Bowland Maths Lesson Study project: Report

Executive summary

The Bowland Maths Lesson Study project was designed to introduce new methods for professional development of secondary school mathematics teachers by adapting a Japanese Lesson Study approach; it was implemented in nine schools during 2012-2013.

The executive summary is presented here – click on the link below to download the full report.


The Lesson Study approach was first established in Japan over 100 years ago and is increasingly being used in other countries, particularly Singapore, but also in the US – and now in England. It is a method of classroom-based professional development, built round ‘research lessons’ that are planned by a team of educators and delivered by one of them. The research lesson is designed to explore ways to improve students’ learning, with the students being closely observed by the rest of the team – and often also by other invited teachers and experts. A post-lesson discussion is conducted, immediately after the lesson, in which the team and the observers discuss their observations of the students’ learning and explore ways in which the lesson could be planned better to further enhance their learning.

It is a powerful method, which can lead to ‘systemic’ improvement, with teachers, academics, teaching advisors and material designers all learning, within a professional grouping. Capturing the full power of Lesson Study is not easy. Different adaptations around the world have been made to ‘suit’ the local environment, but maths education experts in Japan have been increasingly concerned that many of them have neglected some key principles and so have failed to benefit fully from the approach. The Japanese government launched an international project (IMPULS) to help establish global good practice, mobilizing Japanese maths education experts for the task.

Bowland Maths has been fortunate in developing close working relations with the IMPULS team over the last three years – pre-dating this project. This started from a Japanese interest in Bowland, which they saw as an innovation of interest to Japan. The result has been a rich collaboration, with Japanese experts joining the project team for half the research lessons in this project.

This report summarises the project in terms of its design, implementation arrangements and outcomes. To ensure that the report is as objective as possible, the views of participants were monitored and collected throughout the project, as in ‘action research’. The data collected included: observations of 17 of the research lessons; feedback from participants (teachers and experts), from visiting Japanese experts and from non-project observers; 21 formal interviews; two surveys of all participating teachers, one conducted before and one after the project (with c.65% response rate).

The main objective of the report is to extract lessons from the project to clarify:

  • the nature of the benefits that Lesson Study can bring
  • the essential design features needed to maximise such benefits
  • possible next steps and lessons for the future

What were the main conclusions about benefits?

The experience of this project went well beyond its original expectations – to explore Lesson Study as a way to help individuals with their own professional development. One major outcome was that the vast majority of the participants, teachers and maths education experts alike, now strongly believe that Lesson Study is a powerful approach to professional development which would produce real benefit if it were more widely established for teachers of maths in England.

But the project has shown that the practice of Lesson Study can contribute more than to the professional development of the teachers involved. It can also operate as a (much needed) mechanism to link university researchers directly to classroom teaching; in fact, the project has shown that the use of the Lesson Study can help create an effective network of maths education professionals (teachers, academics, practitioner advisors, material designers), built round classrooms, which can then develop well informed views about ways to improve student learning.

The project has also shown that Lesson Study can be a powerful demonstration and diffusion mechanism for classroom innovations – both for new teaching materials and for new pedagogical approaches: there was a significant subsequent uptake of Bowland Maths materials in participating schools – and a common reaction from outside observers was “I would like to try this lesson”.

Lesson Study events can also provide valuable feedback from classrooms to education material designers to help them to improve teaching materials: any education material designers who participate in research lessons gain good insights into student learning – as happens in Japan.

None of these benefits is ‘automatic’: considerable effort was needed throughout the project to develop the approach so that it could reap such benefits – and more work is needed to improve this further.

What were the outcomes?

The results of the project were a positive surprise to all the participants. The teachers and the maths education experts became so enthusiastic that they decided to explore ways to continue with some form of Lesson Study in the future – well beyond the funding of this project: as at autumn 2013, seven of the nine participating schools were developing specific plans to continue with Lesson Study, even with no further external funding. The participants also became clearer about the impact of problem solving on student learning and all nine schools are taking steps to regularize the use of Bowland Maths materials, most of them within revised ‘Schemes of Work’.

The expert team at Nottingham University has successfully applied for additional funding (from the Nuffield Foundation) to develop a sustainable model of Lesson Study for problem solving, ie one that would require no external funding. Several other advisors are also seeking new sources of funding for further work. Many of the invited external observers also expressed great enthusiasm for using Lesson Study in the future - and for making more use of Bowland Maths materials.

Why was there such enthusiasm?

At the core is the conviction of participants that ‘this works’ as Professional Development. Every one of the responding participants – teachers and experts – rated the experience as valuable for their own professional development, with the overwhelming majority of teachers (more than 60%) also saying that this was one of the richest professional development experiences they had ever had. Teachers also valued the opportunities to collaborate closely with colleagues, with the result that they are now able to have much better professional dialogues on a day to day basis. They found the feedback from the Lesson Study event valuable and relevant, as it was about their lesson and their classroom – and not some abstract lecture or workshop (in which points are often hard to translate into practice). Teachers thought that they are now better equipped to focus on student learning and also better equipped to prompt it.

The project also helped teachers to improve their own knowledge of problem solving and teaching process skills: the more experienced teachers developed detailed insights into process skills and the progress that students can make; less experienced teachers learned the value of problem solving and developed the confidence to deliver problem solving lessons. The critical point is that all the teachers thought that they had learned something important and, as a result, that they improved their own professional practice.

Teachers (including those for whom Bowland Maths was new) and the maths education experts converged in their conclusion that it is good practice to use context rich problems such as Bowland Maths materials on a regular basis – the majority suggested one such lesson every two to three weeks, perhaps also with project work each term. They thought that this would not only enhance student motivation about why and how maths is useful in life, but would also promote a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and processes. They agreed that most Bowland materials can be useful for all ability groups, albeit with some modifications.

There is now a much greater array of mathematical problems available as teaching resources than when Bowland Maths started. Within this set, participants still thought that the Bowland materials were unique in terms of being reliable, open and context-rich resources, fun for pupils and bundled with helpful teacher resources such as lesson plans, student progression grids and sample student responses. The usability of the Bowland materials for Lesson Study can be improved further, of course, and various participants provided ideas about how to do this, based on the experience of this project.

What were the key design features of the project?

Much of the success of the project derived from the model of Lesson Study that was developed, by interpreting ‘best practice’ from Japan, but designed with the Japanese team. Perhaps the most important design point was the use made of a range of external experts in maths education. Research academics made a major contribution by pushing the lesson planning to a higher level by asking critical questions about process skills – for which the pedagogical issues were unclear. Contributions of practitioner advisors contributions were as important and complementary, as they offered pragmatic solutions for immediate improvements in classrooms; these included local authority advisors, private consultants and university ITE staff.

Each type of ‘external expert’ played different, but complementary roles, operating as a networked group of teachers and external experts. In this way, the approach pushed teachers to have a clearer focus on investigating how to improve their own teaching practices and so be able to tackle cutting edge issues in problem solving.

It was also important to have a well established structure for the discussions, with clear roles and expectations about what the discussion chair and the expert commentator (Koshi) should do. The role of Koshi was particularly important to ensure that the benefit of the research lesson was generalised to an extent and more widely shared, not only for the Lesson Study team, but also for the external visiting observers.

What should be the next steps?

The Bowland Maths materials were the genesis for this unique and rich collaboration with Japanese experts, which has made this a ‘one-of-a-kind’ Lesson Study project. In future efforts to embed Lesson Study as a professional practice in England, it would make sense for teachers to use the range of materials now available, including those of Bowland, from which to select research lessons. However, the experience of this project strongly suggests that the materials selected need to be of high quality if valuable Lesson Study opportunities are not to be wasted.

It is extremely fortunate that the Nuffield Foundation, with whom Bowland Maths has had direct collaborations in the past, is now funding the subsequent development of a sustainable approach to Lesson Study for professional teacher development in problem solving. It is doubly fortunate that this is to being undertaken by the Nottingham University team who have been a mainstay of Bowland Maths from the outset.

Meanwhile, if funds permitted, a follow up task for Bowland Maths would be to revise some of its teaching materials and professional development modules to make them more directly usable for Lesson Study. This would help ensure that the emerging Lesson Study community would continue to have access to good quality teaching materials to help them break new ground.

What are the lessons from this project?

There are two critical points that would help to develop Lesson Study as sustainable professional practice: a ‘supply side’ point and a ‘demand side’ one. It is to be hoped that the new Nottingham University project being funded by the Nuffield Trust will explore both these aspects of the future.

On the ‘supply side’, there is a need to find ways to ensure the supply and involvement of a diversity of ‘external experts’ in Lesson Study events – from at least three different sources. First, because problem solving and the teaching of process skills is one of the least well developed areas of maths education in England, it is important that future Lesson Study events should continue to involve research active academics. Equally, the involvement of ITE teaching staff is important to ensure that there is an inflow of new teachers trained to see Lesson Study as a routine tool for their own continuing professional development. Third, a valuable role is played by practice-oriented advisors and experts – from either private or not-for-profit organizations. Some of these external experts, from any of the sources, also need to develop the capacity to perform the expert commentator role (Koshi) to raise the level of collective learning in Lesson Study events.

On the ‘demand side’, there is a need to find ways that persuade schools that the resources required for Lesson Study (mainly the costs of external experts and of teacher cover) are good value for the school in terms of the professional development of its maths teachers. This is critically linked to there being an adequate (supply side) capacity of external experts/visitors/commentators to raise the level of discussion at Lesson Study events.

The national context is now right for schools to increase their teaching of problem-solving and their use of context based problem solving materials, such as those from Bowland, and explicitly introduce them into their Schemes of Work. Schools as well as teachers are now more aware of the need to include lessons with context rich problem solving, partly because of the new curriculum’s continued emphasis on it, but also because of the increasing use of such problems in exams. There is also a well-recognised need for the development of new models for the professional development of teachers. The experience of this project should provide a key step for ways forward.

Dr. Sachi Hatakenaka

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