“Step out of the shed and into the garden”: how lesson study enables deep professional learning.


Upon first hearing of the words ‘lesson’ and ‘study’ in the same sentence, I was puzzled. I was to be studying another trainee teacher’s lesson? Wasn’t I supposed to be teaching lessons? Wasn’t that, after all, the whole point of the PGCE, to learn how to teach through practice? I wasn’t completely wrong, however, once my blinding ignorance had slowly subsided, I realised that even though teaching and learning was now at the heart of my life, I had, up until now, focussed solely, if not obsessively, upon the teaching and learning of other subjects –  those of the pupil cohorts sent my way. I must get those learning objectives on the board. How will I be showing progress? Will behaviour for learning targets be achieved? And what about assessment?

In my misguided innocence to please and deliver, I had forgotten about MY own learning and what others could teach me. Of course, I diligently attended every CPD session and university lecture but it takes time to realise that independence in sustained professional learning is also vital. I needed to take time to breathe. To step back. And to slow down and reflect. We often spend so much time moving forward that we forget what sights we have passed along the way. This blog is my narrative of how I took a pause to process key stages and markers that are appearing with increasing frequency on my professional journey as my career in teaching continues to accelerate.

Education is not something one can ever really ‘finish’, not truly. I am learning and I will also be learning as an NQT and also for many more years to come for that is the cyclical nature of the profession to which we have entered – and this is not something mutually exclusive to education, either. Coming from a family of medical professionals, I have also been aware of the other contours of our public sector landscape continuing to reform and evolve as society progresses and years tick by. That said, I was more than a little disappointed, if not in a state of lamentation, of my failure to see beyond the four or five periods stretched out before me. I had been so busy in my shed of learning, attempting to differentiate, collate evidence, mark homework and plan lessons to name but a handful of examples, that I hadn’t heard the screaming going on just outside. I needed to step out, and beyond, so I could actually learn something within a wider professional context before returning to the aforementioned shed and returning to my own affairs. Lesson study was the means by which I could facilitate this process of study for myself for once – and not just my Key Stage Four French class which hadn’t quite mastered the imperfect tense yet.

Cynicism and scepticism dissolved, the lesson study process began. Here we were, myself and Matthew Hutchings, a Chemistry specialist, about to embark upon a professional task about which I knew relatively little. Writing retrospectively, I am now in a position to share what I have learnt and espouse the benefits of lesson study to one and all – an invaluable tool for education practitioners far and wide and one which is possibly, at times, overlooked.

The rise of genuine professionally-minded discussions about the teaching and learning taking place and the benefits of the lesson study process have helped both me and Matt become critical in examination of our own practice and what we would wish to do moving forward in the future, which was something I never thought possible to such an extent, especially in terms of cross curricular engagement with another teacher in a world where some scholastic departments have a tendency to be more than a trifle tribal. Sad, but true.

Personally, I have relished the chance to observe a subject outside of my own subject specialism to contribute to not only my Teaching Standards (T8/PPC) but also begin to examine within myself a broader, deeper and wider idea and construct about what I really think the purpose of education is and how fully-rounded it can be. The observation of Matt’s practical experiment was a chance for me to confess to his pupils that as a linguist, Chemistry was far from my forte but I’m not too old to be learning, too. The pupils seemed to respect this, albeit with a minor degree of surprise, but I’m sure it was hugely reassuring for them to know that I am only human too, teacher at 3:25 or human on the drive home.

Lesson study was useful to see the interactions and behaviours of some of my own pupils in a different lesson with a different teacher and think about why this might be similar, different, and/or unchanged and what I/we could do about it. Humans are social animals and school is, for many young people, the centre of their social environment before adulthood. This permeates into our lessons and as teachers, we have a responsibility to ensure behaviour for learning is largely a positive affair, both inside and outside the confines of the four walls of a classroom.

I enjoyed the chance to observe a trainee in practice to realise that I am not the only one learning, developing and training and this helped dilute any initial professional and/or training confidence issues, something which appealed to my introverted character and emotional nature as a person, distanced from the classroom persona I project on a daily basis when I’m ‘in the zone’.

Amidst a plethora of training, teaching and learning challenges that crop up during the PGCE year, the directed process of lesson study was invaluable in allowing myself and Matt to reflect more deeply about what we are actually doing, how we are doing it and even the ‘why’ (this doesn’t always happen for us in as much detail for a “normal” lesson with time constraints often an unavoidable barrier to the depth of our routine reflections).

Matt put the date in French as a nod to me as a MFL trainee in his Chemistry lesson. A pupil asked why, with more than a certain tone of incredulity and sarcasm to which the response was: “We don’t always teach French in French lessons, nor English in English lessons. We’re all teachers and, quite frankly, why not?” This genuinely made the pupils before my eyes ponder what had just been uttered to them by an education practitioner – even if only for a moment – and felt to me as one of the most sincerely tangible albeit short manifestations of SMSC and the broader notion of what it is ‘to educate’ coming to life before my very eyes in a classroom. If I hadn’t been involved in lesson study, I may never have even seen these fleeting but crucial seconds! It was almost as if the pupils were thinking that it’s actually okay to have a bit of French within chemistry and that, actually, subjects are interlinked as part of a broader curriculum and not mutually exclusive entities.

So, I leave you now with my reflections and invite you to probe at your own. Perhaps you already have. If so, keep doing it. If not, there’s never any time like the present. A real exploration of lesson study is beyond the ticking-boxes-jumping-hoops superficial. It is a real exercise, a deep process which places the spotlight not on them but on us. What are we learning? Step out of that shed and into the garden. You might be missing something.

Author: James Rivett Newcastle University PGCE Student, Modern Foreign Languages

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