An investigation into Lesson Study’s potential to augment reflective practice and to foster self-efficacy for novice academic teaching staff

This is my latest research proposal for which I am seeking collaborators and an HE environment in which to situate the study and collect the data. Please contact me if this interests you.

Lesson Study is a collaborative approach to teacher development that originated in the Japanese school sector but has since spread internationally. Online there are numerous descriptions of this systematic mode of professional learning for teachers but a commendably clear one is available at SCITT Lesson Study.

My motivation to carry out a formal study on the viability of Lesson Study is primarily to find ways to build lecturers’ reflection and decision-making capacities. My other objectives are to strengthen relationships between academic developers and novice lecturers, to stimulate lecturers’ self-efficacy and ultimately to promote higher quality instruction.  My hope is that this study will produce results of interest and value to the wider community of academic developers and inform decisions on methodology for the professionalisation of teaching in higher education. The outcomes of my investigation into Lesson Study may highlight the case for more learner-centred, deeply contextualised, process-oriented models of initial teaching development programmes in higher education. If the model that I develop and test is perceived as relevant by participating lecturers to their professional needs and challenges, it may indicate the occurrence of differentiation, which the taught programmes that I was involved with struggled to address. Furthermore, part of this study is a revaluation of the roles of educational developers. In my Lesson Study model, I intend that academic developers act more like Problem-Based Learning facilitators by assisting the reflective process, asking questions to provoke deeper enquiry into pedagogical matters, and providing input only on a need-to-know basis. My expectation is that this could prove a more comfortable and appreciated role than the current one of taught programme convener.

The programmes to which I contributed in Singapore and the UK were accredited by the Staff and Educational Development Association and Advance HE (formerly Higher Education Academy) respectively. As such they were scholarly, underpinned by principles with wide acceptance in the contemporary field of learning and teaching in higher education. Both programmes, for example, pledged allegiance to a (social) constructivist view of learning. They were also influenced by Ramsden (2003) and Biggs (1991) who shared the conviction that lecturers should seek understanding of student learning to inform decisions about teaching. A case for learner-centredness on the programmes was strengthened by Prosser and Trigwell’s (1999) research findings about relations between attitudes to teaching and depth of learning. In 2008, Hanbury, Prosser and Rickinson reported that, in the UK, teaching development programmes were successfully influencing participants to be more student-focused.

Therefore, it seemed appropriate that the approach adopted in the two programmes to which I contributed was not direct training of teaching skills. By contrast, participants engaged in a variety of session types that included interactive and collaborative tasks on topics in learning and teaching. They then applied independently whatever they found valuable from the sessions to their teaching situations. Evidence of transferral of concepts and strategies was collected in the form of assessed reflective written accounts. Participants were guided to compose reflections on their teaching experience through Brookfield’s (2005) four lenses: self, student, peer and literature.

I marked numerous reflective accounts and provided summative feedback on them. However rich and interesting these were, I felt unease that I had not observed the teaching sessions first-hand and could not remark on decisions that had been made “live” during those sessions, comparing what I had witnessed with what had been written.  This appeared to me as a less than optimal way to support the development of reflective practitioners. (My perspective on reflective practice is influenced by Cowan (1998) who followed Schön (1983) by incorporating reflection-in-practice and reflection-for-practice.)

Conscious of my limitations as an observer, as is the case for all academic developers, that I am not expert in all academic disciplines, I aimed instead to provide structure for more rigorous and predominantly peer-assisted development of reflective practice. Therefore, I looked to Lesson Study as an alternative to both the existing model in the two tertiary institutions and to the model of a teaching practicum. The role of academic developer as reflective facilitator in Lesson Study would also be explored in this study.

Is Lesson Study a credible alternative? It has a long heritage in Japan where it is a popular model of professional learning for teachers. It has also been adapted to other national contexts. A review of nine studies on Lesson Study’s impact by Cheung and Wong (2014) indicated that it is “a powerful tool to help teachers examine their practices”. Wood and Cajkler (2018) issued a Lesson Study in higher education ‘call to arms’, seeing the framework as a catalyst for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.  At this stage, I believe that Lesson Study has enough potential to merit experimentation in the context I describe. These are my research questions:

  • Does my observation about theory and practice in two initial teaching development programmes apply more broadly across the higher education sector?
  • Are my concerns legitimate? Is there a basis for this study?
  • What is the evidence base for the impact of Lesson Study?
  • Is Lesson Study transferable to higher education? What adjustments to the model may need to be made? Is there a valid role for academic developers in Lesson Study?
  • Does Lesson Study promote reflection-in-action and judicious decision-making during teaching sessions?
  • What are perceived advantages and disadvantages of Lesson Study according to early career lecturers?
  • Would Lesson Study be practicable compared with existing programmes?

In order to answer question (1) above, I would scrutinise teaching development programme descriptions in higher education institutions. Research question (2) is a matter of discussion of educational literature about reflective practice and the means by which it can be inculcated in early career teaching staff. For question (3) I would distil findings from the substantial literature on Lesson Study. Given its heavily contextualised nature, conclusions about the efficacy of Lesson Study will be relatable rather than generalisable. Nevertheless, I would still hope to discover insights and indicators of Lesson Study’s potential for my purposes. This would help to answer research question (4) partially, but I would also like to confer with other academic developers on my customisation of Lesson Study and the role specification of reflective facilitator. The main experimental phase of this study could then commence. Lesson Study would take place with volunteer groups of lecturers using its established processes in the interest of raising learning quality. Qualitative methods, possibly phenomenographic, would be applied to address question (5). As a follow-up to Lesson Study, I would conduct focus groups to gauge the reactions of lecturers to the model. This part of the investigation is needed to appreciate the likelihood of acceptance of a Lesson Study model, i.e. to answer question (6). For the final research question (7), I would need to consider programme design and provision from a wider perspective, including logistical, social and political factors in higher education institutions. A separate body of literature would need to be examined; interviews with senior management would also be beneficial.

References

Biggs, J. (1991). Teaching for quality learning at university. Open University Press. [1st Edition]

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey Bass. [1st Edition]

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Open University Press.

Cheung, W.M. and Wong, W.Y. (2014). Does Lesson Study work? International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 3(2), 137-149.

Hanbury, A., Prosser, M. and Rickinson, M. (2008). The differential impact of UK accredited teaching development programmes on academics’ approaches to teaching. Studies in Higher Education, 33(4), 469-483.

Prosser, M. and Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: The experience in higher education. Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.

Wood, P. and Cajkler, W. (2018). Lesson Study: A collaborative approach to scholarship for teaching and learning in higher education. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 42(3), 313-326.

Lecturers only learn about teaching, they don’t learn teaching

In this entry, I argue that academic staff in the UK tertiary education sector learn about teaching but do not learn teaching.

In earlier generations, professors had little or no preparation for their roles as teachers. They were rigorously trained researchers rather than educators. (Personally, I endured some pretty dreadful lecture experiences in the late ‘80s.)

In this respect, matters seem to have improved considerably. Internal and external drivers have pushed learning & teaching more to the fore. Great influencers such as John Biggs and Paul Ramsden championed the causes of promoting quality learning and being good teachers (which I suggest they would regard as one and the same).

Consequently, at UK institutions early career lecturers are now typically required to engage in pedagogical professional development that is often quite a commitment in time and energy. More experienced academics are strongly encouraged to compile evidence and then to seek formal recognition as professional teachers. The procedure for the latter is usually to map experience to a national standards framework, the HEA’s (now AdvanceHE’s) UKPSF. There is also considerable activity in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), with many academics formally investigating the impact on learning of their practices.

So then, everything must be wonderful now, right?

I don’t think so.

On the plus side, attending professional development courses or compiling portfolios for HEA Fellowship applications does serve to promote engagement with educational literature and reflection on practice. In addition, on the courses there is the opportunity for those who lead them to model a variety of teaching techniques so that novice lecturers can experience them as learners. Awareness is raised, pedagogical options are expanded and an attitude of constant improvement is engendered.

Nevertheless, there is an important aspect of teaching that is lacking in the above processes and that is teaching skills.

Unrestrained, my objectives for routes towards the professionalization of teaching in higher education would be to:

  1. increase curiosity about learning & teaching
  2. make accessible up-to-date findings from educational research
  3. model good practices
  4. inculcate reflective practice
  5. make development relevant by relating to participants’ contexts
  6. incorporate strong connectivity between theory and practice
  7. provide practical training in teaching skills

In my opinion, 6. is lacking and 7. is hardly being realised at all. In the current regime, everything is a step removed from actual teaching.

I do understand that there are constraints. It is challenging to arrange practical training, which would entail a series of observations with expert feedback on teaching skills. There is the need to ensure that professional development is practicable for busy academics. Academic developers, too, have time pressures as they are often occupied with other tasks such as supporting curriculum design and coordinating pedagogical research. There is also the question of course funding which can limit ambitions. The motivation of academics to participate is affected by several factors, including their beliefs about learning & teaching, their prior knowledge and experience and the compulsory or voluntary nature of the course.

Furthermore, there will be immediate ripostes to my insistence that the craft of teaching should be taught – my objective is prescriptive, skilful teaching is a contested concept and my approach is behaviourist rather than constructivist.

I agree with all of these points but still consider it essential for lecturers to go through supervised teaching observations.

Why? Let’s pause to consider the nature of those teaching skills and their significance for the quality of learning.

Example teaching skill: Setting up learning activities

Introducing a task clearly would seem to be a simple thing that does not require training. Yet it can so easily go wrong. The language used in instructions is often verbose, repetitive, overly difficult and therefore confusing. Learners are uncertain of who they are working with and how long they have for the activity. Teachers sometimes fail to check those instructions. Students are left wondering what to do, who they are working with, how long they have and why they are doing it. Valuable time is wasted. You get the idea.

Example teaching skill: Facilitating higher order discussions

Asking questions or providing cues that provoke higher level dialogue with and between learners is again not something that necessarily comes naturally. It is worthwhile for early career lecturers to plan their prompts, try them out and get an opinion from an observer on their efficacy in that particular learning context.

For real teaching skills development it is not enough to experience a ‘workshop’ in which effective task setting or questioning skills are demonstrated and discussed, or even tried out once. Novice teachers need the chance to plan, practise, reflect, discuss with an expert, and try again… on multiple occasions so that formative feedback can be enacted upon and skills refined. Some things are best learnt in more of a behaviourist fashion in order to internalise them.

To take the edge off the behaviourism, there is a good dose of contextualised reflection and discussion. In other words, there is no insistence by the observer that there is a correct way per se to set up tasks or ask questions no matter the learning circumstances. This gets over the objection that I am being prescriptive. I am being prescriptive but not in a general sense, only when the precise learning-teaching situation is taken into account.

If teaching skills remain underdeveloped, I believe that the impact on learning is significant. Lectures, seminars, tutorials and lab classes are poorly organised and inefficient. It doesn’t help to adopt the latest methodology fad either. Implementing flipped classroom or enquiry-based learning will not reap the advertised rewards if facilitators lack these craft skills of teaching.

How did this situation arise, that the craft of teaching is de-emphasised. When Biggs and Ramsden were writing, they described a dichotomy between traditional university teaching and what they favoured, which was a process of measuring impact on learning and then, in response, designing future learning to be more effective. This is commendable but traditional university teaching was completely uninformed and untrained. ‘Teaching’ has consequently become a dirty word in higher education. For me, though, teaching has always been about facilitating learning and for that one needs skills that do not develop through self-directed experimentation as well as they might with the assistance of a skilled observer. (A hint of ZPD here, methinks!)

To end, I notice that even in recent times one comes across rants about poor quality instruction in universities, as in this Huffington Post article: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/professors-must-learn-how-to-teach_us_593b66e4e4b0b65670e56a80?guccounter=1&guce_referrer_us=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_cs=KpZuQYvfnZ34DMueXSKBJA

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 2)

In part 1, I made the recommendation that identifying the purposes of lesson observations is vital and clarified several common purposes. I also highlighted the importance of establishing and following quality processes to enable worthwhile outcomes from observations.

Now, in part 2, I look in detail at the skills required by observers and observees at different stages of lesson observations.

Before the observation

Communicate /Listen actively

One of the main purposes of a pre-observation meeting is to establish the context. Therefore, the observee should endeavour to provide the observer with as a full a picture as possible of the learning environment. If the observer is already familiar with the school/department, then discussion can focus on the nature of the learners, their relative progress, any factors that hinder or help learning, etc. The observer can listen and ask for clarification if the observee is not clear enough or makes assumptions about the observer’s prior knowledge of the situation.

Design suitable observation instruments

For appraisal, there is likely to be a standard observation form, but for professional development and action research, the observer and observee can work together to narrow down a focus and design an observation instrument accordingly.

Lessons are complex events and there are many possible aspects that can be observed. Here are some examples:

  • Planning and preparation
  • Learning outcomes – transparent and achieved?
  • Effectiveness of learning materials
  • Learning-teaching strategies
  • Classroom dynamics
  • Behaviour management
  • Motivation of students
  • Questioning skills
  • Interaction patterns

For example, if the observee was concerned about student participation and the balance between teacher talking time and student talking time, then a simple instrument to quantify participation could be designed. The observer could be provided with the class seating plan, and, when observing, tick the teacher and students’ names on each occasion that they made a contribution to a class discussion.

Online there are many sources of observation instruments, which can be used as they are, or adapted to circumstances. There also examples in Brown, Jones and Rawnsley (referenced in Part 1 of this guide) and Scrivener (2005), amongst other published guides to teaching.

During the observation

The observee will be busy teaching (and reflecting in action), of course, so the skills I list here are for observers.

Remember what to record

The observer should keep in mind the agreed foci. It is easy to become distracted and start commenting on other aspects of the lesson. I think each observer has preconceived notions of “good teaching” and it is tempting to focus on what the observer considers important rather than what was agreed before the observation. For example, it is a pet hate of mine, as an observer, when teachers omit to check comprehension of concepts before proceeding to practice tasks. However, if the agreed focus is something else, then I need to ignore that perceived failing.

Write two kinds of notes

When the observer makes notes about what takes place during the lesson, then the notes can be of two varieties. Firstly, notes that are a “…non-judgmental description of classroom events…” (Gebhard, 1999). I would recommend using past simple tense when writing such narrative notes, e.g. ‘The teacher gave clear verbal instructions for the learning task together with a quick demonstration.’ If the observation is for research or professional development, arguably narrative notes are sufficient. However, if appraisal is required, then alongside narrative notes the observer can write evaluative comments, e.g. ‘Most learners understood the learning task from the teacher’s explanation and demonstration, but two groups started off doing the task in the wrong way, implying that the teacher had needed to check instructions.’

Be as unobtrusive as possible

Observers commonly sit outside the line of sight of most of the students. This is done to reduce distraction and the effect of the observer being present (known as the Hawthorne Effect). The observer can select a seat to view the outcomes of the observee’s actions and student activity can be seen and heard well. Probably, the best position will be indicated by the focus of the observation.

Sometimes, the observer may need to stand up and walk around to see the work that students are doing, or move closer to be able to monitor a particular group. It is a good idea to make sure that students are prepared for this eventuality before the lesson. A simple technique to reduce the inhibitions students may feel is for the observer to look at one group while really listening to another group.

I would also recommend that observers and observees agree beforehand not to make eye contact during the lesson, so as not to influence the teacher’s confidence. Observers should also be mindful of their facial expressions in case the lecturer/teacher does look their way.

After the observation

At the post-observation meeting, both observers and observees will need to exercise numerous skills to get the maximum benefit from the experience, especially in formal appraisal situations:

  • Building rapport and developing trust
  • Active listening
  • Neutral questioning to elicit observees’ uninfluenced views on their lessons
  • Giving and receiving constructive criticism calmly and professionally
  • Counselling and conflict management

Specifically, observers should:

  • be accepting of alternative teaching strategies as long as learning objectives are met successfully
  • focus on actions and results of actions (rather than character traits)
  • be as specific with praise as they are with criticism, and support opinions with evidence
  • use concrete vocabulary when describing what was observed
  • comment only on behaviours that can be changed
  • ask questions that provoke reflection, but not leading or loaded questions
  • suggest concrete action points for future development

Meanwhile, observees need to:

  • give an honest and balanced self-evaluation
  • support the self-evaluation with evidence
  • be open to alternative strategies suggested by the observer
  • use the observer as a resource to plan future development in a practical, concrete way

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79

(Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Gebhard, J.G. (1999). ‘Seeing Teaching Differently Through Observa­tion’, in Gebhard, J.G. & Oprandy, R. (eds), 1999, Language Teaching Awareness, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.

Scrivener, J. (2005). Learning teaching: A guidebook for English language teachers. Macmillan ELT.

A mini-guide to lesson observations (part 1)

The purpose of this short guide is to help teachers/lecturers and their managers to:

  • be precise about objectives in observing or being observed,
  • follow lesson observation processes accordingly,
  • raise awareness of the skills sets of accomplished observers and observees, and thereby
  • set about participating in lesson observations with increased confidence.

(My apologies if this guide sounds rather dogmatic. I have, however, based it on relevant literature and my experience as a teacher trainer.)

Objectives of lesson observations

  1. Performance appraisal
  2. External inspection
  3. Development of teaching skills
  4. Action research

1. Performance appraisal / 2. External inspection

It is common for teaching staff to be evaluated once or twice a year on their teaching performance through observation. The observer may be a department head or school vice-principal. Some would question the reliability of this form of appraisal, particularly in the case of inspections. See this article by Nick Morrison on Forbes for the arguments against and further references: http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2014/03/19/lesson-observations-are-no-way-to-grade-teachers/

However, for many teaching professionals it is still a reality to be faced. So, it is important to ensure that it is done as carefully as possible. There are many ways to conduct a lesson observation, but I suggest a three-step process based on reflective practice:

Reflection for action (Cowan, 1998)

  • Before the observation

Reflection in action (Schön, 1983)

  • During the observation

Reflection on action (Schön, 1983)

  • After the observation

Before the observation

Ideally, there should be a face-to-face meeting beforehand to clarify several matters. As Brown (1993) said, “It is not enough simply to devise a universal checklist and send line managers out to do it.”

  • The teacher tells the observer about the learners and the lesson objectives
  • The observer takes note of any special considerations
  • The teacher & observer agree on the observation process and focus
  • The teacher & observer make sure they understand the appraisal criteria & standards in the same way. For example, what does “maintains good pace of learning” mean?

During the observation

  • The observer tries not to distract the learners or the teacher
  • The observer pays attention to all criteria that were selected
  • The teacher focuses on the learners and learning and teaches as normally as possible
  • The observer summarises impressions by the end of the lesson

After the observation

  • The teacher completes a self-evaluation before forgetting the details
  • The observer considers the teacher’s self-evaluation and adjusts appraisal or feedback accordingly
  • The observer and teacher exchange views on how well assessment criteria were met, or on the focus of the lesson observation
  • The observer and teacher decide upon future priorities and concrete action points

Professional development

By contrast, this type of lesson observation is characterized by the following terms: voluntary, forward-looking, formative and constructive. Such an observation can be beneficial for lecturers/teachers at any stage of development.

Frequently, the observer is a peer, or possibly an external consultant without vested interests. The role of the observer is to act as a trusted colleague to assist their partner in reflecting on their teaching. The observer does not need to be more knowledgeable about learning-teaching approaches.

I would argue that written impressions by observers should not be recorded and stored in teachers’ records. Otherwise, there is a danger of them being used to inform decisions about contract renewals or promotions.

“The process of observation should be developed between those staff involved.” I suggest that the three-step process above could still be helpful, minus the appraisal element.

The focus of observation is also negotiable. For example, lecturers teaching the same subject could witness alternative ways of presenting the same content, or developing the same skills in students. Alternatively, a lecturer could experiment with a revised learning task and get a second opinion on its design and effec­tiveness. In order to ensure that the observer’s attention remains on the selected focus, an observation instrument can be devised.

Action research

Action research observations are similar in nature to professional development observations in that they are non-evaluative of the lecturer/teacher. They are distinguished by, for instance, their greater formality, use of more precisely designed observation instruments and pre-conceived ways to process collected data. Findings are written up for publication or presentation and may inform revisions in learning/teaching practices or curricula design.

In part two of this mini-guide, I will provide more detail about the skills of participating in lesson observations.

References

Borich, G. D. (1994). Observation skills for effective teaching. New York : Merrill.

Brown, S., Jones, G. & Rawnsley, S. (Eds) Observing Teaching SEDA Paper 79 (Birmingham, Staff and Educational Development Association): 19–22.

Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham, UK : SRHE and Open University Press.

Higher Education Academy Resource Pages on Peer Observa­tion of Teaching: http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/resources/detail/subjects/escalate/1043_Peer_Observation_of_Teaching

Montgomery, D. (2002). Helping teachers develop through classroom observation. London : David Fulton.

Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner : How professionals think in action. New York : Basic Book.