Lesson Study as a way of Enabling Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

In the last post I tried to sketch out a possible model of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning which I think would be a positive foundation for developing pedagogy in HE. If such a framework is to be realised at a practical level, then ways of engaging in structured activity and/or research are vitally important. One approach, which at its centre is based on creating an understanding of the interplay of teaching and learning, is that of Lesson Study

An overview of Lesson Study

Lesson Study is a long established teacher-led collaborative approach which focuses on improving both the professional learning of teachers and student learning. The approach is founded on the principle that a collaborative process between teachers has the potential to bring new insights and professional development to their work. The collaboration, in its most basic form, is structured around collaborative planning, leading to the execution of the teaching session by one of the team, whilst the others observed, followed by an evaluative process where all of the team helped to deconstruct and understand what has been experienced and observed during the teaching session. Initially, Lesson Study is centred on identifying areas of difficulty in student learning, leading to the identification of a specific ‘learning challenge’. This challenge might take the form of a particular approach or skill that students often struggle with, such as the writing of a first long written assignment, a concept such as understanding ‘ontology’ within a research methods course, or it may deal with an area of subject content. The critical foundation for choosing a learning challenge however, is that it should be based around a focus which will bring development in student learning, rather than being a focus on expanding the teaching repertoire of the Lesson Study group. It should be stressed that learning challenge needs to focus on a relatively specific area of activity, and therefore if a group has a particular interest in the notion of threshold concepts it would require such large-scale concepts to be broken down into more specific units.

The learning challenge acts as the basis for developing a ‘research seminar’, or workshop/practical/lecture (from here. This breath of different teaching and learning context will be referred to as a session for ease) which tackles the chosen focus. Most sessions will only be one or two hours long, although there is no reason why longer sessions could not be considered in using lesson study. The group meets to discuss the chosen learning challenge and from this discussion to build a detailed plan of the seminar, which is to be taught. The discussion should centre around a deep consideration of which factors the group believe often responsible for the challenge occurring and how these factors can be best considered and taught during the course of the session. This can then provide the basis for a relatively detailed plan for a session, which outlines the order and nature of activities to be undertaken during the session, preferably with some notion of timings. Once this element of the planning has been achieve, the group then use their knowledge of the students who will be involved in the session to predict the types of observable response, and student learning for each stage of the session. At the core of this process is the discussion which the Lesson Study group develops as consideration and alternative ideas are shared and debated.

Once the research session has been planned one member of the group then acts as the session teacher, whilst the others in the group act as observers. A crucial aspect of Lesson Study is that observation is focused upon students as opposed to the lecturer. This means that observers are often located at either the sides or the front of the teaching session rather than at the rear as it is important that they can observed student reactions. During the taught session observers make detailed notes on the student reactions to the activities plans, including any similarities and differences to those responses which were expected at the planning phase. After the research session has concluded, the teacher in observers then meet as a group and evaluate what has been experienced. Once again, it is important within the philosophy of Lesson Study that the evaluation focuses on the learning of the students rather than the teaching of the lecturer and hence all members of the group, including the teacher should be equal participants in discussing the degree to which they believe students have overcome the learning challenge which they have chosen to focus upon. Where possible, the group can also amend the session. They have planned taking lessons from their observations, and repeat the lesson with a parallel group. If possible, another member of the group teaching on this occasion with the remainder of the members once again observing. This gives a basic Lesson Study cycle, as shown below


Lesson Study has been used as a method for improving student learning and teacher pedagogy. For well over 100 years. It originated in Japan in the latter part of the 19th century where it initially grew as an informal, teacher led approach based on developing professional dialogue, and from there developed into a more formal and national-scale approach to teacher development. This long-term development in the use of Lesson Study in Japan, has led to an national culture of teachers, self-improvement driven by the use of the technique across the school sector, and also in some University contexts.

Due to the apparent utility of Lesson Study, the technique began to spread to other education systems in Asia, including China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Indonesia. In addition, after the publication of a book called The Teaching Gap (Stigler and Hiebert, 1999) Lesson Study has also been increasingly adopted in the USA, and latterly within parts of Europe, including England, Norway, and Spain. The method has been used predominantly within a school-based context, both primary and secondary, but has also been used in a number of different contexts within initial teacher education; its use within higher education has been very limited as outlined below.

In school-based lesson study groups can be quite large, with between four and seven teachers, although triads are also relatively common. In these contexts and groups may also make use of an external consultant or academic acting as a ‘more knowledgeable other’(reference). The intention here is for an individual to act as a critical friend and source of expert knowledge concerning particular areas of pedagogy. However, it is not mandatory element of the process to have such an external presence.

Lesson Study’s spread to England also brought some additions to the basic process, pioneered by Peter Dudley (2012, 2014a, 2014b). Two major elements that were developed through his work were the focusing of the observational element of the cycle, and also a greater inclusion of student reflection relating to the learning that occurs within the research session. He argues that an attempt to observe all students within the group (within a school context this might typically be approximately 30 students) leads to a dilution of the quality of the observations made. Therefore, he suggests that each observer should only attempt to observed two or three students, but to do this in detail. As a consequence, he also suggests that during the planning meeting, the chosen students for observation should be identified and that notes developed on the expected learning reaction of students should focus on those individuals who were chosen to take part in the observation. This then requires thought concerning those students who are to act as a sample, leading to the notion of ‘archetype’students, i.e. individuals who share common traits with a wider group of individuals within the session. This might be based on ability, language acquisition or any other element of student learning which is relevant to the learning challenge.

The degree to which learning can be deemed to be an observable act depends upon how learning as a process is defined. Nuthall (2007) discusses the complexity of the process of learning which he sees as being reliant on both interactions with the teacher and with other students as well as individual processes, some of which might be observed (what he calls the semi-invisible layer), but others of which will not, as they are internal mental processes (the invisible layer). Likewise, Illeris (2007) identifies three dimensions to learning, the social, emotional and cognitive. Once again, much of the process of learning is internalised and is not observable. This means that any attempt to draw conclusions on the learning of students through observation alone will always be at best partial and at worst wholly inaccurate. Therefore, Dudley suggested the use of student interviews after the conclusion of a session to allow the Lesson Study group to gain direct insights into student reflections upon their own learning over the course of the session. Taking these two additional elements together, gives as a more nuanced and slightly different approach to Lesson Study, summarised below.


Lesson Study, therefore, becomes a potentially powerful tool for focusing on challenges which students face within their learning and the development of potential insights and solutions to help overcome those challenges. However, whilst lesson study has proved popular within education at a school-age level, there is far less use of this approach at university level.

Some research into lesson study does exist at university level, predominantly from the USA. Cerbin and Kopp (2006) outlining in detail the approach they have used, developed one of the most extensive uses of the technique through their College Lesson Study Project (CLSP). At its most extensive as reported by them, 150 faculty across a number of subjects were involved in the use of lesson study. At the centre of their approach technique is the idea of an emphasis on how students learn rather than what they learn and doing so by an approach they call ‘cognitive empathy’, which involves putting themselves in the role of the students during the planning phase in an attempt to understand the learning experience from that perspective. As such, they see a crucial element of the planning phase as being the development of sessions which make student thinking ‘visible’. Cerbin and Kopp (2006: 254) believe that lesson study is a very positive approach to building pedagogic knowledge as it ‘encompasses the full complexity of teaching and learning in the context of a single lesson.’

Some researchers (Becker et al, 2008; Alvine et al, 2007) focus their studies on what they learn from being involved within the lesson study process, both in terms of student and faculty learning. Alvine et al (2007) stress that lesson study is a very positive method for introducing pedagogic issues to young lecturers and postgraduates involved in instruction as it helps them understand some of the basic approaches and issues relating to pedagogy. This is a view supported by work completed by Dotger (2011) working with graduate teaching assistants (GTA) in an American earth sciences faculty. Here, there was evidence that GTAs gained both new professional skills and shifting identity through their involvement in lesson study which moved beyond belief that subject knowledge was sufficient to prepare and execute well considered learning experiences. Evidence from this research also highlighted that lesson study encouraged the development of a teaching community amongst the GTAs and led them to begin to consider their work from a more learning focused perspective. However, Demir et al (2012) found that lesson study was less well received by a small number of maths and science faculty who struggled to understand the philosophy of the approach and who also found it difficult to realign their thinking to consider learning from the perspective of the students. Even though the participants found the use of lesson study beneficial experience, Demir et al (2012) believe it to be important to help faculty understand the philosophy behind the approach, as well is securing a greater amount of time for them to engage with the process.

In a rare research project beyond the USA Christiansen et al (2007) working with Danish undergraduate pharmacy students found that the use of lesson study improved student course evaluations, whilst also helping to create a more community-led approach to teaching amongst lecturers. They report that by being involved in lesson study lecturers drew more on each others’ experiences and begun to create a shared base of knowledge about teaching which ultimately led to a better learning experience for students.

These studies demonstrate that there is a great deal of potential in using lesson study within higher education, but that the approaches taken need to be contextually relevant and sustainable. Below, we suggest one potential basic framework for developing lesson study at University level, but only as an outline structure which needs to be debated and moulded to particular local contexts.


Alvine, A.; Judson, T.W.; Schein, M. & Yoshida, T. (2007) ‘What Graduate Students (and the rest of us) Can Learn From Lesson study.’ College Teaching, 55(3), 109-113.

Becker et al (2008) ‘A college lesson study in calculus, preliminary report.’ International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 39(4), 491-503.

Cerbin and Kopp (2006) ‘Lesson Study as a Model for Building Pedagogical Knowledge and Improving Teaching.’ International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 18(3), 250-257. 

Christiansen, F.V.; Klinke, B. & Nielsen, M.W. (2007) ‘Lesson study as a format for collaborative instructional change.’ Pharmacy Education, 7(2), 183-185.

Demir et al (2012) ‘Constraints to Changing Pedagogical Practices in Higher Education; An example from Japanese lesson study.’ International Journal of Science Education, 34(11), 1709-1739.

Dotger (2011) ‘Exploring and developing graduate teaching assistants’ pedagogies via lesson study.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), 157-169.

Stigler, J., and Hiebert, J., (1999) The teaching gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom. New York: The Free Press.


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