Getting Started with Lesson Study

The NTEN Lesson Study Cycle.
The NTEN Lesson Study Cycle.

As part of our CPD programme this year, we’ve joined the newly formed National Teacher Enquiry Network.  It offers a superb framework to help us deliver the best CPD programme we can.  A central feature of NTEN is the support offered for the development of Lesson Study.  I’ve been reading about this for a while now but it was the clarity of the NTEN materials that made me feel we should embrace it.

At KEGS our approach has been to follow our familiar ‘rainforest’ change process:  to create the conditions, sow the seeds, and then allow the ideas to flourish organically supported by some modelling. In practice this means we did the following:

  • Launched the idea at a staff day  – just a quick overview in few minutes, inviting interested parties to attend a voluntary meeting.
  • Explained the idea in more depth at a meeting to those who volunteered – about 30 teachers attended.
  • After a time, recruited people committed to trying the idea this year and gave more precise guidance and support including the offer of cover for lessons as needed. So far we’ve got groups set up in Science, History, Geography and Economics with others in MFL and Maths about to join.  No-one is being forced to do it.  The level of encouragement has been measured.

Given that my Head of Science, Stephen, volunteered, I offered to join him and we then recruited a third member of the science team, Richard, to form a trio.  This was ideal because I am in a position to be one of the pioneer groups, enabling me to learn first hand what the issues and benefits are.  It is powerful to model a process you want to see grow and flourish.  However, most importantly, as a science teacher, I want to develop my own practice.

Year 9 Science Lesson Study

Meeting over lunch, with food provided, Stephen, Richard and I planned our first cycle.  We all teach Y9 for Science, albeit with different specialisms, so that was a natural place to start.  Stephen suggested using a pre-written practical activity that locates the chemistry of neutralisation within the context of optimum plant nutrition – in this case, growing cabbages.  Students test the pH of soil washings by adding measured volumes of Lime Water (Calcium Hydroxide solution) using phenolphthalein indicator (turns from colourless to pink in alkali conditions) to judge the neutralisation point.  This then feeds into some other work about plants; it is really a biology lesson with a chemistry practical embedded. The supporting worksheet gives clear instructions.

In truth, we looked at this specific activity and then discussed how many issues it could illuminate. That might not be how this is meant to work, but that’s what we did.  We agreed that the activity would help us to explore how science practicals work as a means of deepening students’ conceptual understanding and their ability to apply knowledge in context.  We decided that this would be our line of enquiry for the lesson study process.

The key to making it work was to get the calendar out.  Richard offered to teach the lesson with me and Stephen observing; this was largely due to best-fit with his bit of the scheme of work.  We agreed the date of the observed lesson, located within a suitable flow of lessons.  We needed to plan cover because Stephen always teaches when Richard has Year 9. We also identified three case-students as a good general representation of the class.

It was helpful to plan the follow-up in advance.  I fixed a time when I would interview the three case-study students after one of my lessons with the same group. We also set the time for the follow-up assessment and trio-review, again at a lunchtime with the offer of food. (It’s worth the small amount of money.)

The Lesson

The lesson begins with observers getting up close to the learning.
The lesson begins with observers getting up close to the learning. Richard on the left; Stephen on the right.

The lesson itself was absolutely fascinating. As someone who does lots of formal lesson observations, it never occurred to me that this was one of them.  I wasn’t focused on Richard, the teacher; I was only thinking about the learning.  Crucially it felt like my lesson too because I’d helped to plan it.  It really did. Afterwards, Richard said that he had been apprehensive, much as with an observed lesson. (Not to mention being the very first Lesson Study teacher at KEGS). However, he too said that this quickly subsided and if felt like a joint enterprise.  He’d do it again.  He did also say that the presence of two observers made the class more focused on their work than ever; there was almost no time wasted at all with routine classroom management.  This made the lesson highly learning focused.

As an observer, I could stand back, listen and watch as students grappled with the task and the concepts, probe with some questions, take some notes – and not worry about the time or the flow of the lesson.  I had lots of ‘meta’ conversations about the learning process as whole in a way that I never do when I am just trying to run a practical session myself.  It was very liberating in that sense and revelatory in many ways.

One group of three. One group of two.  Spot the passenger!
One group of three. One group of two. “I felt like a passenger”..guess who?!

During the lesson I took some pictures and some notes and, the following week, interviewed the three case-study students.  Stephen, Richard and I met to share our views on the process.  Combining all of these evaluative processes, we felt that we’d explored a lot of issues; we remarked on how much came out of just one lesson.

What did we learn?

1.Task Focus vs Bigger Picture:

When asked, Student A said “we are trying to measure how much lime is needed to neutralise the soil to grow cabbages”. He understood the whole construct for the experiment.  Student B said “we’re putting this liquid into the test tube to make it go pink”.  He was utterly task focused and was not even aware of the bigger picture. It has passed him by.   This indicates a need to check for understanding at this level and to not assume students are making the connections from the task to the concepts; chances are some are not.

2.The receiving end of instructions.

Student B admitted he hadn’t been listening when the teacher was explaining the experiment.  Why not? Because he knew there was a sheet – so he decided to tune out and read the instructions himself.  It hadn’t been a successful strategy because, the others moved fast and he didn’t have time to read it properly.

3.The opportunity to apply prior learning and challenge misconceptions.

Student C confidently explained the idea of pH where below 7 is acid; above 7 indicates a base or alkali. This was secure prior learning; he knew that the pink colour was gained just as the pH crept over 7 – indicating the tipping point.  As he was adding drops of the lime water, he knew he was gradually increasing the pH.  In discussion he said “the practical helped to make it clear; without doing it yourself, you can get confused about what all the chemicals are for; they are just names”.   The practical work helped him link ‘lime water’ to ‘calcium hydroxide’ as both were used in the scenario sheet; ie they are the same thing.

However Student B had to face one of his misconceptions.  When asked what colour the solution would be when neutral he said ‘Green’.  To him pH = 7= Green had lodged from Year 8 work.. because of using universal indicator which IS green when neutral.  That explained his confusion with the lime turning it turning pink… because universal indicator is pink in acidic conditions, the opposite. The practical work confused him but then forced him to re-think his model and learn that different indicators have different colour responses.  Had I not been there to have this conversation, would he have resolved it?  I don’t know..but that issue has been raised for consideration by all three of us in planning future lessons.

4. Group dynamics: Twos and Threes.

By random self-grouping – ie ‘get yourselves into twos or threes’ – most students were in pairs with a couple of threes.  By chance, one of our case-study students was in a three. It was immediately obvious that we wasn’t enjoying this as much as the others.  See the picture above.  When asked afterwards, he expressed his predicament beautifully: “When you are in a three, someone is always the passenger”.  What an excellent way to express it! And very true. He has been squeezed out by the other two and decided to hang back, essentially becoming the data recorder and one remove from the action. Meanwhile, the others, in twos, were all engaged continually.

In our review discussion we reflected on how often we have groups of three – usually because of equipment limits – without thinking too much about it; now we’d be more tactical and knowing about this in future.. it is a poor quality option.

5. Experimental error and permission to reject data.

The results... "Are we allowed to leave that one out?"
The results… “Are we allowed to leave that one out?”

The learning in the practical about measurement and accuracy was superb.  The ‘right answer’ in theory was a volume of about 5 ml of lime water.  When a group added 20 ml, they realised it looked too big (the graph on the sheet only went up to 10 ml). They added some extra indicator and it turned deep pink instantly. They’d learned that you need enough indicator and some mixing to get a good result.  Their 20 ml was an error.  However, they logged it dutifully.

With repeated readings, their method improved, using more gradual drops and better mixing.. eventually getting a good 5 ml result repeated – see above.  However, what was interesting was they had to calculate an average value and came up with 9.25 ml.  They included the 20ml result. I asked them why, given that it was from an error. They said ‘what, are we allowed to leave it out?’  That was so interesting – the idea that they needed some special permission to eliminate an anomalous result.  They didn’t feel authorised to do so.  Lots of lessons in that about ownership and authority in these situations as well as the technical understanding.

6. Measurement methods and the concepts of precision and accuracy.

Student A discussed with some relish the process he’d used to measure the volume of lime water added.  He’d opted to use a measuring cylinder for the reaction (against the letter of the instructions) because he could measure the total volume of the  resulting solution and double-check it against the loss of volume from the lime water flask and the gradations on the pipette.  He said it was good double-check.  This same student described measurements of 5 ml and 5.5 ml as being different – whereas another student in the class described them as being the roughly same.  Again this showed how we can assume students’ have a common set of ideas – when they don’t.  The practical work threw up the question of the level of precision in the measurement and the level of accuracy in the final determination of the pH.  Great material for future discussion, located in a real practical experience.

7. Different value placed on practical work.

In discussions with the students, I asked them whether they felt it would have been better to do the practical, or to have had a teacher demonstration or to have just learned it in theory.  Student C said “If we watch a demo, we just accept it; if we do it ourselves, we ask ourselves questions; it’s deeper.” That from a Year 9 student is fabulously perceptive. So for him, the practical work was necessary.

However, Student B disagreed.  He’d not enjoyed all the confusion. He’d vote for less practical work in general and more direct explaining and theory work.

Student A concluded “You need a balance of theory and practical.  If you don’t see it for yourself, you get confused. You need to do it yourself to learn”.

Writing all of this, I am still bowled over by the range of issues that came up and the depth of insight the students had into their own learning.  It was a brilliant process all round. And we’ve hardly started.

Next Steps.

The next cycles will need to explore more elements of the process.
The next cycles will need to explore more elements of the process.

A clear omission from what I’ve described here is an assessment of the progress of the students.  Mainly that is because the assessment is still underway.  We felt that we hadn’t properly established a data baseline and we’re more likely to use a teacher-evaluation of the quality of the work at the end of the whole unit, including a test, to see how our case-study students have performed.  For the next cycle, already planned for the start of next term, we’ll give more thought to this.  How to get data that might indicate some kind of cause and effect with the practical work? Can we use a control group? Can we ever really know?  The observational learning has been powerful enough for a first go.

For me, the main thing at this early stage is that will definitely be a next step.  We all gained from the process and felt it had been interesting, worthwhile and rewarding.  It is no exaggeration to say that, for me, it is one of the most interesting CPD activities I’ve ever done.  I can see this becoming a popular teacher-driven activity that is highly cost-effective.  I can’t wait to do some more and to read the reports from other groups.


  1. Thanks for your thoughts Tom-have shared with our NTEN volunteers. I observed 2 G.C.S.E science and 1 year 7 very low ability maths group last week and like you focused entirely on the learning for a pleasant change and really enjoyed the powerful support offered by 3 teachers. I was intrigued by the need to predict learning outcomes at the planning stage and then to check the actual outcome. Although we are used to planning pre-considered and possible responses/needs for our different cohorts and great teachers always think about any misconceptions prior experience suggests may occur and are flexible enough to change tactics; this still felt different and proved to be a great discussion point afterwards to focus on.

    The teachers themselves decided on trying out their own ideas to improve the quality of the answers the students would give [based on internally shared ideas from our hubs] and there was no deep research involved from these particular partnerships. Sometimes just the chance for teachers to plan together throws up the best ideas-usually tiny tweaks to make important learning gains. I do hope that we have some really radical strategies at least once though!

    With the year7 level 3 students, I really did see their difficulty with the ‘words’ in functional problems. If we can help them to access the language that others take for granted and close their learning gaps-that would make the project worthwhile. The older students proved that despite the beginnings of a push on MCHS meta-cog spinning, we need to push harder to get them to see the similarity between the assessments in each subject and to remind the teachers to remember to highlight this. They have been struggling to achieve high enough scores on their 6 mark questions in science. Because of my previous observations I know that they work on exactly the same problem in RE, history and geography and was able to remind the of how they could employ similar tactics in all subjects. The question about oil or water based central heating required similar comparison and evaluative skills as a RE 6 marker-“how would you answer a 6 mark question in RE to get full marks” “We’d explain from the perspective of a Christian and other religion and give our own view based on the evidence” “Brilliant, can you see how you can use a similar tactic in science?” “Oh yeah!” Eureka!

    Hope it goes well for you and enjoy your audit with Bridget. Wrote about the days on our parent’s blog-was an enjoyable experience for St Mary’s and Meols Cop.


    • Thanks David. Very interesting. It’s good to be part of network of schools doing this. I must admit that we didn’t formalise our predictions in this first cycle; we just wanted to plan, do, review in a simple way before we look at more features of the Lesson Study process. We discussed what we’d expect but not in a very scientific manner. I’m also joining two Economics teachers looking at Y12; it’s such a great process. Hopefully it will become an embedded part of school life over the coming years.


  2. We have been doing Lesson Study since last year. We jointly planned a lesson, observed targeted students and had a discussion about our observations. We both felt it was a very worthwhile exercise to do.


  3. […] Some teachers are doing a kind of lesson study.  Teachers plan a lesson together, they then watch one of them teach the lesson (or if time, watch more than one teacher deliver the same lesson) and then discuss what they find.  This type of co-planning will be invaluable in the coming year when planning new specifications.  If you want to know more about Lesson Study, here is an interesting blog to get you started. […]

    Liked by 1 person

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