Lesson study is growing in popularity all over the world. This model of teacher collaboration, incorporating a structure of planning, conducting, observing and reflecting on (and perhaps re-teaching) a research lesson, has been shown to benefit teacher learning in numerous studies across the globe.
Research in the UK showed that participating in lesson study can encourage teachers to take risks in their practice, where they try new approaches to teaching and learning. Other studies based in the United States of America show that taking part in lesson study encourages teachers to specifically focus on important elements of student thinking and understanding, thereby benefitting students’ learning experiences. In Japan, Toshiakiri Fujii has said that lesson study is like the air where teachers participate in collaborative teacher communities as part of their regular practices and Akihiko Takahashi has shown that participating in lesson study supports teachers in implementing curriculum reform.
As a former secondary mathematics teacher, I was intrigued when I initially read about lesson study. This form of teacher professional development, sweeping from Asia to Europe and America, seemed like an excellent way to engage teachers in collaborative work and was just what I had been looking for as a teacher. In 2010 I had been fortunate enough to teach in a secondary school which was chosen as a pilot school for a new mathematics curriculum. This new curriculum involved changes to the curriculum content, but also incorporated changes to classroom practices which emphasised a problem solving approach to teaching and learning. Our mathematics department were very active and enthusiastic in embracing the new curriculum but, despite our positive disposition, did not know how to collaborate as mathematics colleagues. A number of meetings, where we had tried to specifically focus on designing lessons, had meandered fruitlessly and we resorted to working on our own and asking for collegiate critique when it was possible. Professional development was (and still is ) an add on for secondary teachers in Ireland and it was therefore difficult to structure or commit ourselves to working in a way which was very unfamiliar and unchartered for us.
When I began my PhD in 2011, I wanted to investigate lesson study in the Irish context. I was interested to see if this model could work as a school-based model of teacher professional development in Irish secondary schools and, based on our new curriculum, I wanted to see if participating in lesson study would impact teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. To give a little background on pedagogical content knowledge (or PCK), this is a form of knowledge which is unique to teachers. It refers to the knowledge that teachers have about how to teach their subject (and not just their knowledge of what their subject is). For example, in teaching an introduction to algebra I might use a variety of examples in introducing students to the new concept of ranging from an analogy of simplifying my orders as a waiter in a busy restaurant to using algebra tiles as a concrete resource. I don’t just show students I can do algebra; I introduce them in different ways which is appropriate to them. This type of knowledge is relevant in all subjects and teachers incorporate their PCK in their everyday practices and build on their PCK through their experiences of teaching and learning.
Thankfully, mathematics teachers in two secondary schools agreed to volunteer in my research and participated in multiple cycles of lesson study over the course of the academic year 2012-2013. These teachers had full autonomy over what research lessons they would plan, what classes they would plan the lessons for, and when they would meet throughout the year. In finding out if their participation impacted their PCK, I wanted to see if and how their conversations around planning and reflecting would change over the course of the year. I also wanted to see if their participation would impact on their practices outside of the lesson study group. In order to find out these things, I recorded each of their lesson study meetings over the course of the year, interviewed each participating teacher three times, kept a researcher log, and collected teachers’ planning and reflection notes, as well as some samples of students’ learning. At the end of the year, all of the data was transcribed and I began the task of analysing this information using a model of PCK for mathematics teachers (suggested by Ball, Thames and Phelps in 2008). From careful analysis of the data, I found that as teachers’ participation continued they began to incorporate more elements of PCK in their planning and reflection of research lessons.
For example, from observing students in the first research lesson teachers in one school (Crannog) realised that they had not thought about all of the different ways that students might try to answer a particular question. Building on this experience, they spent more time trying to think about all of the ways students could answer a question in subsequent lesson study cycles. This allowed them to more carefully choose activities to incorporate within the lesson, but also allowed them to plan how to react to or engage with students who went down an alternative route. In the other school (Doone), teachers began to design their own sequences of learning for students which were different to the textbooks. Teachers realised through their repeated planning, observation and reflection of students, that they could choose activities which were correctly paced for their students but were also interesting and motivating for them. Participating in lesson study led them to realise that they could deviate from the structure of the textbook and still successfully meet their learning objectives. By the end of the academic year, the vast majority of teachers reported in their interviews that they felt they had benefitted in their pedagogy from their participation in lesson study and teachers in Crannog continued to participate in lesson study after the research had finished.
Lesson study may be a simple model to explain, but is powerful in its potential to support and develop teacher education which benefits students’ learning. This research provides evidence that lesson study can work in a school-based context in secondary schools in the Republic of Ireland but, more importantly, provides evidence that participating in lesson study can develop teachers’ PCK as demonstrated in these two case study schools. Keeping in mind the importance of context and the necessity of backing from school management, lesson study may be an important way for schools to support teachers in sharing, collaborating, and learning from their colleagues and I look forward to more research on this model of professional development in both pre-service and in-service teacher education.
Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin Assistant Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics. University College Dublin
*The Teaching Council in Ireland will soon introduce COSÁN which is a framework of teacher professional development which will recognise teachers for their participation in professional development. This research is available in the International Journal of Lesson and Learning Studies available on the Emerald Link on this site.