Lesson study: It’s not new!! by Paul McMillan, Mike Jess and Wilma Irvine

Dr. Paul McMillan is a Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. Along with his colleagues, including Mike Jess and Wilma Irvine, they have been exploring the potential of Lesson Study as a teacher-led approach to professional learning. In this blog, they describe the key elements of Lesson Study and highlight some of the recent developments in the Scottish context.

Lesson study: It’s not new!! by Paul McMillan, Mike Jess and Wilma Irvine

Lesson Study originated in Japan in the late-19th century as a teacher-led approach to professional learning. However, it took over 100 years to reach the wider world. In a global search for the best ideas known to improve classroom practice, Stigler and Hiebert (1999) uncovered a well-established Lesson Study culture that had historically been presented as the reason for Japan’s strong education performances across international league tables. Since then Lesson Study has spread rapidly across many countries and is now used to enhance teaching and learning in schools, particularly in literacy and numeracy.

What Is Lesson Study?

Lesson Study is a situated form of ‘real’ professional learning. Groups of teachers meet regularly to execute ‘research lessons’ that are taught to their own students in their own classrooms. Each ‘research lesson’ involves key elements:

  • A focus on specific issues or topics chosen by the teachers;
  • Detailed planning, usually with one or more colleagues;
  • Observation of student engagement during the lesson by other teachers;
  • Recording of student interviews after the lesson;
  • A post-lesson ‘colloquium’ involving Lesson Study group members, other colleagues, administrators, and/or invited individuals.

Lesson Study is best viewed as a ‘cycle’ (see Figure 1). Critically, across several cycles, teachers work collaboratively to investigate aspects of their teaching to improve classroom practices (Dudley, 2015). Two features of this Lesson Study cycle – observation and reflection – are worthy of special mention.

Figure 1: Lesson Study Cycle (adapted from Dudley, 2015)

A Special Word On Observation

Observation is a widespread practice in schools. The conventional approach tends to involve teachers being evaluated annually by their line manager to confirm that their practice is of a satisfactory standard. These occasional high stakes observations, with their emphasis on auditing competence, often cause teachers much distress (Donaldson, 2016). In contrast, Lesson Study positions observation in a completely different light. It becomes a regular feature of school life and is realigned as a more productive form of professional learning because:

  1. There is collaborative planning with others, including the observers, ahead of the ‘research lesson’.
  2. There is a shared focus for inquiry to align the observation of ‘research lessons’ to an agreed area of interest.
  3. The observer maintains a focus on the students, rather than the teacher, during the ‘research lesson’ to gain insights about the teaching practice.

This shift in emphasis for observation is an important, long term feature of teachers’ professional learning.

 Reflection: (Re)acknowledging The Potential

The term ‘reflection’ is common in education settings. In fact, it is so common that it seems to have lost a bit of traction in recent times. We want to refresh readers about the potential reflection offers for teacher-led professional learning. The Lesson Study ‘colloquium’ provides a safe space for teachers to reflect on their observations. This opportunity to reflect is important because it fosters a deeper understanding of the student learning displayed during the ‘research lesson’. Critically, the purpose of this post-lesson discussion is not to assess a teacher’s practice, but to collectively reflect on the observations made about the learning process. The emphasis is on the whole group of teachers involved in the cycle and not just the teacher who taught the ‘research lesson’. Subsequently, the Lesson Study process demands teachers reflect in collaboration with others and this seems to have more power than reflecting alone (Day, 1993). Challenging misconceptions, confronting underlying value systems, developing a wider range of possibilities, tackling difficult practice issues: all are more likely to happen when reflecting with others (Day, 1993). This collaborative form of reflection is a chance for teachers to learn with and from each other (Dudley, 2015). It can help teachers strengthen their ability to reflect upon and challenge their practice as professionals.

Lesson Study: Next Steps

Currently, the Lesson Study hotspots are Japan, China, U.S.A, and parts of mainland Europe. While our own Scottish context may not be there yet, there are encouraging signs on two fronts. Firstly, the existing policy context advances ‘practitioner inquiry’ as central to the work of teachers. Lesson Study, therefore, provides a clear framework for teachers and school leaders to support a form of inquiry that fosters these policy ambitions for reflection and the active interpretation of data to enhance practice. And secondly, to the best of our knowledge, there are now a number of schools and individual practitioners in Scotland starting to experiment with Lesson Study. A recent round table discussion at the Scottish Educational Research Association (SERA) annual conference (McMillan et al., 2019) was a chance for these Scottish pioneers of Lesson Study to present the successes and challenges of their work. Thus, as Lesson Study continues its spread across the globe, we are confident that developments will soon see Scotland become another hotspot!!


Day, C. (1993) Reflection: a necessary but not sufficient condition for professional development. British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 19:1, pp. 83-93.

Donaldson, M. L. (2016) Teacher evaluation reform: focus, feedback, and fear. Educational Leadership, Vol. 73: 8, pp. 72–76.

Dudley, P. (2015) (Ed.) Lesson Study: professional learning for our time. London: Routledge.

Grimm, E.D., Kaufman, T. and Doty, D. (2014) Rethinking classroom observation. Educational Leadership, Vol. 71: 8, pp. 24–29.

McMillan, P.; Jess, M.; Irvine, W.; Murray, J.; Smedley, B.; Docherty, J.; Stepney, K. and Arnold, L. (2019) Lesson Study as professional learning: empowering practitioners to produce and use evidence to inform practice. Roundtable Discussion, SERA Conference, Moray House School of Education and Sport, Edinburgh, Scotland: 20 November 2019.

Stigler, J.W. and Hiebert, J. (1999) The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: The Free Press.