Why the obvious tool for leading oracy across your school is Research Lesson Study

by Pete Dudley

School leaders and oracy leaders, like everyone else, have been plunged into a new and very different school environment this term. But of course, you still want to develop oracy-focused pedagogy, curriculum and learning, in spite of distancing rules or changing blends of online and face-to-face teaching.

And all that demands successful and (even more than usually) motivating professional learning!

Here’s a brief description about why, particularly for people leading and developing oracy, Research Lesson Study is proving a motivating and a successful tool for doing so – and is surprisingly adaptable to the pandemic conditions.

The reason for this is simple:

Research Lesson Study was developed to promote
oracy-driven learning amongst pupils and teachers

Research Lesson Study (RLS) is a variant of Japanese Lesson Study and was first developed almost twenty years ago to create and optimise dialogic learning practices for teaching and learning development. And which was emphatically NOT about judgemental classroom observations that so often were crushing teacher learning.

RLS involves usually three (variously experienced or expert) teachers first of all, jointly identifying and researching either a curriculum, teaching or learning-related issue in need of improvement. They then jointly develop an evidence-informed solution through a series of (again, usually three) ‘research lessons’. The teachers plan, teach/observe and evaluate these research lessons together. The RLS-group teachers are then, finally, duty-bound to share the new practice-knowledge they have discovered and in their teaching, with colleagues in and also beyond their school.

Dialogic learning is employed at each stage in the RLS process.

It is through this dialogic learning that the two sets of learners in a lesson study gain new knowledge and know-how. Set 1 is the pupils, in research lessons. Set 2 is the teachers in the RLS group teachers, through professional learning.

Making learning visible by making learning audible

One of the reasons this happens is because, for any lesson study to work effectively, pupils have to make their own thinking and learning visible (or perhaps I should say ‘audible’) to their teachers – through their collaborative talk.

RLS not only makes the pupils’ thinking and learning visible to the RLS-group teachers, it also makes the RLS group teachers’ thinking and learning visible to each other through their collaborative talk.

Studies have repeatedly shown this to happen (see references below) as RLS teachers collectively imagine and predict (in great detail) precisely how their children should learn in a planned research lesson. It happens again afterwards, when they collectively analyse why pupils learned as observed, or speculate about what they could have done differently to avoid any apparent misconceptions or set-backs, and incorporate these ideas next time to improve pupils’ learning still further.

RLS achieves all this through a combination of:

(i) deliberate process and

(ii) ground rules for teacher talk.

Deliberate process

The diagram below illustrates the deliberate process of RLS.

Following the RLS group’s initial research into the nature of the current teaching/learning problem, examining their curriculum, their teaching materials, their children’s work and outcomes; RLS deliberately and dynamically interleaves the following collective processes:

  • Imagining and predicting what will happen for pupil’s learning in a planned research lesson;
  • Observing how and what the pupils seem to learn (or not learn) in the ‘swiftly flowing river’ of the research lesson;
  • Pooling perceptions, thoughts and observations of what happened in the research lesson and of what the pupils said afterwards in interview;
  • Agreeing a joint analysis of what was ‘found’ in the research lesson and of what the RLS group have learned from it that will inform their next research lesson or their subsequent teaching.

Making learning visible through Exploratory talk

The dual purpose of oracy is (i) to help children to talk more effectively in order to get their ideas across to others: reason, debate, persuade, or inspire; and (ii) to teach children how be able to participate more effectively as a group in a problem solving or learning talks. Put simply, we can think of these as learning to talk and learning through talk. Mercer studied children’s use of exploratory talk (Barnes & Todd, 1977) for learning effectively in groups, demonstrating that children can learn to use exploratory talk to ‘think together’, harnessing the power, knowledge and imaginations of their combined brains – and, in so doing, learning more than the most advanced of their number could have learned alone (Mercer, 2000).

Teachers have used exploratory pupil talk as an opportunity to ‘eavesdrop’ on the learning processes of pupils, as it provides deep insights into the reasoning and conceptualising of both the group as a whole and of the individuals comprising it. Exploratory talk is rocket fuel for formative assessment of a kind that helps you decide what to say or do next in order to further a pupil’s learning. Listening to exploratory talk helps you to see inside children’s’ minds and to make out the thought processes and conceptions that they are forming.

However, teaching a traditional (pre-pandemic) class left lone teachers little time for systematically ‘eavesdropping’ (or observing) children engaging in dialogue for any length of time. If anything, the current arrangements can make this harder. However, RLS creates optimal conditions for teachers to engage in such systematic joint observation, particularly because the RLS group identifies three ‘case pupils’ (who typify learner groups in the class or pupils with specific learning challenges) and the RLS group uses these observations to explore how closely their pupils’ learning behaviours mirror the agreed precise predictions they made when planning.

Joint imagining of pupils’ learning

In order to make such predictions of pupils learning, teachers have to jointly imagine what kind of things the pupils will need to say in order to think the thoughts they will need to be thinking to succeed in the learning task.

Let’s take this example (from Dudley and Mercer’s 2019 analysis of Camden Learning’s Oracy hub) of an oracy leader expressing precisely this kind of view. 

This oracy leader is conveying a process that she learned to use through such collaborative planning and subsequent observing of pupils. It has enabled her to imagine the kinds of structures the pupils will need to complete a task that involves members of a collaborative group having to clarify things they had said. Think for a minute! What sort of things do you say when you are clarifying something? I tend to say things like: ‘Well I suppose what I really meant was…’ This oracy leader may then have found ways of tuning the children into these forms of words for a week or so before they needed to use them themselves. She may also have introduced them into the following week’s key phrases using sentence-stems to help prompt ways of clarifying.

This oracy leaders’ mentor, an experienced RLS participant and leader, described how she uses this process as a systematic approach to stimulating teacher learning: to help teachers think in this objective way about precisely identified children’s language and thinking they are seeking to influence. This is what she said:

We can see from these two connected examples that oracy leaders are learning about the oracy skills of their pupils through the exploratory talk they are conducting with their colleagues beforehand.

Ground rules for talk

Without careful designing by teachers, children’s collaborative dialogue will not necessarily generate the kind of exploratory talk that significantly enhances their learning in relation to the objectives of a lesson. Mercer et al (ibid) have shown that teachers need to use ‘ground rules for talk’ in order to design and engineer exploratory talk and interthinking for learning. Effective ground rules for talk optimise the learning pupils can gain through exploratory talk. Such ground rules can work affectively (for example by making sure that everyone in a collaborative group feels safe in and valued by the group). They can also work cognitively, forcing certain thinking to be tackled by requiring the group to agree a conclusion or produce an artefact.

Oracy based ‘meaning oriented teacher learning’

Most teachers find that it is easier to teach knowledge or skills if they have used them themselves. RLS provides teachers who are learning to teach children how to learn through talk with multiple, recursive opportunities to learn through talk themselves – as they do so.

For example, the RLS group learning protocol (below) was developed by teachers to ensure that in an RLS group no teacher feels intimidated and every teacher feels equal and safe as learners to contribute ideas and even ‘take risks’.

(From Research Lesson Study: a handbook.
Dudley, Lang and Xu (2019) p8)

Other ground rules for talk in the RLS handbook operate cognitively, forcing teachers to jointly agree precisely what are the true objects of learning of a research lesson or how they predict different leaners will respond in a research lesson.

The diagram below highlights some of the many opportunities for ‘ground-ruled’ teacher talk in RLS deliberate process as well as ground-ruled teacher-pupil talk in the post lesson interviews.

Some ground rules work both cognitively and affectively. For example, the post-lesson discussion ground rules require the RLS group to discuss what they each observed of each case pupil’s learning before agreeing the implications for the next research lesson. Keeping their discussion (and therefore the research lesson observations) focused on the pupils’ learning rather than on the teachers’ teaching, works affectively (the person teaching will not feel criticised or ‘to blame’ – everyone planned the lesson and successes and failures are shared). And of course, the focus on agreeing implications for the next lesson operates cognitively.

Vermunt et al. (2019) found that in RLS, teachers become absorbed in joint-detective work to explain pupils’ learning (or mislearning): not only “what works”, but “why and how”. They compare different students’ work, think about how lessons relate to each other, monitor pupils learning, experiment and constantly reflect on their practices. It is both a high quality and a deep mode of teacher learning. Dudley (2013) observed how teachers engaged in RLS lose themselves so deeply in this form of learning that they even draw upon normally invisible stores of unconscious ‘tacit’ practice-knowledge in order to collectively transform their conscious knowledge of important aspects of their practice.

Leading oracy practice – knowledge development and transfer using RLS

In their evaluation of the Camden Oracy Hub, Dudley and Mercer (2019) found that engaging jointly in classroom research such as lesson study was useful for oracy leaders and classroom teachers alike. For all the reasons outlined in this blog, RLS is an important tool in oracy leadership.

In his Voice 21 ‘Oracy Master Class’ delivered in May 2020, Richard Long provides a clear and compelling case study of RLS supporting the development of oracy in his all-through school.


How can RLS work in the pandemic?

In my current role as President of the World Association of Lesson Studies (WALS), I am acutely aware of the ways in which practitioners around the world are using online tools to help teachers develop more effective online day-to-day teaching, learning and assessment, and even to conduct online lesson studies. A special issue of the ‘International Journal of Lesson and Learning Studies’ that we commissioned earlier this year, focusing on online lesson study has already run to a double issue. The WALS online conference in December (featuring Neil Mercer as a keynote speaker) will major on using Lesson Study for improving online teaching and for conducting lesson studies online, as well as using lesson study to improve student equity www.walsnet.org.

It is now, as you know, a daily necessity to plan lessons using combinations of online platforms (Teams, Google, Edmodo…) and shared documents (OneNote, Google docs…). But because there is potential to create asynchronicity in this, one can even create a more flexible approach to planning and conducting research lessons (although I would always advocate having at least one synchronous discussion in order to keep the exploratory teacher talk-and-learning flowing).

If you are struggling to blend classroom teaching with varying numbers of pupils joining in from home, or even if you are trying to teach a whole class online, there are different opportunities and challenges. Many of these challenges rightly concern the safeguarding of children which must be paramount. People are nevertheless navigating ways through all this. For example, audio-recording the learning of groups or breakouts (cameras off!) so that evidence of pupils’ learning is available (in audio) for analysis later on.

As research-oriented teachers become ever more resourceful, and as the online platforms develop increased functionality, I believe we will see further advances in online practices of teaching development – including lesson study – which will endure well beyond the current circumstances.


Barnes, D., & Todd, F. (1977). Communication and Learning in Small Groups. London. Routledge, Kegan, Paul.

Dudley, P. (2013) Teacher learning in lesson study: what interaction level discourse analysis revealed about how teachers utilised imagination, tacit knowledge of teaching and fresh evidence of students’ learning, to develop practice-knowledge and so enhance their students’ learning. Teaching and teacher education, 34, 107-121.

Dudley, P., Pratt, M., Gilbert, C., Abbey, J., Lang, J., Bruckdorfer, H. (2020) Cross-school ‘close-to-practice’ action research, system leadership and local civic-partnership re-engineering an inner-city learning community. UCL IoE London Review of Education (in press).

Mercer, N. (2000) Words and Minds: how we use language to think together. London: Routledge.

Vermunt, J.D.V., Vrikki, M., Van Halem, N., Warwick, P. and Mercer N. (2019) The impact of lesson study professional development on the quality of teacher learning. Teaching and teacher education, 81, 61-73.

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