develop a sense of enhanced agency and engage with external expertise in several ways (Biesta et al., 2015; Stigler and Hiebert, 1999; Lewis, 2009; Dudley, 2011).

A lesson study cycle begins with team members (usually three to four teachers) identifying an aspect of pupil learning to investigate. They collaborate in an inquiry and engage with relevant academic research, authoritative subject or pedagogical guidance and/or specialist expertise. Informed by their new learning, they design a research lesson together. One of the team teaches the lesson, while the others observe pupils’ responses. Afterwards, the team meets to evaluate the lesson before deciding on next steps, sometimes repeating the cycle (Lewis and Hurd, 2011; Dudley, 2011, 2014; Takahashi and McDougal, 2016). Learn-AT schools support one team at a time to engage in lesson study for one afternoon a week for six to nine weeks. Two or three teams per school take part in lesson study each year.

Collaborative lesson research (CLR; Takahashi and McDougal, 2016) is a form of lesson study used by Learn-AT schools where LS is well established. It is characterised by groups of teachers working together on lesson design with (Takahashi and McDougal, 2016):

  1. a clear research purpose
  2. kyozaikenkyu (a period of supported engagement with authoritative guidance/research literature relevant to the inquiry focus)
  3. a written research proposal
  4. a live research lesson and discussion
  5. knowledgeable others (LS facilitators/subject specialists/instructional coaches)
  6. sharing of results.

In CLR, Takahashi and McDougal stress the importance of these features in an authentic Japanese model of lesson study, and especially of ‘kyozaikenkyu’,  the period of study and engagement with research literature and/or authoritative guidance, often supported by a subject specialist or ‘knowledgeable other’, which takes place before the teachers design their lesson. It can be challenging for schools to provide sufficient time and support for this important CPDL element of lesson study to take place. This means that it can sometimes be overlooked in models of LS currently practised in UK schools. This may limit opportunities for teachers to implement, in classroom practice, curriculum and pedagogical content knowledge that is new to the whole team. At Meadowdale Primary School, a CLR form of lesson study was the mode of CPD used to support teachers in their understanding and  implementation of strategies to improve maths reasoning and problem-solving in Year 4 (Takahashi, 2009; Takahashi and McDougal, 2016). In one LS cycle, teachers were supported by a primary maths specialist and a senior leader – knowledgeable others – who facilitated their engagement in the CLR process (Mynott, 2018; Takahashi, 2013). They worked together for one afternoon a week over eight weeks to explore the impact of introducing problems at the beginning of maths lessons on the development of pupils’ mathematical reasoning (Takahashi, 2009). Nine teachers from other Learn-AT schools came to observe the final research lesson and took part in the post-lesson discussion. Although further work is needed to understand better how the ‘knowledgeable other’ can best support teachers’ reflections and actions following their research lesson, teachers’ reflections on their observational data in their reports of lesson study outcomes suggest positive impacts on teaching and on pupil learning.

Lesson study and reading fluency

Market Harborough CE introduced LS in 2016 and it is evolving as teachers become more actively engaged in the process, following a period of proactive facilitation by the school’s RIPL lead. The final cycle of 2017/18 began as a study to improve teachers’ use of formative assessment in reading. Following observation of struggling readers, we changed our inquiry focus to ‘Why do some of our children fall below age-related expectations in reading from an early age?’ This collective decision to change direction prompted a shift towards more authentic collaboration and a stronger sense of joint ownership of improvement.

Our literature review concentrated on the role of reading volume to develop fluency and comprehension (Allington, 2011). We discussed the difficulties we had observed in a group of struggling readers and made links with the research literature. We concluded that, in addition to high-quality phonics teaching, children may need more repetition and familiarity with text to build reading fluency (Allington, 2014; Chard et al., 2002).

During post-lesson discussions, teachers agreed that children would keep a book to build familiarity over multiple reading sessions and to teach directly the key words in the book that pupils’ needed to read with automaticity. This strategy was shared with colleagues in an ‘open house’ lesson and a workshop at the Learn-AT conference. This approach is now an integral part of the school’s early reading programme and an intervention programme for pupils who need extra support.

Collaborative lesson research and vocabulary

Reading was a Key Stage 1 improvement area in one of our trust schools. A lead practitioner for English acted as knowledgeable other/CLR facilitator and supported the Key Stage 1 team to study research literature about reading pedagogy. The teachers selected vocabulary as a CLR focus and developed the inquiry question: ‘How can children’s breadth and use of vocabulary be improved through direct teaching?’ (Clarke et al., 2010; Beck and McKeown, 2013; Quigley, 2018)

A series of lessons was planned and taught collaboratively, with teachers observing and discussing pupils’ learning; each lesson’s reflections informed the planning of the next.  Discussion following an ‘open house’ lesson, to which the school’s SLT (senior leadership team) was invited, reflected teachers’ developing pedagogy in this area.

Following the CLR cycle, colleagues’ practice continued to change. They shared longer-term outcomes of their work at Learn-AT’s annual conference. Another cycle in a different key stage built on the positive reputation that this way of working, and its benefits for teachers and pupils, had gained across the school.


These snapshots illustrate our use of lesson study, or collaborative lesson research, as a research-informed, professional learning context that exemplifies Clarke and Hollingsworth’s (2002) interconnected model of professional growth. In addition to the outcomes described here, our teachers and leaders are engaged in an increasing number of pedagogically themed conversations beyond designated lesson study meetings, further strengthening the reflection links between the model’s domains. Teachers from across the trust led workshops or exhibited posters at the annual Learn-AT conference in August 2018 to share the outcomes of their lesson study work, on topics ranging from aspects of reading or writing to mathematical problem-solving and reasoning. Approximately 50 teachers in nine schools participated in LS/CLR during 2017/18; 125 teachers and teaching assistants attended five workshops on lesson study at the conference.

When asked about their participation in lesson study, teachers say that they value dedicated time to inquire and reflect together, and especially with specialist support, on questions directly related to their pupils’ learning. They particularly value opportunities to observe pupils’ learning in the classroom. Alongside other research-informed models of teacher development, such as coaching and teacher learning communities (Campbell and Van Nieuwerburgh, 2017; Wiliam, 2007), lesson study is contributing to the development of a professional learning culture in which teachers thrive and pupils’ learning can flourish.


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