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Can classroom enquiry be sexy and be policy at the same time?

Pete Dudley

There was recently a DfE call for evidence on Teacher Development to inform a national standard.

I am interested because I have pioneered UK Lesson Study – which I view as a powerful form of teacher development. I also believe strongly in evidence informed practice and policy. So I should be excited at this prospect.

I am – but also a little nervous. Here’s why.

Lesson Study (LS) is teacher-learning for pupil-learning and is gaining in popularity globally. It is exciting UK teachers and leaders more than ever and growing an evidence base as well. Fifteen LS research papers aired at EARLI 2015, from Cyprus, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. The remarkable thing about the growing Lesson Study (LS) research literature is how often it delivers remarkably consistent findings.

Fourteen years ago LS looked like a complex, unpredictable process. Three or so teachers work to improve pupil learning by researching solutions, identifying ‘case pupils’, jointly planning, teaching/observing and analysing sequences of ‘research lessons’ through which they iteratively develop improvements in the way they help their pupils to learn, they involve pupils in this and also pass on their new practice-knowledge to others.

Complex, unpredictable stuff?

Emerging findings from UK studies resonate with a growing body of international evidence suggesting that Lesson Study helps create teacher practice-knowledge that can improve pupils’ learning and that this is because:

  • LS processes slow down classrooms so teachers see pupil learning processes more sharply, in greater depth and detail; pool their collective observations creating composite pictures of classroom learning that none could have seen alone.
  • LS processes are replicable, portable, and forge teacher learning communities whose members feel safe to disclose vulnerabilities, take risks and unite in a joint endeavour of helping pupils learn: taking the observation focus from teaching to learning.
  • LS teachers relentlessly focus on the object of learning of specific pupils as well as the class. They micro-rehearse elements of research lessons that they collaboratively imagine; then observe; and jointly analyse; negotiating new understandings of what happened and how learning might be bettered.
  • Teachers prize LS: even those set in their ways, or initiative-weary, get engaged and enthused.

Equally consistently we find this endures only where school and system leaders ‘get’ lesson study, plumb in its processes, re-organise their schools accordingly ensuring sustainability and impact. Without such leadership LS can be frustratingly short-lived.

Finally, LS research suggests the quality of teacher learning in LS is optimised by utilising :

  • High-quality subject knowledge and PCK, with
  • Well-evidenced learning theory or application thereof (e.g. variation theory or formative assessment), and when needed with
  • The knowledge and guidance of subject expert LS group members.

But even without this, LS teachers always find out more about their pupils. And teach them better next time.

But as yet only one study reports an effect size (positive) for LS. Several UK studies are due to report – but not until 2017. And it’s a difficult ‘effect’ to isolate – especially when LS is so popular that ‘control groups’ are likely to get their LS elsewhere.

So why am I nervous about a call for evidence for teacher development standards?

When I think of the wave of energy currently surging around collaborative classroom enquiry-based learning (which should come out strongly in the ‘call for evidence’) I am filled with hope. Ofsted abandoning lesson grades has encouraged more teachers to explore observation of classroom learning as developmental rather than judgmental, and school leaders are beginning to abandon the obligatory performance management observation in favour of lesson studies ‘made public’. Video technologies are transforming and classrooms are becoming laboratories for studying and improving learning and teaching as never before.

But it reminds me of Black and Wiliam’s milestone ‘black box’ (1998) research on formative assessment ‘Assessment for Learning’. This galvanised the teaching profession, inspiring classroom enquiry, teacher interest in evidence informed practice, raising expectations and raising achievement. 

Problems started when it became ‘policy’ – or rather the acronym ‘AfL’ became policy, because government crassly used ‘AfL’ to refer to summative NOT formative assessment. This killed off much of the discretionary professional effort and enthusiasm for enquiry that had channelled into AfL.

I do not want Lesson Study to be policy-morphed into some form of back-door performance management

In this vein, I do not want Lesson Study (or any of its close relatives) to be policy-morphed into some form of back-door performance management. Because people don’t generally take many risks or admit shortfalls in the PM process, performance management, which is important, often kills off professional learning, which is its espoused goal!

Professional enquiry should be a right for teachers and for the profession. It could be the making of the profession!

But not if we clumsily end up grading lesson studies instead of lessons. So yes, lets respond to the call for evidence. But this time lets see whether we can’t also preserve enthusiasm and development of classroom enquiry, even if it does become ‘official’. A great challenge perhaps for the College of Teaching?