Placing lesson study at the heart of the school-based curriculum development process and the development of teachers’ knowledge

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN: 2046-8253

Article publication date: 4 January 2013


Elliott, J. (2013), "Placing lesson study at the heart of the school-based curriculum development process and the development of teachers’ knowledge", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Placing lesson study at the heart of the school-based curriculum development process and the development of teachers’ knowledge

Article Type: Editorial From: International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, Volume 2, Issue 1.

A tribute to Colin Marsh

This issue is dedicated to Professor Colin Marsh, an active member of our Editorial Review Board, who died suddenly this summer at his home in Perth, Australia. My co-editor, Mun Ling, and I received tremendous support from Colin during the period leading up to the launch of the IJLLS in November 2011, and subsequent issues up to and including this one. He not only reviewed a number of submissions, but gave us encouraging feedback, as an experienced journal editor himself, on the standards we were trying to set. Thank you so much Colin.

Colin Marsh was an adjunct professor of Education at Curtin University in Perth, Western Australia and internationally renowned for his scholarship and research in the curriculum studies field over many years. In particular he was known for his contribution to the theory and practice of school-based curriculum development, based on his work with curriculum change agents in a number of countries outside Australia; such as Hong Kong and Singapore. I got to know Colin well professionally during our years as advisory professors at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, which at the beginning of the twenty-first century, replaced the teacher training colleges of the old British colonial administration. The new institution, set in a spectacular new-build, near Tai Po, aimed at transforming the teaching profession, especially in primary schools, into an all-graduate profession by enhancing its content and pedagogical content knowledge base. The appointment of a number of advisory professors, with established international reputations, served this end, as did the policy of upgrading the credentials of the academic staff to doctoral level. The education system itself in Hong Kong during the immediate post-colonial period was itself undergoing significant change. The vision and overall aims for education in the twenty-first century were set out in a report (September 2000) by the Education Commission (EC) for Hong Kong, a multi-stakeholder body charged with advising the government on education reform. In November 2000 the Curriculum Development Council of Hong Kong (CDC) launched a public consultation on recommendations and directions that were informed by the EC's report, and entitled Learning to Learn: the Way Forward in Curriculum Development. Following the consultation the CDC published a Framework for Curriculum Reform in Hong Kong entitled Learning to Learn: Life – Long Learning and Whole-Person Development. This framework opened up space for teachers to develop detailed programmes of study at the levels of their schools and classrooms. Colin Marsh and I, with our experience of working alongside teachers in Australia and the UK on school-based curriculum development issues, found ourselves also working in advisory roles to support the work of the CDC in the school system.

Colin and I worked at introducing the idea of “teachers as researchers”, as an integral component of the school-based curriculum development process, through workshops and short courses sponsored by the CDC in Hong Kong, largely drawing on our experience of work carried out in Australia, the UK and Europe, and North America. However, it was Professor Lo Mun Ling, co-editor of this journal, who led the development of a novel form of teacher research in Hong Kong schools called learning study, which was less tainted by the individualism and theoretical scepticism that permeates teacher professional cultures in western societies. With her colleagues in the Centre for Learning-studies and School Partnership (CLASP) at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, Mun Ling took a version of the group-based cyclical lesson study method developed in Japanese schools and blended it with the use of variation theory as a pedagogical tool. This theory originated in design experiments carried out in schools in Sweden by Ference Marton and his associates and disseminated in Hong Kong by Marton while serving as an advisory professor at Hong Kong University. The emergence of learning studies in the context of school-based curriculum reform in Hong Kong, together with the spread of Japanese lesson studies to other far eastern countries and the USA in the wake of international comparisons of student achievement, provided a context for a cross country sharing of experience between teacher researchers and collaborating curriculum experts and scholars. Mun Ling and her team organised an annual international conference in 2004 and 2005 at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, in which lesson and learning studies across a range of curriculum subjects/areas were presented and discussed. The conferences were preceded by an expert seminar in which emerging conceptual and implementation issues were clarified and discussed and new directions proposed. Colin Marsh and I were invited to participate in these seminars and conferences. Then in 2006 the World Association of Lesson Studies (WALS) was formed to carry the approach forward. Colin and I became members of the WALS Council. He was given the role of chairing the expert seminars and I was tasked with negotiating the launch of a WALS Journal with an academic publisher. Colin proved to be an excellent chair of the seminars that did so much to forge new directions for teacher research through lesson and learning studies in the formative years of WALS. He was always calm, gentle, sensitive to different points of view, and very effective as a facilitator of reflective as opposed to argumentative discussion.

Lesson study and professional learning communities

The papers in this issue all make a contribution to understanding and developing the conditions that are necessary to affect educationally worthwhile curriculum and pedagogical change in schools and classrooms. Such an aim was very dear to Colin Marsh whose scholarly endeavour and writing was consistently directed towards its realisation. School-based curriculum development involves the establishment of professional learning communities in and across schools. Chichibu and Kihara show how in Japanese schools the extensive development of such communities has been through lesson study. Their exploration of this relationship between PLCs and LSs is based on a survey by the National Institute for Educational Policy Research (NIER). This survey not only showed how widely across the educational system LS extends as a means of building PLCs in and across schools but also the diversity of ways it shapes up in particular school contexts. The weakest links between PLCs and LSs are manifest in secondary and private schools where the latter appear to be largely the responsibility of individual teachers than professional communities. The strongest links are to be found in elementary schools where LSs are organised through school and district committees that set a school wide or area wide research theme and schedule an annual programme of LSs, which are the subject of an annual report. Chichibu and Kihara point out that the LSs at district level play an important role in “improving curricula, textbooks and teaching and learning materials” and that some LSs at school level are organised through a curriculum committee. In addition to a school committee LSs may be organised in subject-based or grade-level groups through a number of sub-committees. Although LS at whole school level maybe organised in a variety of ways, Chichibu and Kihara point out that on the basis of the survey results it does appear to consist of a core activity defined as the “research lesson”. Here a teacher discusses a lesson plan with a group of colleagues, revises it in the light of the discussion, teaches it while colleagues observe and then subjects it to further discussion in a post-lesson conference. The study of the specific lesson may then be opened up to further discussion within the school or district through the use of digital media. Chichibu and Kihara suggest that in Japan, compared with the USA, LSs will often take a cyclical form, in which a series of research lessons are taught by different members of the group and build on each other. It is this cyclical LS process that was introduced into Hong Kong schools as a basis for learning studies. Chichibu and Kihara point out, on the basis of the survey findings, that the LS process in Japanese elementary and middle schools is in the majority of cases supported by either external advisors from the school board or university professors. However, they claim that little is known about the roles school board and academic supervisors play within the LS process to build PLCs in schools and how they could be made more effective. According to the survey, the weakest link is between the LS process and the roles of school principals and middle level leaders. The professional culture of teachers in Japan is such, argue Chichibu and Kihara, that teachers are used to meeting together for professional reasons without any hierarchical mediation from the principal and middle managers. Chichibu and Kihara conclude that:

[...] – there is a need to develop an administrative mechanism at the local school board level that facilitates LSs in schools. – how supervisors from the school board facilitate schools’ LSs is hardly studied in the existing literature. There is also a need to develop in-service training systems for enhancing the roles of principals or middle leaders responsible for facilitating LS in schools.

These authors are also open to the possibility that there are ways of strengthening PLCs in schools other than through LSs. This suggests that the development of PLCs as a context for school-based curriculum development in Japan calls for more research into how the links between the PLCs built through LS and the administration at district and school level can be strengthened.

Theory informed lesson studies

In this issue we are delighted to publish the third of a cyclical process of three learning studies carried out by Vikström et al., a group of six Swedish secondary school science teachers, supervised by a professional researcher and informed by variation theory. This account of the third study, about teaching “solution chemistry in grade 8” is entirely co-authored by the group of teachers themselves. At this stage the group was clearly confident in its ability to use variation theory as a tool for analysing data about the teaching and learning process. Although it was used throughout the three cycles, by the third cycle it “had become more of a ‘lived’ theory – a natural part of how student tests were constructed and analyzed and how lessons were planned”. Variation theory clearly provided this group of teachers with a language to talk about and improve teaching and learning together. The need, within professional learning communities that focus on educational processes, for a shared language in the form of a theoretical framework, is often neglected. The curriculum theorist and researcher Lawrence Stenhouse (1979/2012), to whom the idea of “the teacher as a researcher” is attributed, argued that teacher research, conceived as a collective engagement in the study of teaching and learning, needed a theoretical syntax in which to analyse problems that emerged in the contexts of educational practice and propose solutions. Variation theory demonstrably provided this group of science teachers with a useful theoretical syntax for their cyclical lesson studies, which is not to say that other theoretical perspectives may not prove equally useful as a basis for teacher research. This journal welcomes learning studies informed by other pedagogical theories.

In “Teachers’ solutions” Vikström et al. have a clear understanding of their research role in relation to that of their academic supervisor. They write:

In the learning studies, we studied our students learning and how it was related to our own teaching, while the researcher studied our learning and knowledge production during the process.

In doing so they clearly articulate the distinction between first-order and second-order action research roles within the collaborative relationship between academic facilitators of teachers’ research and teacher researchers themselves. It is worth noting that the cyclical process that culminated in the particular learning study reported in “Teachers’ solutions” was funded by the Swedish Research Council, and also received the support of the local municipal school authorities. Hence, an administrative link was created between the LS and the university and local school system, which opened up opportunities for the teachers’ research group to make an original contribution to pedagogical knowledge in the field of science education, in a form that other teachers may find more useable than the decontextualised findings produced by more traditional research.

The paper by Laxman represents a rather different kind of theory informed learning study to one informed by variation theory. This study focuses on a pedagogical aim that defines what is to count as an educationally worthwhile learning process, as opposed to an educationally worthwhile learning outcome; namely, inquiry-based learning. As such it presumes that learning processes are not simply of instrumental value as a means to an end. They may be educationally worthwhile in themselves. To view inquiry-based learning as intrinsically worthwhile presupposes a particular theoretical stance. Earlier I argued that learning studies may usefully embrace different theoretical perspectives to inform the action research process. Laxman's interventionist study of the pedagogical implications of inquiry-based learning, is underpinned by Dewey's theory of the primary interests of the learner as prerequisites of intellectual growth; namely, those of good conversation and communication, curiosity and a natural desire to learn, a delight in creating new things, and the desire to extract meaning from experience. Central to “inquiry learning” Laxman argues is the capability of asking good questions about a phenomenon experienced by the learner. From a Deweyan perspective, student-generated questioning is a social process, in which the mind is not capable of operating by itself but as a function of social life. Learning becomes a social process dependent on good conversation and communication with others.

Within Laxman's study a class of 25 17-year-old students in a Singapore polytechnic followed a problem-based learning curriculum in four groups of five, where they worked on a different real-life problem each day of the week for different disciplinary subjects. The class was subjected to a training intervention in which they received instruction on how to frame essential questions in relation to a problem task and then crafts 6-10 foundation or subsidiary questions for each essential question. Following the training intervention students were given a practice problem task that required them to formulate relevant essential and foundation questions in four groups of five. The process was monitored by the facilitator and discussed in retrospect with the students. The overall verdict was that the training intervention, viewed through the lens of Dewey's active learning theory, increased students’ capability at generating high-quality essential questions and appropriate clusters of foundation questions in relation to problem tasks. In doing so, Laxman claims, students are able to engage in higher levels of cognitive thinking and reasoning than they do in conventional classrooms. However, this is also the claim of those who undertake learning studies informed by variation theory, where the focus is on the object rather than the process of learning in itself.

This journal would welcome the submission of learning studies that view learning through the pedagogical lenses of both variation theory and Dewey's theory of active learning and explore how they might be unified. We would also welcome comparisons of these different theoretical perspectives, aimed at informing the design of learning studies.

Learning study in teacher preparation programmes

Two papers in this issue explore the potential of variation theory in preparing student teachers to teach. Wood describes its use as a tool to inform the design, teaching and evaluation of lessons in the context of a BA/BEd peer teaching module on methods of teaching economics and accounting in Brunei Darussalem. The class of 41 student teachers were familiarised with variation theory as a framework for designing, teaching and reviewing learning situations and divided into 15 teams to design and peer teach lessons to the whole class. However, variation theory informed the tutor's design of the course as a whole inasmuch as the students:

  1. 1.

    were given opportunities to compare the different ways teacher teams tasked to teach the same object of learning varied their design of learning situations and its enactment within them;

  2. 2.

    were able to compare and discuss the differences in their lived experience of an object of learning; and

  3. 3.

    were given opportunities to discern different uses of variation theory to teach a variety of objects of learning.

Eight out of the 15 lessons were judged by students to be effective and two partially effective, which suggests, Wood argues, that student teachers can use variation theory to design effective lessons. Their capability in this respect appears to have been considerably enhanced by the tutor's organisation of the course as a professional learning community, which enabled them to experience variation in the enacted object of learning while the intended object of learning was ostensibly invariant. Wood argues that such an experience foregrounds for the student teachers critical aspects of the object of learning and of the lesson design, in terms of dimensions of variation afforded to the learners. In these terms it is not difficult to understand why professional learning communities framed by the theory of variation provide an appropriate context for school-based curriculum development.

However, as Lai and Lo-Fu demonstrate in their paper, learning studies informed by the theory of variation can provide a platform on which pre-service teachers begin to develop and use their content and pedagogical content knowledge together. The authors argue that, although Shulman's analytic distinctions – on the nature and types of knowledge needed for teaching a subject, and their further refinement by Ball et al. – could provide a conceptual orientation for pre-service teacher education, the question about “what exact professional knowledge of mathematics for teaching, tailored to the work teachers do with curriculum materials, instruction, and students” is needed remains unsolved. The authors demonstrate, through their case study, how this problem can be resolved by engaging student teachers in lesson studies framed by the theory of variation. Their case study of the introduction of learning study to a group of pre-service teachers is based on their experience as members of a team of teacher educators in the field of mathematics education based in the Hong Kong Institute of Education; where since 2008 all pre-service teacher education programmes for primary schools have included in their second year a core module on learning studies (see also Ko Po Yuk, Vol. 1 No. 1).

The programme of study was divided into two stages. The first consisted of six three-hour lectures and discussions of the learning study methodology and the theory of variation in relation to teaching mathematical topics to primary school pupils. The second consisted of 32 pre-service students engaged in a supported process of learning studies in primary schools. They were divided into teaching teams of four to undertake two cycles of learning studies with different classes on the topic of revision. The process culminated in the public presentation of each learning study in PowerPoint format and each student producing a “learning journal” about the development of their own professional knowledge through it. The “learning journals” provided a major source of evidence for the paper in supporting the claim that learning studies, informed by a theory of variation, provided a platform for the systematic development of teachers’ mathematical content and pedagogical content knowledge.

Discussion of educational research and policy making: a response from the Right Honorable Charles Clarke

The papers in this issue go some way to explaining Colin Marsh's interest and engagement with lesson and learning studies as an emerging discipline in the educational field. This is because they indicate the power of such studies to develop within the teaching profession those capabilities that are necessary conditions of the effective engagement of teachers in school-based curriculum development. They also have relevance for the discussion featured in Vol. 1, No. 3 and this issue between the Right Honorable Charles Clarke and some distinguished educational researchers known to support the emergence of lesson and learning studies at the interface between schools and higher education institutions.

In this issue Charles Clarke's reply to responses to his original paper, about the lack of relevance of much educational research to the questions educational policy makers need answers to, clearly indicate his support for the lesson study approach depicted by Catherine Lewis and Ko Po Yuk, inasmuch as it brings practitioners and researchers closer together to steadily improve the quality of teaching, and indeed, he suggests, opens up a prospect of greater dialogue with policy makers because it can address their questions about the effectiveness of different pedagogical methods. Charles Clarke implies that policies which undermine the development of a strong and knowledgeable teaching force must be counter-productive. From his perspective there appears to be no contradiction between a teaching profession committed to improving itself through research and government intervention to improve education. Although he does not spell this relationship out, he provides a hint when he refers to the culturally embedded resistances within the teaching profession itself, in the UK and elsewhere, to the collective engagement of teachers in classroom research as a means of improving teaching quality. Does this not imply that the progressive forces within the profession may need to be unlocked by strong government intervention?

Charles Clarke does, however, take issue with Ference Marton's and Paul Morris's responses, which he interprets as suggesting that there is an inevitable gap between the questions policy makers want educational researchers to answer and what research can realistically be expected to deliver. He concludes with the challenge that if this is the case then how can government funding for educational research be justified? We welcome further contributions to the discussion that Charles Clarke has initiated with a view to publishing them in Vol. 2 No. 2.

John ElliottChief Editor


Stenhouse, L. (1979/2012), “Research as a basis for teaching”, in Elliott, J. and Norris, N. (Eds), Curriculum, Pedagogy and Educational Research: The Work of Lawrence Stenhouse, Routledge, London and New York, NY, pp. 132-4