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How lesson study set the tone for a year of development

By Vicky Osborne (February 2023)

In the Cambridge Maths Hub’s secondary mastery programme we have a three year journey in which two people from a maths department ('advocates') engage in mastery training for the first year. They then engage their department in the principles of teaching for mastery in the second year, and thus begin to make positive changes together as a team into the third year and beyond. The advocates tend to be teachers who signed up because they want to improve their teaching. These are not teachers who are struggling in the classroom, but those that believe every teacher can improve.

In the Maths Hub, when we revamped our Embedding Mastery programme we had two key priorities. Firstly, we want to make sure the initial experience the advocates and their department have of working together in the programme is truly collaborative and enjoyable. After years of running professional development for teachers and reading their evaluations afterwards, it is clear the number one thing maths teachers enjoy the most is talking to other maths teachers about teaching maths. Secondly, we want to make sure the programme has a real impact immediately where it matters: in the classroom.

We therefore made the decision to start every Embedding Mastery school with a lesson study with the entire department involved. A lesson study comprises of three parts: a planning phase, a delivery phase, and an evaluative phase. The full department would need to be involved in every phase for it to impact all teachers and all classrooms.

The 2021/22 Academic year: 6 schools, 12 advocates, 2 work group leads

All 12 advocates and 2 work group leads (mastery specialists from the maths hub) met together to discuss effective use of lesson study early in the autumn term. We looked at the recently published paper on Mechanisms from the EEF and how we could ensure any work we do within departments would embrace they key elements recommended in the report. The advocates were given a choice in what the lesson study could focus on, taken from the 5 big ideas of mastery that they had learned about in the previous year. This was essential for buy-in, from the advocates but also from their department; what would be the big idea most suited to the teachers in that department, their strengths, and the topics they were teaching in the near future? We left nothing to chance; every school then had a follow up planning meeting with a work group lead to ensure the lesson study focus was specific enough within the big idea. One school decided to use a set of minimally different questions to draw out the crucial concept of which angles on a straight line summed to 180 degrees; another looked at how using minimally different questions would help lower attaining students factorise a quadratic; two introduced the idea of a non-example to embed the concept of an angle or a bearing; and the final two introduced double-sided counters for negative number calculations. For every lesson study in every school, a work group lead from the maths hub helped with the planning, observed the delivery, and/or took part in the follow up meeting.

All six schools completed their lesson study with every member of the department involved. This had seemed like an impossible task, particularly in the winter of 2021 when some schools had rules about staff mixing due to the spike in covid cases, however, with creative thinking, every school found workable solutions. One used Google classroom and we all observed the lesson from the room next door. That session was particularly effective because those of us observing could discuss what we were seeing live as it was happening without disturbing the lesson. Another had all the meetings via Teams. One split the department in half and ran two concurrent lesson studies on the same goal, then each group compared what they felt would best move the techniques forward, in a combined meeting.

Each of the 6 departments subsequently wanted to engage more with mastery and with each other going forwards. They reported enjoying and benefitting from the lesson study. We know this because the final element of the lesson study project was for each advocate pair to have a ten minute slot to present to the other 5 pairs what the impact of the lesson study had been. Advocates shared student work, student voice, staff voice, and lesson resources created and improved upon from observing students using them. This level of accountability was communicated early, actively reviewed in the planning stages, and was crucial in ensuring that every school took the lesson study seriously and participated fully. Hearing from each other meant that the schools that did not do a lesson study on double sided counters were still convinced by the lesson study in another school, enough to buy their own counters and try the lesson for themselves; similarly, non-examples became the next focus for schools who had not yet tried them.

After the lesson study was completed departments began making concrete changes. Some staff immediately started sharing resources together and began the first shared planning area in their department; one school set up a bar modelling question of the week for teachers; another felt empowered to take the drive for mastery to trust level. These six schools are now in our sustaining programme, and the work group leads involved report that they have the strongest sense of community between them.

What have we done differently this year?

Our newest Embedding Mastery participants have just finished their lesson study. It has been really powerful to be able to say that six schools did this last year, and all six managed to have every member of staff involved, even under additional pressures from covid. It has been powerful to be able to share the creative ways the previous cohort managed to make sure the lesson study happened. We can say with confidence that this is a great way to start working with a department.

We now know that the initial conversation can be made more efficient and have given our participants some tips on how to do this. When teachers come together for the first time to plan something, is it really easy for the meeting to devolve into “this is how I teach it and this is my favourite resource”. It’s a lovely conversation to have but we are all time-poor. A one-hour planning meeting where everyone shares in this way will result in little being planned by the end of the time. It is far better to lead with “this is the technique we would like to include in this lesson” and write that element of the lesson together from scratch; or to take an existing lesson that no-one has ownership of (perhaps a trust lesson or one found online) and add in small but important changes to exemplify the technique. We advised departments this year that if they are planning a full lesson from scratch as a team, they should establish the procedure first so they can make the most effective use of time. The conversations around “why this, why now?” are the ones that are going to change hearts and minds in the department and create that sense of unity going forwards.

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