Heuristics – making sense of the complexity of pedagogy

Over the course of a number of posts I have laid out a notion of pedagogy as the interpenetration of a number of complex adaptive systems (see here for the foundation of this expanded definition). Conceptually, what sits at the centre of this characterisation of pedagogy is the idea of complexity. Seminar rooms and the activities which develop within them, and the associated activities beyond (study, reading, discussion, etc) are such that we are not able to capture them in their entirety at any point in time – there are always elements which are beyond our perception. This leads to the idea that to research and understand seminar rooms and pedagogy is akin to looking onshore from a boat on a foggy day.


When we observe or reflect on pedagogic activity we are only seeing some of the elements present, and rely on extrapolation, much as we might use elements of the landscape as a basis for extrapolating and imagining the detail of the whole landscape.

So if pedagogy is the interpenetration of teaching, learning, curriculum, assessment centred on the tutor and students, how are we able to make sense of the inherent complexity in these environments?

When individuals first begin to teach, they often find the process of teaching confusing, stressful, and even, on occasion, disorientating. I would argue that this is because they are faced with the complexity of the task, with little in the way of structures for sense making. However, as they begin to understand the tasks of teaching, they begin to see patterns in the activity, how various elements work together; this leads new teachers to build heuristics. Heuristics are strategies which emerge from experience, emerging out of groups of similar experiences and in this way creating sense making in complex environments. Individuals often problem-solve by using their experience of similar past events, or knowledge they have gained from elsewhere but which appear to have problem solving potential in the current situation. This allows a level of ‘patterning’ to pedagogic work, and as a result, networks of complex relationships are ‘chunked’ to simplify and make sense of practice. This is a form of ‘complexity reduction’ (Biesta, 2010) where the system is understood in simpler terms through the use of personal frameworks of understanding. However, heuristics are prone to approximation and error. This can be the result of biases and systematic errors in the frameworks which have been developed. Therefore, tutors will tend to identify elements of practice which appear not to work well, particularly through the use of reflective practice. In this framing reflective practice is a process by which the errors or approximations in heuristics are identified and developed to improve the heuristic models by which we operate.

The opening up of practice to reflection and to research is a process of reintroducing complexity, of allowing the many interpenetrating systems to become open and explicit once again – it is the conscious reintroduction of complexity as a way of trying to understand practice and process more deeply. The reflection or research is then enfolded into new heuristics which develop and allow complexity reduction to be introduced to practice once more. In this way, cycles of heuristics are developed to make sense of the complexity of pedagogy through reduction, before opening up the same complexity again in an attempt to engage in activity to change practice towards new heuristics and better practice. In this way, new practice is developed through the generation of new insights and knowledge through action (pragmatism), but in the context of interpenetrating complex systems which go to make up pedagogy. Hence, this is a complex pragmatic view of pedagogy and its emergence. In addition, the nature of heuristics is such that theory merely becomes a way of characterising those heuristics. Hence, as we go through cycles of emergent change, practice and theory become different elements or perspectives in relation to modelling and sense making sense of complexity through heuristics. Finally, going back to the image of the coastline, the emergent understanding of complexity and its enfolding into heuristics over time mean that we can blow some of the fog away – over a career, with the development of wise judgement (Biesta, 2014), i.e. the fostering of ever better and more deeply understood heuristics in practice, we extrapolate less and see more. However, we must accept that patches of fog will always remain, the complexity of pedagogic activity is such that we will never reach a clear and full understanding of it.



Biesta, G. (2010) ‘Five theses on complexity reduction and its politics’ in D. Osberg & G. Biesta (eds) Complexity Theory and the Politics of Education. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers, 5-14.

Biesta, G.J.J. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers



Lesson Study – thinking through the possibility of a distance learning variant

Over the past two or three years, I have worked as part of the Lesson Study Research Group at the School of Education, University of Leicester. Over this time we have developed the use of lesson study in a number of contexts, one of which has been with post-graduate groups in education. Our use of the approach in this context has given us a lot of useful insights particularly in relation to the learning of international students with whom we work.

Over the same time period I have also been increasingly involved in designing, delivering, tutoring and innovating on distance learning (DL) courses at masters level. DL presents a series of new and interesting pedagogic challenges as the nature of the contact between tutors and students can vary widely within and between courses. Many DL masters courses do include some collaborative elements to learning, be it through collaborative writing tasks, discussion board exercises or through the use of skype or other video-orientated media. These give us some glimpse into the thinking and learning processes of students, but to a great extent DL remains opaque to understanding the processes students are engaged in, particularly when related to specific areas of the curriculum we believe they might find challenging; after all DL by definition tends to lead to tutors being as interested in summative pieces and outcomes as the day to day processes of student learning.

The complexity of capturing student learning processes is increased due to the varied professional contexts of students. Our students work in different educational contexts, from primary, to special education to higher education and across all time zones. This makes capturing and understanding learning difficult in any systematic way other than through the submission of assignment drafts and final pieces. However, to develop DL activities and curricula we need to begin to access other activities in a more systematic and critical way.

Lesson study works by identifying ‘learning challenges’, i.e. specific areas of a curriculum students struggle with, and then collaboratively discussing and planning enhanced and/or new lessons with the specific aim of understanding the nature of the challenge and overcoming it to aid students’ learning. In a face to face context the process of doing this might take the form shown in the diagram below, discussed in an earlier post.


Is it possible to develop a variant of this approach for use with distance learning? We can replicate the identification of the learning challenge based on past experience and past submitted assignments. One example is the continued challenge of helping students understand the concepts of ontology > epistemology > paradigms in research methods/literacy modules. Having identified the learning challenge, it is then possible to collaboratively create a set of activities to be completed online. Hence, the focusing and planning elements of lesson study remain the same for DL as they do for face to face applications. Where the main variation would occur is in the observation of learning. In our work on lesson study we advocate the use of observation of case students during a session, but accept that the insights are partial and incomplete. This is why we routinely record artefacts from students’ learning and carry out stimulated recall interviewing, as these give different, and often deeper, levels of insight into the learning process. For lesson study to work in a DL context this is the area where we would need to think about, data capture. The following is suggested as a possible way forward:

  1. The activities developed would require some form of process capture. This might be notes, concept mapping, the development of an artefact, such as a questionnaire, a mixture of these, or any other relevant outcomes.
  2. The students would complete the activities, but then would be asked to capture how they had completed the activities through some form of self-explanation. The easiest way of achieving this would be to use some form of screen capture software such as http://screencast-o-matic.com/home . Students would be given a series of prompts through which they would explain the process they had undertaken to gain the outcomes in their work. We would ask them to send both a copy of the work and their video for us to analyse, and then we would carry out short stimulated recall interviews to supplement our understanding of their experience and learning. Towards the end of these interviews we could also include some evaluative elements so as to consider further task design development in a wider sense.
  3. Having gained all of the evidence, we would then evaluate the activities as we would normally do for a lesson study cycle.

This DL variant would be a relatively simple framework to develop and test, but would potentially give us a huge amount of data on the ways in which different students interact with materials and how this helps or hinders their learning. As a consequence, we would not only begin to develop specific elements of the courses we are involved in but a more global set of ideas, principles and task designs might begin to emerge from insights and data gained.

Participatory Lesson Study – Making the capture of data in Lesson Study more explicit

Whilst Learning Study makes explicit use of variation theory (Cheng and Lo, n.d.) as a basis for analysing and understanding the process of learning, Lesson Study can be vague in establishing a link between learning and methods of analysis. Cerbin and Kopp (2006) use an approach called ‘cognitive empathy’ by developing approaches to teaching in the research seminar which make student thinking ‘visible’, in part by attempting to plan from a student perspective. Lewis (2002) considers the need to watch eyes and faces, and capturing discussion between students. Whilst both of these approaches are important and positive, in neither case will they capture the complexity of the learning process which students experience.

In attempting to base data collection on a more critical foundation regarding the learning process, we have considered the work of Nuthall (2003) and Illeris (2007). Nuthall (2007:158) emphasises the complex process of learning and its relation to teaching,

‘…how students learn from classroom activities is not simply a result of teacher-managed activities, but also the result of students’ ongoing relationships with other students and of their own self-created activities or use of resources.’

This means that a series of levels interact to make each student’s learning highly individualised:

  1. A visible layer which is that which is public and teacher-led
  2. A semi-visible layer which is the student-led culture, relationships and interaction
  3. An invisible layer which is that of the mental processes such as prior learning and working memory which is central to individual sense making.

This last layer is not visible and therefore we need to seriously consider our definition of learning as a starting point for developing a meaningful and critical set of methods for data collection.

Here, we have used the learning theory of Illeris (2007) as a basis for our understanding and capture of the learning process experienced by students. He characterises learning as being the amalgamation of a cognitive dimension which is concerned with content and individual cognitive processes, an emotional dimension which includes elements such as motivation, emotion and a will to learn, what Illeris (2007, 24) terms the ‘… mental energy.. needed to carry out a learning process’, and a social dimension which focuses on interaction between the learner and their social and material environment. This means that data capture based on approaches such as observation are still important as they are essential for gaining insight into the social aspects of learning. However, observation of individuals and their behaviours is not able to search inside the individual to gain insights into their cognitive (and often emotional) processes. The result of taking this stance is that we must say explicitly that any capture and analysis of the learning process will always be incomplete; to complete research on teaching and learning is always to work with the partial, the incomplete. Whilst we feel that this approach is appropriate, we believe there needs to be greater explicit discussion within the lesson study research community concerning the processes of learning which inform our understandings of this central issue.

Our alignment with Illeris’ (2007) theory of learning has direct implications for the methods used to gain insights into the process of learning, and also underpins our desire to develop participative approaches. As shown in Figure 3

PLS data capture

The inclusion of student focus groups is seen as helping the lecturers gain an explicit understanding of student prior learning and also which elements in their learning they believe are important for them to take further at a given point in time. The stimulated recall interviews, using artefacts from research seminars as a basis for discussion begin to give insight into the ‘invisible’ worlds (Nuthall, 2007) of students as they engage with the teaching and learning in the research seminar as well as offering extra insights through student afterthoughts. Any discussion which occurs will obviously be incomplete as not all elements of the learning experience will be recounted or remembered and some of the experience may well have been subconscious, or will only be made sense of more fully over time. However, to gain direct testimony from students, particularly when triangulated against research seminar artefacts is an important addition to analysis. These interviews also give the potential to consider the emotional dimension of the learning process, as our experience of this approach to interviewing makes explicit the affective reactions of students to their learning. Meetings, focus groups and interviews are all recorded and sent for transcribing. Transcriptions are then considered thematically to begin to analyse and understand the main insights which a project uncovers.

Other methods used to capture the social dimension of learning include the use of video and audio recording as well as observation itself. We stress that this is a process of augmenting data capture rather than the loss of one approach to be replaced by another.


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.

Cheng, E.C.K. & Lo, M.L. (n.d.) The Approach of Learning Study: Its origin and implications.

Illeris, K. (2007) How We Learn: Learning and non-learning in school and beyond. Abingdon: Routledge.

Lewis, C. (2002). Lesson Study: A Handbook of Teacher Led Instructional Change. Philadelphia: Research for Better Schools.

Nuthall, G. (2007) The Hidden Lives of Learners. Wellington: NZCER Press.

Some Initial Insights: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as a basis for Lesson Study

In an earlier post I have suggested that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) might usefully be investigated through the lens of Lesson Study. Three potentially important strands of SoTL were emphasised as being central to developing a deep, critical understanding and practice in teaching and learning. An activity led dimensional of practice which is emphasised and developed by Trigwell and Shale (2004) has many crossovers with the lesson study approach, including the desire to develop knowledge and conceptualisation of teaching and learning, and how this relates to disciplinary knowledge within given contexts, leading to an investigation, evaluation and reflection on both teaching and student learning. However, beyond this immediate practical utility, lesson study also offers the opportunity to consider the wider critical aspects of pedagogic practice. Kreber (2013) highlights the need to move beyond a simple ‘what works’ agenda to also consider questions such as why certain approaches might be used within a wider critical and moral framework. Using her consideration of Mezirow’s (1991) three forms of learning, lesson study has the potential not only to help understand and develop what is effective in teaching (instrumental learning), but also to consider why we see certain approaches as being desirable through understanding student experience (communicative learning) and through this to explore our own assumed values and norms as a basis for developing and realising alternatives (emancipatory learning). Such discussions will no doubt rely to a degree on a ‘what works’ basis, but only in the sense of using this within a ‘research aware’ sense to offer initial signals and evidence for developing rich approaches which are contextually driven. This then pointed towards the third element of our suggested model of SoTL, the need for an explicit moral dimension in practice. This is important in two ways, firstly, it asks us to consider our philosophies of teaching and learning as an iterative process embedded within collaborative discussions with others, and secondly, forces us to confront our own ethical stance as moral agents. At a fundamental level, teaching and learning is an inherently ethical task, and where we have the opportunity for open discussion with others concerning the development of teaching and learning through an approach such as lesson study, we are given the chance to consider and reflect upon our own philosophies and values. In our opinion, it is when such issues are considered and reflected upon by participants that lesson study has a potential to become transformative rather than acting as a mere instrumental activity to bring surface change.

Biesta (2014) talks of the need for teachers to develop ‘educationally wise judgements’ over long periods of time. Such judgements can only come from an engagement with, and understanding of, the wider pedagogic literature fused with the emergence of practice based on the ‘serious investment’ identified by Shulman (2000: 49). This suggests the need to move beyond instrumental and narrow ‘recipes’ to critical and more holistic praxis. Lesson study can be used as a relatively simple and ‘shallow’ approach to developing practice, if followed as a predetermined method and ‘given’ approach to developing practice. However, by fusing this method with insights from the field of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning there is huge potential for deep, critical engagement with issues of teaching and learning to act as a basis for continued development of pedagogic practice situated within the wider context of changes in the aims and practice of higher education.

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.