John Elliott (Centre for Applied Research in Education, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK)

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN: 2046-8253

Article publication date: 5 January 2015


Elliott, J. (2015), "Editorial", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 4 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLLS-10-2014-0041



Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Volume 4, Issue 1

Creating space for teachers to focus on learning in their classrooms

The papers in this issue are all in different ways concerned with the problem of creating space for teachers to learn about the learning of their students in the process of teaching them. As such they can be connected with some of the themes explored in the previous Issue (3.3). I shall now attempt to show how.

In the previous issue Arani warns us that “Japanese” Lesson Study procedures – collaborative lesson planning, peer observation and the post-lesson conference – when transplanted outside of Japan do not necessarily confront participating teachers with the “cultural script” that tacitly shapes their practice by bringing it into their focal awareness. This is because they tacitly share the same script. Critical self-reflection may depend on involving those who look at the classroom from a different cultural perspective. In Japan, Arani argues, the idea of the “research lesson” is an integral part of the cultural script of teaching. Critical self-reflection on the beliefs and values that underpin practice introduces a dimension of reflexivity into the cultural script of Japanese teachers. The lesson study procedures constitute a form of research within the practice of teaching that is shaped by a collaborative and collegial professional culture. In western countries there has over the past 50 years also been a considerable “research within the practice of teaching” movement. However, it has tended to be shaped by a professional culture of individualism.

Brosnan’s paper in the last issue depicts a process of teachers resisting the introduction of lesson study into a national project aimed at implementing a new mathematics curriculum in the Republic of Ireland. The lesson study procedures – in the form of collaborative lesson planning, peer observation and lesson analysis – threatened to take teachers out of their comfort zone. Both Arani and Brosnan remind us that there is no quick fix to changing the practice of teachers, since what has to be changed are not individuals as such but the cultural script of teaching that shapes their professional practice. Changing this script is a complex and longer-term transformational process involving incremental and gradual changes.

In this issue Gero’s review of research on lesson study in the USA, and his survey in two elementary schools of teachers’ attitudes to lesson study, suggests that in this national context teachers experience difficulties with lesson study when it conflicts with the prevailing cultural script of professional individualism and attempt to adapt it in ways that match this script. Gero writes:

A final challenge to the effectiveness of lesson study is the tendency of American teachers to focus on the social and less rigorous aspects of the process. Teachers in this study seemed most concerned about the creative aspects of designing lessons, and the observation of each other’s teaching. The most common themes that emerged from responses to the open-ended questions related to collaborating and developing new ideas and approaches to teaching. While these are critical aspects of the lesson study process, there was almost no mention of analysing student learning. These results mirror the findings of Fernandez et al. (2003) who commented on the American teachers’ lack of a “research lens” and difficulty collecting and analysing data on student learning. The success of lesson study will likely require supporting teachers’ capacity and appreciation for the discipline and rigor of authentic lesson study.

For Gero one of the most critical features of the cultural adaptation of lesson study in western school systems appears to be a focus on teaching rather than learning. He poses the question of whether lesson study can be sustained as an approach to transforming the culture of teaching by casting a research lens on “learning” in the classroom. Such a lens will bring the assumptions that shape teachers’ practice into their focal awareness as objects of critique that have rendered the experience of learners invisible to them. Gero’s research in two elementary schools, in which he compared experience of lesson study controlled by a School Intervention and Assistance Team (SAIT) with experience that was more teacher driven, suggested that sustainability will depend on the extent to which hierarchical control over the practices of teachers are reduced and lesson study is more teacher driven. He writes:

The most significant obstacle to the success of lesson study in the U.S. may be its hijacking by districts as a vehicle to maintain the existing culture of control over what and how teachers teach. Many highly regarded reform efforts have failed without teacher support, and changing deep-seated characteristics of an institution is an often slow, inexact process. Still, the literature on lesson study in the U.S. reveals that some districts have implemented successful, teacher-driven models of lesson study. A critical mass of successful lesson study programs might generate enough momentum to sustain, expand, and overcome teachers’ opposition to district controlled versions.

Dotger and Walsh’s paper portrays a good example of a teacher-driven lesson study that focuses on students’ learning in the context of a scientific activity they engage in. An art teacher and a science teacher collaborate to help students represent their thinking about science lesson materials to observers in “research lessons” through drawings. It was hoped that through drawings in their notebooks students would capture key features that were relevant for their learning. The paper is based on a joint analysis of the drawings generated in the course of two cycles of research lessons that are informed by questions that had arisen about the drawings during these research lessons. The purpose of the analysis was to deepen understanding of the skills of representation that needed to be developed in science and art lessons, and which might further improve the quality of lesson studies in the future.

One of the interesting aspects of this attempt to create a space for teachers to learn about their students’ learning is that it was partly motivated by an initiative at District Level to develop learning standards for science and art as a basis for specifying measureable learning outcomes, which could be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. The authors report that the initiative generated a great deal of stress among teachers. They viewed lesson study “[…] as an empowering counterexample to the notion that teaching effectiveness should be assessed through standardized testing of students”. They wanted to demonstrate an alternative way, through lesson study, of linking teaching and learning as a more interactive process, in which students play an active role in representing and developing the quality of their learning in the classroom. Improved learning for students it is claimed is a more motivating goal for teachers than designing a system for evaluating them.

Creating spaces for learning about student learning is an aspect of a pedagogically driven change process, in contrast to one of standards-driven reform. In the latter students have no voice in representing their engagement within the learning process.

The paper by Martindill and Wilson explores whether practical work in science creates a space for students’ learning and by implication a space for teachers to learn about their learning. From their survey on research into the effectiveness of practical work in science they conclude that there is a lack of conclusive evidence to support the claim, of many science teachers, that science practicals support the development of conceptual understanding more than non-practical courses. They then explore the evidence to support the claim that practicals have an important affective role in motivating students to take an interest in the subject. Again they find the evidence inconclusive. This may be the case with younger students but as they get older there is evidence to suggest that many pupils come to experience practicals as repetitive and even a waste of time. It is therefore problematic whether the interest in science promoted through practicals is enduring rather than situation specific.

Martindill and Wilson’s own research into whether science practical work makes a contribution to conceptual learning differs from the research they review, inasmuch as it is research conducted in the context of the first author’s own practice as a teacher, drawing on evidence supplied to him by two focus groups of students reflecting about their own learning in response to questions that arose in the course of his and an independent observer’s (second author) observations in two classes. In these classes the object of learning consisted of the same topic and the teaching aspired to present similar cognitive challenges using a different approach. Practical work was a feature in only one of the classes. Moreover, as the researcher the teacher was in a position to ensure that the practical work was explicitly directed to helping students to use theory to explain their observations. Martindill and Wilson point out that in spite of teachers’ rationale for practical work as contributing to conceptual understanding many of them adopted approaches that failed to link observations with theory. The observational and focus group data gathered from the experimental and control classes revealed that students were better able to make this link in the experimental class compared with the control class. By creating spaces in both classes for the teacher to learn about his students’ learning the teacher-researcher was able to understand and resolve a pedagogical problem that appeared to defeat a lot of “research on educational practice”.

Teacher trainers in Higher Education Institutions are increasingly interested in designing pre-service and in-service courses that enable student and serving teachers to undertake lesson studies, as an integral feature of the professional practice as teachers in schools. Accounts of such courses have been published in past issues of this journal. However, it is still rare for lesson study to feature as an integral part of higher education practice itself, even when that practice involves teaching teachers to do lesson study. The paper by Soto, Servan and Perez, in this issue is an exception. It depicts a group of university teachers in Spain co-operating to study their teaching roles in the contexts of both on-line and campus-based versions of a master’s degree programme. The programme attempted to address the following questions:

How can we teach in such a way as to bring about significant, relevant learning with regards to the concept of educational innovation? How can we design the teaching and learning processes to reconstruct the practical knowledge of students (serving teachers) in this regard?

Its main aim was to enable serving teachers to reconstruct their practical knowledge with regards to educational innovation. In pursuit of this aim the group not only opted to follow the collegial and co-operative processes associated with Japanese lesson study. They also made use of variation theory to inform the design of the programme. In doing so they state that:

Perhaps the most important contribution of Marton’s variation theory to Lesson Study is to place the focus of analysis on learning and to provide a technical framework which helps to better understand the conditions in which relevant learning should come about, i.e., the type of learning which leads to a qualitative change in the way each learner deals with learning situations and objects, increasing the possibility of discerning multiple aspects which simultaneously influence how an object, phenomenon or real learning situation plays out.

For these authors variation theory adds value to the lesson study process by providing a clear lens for them to view and analyse together the learning of the serving teachers engaged with their programme. In other words it helps to create a space for them to learn about the professional learning of the serving teachers, who are their students, in the process of teaching them. And in the process they find themselves confronted with the cultural script that shapes their practice as university teachers and challenged to reconstruct their own practical knowledge. This is very well illustrated by their use of a digitalised group diary in which they reflect about their interactions with the students as they attempt to open up learning space for them:

One question which was very much present in these reflections was related to our role in the classroom and in tutorial exchanges. One of us tended to make longer, more structured interventions during the debates, whilst the other, with shorter interventions, waited longer for the student to intervene. These observations helped us to review our teaching role in this type of exchange, considering how to tip the balance: whether it was necessary to show our pedagogical architecture when analysing, questioning or generating reflections related to the topic under discussion, or, to the contrary, whether it was more useful to give room to listening and contrast among students before intervening. We discovered the complexity of the tutorial function, a process involving guidance and direction, where the questioning of the teacher acts, from a Socratic point of view, as a stimulus for students to discover the degree of coherence of their thinking and beliefs. These guided comparisons, strengthened by the Learning Study theory of variation, helped us to improve and also generate more tutored experiences and experimentation contexts than in undercover transmission.

This issue concludes with a first attempt by a group of teachers (Driver, Elliott and Wilson) to undertake a Lesson Study that is informed by Variation Theory. The context was an MA Module designed and tutored by myself, to support collaborative lesson study in schools. The authors of this study all participated in the programme, which consisted of a mixture of on-campus sessions and school-based group discussions with the tutor. The study has been through a process of independent review and on this basis accepted for publication with minor revisions. One of the interesting aspects of this study is the use the teachers made of variation theory in the context of a cross-subject, as opposed to a single-subject, lesson study. It clearly provided them with a common language for reflecting about the relationship between lesson content and the processes of teaching and learning. One question to explore is the extent to which the use of variation theory enabled these teachers to create spaces in their practice to gather data on their students thinking about the object of learning? Another is whether they were able to use this data to inform their teaching? Comments on this paper and the others in this issue are welcome. Every attempt will be made to publish them in the next issue along with responses from the authors.

John Elliott

Review panel members of IJLLS Volume 3

In addition to the International Editorial Review Board and Editorial Advisory Board, the Editors are very grateful to the following for all their reviewing expertise throughout Volume 3.

Dr David Aldous University of East Anglia, UK

Dr Irene Biza University of East Anglia, UK

Dr Chan, Yip-Cheung Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Dr Cheng, Chi Keung Eric Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong

Dr Sue Cox University of East Anglia, UK

Magda El Abbar University of East Anglia, UK

Dr John Gordon University of East Anglia, UK

Professor Terry Haydn University of East Anglia, UK

Assistant Professor Mona Holmqvist University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Dr Paola Iannone University of East Anglia, UK

Dr Angelika Kullberg University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Assistant Professor Law, Huk Yuen Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Dr Leung, Bo-wah Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong

Professor Paul Morris Institute of Education University of London, UK

Dr Anne Watson Oxford University Department of Education, UK