Learning Study and its various forms

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN: 2046-8253

Article publication date: 1 January 2014



Elliott, J. (2014), "Learning Study and its various forms", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 3 No. 1. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLLS-11-2013-0057



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Learning Study and its various forms

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Volume 3, Issue 1.

One of the exciting aspects of being Editor-in-Chief of the IJLLS is its potential to play a key role in the development of “Learning Study” as a disciplined, rigorous form of action research; in which educational practitioners play a key role in creating knowledge with action. The papers in this issue illustrate the sheer range and scope of activities that can be depicted as Learning Studies, suggesting that they may consist of a variety of sub-disciplines rather than a single discipline as such. The latter would presuppose at least some common features in the form of a shared problem agenda, organising concepts for understanding and tackling these problems, principles of procedure governing the gathering and interpretation of evidence, and standards to be achieved as criteria of success (see Pring, 1976). In this editorial I want to explore whether the papers in this issue provide a resource for developing a view of Learning Study as a disciplined and rigorous form of action research, while locating it in relation to other forms of inquiry that focus on learning.

David Hall's paper interestingly depicts an attempt to institutionalise the Japanese Lesson Study method in an English Secondary School as a form of teacher research. The main goal of Lesson Study, for Hall, is not so much the collective development of effective lesson plans but the development of teachers’ knowledge about the quality of their students’ learning experiences in the classroom, and the conditions that promote and frustrate learning in it. The Lesson Study method, which involves groups of teachers collectively designing and testing lessons through cycles of planning, peer observation and post-lesson analysis, is used to provide teachers with a structure for an inquiry that opens up windows into the world of the learner in each other's classrooms. In Hall's school teachers formed triads charged with collective responsibility for research. Their thinking needed to accommodate and take into account the views of their peers. Lesson Study method establishes limits on what might count as a systematic study of learning. Individual pieces of classroom research by teachers carried out in isolation from their peers might be judged to lack the necessary rigour.

The use of Lesson Study method also requires research into learning to be structured by the problems of teaching that emerge from classroom practice and by the search for solutions to these problems. The organisation of Lesson Study on a departmental basis in Hall's school suggests that problems of teaching are largely conceived in terms of getting students to learn a particular type of subject matter. Such problems also need to be understood from the standpoint of the learners as well as the teachers. The use of Lesson Study method to structure an inquiry into learning needs to accommodate the voices of students as a critical feature of such inquiry. In Hall's school the use of “student voice co-ordinators” becomes an important means of deepening teachers’ understanding of the ways their students learn. They enhance Lesson Study as a disciplined method of inquiry.

Hall's paper also pinpoints the organisational implications of Lesson Study as a form of disciplined teacher research. He argues that it needs to be well embedded in the organisational structure of the school to be sustainable as a platform on which to generate and test teachers’ pedagogical knowledge. Hall demonstrates how the degree of structural integration determines the extent to which teachers are able to use Lesson Study as a form of research to improve their classroom practice. He neatly summarises the factors he judges a high-quality school-based form of teacher research to rest on, namely:

[....] the quality of the collaboration within the team, the extent to which the lesson study process is followed, the extent to which the focus of research is on the everyday reality of teachers, the extent to which the research is reflected upon and shared with others and finally the capacity provided and supported by a fundamental refocusing of the school's professional calendar to raise the profile and importance of teachers being involved in research. If these fundamental elements are emphasised and established then teachers will engage in research and see the explicit benefit for themselves and their students.

Although the Lesson Study method may provide important resources for the development of a discipline of Learning Study, it often appears to neglect the contribution of the educational theorist and the potential of an educational theory for structuring and disciplining Learning Study. In this issue the reader will find two Swedish Learning Studies, which make use of the Japanese Lesson Study method while integrating it with the use of Variation Theory as a pedagogical tool to sustain a shared focus on learning and provide a common language with which to talk about pedagogical problems that arise in classrooms.

This journal has published a number of Lesson Studies informed by Variation Theory and renamed “Learning Studies”. The integration was first accomplished in Hong Kong schools by Lo Mun Ling and her colleagues at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, and has now become increasingly established in Sweden as a form of research in which teachers collaborate with academics to test and refine the theory through experimentation in their classrooms. A good example of this collaboration can be found in Bergentoft and Holmqvist's paper on “Theory-based instruction " a key to powerful improvements when learning to regulate body tension in an upper secondary school”:

The use of the theoretical framework had effect on the teachers to vary only the most important aspects in the instruction in the last cycle, where the features chiselled out during the study (e.g. heart rate, respiration, muscle tension) were contrasted more clearly, which had an impact on the students’ learning. Based on the theoretical framework, the teachers got more skilled at experiencing what should vary and what should be kept invariant in order to facilitate the students’ learning. In the last intervention, the teachers found one pattern of variation which was more powerful than the previous. In this one, the physical activities were kept invariant, but different responses of the sympathetic nervous system were contrasted, one at a time, to establish knowledge responses to tension.

The paper by Wallerstedt, an academic working with a single teacher undertaking a “Learning Study” on musical composition, explores the fit between the language of Variation Theory and the subject matter:

A meta-question was addressed in the beginning of the study, on how variation theory can be applied to research on music education. As an answer to this question, something interesting has been found. The recent trend in the development of variation theory is to stress the importance of contrast (Marton, 2013). Contrasts have also constituted a central aspect of this study, both in terms of the children's spontaneous use of contrasts in the first lessons, and the contrasts that the children in the third lesson were able to create and discern with the help from the teacher.

In this context Wallerstedt found that the theoretical framework needed to be revised to fit the subject matter. Contrast is conceptually differentiated from variation as significant for the discernment of critical features and accommodated in the theoretical framework. However, the teacher was unable in the context of the subject matter to fully use Variation Theory to sustain a focus on learning. Her research increasingly focused on teaching method. This study is a good example of how it is very difficult for teachers to sustain a focus on learning in their research when operating as a lone practitioner and encountering problems in matching the theoretical framework to the subject matter. However, the academic observer was able to make use of her collaboration with the teacher to contribute to the development of Variation Theory. Hence, we must distinguish between Learning Study as a form of academically led inquiry, albeit with collaborating teachers, aimed at the development of a theoretical framework, and Learning Study as the experimental use of a theory as a tool for generating pedagogical knowledge.

In Lo Mun Ling's book Variation Theory and the Improvement of Teaching And Learning, Gothenburg University Press, 2012 (see the review by Isak and Posch, 2013), she argues that learning theories can be explored on three levels. First there is a philosophical inquiry, in which the questions raised seek answers to questions about what is worth learning and why and how such answers might be justified in terms of a particular world view about the relationship between human beings, their world, and each other. Hogan's book, The New Significance of Learning, Routledge 2010, reviewed by Sockett in this issue, provides such a philosophical account of the nature of learning. This journal is open to reviewing such level 1 learning studies and acknowledging their intrinsic contestability by encouraging debate about them. Hence, this issue includes a response from Hogan to Sockett's review.

The second level inquiry into Learning, Lo argues, presupposes level 1 thinking but focuses on the basic questions of “what is learning?” and “how can effective learning take place?” Its outcomes take the form of a theoretical framework that can be used to explain “why some teachers are more effective than others in bringing learning about for their students”. She describes how in Hong Kong she began to work with Ference Marton, who initially led the development of Variation Theory in Sweden (see Marton and Booth, 1997, Learning and Awareness, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates) on the use of this theory as an explanatory framework. Both in Sweden and Hong Kong the development of the theory proceeded through a series of Design Experiments. Although teachers co-operated with academic researchers in this process the leadership roles in the research rested with the latter. This journal is also open to publishing reviews of such level 2 studies.

However, Lo as a teacher educator came to the realisation that there is a third level of inquiry into learning theories; namely, developing and testing their use as instructional theories in real contexts of learning. She argues that the systematic use of learning theories by teachers to inform their teaching by testing their practicality has been slow. Her achievement in this regard in Hong Kong with respect to developing teachers’ capability to develop and test Variation Theory as a pedagogical tool is quite remarkable. This was accomplished by transforming Japanese Lesson Study into a method for developing and testing the theory as a pedagogical tool. Such a transformation removed a great deal of ambiguity surrounding Lesson Study as a method of inquiry. The integration of Variation Theory unambiguously turned it into a method for Learning Study. In this way a form of teachers’-based action research provided a context for a theory-informed pedagogy. In this issue the process is well illustrated in Bergentoft and Holmqvist's account of a Learning Study in a Swedish Secondary School:

This study aims to explore in what way gradually increasing teachers’ theory-based instruction affects the students’ learning outcomes, illustrated by the example of learning how to regulate body tension in the upper secondary school. In total, 72 students from four classes participated in the study. The way the students were offered to understand “regulation of tension” was designed by variation theory, and the method used was learning study, an iterative process whereby the results from the first lesson are the basis for the design of the next implementation in a new group of students.

Action-research-based learning studies do not have to be organised exclusively around units of time called “lessons”, which have traditionally segmented items of content to be learned in the short term. A disciplined form of teacher research might focus in addition on the problems of developing in the longer term certain kinds of generic capabilities in relation to subject matter more generally, such as those associated for example with “independent and self-directed learning”, or “co-operative learning” or “action-learning”. This does not imply that such generic capabilities can be developed outside the context of learning particular types of content in the form of concepts, skills, and values. It simply implies that when they are the primary focus of a Learning Study “lessons” can no longer form the only category for organising the research findings. Subject-specific pedagogical knowledge needs to be distinguished from generic pedagogical knowledge. Lo argues that one of the strengths of Variation Theory is that it can be used as a pedagogical tool for jointly developing subject-specific and generic pedagogical knowledge. It resolves the apparent conflict between these two views of pedagogical aims. From the standpoint of Variation Theory the objects of learning have two aspects that cannot be learned in isolation; the subject-specific knowledge and skill to be learned and the general capabilities that can be developed through the learning of the specific aspect. Hence an action research-based Learning Study may not simply focus on a cycle of lessons with a specific content, but with the longer-term development of generic capabilities, such as higher order thinking skills, through a series of lessons.

Stoten's paper on the extended project qualification within the context of the A-level Examination System in British Sixth Form Colleges, where it features as half an A-level (AS-level) course, may be viewed as an account of a Learning Study, involving teachers and students, which explores issues surrounding the development of a particular generic capability; namely, that of self-regulated and independent learning. He depicts his own role in the study as that of a teacher-researcher who has had practical experience of the programme on both the college study sites.

Stoten provides examples of the kinds of projects involved:

There are two principal routes by which a student may submit an EPQ. One route involves undertaking a highly focussed investigation into a topic not studied as part of a student's study programme, and the research subsequently written up as a 5,000 word report. For example, typical project titles have been: “the role of the hero in English Literature”; the anatomy of Bats’ wings; the scientific importance of the Voyager space craft; to what extent was Akhenaten a revolutionary? Alternatively, a student may wish to create an “artefact” " a CD or original music, a unique piece of art work, or something else entirely original and substantive in nature. In addition, the student would be required to submit a research report of approximately 1,000 words explaining the creative processes involved in producing the “artefact”. In addition, all students are required to meet with a supervisor and maintain a record to log the learning process and to give a ten minute presentation on their project to an audience upon completion.

In addition to developing subject-specific knowledge or skills students have an opportunity in a project-based programme to develop generic capabilities associated with self-regulated learning. They select the specific content they wish to learn about, not via the traditional teaching methods that apply in most A-level subjects, but via a process of self-regulated learning where the teacher is cast in the role of a research supervisor.

Stoten clarifies the theoretical underpinnings of the notion of self-regulated learning in information processing and social cognition theory, and the way they shape pedagogical discourse on the part of those aiming to develop it, as a capability that has value both in the context of Learning in Higher Education and in the wider post-Fordist knowledge-based economy. He argues that SRL studies will be concerned “with the generation and analysis of differences in student motivation and learning”, posing “issues of motivation, goal setting and metacognition” as “central to the discourse on self-regulated learning”. Indeed the findings of this particular SRL study depict improvements in the quality of students’ learning experiences compared with traditional A-level courses, as indicated by increased levels of motivation to learn, which are enhanced by the acquisition of independent research skills and the ability to engage successfully with extended writing tasks. The teachers involved in the study, however, although generally supporting the radical shift in the roles of students and themselves, felt challenged by the pedagogical issues this posed for them. For example:

how to deal with the complexities of students’ motivations to learn and how they organise their learning;

how to relate pedagogically to the social and cultural context in which students regulate their learning; and

how to pedagogically empower students with the sovereignty to learn.

Such questions emerged from a practice informed by a theory of self-regulated learning, and helped to shape an agenda for a Learning Study.

In this issue we break new ground by publishing a peer reviewed research poster depicting a study of a process of self-regulated peer learning aimed at developing pre-service teachers’ capabilities for reflective practice during their practicum. Lamb, the author, presented the poster entitled “A training buddy peer-review process” at the WALS 2013 Conference in Gothenburg. The study focused on enabling trainee teachers to gain ownership over a peer review process that enabled mutual learning to take place during their school placements. Such ownership included giving each duo of student teachers control over the organisation of the reflective spaces in which they conversed about video records of each others’ practice. The study depicted in the poster takes the form of an action research-based Learning Study of an attempt to realise a process of self-regulated peer learning, as opposed to a process involving solitary individuals. It is also informed by theory and research about learning to teach.

Lau, Kwong, Chong, and Wong describe a study that combines student survey research with qualitative interviews, to map the student experience of a co-operative learning project that is designed to develop their teamwork skills. The project was pre-ceded by a training workshop and introduced into the first-year undergraduate curriculum in a Hong Kong university, whose students were partly drawn from the Chinese mainland. The study attempts to assess the development of generic capabilities that are valued in the wider society by employers, but it is claimed are neglected in the school system. The questionnaires used in the surveys, before and after the activity, were based on the extensive research literature in the west on team member effectiveness. It is called the Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness Skills. The qualitative interview data provided a basis for interpreting the survey findings, such as differences of attitude towards teamwork between Hong Kong students and those from Mainland China, and identifying culturally biased survey questions.

Although the inquiry into developing students’ teamwork skills in a co-operative learning project is in a sense a Learning Study it is very different from the others depicted in this issue. It does not claim to have played an important formative role in the development of the co-operative learning project itself or to be testing the practicality of a learning theory. It appears to be a piece of outsider research whose value resides in providing decision makers, possibly faculty managers, with an information service about the effectiveness of a co-operative learning activity aimed at developing skills valued by employers, and about ways in which it might be improved in the future. It therefore takes the form of a curriculum evaluation. This journal is also open to publishing learning studies cast in the form of evaluations of curriculum innovations that are aimed at providing information for decision makers.

Harrington's paper is a report on a process of participatory action research aimed at the development of innovatory forms of dance (choreutics). Her action research she claims:

[....] dealt with making performance that explored the relationship between live and filmed movement in live and filmed spaces.

In this respect Harrington depicts choreography as a form of action research. However, as she explains, she:

[.... planned to integrate the research within two modules in the final year of a BA (Hons) Dance degree. Ultimately, the research spanned over four years with each year bringing forward a new research cycle with a new group of students. There were 38 students in cycle one, 39 students in cycle two, 50 students in cycle three, and 20 students in cycle four " this smaller number reflected the change in degree structure. Students were of mixed gender and age in their final year of dance studies, although the majority were female and under the age of 25. The research was undertaken over thirty consecutive weeks each year. Direct contact time with students was four hours per week and associated study time was eight hours a week. Participants in each cycle included the author/the researcher/me, the students/the researchers/them, one graduate research assistant, four members of staff from the dance team, collaborators from architecture, sound and film disciplines and other audiences, including those in public performances.

Students became participants in the research process and this introduced a pedagogical dimension in addition to the choreographic dimension to Harrington's research. She writes “I also wanted to develop a pedagogical approach to facilitate this research with my final year students”. The choreographic inquiry as a form of participant research involving students depended on the reflective development of a pedagogy to sustain it. Her paper, therefore, explores the inter-connectivity between choreographing a performance through participant research with students and pedagogically establishing conditions for engaging students in the research. Both choreography and pedagogy Harrington claims, as creative activities, can be cast in an inquiry mode involving questioning, exploring, and developing ideas and concepts while remaining activities of planning, designing, and devising.

Harrington's conception of choreography as a form of performance-based research stemmed from her experience of watching a performance that challenged her presumptions about the discipline of dance. She writes:

I was influenced by my own experience of watching live dance performance that included projected images on a large screen at the rear of a performance space. As a viewer I had been perplexed. I could not come to terms with what I was seeing. Whereas I was fully aware of the exciting potential of montage or the juxtaposition of one image with another, I was less able to digest both the live and mediated images at the same time. There was too much “going on” to make any sense of my experience as a viewer. There were clashes between unrelated images, speeds and timings of actions, live performers and filmed people, events and visual occurrences that, in total, were non-negotiable. I assumed that the crafting decisions made by the director and/or choreographer had not been thought through from the audience perspective. Another possibility could have been that random processes of combining live and recorded material were devised to create a series of unexpected discourses between the two media. Nevertheless, the performance did not “work” for me, or for my students and colleagues who also viewed the work. I wanted to explore some alternative responses and solutions, and to investigate the meeting points between my discipline (dance) and other disciplines, including new technologies. I devised a research question: How do we make innovative work that explores the relationship between live and filmed movement in live and filmed spaces?

In pedagogically sustaining a process of performance-based participatory research with groups of students over a four-year period Harrington was able to contribute to the development of a theory of dance (choreutics) that helped to redefine the discipline and its relation to other disciplines, such as film and architecture. Hence the transformational potential of what Harrington calls “choreographic pedagogies”. This potential she argues is unlocked by a participatory research process in which both choreography and pedagogy have bodies in common. Her study may be regarded as a Learning Study in two respects. As a choreographic inquiry initiated by her it may be regarded as a study of her own learning about the form of the dance. Learning is cast as research. As a pedagogical inquiry it may be regarded as a study of how she can help her students deepen their understanding of the form of the dance by participating in research. Harrington gives the following account of the evolving inter-connectivity between these two aspects of her Learning Study:

The research was planned and led by me, the author. I was also the choreographer and the teacher within an HE context. My research question (see above) brought into play investigations into movement, space and place and digital media " or dance, architecture and film, as disciplines. " As a starting point I had devised a solution to the question that would solve the problem. As teacher and choreographer I started with my idea and explored its potential with my students. My approach was progressive and developmental, and aimed to facilitate creative explorations of my key concept " the body as architecture in the articulation and experience of space and place, and the role of the camera in re-creating that experience in a new performance space. I set out the method and choreographed (as teacher and maker) from the “outside”. Initially, I presented the material, the students learnt the material, we contextualised and framed the material, applied it and explored scenarios designed to address our question, using the material. Typical of both pedagogical and choreographic practices, I reflected on this approach with my students, analysed and evaluated the outcomes. I then re-choreographed and re-designed the methods to reflect the experiences and responses of the participants.

By the end of cycle one my approach had shifted and changed in response to new discoveries, possibilities and directions. Engage more from the inside of performance practice, as a co-participant in the creative process and in the act of dancing. Equally the students became more cognizant of the “inter-connections” between the performer and the choreographer, and this was reflected closely in the developing relationship between teacher and learner as co-creators of knowledge and understanding.

“Choreographic pedagogies” address questions that can only be answered by creating innovatory forms of movement. Moreover, Harrington's paper shows how such questions get redefined through the cyclical process of research, which she engages different groups of students in:

Each year the teaching and learning model was revised to take account of the previous year's findings. Material that was effective and essential to the plan was retained from one cycle to the next. Initially, I was testing a hypothesis but after cycle one I was asking new questions, refining methodologies, and responding to and reflecting on new phenomena and interpretations " By cycle three the main research question had changed to:

How do we make innovative work that explores the relationship between the body, space/place and digital media?

This new overarching question highlighted the development away from the disciplines of performance, architecture and film towards the inter-related concepts associated with the body, space and digital media.

Harrington provides us with an account of what Stenhouse depicted as “Research-based teaching” (Stenhouse, 2012). For Stenhouse the aim of teaching is not the transmission of “authoritative knowledge” but to “ develop an understanding of the problem of the nature of knowledge through an exploration of the provenance and warrant of the particular knowledge we encounter in our field of study”. The learning process Harrington engages her undergraduate students in within the field of dance is a faithful reflection of this aim. She casts Learning Study as a form of research-based teaching, which may transcend Lesson Study when it is conceived as research into the effective transmission of authoritative knowledge. However, Lo Mun Ling has claimed in Variation Theory and the Improvement of Teaching and Learning (p. 32) that Lesson Study informed by Variation Theory not only illuminates variations in students’ understandings of the object of learning but also variations in teachers’ understandings. The theory, she argues, presupposes the dynamic nature of objects of learning; they are not invariable. It casts teachers in the role of researchers inasmuch as it renders their own subject knowledge problematic and open to question:

Through the course of teaching and interacting with their students, teachers gain a better understanding of the object of learning (p. 51).

Although Harrington does not make explicit use of Variation Theory, one might argue that it is implicit in the process of research-based teaching that she depicts.

Drawing on the material in this issue I have attempted the task of mapping Learning Study as a Field of Inquiry, and locating within it a distinct form of action oriented and participatory Learning Study whose critical features are becoming increasingly apparent as a focus for a methodological discourse. My co-editor and I, with our Editorial and Advisory Boards, hope that this Journal will make a distinguished and sustained contribution to this discourse. Readers are invited to participate in such a discourse, and are welcome to submit publishable responses to the views presented in this Editorial.


Isak, G. and Posch, P. (2013), “Book review: variation theory and the improvement of teaching and learning by Mun Ling Lo”, International Journal of Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 2 No. 2
Pring, R. (1976), Knowledge and Schooling (Chapter 2), Open Books, London
Stenhouse, L. (2012), “Research as a basis for teaching”, in Elliott and Norris (Eds), Curriculum, Pedagogy and Educational Research: The Work of Lawrence Stenhouse, Routledge, London, pp. 122-136

John Elliott
Chief Editor