Lesson study as a research approach: a case study

International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies

ISSN : 2046-8253

Article publication date: 20 July 2021

Issue publication date: 23 July 2021

The purpose of this paper is to explore the merits of lesson study (LS) as a research approach for research in (science) education. A lesson was developed to introduce students to model-based reasoning: a higher order thinking skill that is seen as one of the major reasoning strategies in science.


Participants of the LS team were three secondary school teachers and two educational researchers. Additionally, one participant fulfilled both roles. Both qualitative and quantitative data were used to investigate the effect of the developed lesson on students and to formulate focal points for using the LS as a research approach.

The developed lesson successfully familiarized students with model-based reasoning. Three main focal points were formulated for using LS as a research approach: (1) make sure that the teachers support the research question that the researchers bring into the LS cycle, (2) take into account that the lesson is supposed to answer a research question that might cause extra stress for the teachers in an LS team and (3) state the role of both researchers and teachers in an LS team clearly at the beginning of the LS cycle.


This study aims to investigate whether LS can be used as a research approach by the educational research community.

  • Biological models
  • Higher order thinking skills
  • Lesson study as a research approach

Jansen, S. , Knippels, M.-C.P.J. and van Joolingen, W.R. (2021), "Lesson study as a research approach: a case study", International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies , Vol. 10 No. 3, pp. 286-301. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJLLS-12-2020-0098

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Susanne Jansen, Marie-Christine P.J. Knippels and Wouter R. van Joolingen

Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode


Lesson study (LS) is known as an approach in which a team of teachers collaborates to target an area of development in students' learning by designing, teaching, observing and evaluating lessons ( Fernandez and Yoshida, 2008 ). Studies have shown that classrooms provide powerful, practice-based contexts in which teachers learn ways to support student learning (e.g. Opfer and Pedder, 2011 ). Amongst other benefits, LS has been proved to make the teachers more aware of students' thinking processes ( Verhoef and Tall, 2011 ) and to enhance student learning (e.g. Ming Cheung and Yee Wong, 2014 ).

Since LS often focusses on teacher professional development, with teachers investigating their own practice, research on LS often has focussed on what teachers learn from LS (e.g. Schipper et al. , 2017 ; Vermunt et al. , 2019 ) or how LS can be implemented in schools (e.g. Chichibu and Kihara, 2013 ).

However, the cyclic nature of LS that allows for systematic refining of lessons might not just be beneficial for addressing topics arising from the LS team but could also benefit the study of specific problems prominent in existing bodies of educational research. Research approaches focussing on the design of teaching and learning activities in a cyclic fashion are often labelled design research of which multiple versions exist ( Bakker, 2018 ). Due to its cyclic nature and focus on teaching and learning, LS can be seen as a kind of design research. In the spectrum of design research, LS focusses on student learning and a strong involvement of teachers in the design process of lessons. This strong involvement of teachers allows them to integrate their experience and expertise into the design. The focus on student learning is, for instance, apparent in LS models used in the UK ( Dudley, 2015 ) and the Netherlands ( de Vries et al. , 2016 ), in which a number of so-called case-students are closely observed in each lesson and interviewed afterwards. This means that apart from student results from the whole class, detailed quotes, student behaviour and arguments are available for these case-students ( de Vries et al. , 2016 ). The large pedagogical and didactical contribution from teachers, and the amount of detailed data from the case-students resulting from an LS approach, can provide valuable insights for the research community.

A major challenge in science education is to foster students' higher order thinking skills ( Miri et al. , 2007 ). These skills are very difficult to capture, and LS might especially be a beneficial approach for research focussing on this area. LSs focus on observation of student learning may help studying students' reasoning processes. Teachers' pedagogical content knowledge can help in the design of activities that make students' reasoning abilities visible, allowing researchers to study the resulting data on student learning.

To explore whether LS has potential as an approach addressing research questions on higher order thinking, we present a case study in which LS is used as a research approach to develop teaching and learning activities that address the higher order thinking skill of model-based reasoning . Model-based reasoning entails the understanding of the nature and use of scientific models as a basis for scientific knowledge. In science education research, model-based reasoning is seen as one of the major reasoning strategies that is part of scientific literacy ( Windschitl et al. , 2008 ). In this study, we focus on a particular kind of model that is often used in biology: concept-process models. Concept-process models visualize biological processes such as an image showing the process of cellular respiration. These concept-process models are perceived as the most complex type of models in biology education ( Harrison and Treagust, 2000 ). Unlike scale models or visual depictions of a certain biological phenomenon, concept-process models have a very abstract nature. They include the inherent dynamics of biological processes, such as time and movement, which are often visualized by arrows ( Jansen et al. , 2019 ). Figure 1 shows an example of a biological concept-process model that is used in biology education, in which the light reaction of photosynthesis is depicted. The light reaction is the first part of photosynthesis, in which energetic molecules are formed that are necessary in the process of creating glucose. The formation of glucose takes place in the second part of photosynthesis, called the Calvin cycle.

The dynamics that biological concept-process models can represent make this type of model ideal for learning about scientific processes. They can be used not only to explain phenomena but also to formulate hypotheses or carry out thought experiments ( Windschitl et al. , 2008 ).

Aspects of model-based reasoning

A framework developed by Grünkorn et al. (2014) and adapted by ( Jansen et al. , 2019 ) shows five important aspects of model-based reasoning that reflect on understanding and using models in science ( Table 1 ). The five aspects within this framework are as follows: nature of models, purpose of models, multiple models, testing models and changing models.

The aspects nature of models and multiple models include the way models are used to describe and simplify phenomena. Nature of models focusses on the extent to which the model can be compared to the original, whereas the aspect multiple models refers to the fact that various models can be used to represent the same original. Both aspects show that models are often simplified and emphasize only those elements that are important to explain a certain key idea ( Harrison and Treagust, 2000 ). The aspects purpose of models, testing models and changing models focus on the use of models in scientific practices. These include testing hypotheses, making predictions about future events and communicating ideas ( Grosslight et al. , 1991 ). With the aspect purpose of models , the framework focusses on aims that can be met using a certain model. Testing and changing models describe the way a model is being validated and stress the fact that models are by definition temporary and changeable. For all these aspects, up to four levels of understanding have been determined, ranging from an initial level of understanding to an expert “scientific” level of understanding (Level 3).

Aim of the study

To what extent does the developed lesson successfully familiarize students with important levels and aspects that are associated with model-based reasoning?

How do teachers and researchers experience using LS as a research approach?


Three biology teachers (18, 30 and 9 years of experience; one male, two female) from the same secondary school, two researchers (second and third author) and the first author who is both a researcher and a secondary school biology teacher with eight years of experience participated in an LS team. The lesson was performed and observed in two 11th-grade pre-university biology classes from the Netherlands. In total, 34 students (16–18 years old, 18 female, 16 male) engaged in all scheduled activities.

RQ1 : Pre- and post-tests

Online pre- and post-tests were developed to determine up to which level the lesson familiarized students with the three aspects of model-based reasoning ( nature of models, purpose of models and multiple models ). Both tests contained the same nine open-ended questions, where students had to formulate a definition of a model in biology and answer questions relating to the aspects nature of models (two questions), purpose of models (three questions) and multiple models (three questions). An example of a question relating to the aspect purpose of models is as follows: “Before a biological model is made, the creator of the model thinks about what the model will be used for. Indicate a possible purpose of the model below.” A translated list of all questions is available in the Supplementary material . The pre-test took place in the biology lesson preceding the developed lesson and the post-test in the biology lesson following the developed lesson.

RQ1 : Interviews – case-students

The six case-students, three for each version of the lesson, were interviewed after the lesson using a semi-structured interview scheme. The questions as proposed by de Vries et al. (2016) were used: Students were asked about what they liked about the lesson; what they learnt from the lesson; what they thought worked well in the lesson and what they would change about the lesson if this lesson would be taught again to a different class. Interviews were recorded and lasted 5–10 min.

RQ2 : Interviews – teachers

The three teachers who participated in the LS team were interviewed after the completion of the LS cycle using a semi-structured interview scheme to evaluate what the main focal points are when using LS as a research approach. Interviews were recorded and lasted approximately 40 min. The interview questions related to the expectations the teachers had before starting the LS cycle and to what extent these expectations were met; what they thought went well during the LS cycle and what not; what they learnt from participating in an LS cycle; the extent to which they applied what they learnt to other lessons or their teaching and whether they expected to keep on using what they had learnt in the long term.

RQ2 : LS meetings

The LS cycle started with an introduction on model-based reasoning by the researchers to the teachers in the LS team. A 45-min lesson was then designed in three 2-h meetings within a time frame of two weeks. The LS team evaluated both the designed and the adapted lesson in a 1-h meeting. All meetings were audio-recorded.

Data analysis

Students’ answers on the pre- and post-tests were coded using the three aspects of interest and their corresponding levels as described in the framework from Grünkorn et al. (2014) as codes. Possible students’ answers for the aspect purpose of models are as follows:

Level 1: To show the different parts of a plant

Level 2: To indicate what relationships are present between this process and other processes

Level 3: To display the process of fertilization, after which the researcher can use the model to do research on the process

About 50% of the answers were coded by a second independent coder, resulting in a Cohen’s kappa of 0.69 for nature of models , 0.87 for purpose of models and 0.63 for multiple models . Students’ answers in the audio recordings were tagged when utterances related to aspects that were learnt from the lesson. Tagged answers were grouped according to the three aspects of focus and three levels of reasoning. Student material was tagged for utterances relating to the three levels for each of the three model-based reasoning aspects.

To learn from the experience of using LS as a research approach, the audio recordings from both the teacher interviews and the LS meetings were tagged for utterances relating to elements that worked well and for elements that needed improvement. Audio tags were grouped into these two categories.

Lesson design – the design process

After the theoretical introduction by the researchers, the first LS meeting was used to decide on the curriculum topic for the lesson and the models to be used in that lesson. The second LS meeting focussed on formulating key activities that let students reflect on the aspects within the framework ( Table 1 ) that the team wanted to get students acquainted with. During the third LS-meeting the LS-team decided on the three case-students that would be observed in detail during each performance of the lesson and on predicting the learning behaviour of these students.

In selecting the case-students, the LS team made use of the expertise of the teachers and their knowledge about the students. Since the levels in Table 1 represent an increasing degree of difficulty, the LS team assumed that students, who were able to reason on Level 3, would also be able to reason on Levels 1 and 2. Therefore, teachers were asked to define for every student whether they thought the student would have a high chance, an intermediate chance or a low chance of reaching Level 3 for the aspects as described in the framework. They also indicated which of these students would be explicit in their arguments, making it easier to follow their way of reasoning during the lesson. Students were placed in homogenous groups of four students, based on this classification. From three groups, a case-student was selected. For each case-student, an observation scheme was created, listing their predicted behaviour during each phase of the lesson. For each case-student, a backup student was chosen and an observation scheme was formulated, in case one of the selected students would not attend the lesson. Using the observation scheme, case-students were observed by members of the LS team.

The reason students were placed in homogenous groups was mostly pragmatic. Each observer was stationed next to a group of students of whom the teachers expected certain behaviour. The observer could remain seated next to this group of students and observe the backup case-student in case the selected case-students did not attend the lesson.

One of the teachers from the LS team taught the lesson. Discussions that took place in the student groups containing case-students were audio recorded, and the work of every student was collected. After teaching the lesson for the first time to one of the biology classes, the lesson was discussed with the LS team, and improvements were formulated. The adjusted lesson was taught 1 week later by the same teacher in a different biology class.

Lesson design – aspects of focus

The LS team decided to focus on three of the five aspects listed in Table 1 and to design a key activity for each of these three aspects. The teachers indicated that time was an important factor to take into account. The lesson duration of 45 min was considered to be too short to properly introduce all five aspects. Since the aim of this study was to introduce aspects that are important when reasoning with existing biological concept-process models, the researchers in the LS team explained that the aspects nature of models, purpose of models and multiple models would be the aspects of choice when creating the lesson . These aspects are central to understanding the given models and are important when reasoning with these models, such as the ones students encounter in their textbook. The aspects testing models and changing models are of importance when a model is created, tested or modified .

Lesson design – pedagogical choices

The LS team made various pedagogical choices considering the design of the lesson. These choices were mostly based on teachers' pedagogical knowledge and experience and discussed with the researchers in the team, who searched for literature backup.

The teachers decided on photosynthesis as the subject of the lesson since many models about photosynthesis are available for educational contexts. Also, this topic was recently taught in class, and, according to the teachers, this allowed for focussing on the model-based aspects and not on the content domain. This choice is in line with literature on this topic, showing that students need domain knowledge before they are able to create their own mental model of a process (e.g. Cook, 2006 ) or interpret given scientific models (e.g. Tasker and Dalton, 2007 ).

In order to engage students with the lesson and theory about the aspects of model-based reasoning, the teachers in the LS team wanted students to work with these aspects themselves before explaining the theory. According to the teachers, just explaining or showing the theory to the students would put the students in “consumer-mode.” An inductive approach, where students have to think about the theory themselves first, would engage the students and make them curious for answers. This choice is backed up by research showing that inquiry-based learning stimulates scientific reasoning and helps students to gain confidence in their scientific abilities ( Gormally et al. , 2009 ).

To provide insight in student thinking, the teachers decided that the developed key activities should stimulate students to work together and talk out loud during the lesson. Research shows that talking out loud is not only beneficial for providing insight in student thinking but also promotes student thinking about what they understand and what not, thereby improving metacognition ( Tanner, 2009 ). Also, working in groups can improve student performance in general and aid in learning ( Smith et al. , 2009 ).

Lesson design – resulting key activities

The pedagogical and didactic choices that were formulated by the LS team were incorporated into three key activities.

In Key activity 1, students focussed on the aspect multiple models . Students were asked to individually name differences between four models that showed the same biological process (photosynthesis) ( Figure 2 ). These differences were then shared in groups of four students, after which the group categorized the differences. The teacher then linked these categories to the levels as represented in the framework ( Table 1 ).

In Key activity 2, students matched aims of a model to the four models of photosynthesis. This activity corresponds to the aspect purpose of models. The aims were provided by the teacher and were formulated according to the three levels as described by the framework ( Table 1 ). In order to stimulate discussion and have students substantiate their choices, they were only allowed to match an aim with one of the models when everyone in their group agreed on this choice. The teacher then discussed the results and explained how the aims related to the three levels as described by the framework.

In Key activity 3 relating to the aspect nature of models , students were assigned to one of the four models. Students had to formulate the choices that the creator of the model had made to meet the aims. They also indicated which components of the model were drawn in a true to nature way and which were not. Afterwards, the teacher linked students' choices to the levels as described by the framework and explained how these choices relate to these levels.

Figure 3 summarizes the design process and shows the contributions of both teachers and researchers to the final lesson design.

After teaching the lesson for the first time to one of the biology classes, the lesson was discussed in the LS team. Only a minor adjustment was made, the four models of photosynthesis were numbered (1–4) before teaching the adjusted lesson.

Influence on students' reasoning

LS1B1: I thought it was very interesting. It was a different way of looking at the theory. When you learn to look at the theory in this way, you will understand it better. I really feel that way.
LS1A1: Well, we formed a group [of differences] about content, so what is visible in the image, or how much is being shown. In one of the pictures for example you can also see the Calvin cycle and in the other picture you cannot. And we have [a group of differences] about what the image is meant for. For example, the one with the small guys in it [ Figure 2c ]. In that one the focus is only on the levels of energy of the electrons. And then we also have [a group] with visual differences, which is about the fact that some images have been drawn in a more realistic way than others.

In this case, the group of differences about “content” and the group of differences about “what the image is meant for” both relate to Level 2 for the aspect multiple models , since they address the differences in focus between several models. The group with “visual differences” relates to Level 1 for the aspect multiple models , since it addresses different model object properties.

L1B1: Shall I read the aim out loud?
L1B2: Yes, that way we can think about it together
L1B1: To show that electrons are released when water is splitted.
L1B3: I think that's this one, because it clearly shows that water is splitted [pointing at the model in Figure 2d ].
L1B4: Yes, but you can see that in this model too. And in this one [pointing at the models in Figures 1a and 2b ]!
L1B2: Yes, but I think it should be the one where the focus of the model is on splitting water.
L1B1: Well, this model really emphasizes the presence of electrons, you can literally see two electrons appearing [pointing at the model in Figure 2d ].
L1B4: Yes, but you can also see that in the other models
L1B3: Yes, but the emphasis is less on the process of splitting water.
L1B1: Ok, so let's go with this one, because the emphasis of the model is on the splitting water part and on what the electrons do, the other parts of the process are less prominent [points at the model in Figure 2d ].
L1C1: If you take it literally, I do not think that there is someone using the hammer in real life.
L1C4: It is very schematic
L1C1: I think it's a choice to meet the aim by only showing a part of the reaction
L1C3: Yes, simplifying it
L1C4: Yes, focusing on a specific part of the reaction, showing that part.

The aim of the model in this case was “to show that energy is necessary to let the light reaction take place.” The students explain that by simplifying the model, the focus is on that part of the process.

Considering the pre- and post-tests, no significant differences in students' level of reasoning for each of the three aspects of focus were found. Table 2 summarizes the changes in student levels on the different aspects of model-based reasoning.

Teachers' experience

T2: Making the role of models more explicit, that is something I will handle differently from now on. I would assume it to be less clear for students. And I think I would start with that when we use models in lower secondary education, saying “this has been visualized in this way, which is a choice of the creator of the model.”
T2: In most biology lessons we use models as an illustration, to explain a certain biological phenomenon. In this lesson the model itself will be the subject of the lesson. I think we need to let students think about the nature of a model and the differences between multiple models of the same biological process.
T3: It's a good thing to critically discuss how to teach students about a certain subject. Together you will hear and see more perspectives than when you develop a lesson by yourself. We formulated a goal for the lesson and discussed how we could achieve the desired results. And everyone [in the LS team] has different ideas about that. These are probably all good ideas, but because you discuss them together, the final idea will be different from your own initial idea. And because you critically look at the ideas together, the final idea will be better.
T1: We could definitely use this method [LS] again, but perhaps I would prefer developing a lesson series instead of a single lesson. It really costs a lot of time. I look at LS as a good method to develop complete projects for example.
T2: I liked thinking upfront about what actions a certain student would undertake. It really makes you think about that specific student and whether you can predict for this student what will happen. That influences the way you teach as well. You start to behave in a certain way, because you really want things to work out the way you thought they would. And you especially want to make sure that the results could be measured.
T2: Teaching the lesson was such a strict process for me! We agreed on a certain amount of time per element within the lesson. That is really different from the way I usually teach, where I am more concerned with how the students respond, and where I adapt my teaching to their response. Now I had to do exactly what it said in the script, which meant I kept on looking at my watch. I really struggled with that, because I was afraid that the students would not get the point if I was not able to finish all elements within that lesson. During a normal lesson I would think, that's ok, and I would continue with the theory the next lesson. Now it's just one single lesson and there are observers and we do a test, so everything needs to be finished. That caused a lot of pressure, it felt unnatural.

While LS originally mainly focusses on teacher professional development, we used LS as a form of design research ( Bakker, 2018 ) to develop a lesson that addresses a problem that arises from the existing body of research and relates to higher order thinking skills. In this case study, we followed the LS cycle as described by de Vries et al. (2016) to design a lesson containing three key activities that introduce main aspects of model-based reasoning ( Table 1 ). We combined pedagogical and didactic knowledge and experience of teachers with theoretical knowledge to develop a lesson that answers the researchers' question on how to address model-based reasoning as a higher order thinking skill in class.

The influence the teachers and researchers had on the design of the lesson in this case study differs from the influence teachers have in a regular LS cycle ( Figure 3 ). In this study, the researchers were the ones introducing the subject for the lesson (model-based reasoning). As in a regular LS cycle, the teachers then developed the lesson and used their knowledge and experience to make pedagogical and didactic choices. However, different from a regular LS cycle, the researchers reflected on whether the teachers' choices were in line with theory from literature and whether the developed activities reflected the subject that the researchers had intended. The researchers were also responsible for developing the pre- and post-tests to determine whether the lesson affected students' level of model-based reasoning.

Considering our first research question, we found that after the lesson, all case-students were capable of reasoning on multiple levels for the aspects nature of models, purpose of models and multiple models. These results indicate that all case-students understood the meaning of the three aspects of model-based reasoning and were able to work with these aspects on different levels of reasoning.

The pre- and post-tests showed that student levels of reasoning did not significantly change for any of the three aspects of focus. However, the open structure of the questions in the pre- and post-tests invited students to answer on their preferred level of reasoning. This means that even when students were capable of reasoning on multiple levels as shown in Table 1 , the test offered the possibility to only answer on the level they preferred. Therefore, the pre- and post-tests probably indicate the students' preferred level of reasoning instead of their highest capable level of reasoning. Despite this lack of increase in students' preferred level of reasoning, the qualitative data showed that all case-students were able to reason on multiple levels for each of the three aspects of focus. Considering our first RQ, we, therefore, conclude that the results indicate that the developed lesson successfully familiarized students with main aspects of model-based reasoning. However, future research should focus on developing lessons to deepen students' understanding on this subject and on developing a test to assess the students' capability of reasoning on all levels separately for each of the main aspects of model-based reasoning.

Considering RQ2 , using LS as a research approach was appreciated by the teachers. The teachers enjoyed being part of the LS team and thought it was a productive way to develop lessons, stimulate creativity and increase team spirit. All teachers mentioned that the theory about model-based reasoning was an eye-opener to them, which not only influenced their own way of reasoning with models but also the way they intended to work with models in their future lessons.

However, results from the teacher interviews show that teachers experience one downside of being part of the LS team, time. In this case, the factor time did not only apply to how long it took to develop the lesson but also to the strict schedule that was set up for the lesson. The teacher who taught the lesson reported pressure on performing the lesson precisely according to this schedule as he or she felt this was necessary to answer the research question of the researchers.

Since we as authors fulfilled the role of researchers, it was not possible to objectively investigate the experience of the researchers in this case study. However, we can say that as researchers, we felt positive about being part of the LS team and about using LS as a research approach. Since the teachers designed the lesson, making pedagogical and didactic choices, the role of the researchers was mainly to inform the teachers about the theoretical background and check whether the choices that the teachers made were backed up by research. We found that this approach, in combination with the teachers' important role in observing and evaluating the lesson, led to increased ownership for the teachers. Also, as researchers, we felt that the practical and pedagogical knowledge and experience from the teachers added value to the developed lesson, while the theoretical knowledge that we shared with the teachers added value to the teachers' way of teaching. In our experience, this exchange in knowledge improved the lesson design and served as an example of a possible way to sustainably incorporate theoretical knowledge from the educational research community into the classroom.

As mentioned in the method section, the LS team consisted of three teachers, two researchers and a third researcher who was also a teacher. This third researcher fulfilled tasks both as a researcher and as a teacher, functioning as a bridge between the researchers and the teachers, contributing both theoretically and practically. Future research is necessary to find out whether the separation in tasks as described in Figure 3 also works well when the LS team does not contain a member who is both a researcher and a teacher.

Our results suggest a number of focal points that should be taken into account when using LS as a research approach. First of all, it is important to make sure that the teachers support the research question that the researchers bring into the LS cycle and that they are invested in designing lessons that answer this research question. This differs from the regular LS approach, where the teachers are the ones who decide on the subject of the lesson, making them naturally more aware of the need to work on this subject. To increase the teachers' support in answering the research question, we would therefore advise to extensively discuss the subject that the researchers bring to the LS cycle. Also, as shown in previous research (e.g. Wolthuis et al. , 2020 ), exploring possibilities to facilitate teachers and making sure that they have time to work on designing the lessons can help to increase teachers' investment.

Second, it is important to take into account the fact that the lesson is supposed to answer a research question can cause extra stress for the teachers. As shown in this case study, teachers could feel like they have to perform well because they would otherwise hinder the research or that not performing well would place an extra burden on the researchers who observe the lesson. Adding extra cycles to the LS approach might solve this problem. That way both the lesson and the way of teaching can be reviewed multiple times, making the teachers more comfortable with teaching the lesson. In this case study, the teacher who taught the lesson indicated that he already felt more comfortable the second time he taught the lesson.

Third, it is important to be clear about the role of both the teachers and the researchers in the LS team. That way both the teachers and researchers share responsibility for the lesson plan. As shown in this case study, the teachers' sense of ownership considering the lesson design led to a product that was created by the whole team, of which they were proud. This is in line with results from Dudley et al. (2019) who show that teachers in an LS team experience a high degree of ownership while collectively trying to understand how students navigate curricular pathways and pedagogies.

This case study provides an exemplar for how LS can be used as a research approach. We believe LS is a promising approach to bring the pedagogical and didactic knowledge and experience from teachers and the theoretical knowledge from the educational research community together and might thereby contribute to bridging the gap between theory-driven research and educational practice.

lesson study research articles

A concept-process model of the light reaction of photosynthesis. Reprinted and translated with permission from Noordhoff Uitgevers, Groningen ( Brouwens et al. , 2013 )

lesson study research articles

The four models of the light reaction of photosynthesis that were used in the developed lesson

lesson study research articles

Contributions of the teachers and the researchers to the lesson design. The contributions from the teachers are visualized in light grey. The contributions from the researchers are visualized in white. The arrows show interactions between the researchers, teachers and the lesson design. The dotted arrow shows a possible adaptation moment to the lesson design. In this case study, these possible adaptations have been discussed but have not been applied to the lesson design since the lesson would not be taught a third time. The figure can be read as a timeline from left to right

Framework to assess students' understanding of biological models. The left column shows the five aspects that are important when reasoning with biological models. For each of these aspects up to four levels of understanding have been defined, ranging from an initial level of understanding to an expert level of understanding ( Jansen et al., 2019 )

Comparison of the pre- and post-tests

Note(s) : The three aspects of interest are shown in the left column. The table shows for each of the two biology classes how many students ( n ) decreased in level of reasoning, showed no change in level of reasoning, or increased in level of reasoning

Supplementary material List of translated questions from the pre- and post-tests

Models are often used in biology. Below you find three examples of biological models. Can you formulate a definition for a biological model?

[three models: a scale model of a human eye, a model (drawing) of a cell, a model (drawing) of the process of pollination]

Every biological model is made with a certain purpose. Name two or three reasons (purposes) for creating a model of a biological phenomenon.

Before the model below was made, the creator of the model first decided on the purpose that this model would serve. Indicate for the model below what you think is the purpose for which this model was created.

[model of the process of pollination]

To what extent does this model correspond to the original, real world situation? Explain your answer.

To meet the purpose as described in Question 3, the creator made specific choices while creating this model. Describe a minimum of three choices that were made by the creator of the model to meet this purpose.

Can this model also be used for a different purpose? If so, give one or two examples of such purposes.

Often multiple models about the same biological process exist. What could be a reason for the fact that multiple models about the same process exist?

When multiple models about the same biological process exist, is in that case per definition one model better than the other? Explain your answer.

The existence of both of these models is important

One of the models is better/more useful than the other

It would be good to combine both models and create one ultimate model

[two models about the process of protein synthesis, both with a different focus: one model focussing on the binding of the anticodon on tRNA to the codon on mRNA, and one model focussing on the movement of ribosomes along the mRNA]

Questions relating to the aspect:

Nature of models: 4, 5

Purpose of models: 2, 3, 6

Multiple models: 7, 8, 9

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This paper and the research behind it would not have been possible without the exceptional support of the teachers from the Lesson Study team: Harm Lelieveld, Willemien Hollander and Marieke van Klink. The authors would also like to thank the school Gymnasium Novum and its students for their cooperation in this research.

Funding: This work was supported by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, NWO) [grant number 023.007.065].

Corresponding author

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Original research article, the impact of observers’ beliefs on the perceived contribution of a research lesson.

lesson study research articles

  • 1 Experiential Learning Office–Engineering Faculty, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada
  • 2 CIAE, Institute of Education, University of Chile, Santiago, Chile

Recently, Lesson Study (LS) has gained popularity in countries worldwide because of its potentially positive effects on teachers’ practices (e.g., reflection, cooperation, and pre-service development) and students’ learning. However, despite global interest in LS’s implementation, an important gap exists between Japanese LS and its implementation in other countries, which may be due to several reasons, such as differences in culture and educational systems or teachers’ beliefs. In this study, we examined the effect of teachers’ beliefs on their evaluation of LS in Chile. We administered a questionnaire to 94 teachers who participated in the Research Lesson (RL) as observers. The questionnaire assessed teachers’ beliefs and RL’s contributions to knowledge of the subject matter, instructional strategies, monitoring skills, lesson planning, and student understanding. Using a stepwise logistic regression, after controlling for sex and occupation, we found that the observers’ beliefs influenced their perceptions of RL’s contributions to monitoring, assessment, and instruction. Participants with student-focused beliefs were more likely to find that RL contributed to their monitoring skills and ability to assess students’ understanding of content. The results regarding instructional strategies were mixed. Our findings can help devise strategies to increase the effectiveness of LS implementation. For example, by designing two types of LS, one adapted to teachers with student-focused teaching beliefs and the other to teacher-focused teaching beliefs. To the best of our knowledge, this dual strategy is not part of LS implementation, at least in Chile. LS teams could easily explore this dual strategy, which could improve teachers’ professional development.

1 Introduction

Lesson Study (LS) began in 1880 in Japan with the goal of reproducing the best practices in teaching ( Isoda, 2015 ) and is a collaborative teaching improvement process designed to build strong and productive communities of teachers who share and learn from each other. Many countries have introduced this methodology ( Fujii, 2014 ). Evidence indicates that LS accelerates the production of effective lessons and, in particular, helps develop open-ended approaches with lessons that aim to develop higher-order skills ( Inprasitha, 2015 ). Additionally, Vermunt et al. (2019) concluded that the LS approach to pedagogical development fosters meaning-oriented teacher learning, which can be explained by LS’s strong focus on analyzing and understanding pupils’ learning. In particular, teachers in schools implementing LS have reported more meaning- and application-oriented learning than teachers from schools without LS experience ( Vermunt et al., 2019 ).

Enhancing the dissemination and awareness of LS’s benefits is important, as Chokshi and Fernandez (2004) found that schools allocate time for LS initiatives once teachers recognize the potential of LS. The potential benefits of LS include various pedagogical aspects and students’ learning outcomes. Researchers have studied numerous different effects of LS, including teachers’ increased self-efficacy ( Mintzes et al., 2013 ; Schipper et al., 2018 ; Vermunt et al., 2019 ), teachers’ content knowledge ( Fernandez and Robinson, 2006 ; Lewis and Perry, 2014 ; Juhler, 2016 ), teaching practices and teachers’ skills ( Fernandez and Robinson, 2006 ; Fernandez, 2010 ; Vermunt et al., 2019 ), teachers’ beliefs ( Fernandez and Robinson, 2006 ; Lewis and Perry, 2015 ; Yakar and Turgut, 2017 ) and pre-service teachers’ preparation ( Marble, 2006 , 2007 ; Suh and Fulginiti, 2012 ). In Chile, there used to be funds to implement this methodology, but due to a significant funding reduction, only a few institutions continue to work with the methodology ( Estrella et al., 2018 ).

However, a notable gap in the implementation of LS exists between Japan and other countries owing to divergent cultures and educational systems. Countries implementing LS outside of Japan have been found to not fully capture its key components ( Fujii, 2014 ). For instance, in the US, most LS teams do not share their learning with their peers, losing the opportunity to share and discuss their experiences with their educational community ( Whitney, 2020 ). Similarly, in England, Seleznyov (2020) reported that LS practices were diluted over time and identified various impediments, such as a lack of time and excessive teacher workload, a focus on demonstrating short-term impact, and a lack of teacher research skills. Additionally, Godfrey et al. (2019) found that engagement and reported learning decreased when teachers in England had to commit their own time to the LS process.

1.1 Research lessons

Research lessons (RLs) are critical to LS, which involve teachers coming together to observe and discuss lessons. Some benefits of RLs include opportunities for teachers to observe experienced teachers as a form of modeling their own learning experiences. RLs provide valuable examples of meaningful curricula and standard discussions, encouraging teachers to align their teaching with policy- and research-based recommendations ( Lumpe et al., 2014 ). Furthermore, Dudley et al. (2019) studied the implementation of RLs in mathematics within a school system in England and concluded that by focusing on student learning and recursive cycles of LS, teachers could develop the curriculum and raise standards while supporting the creation of the necessary conditions for learning. This transition to a student-centered education was also part of a two-year project in which teachers focused on students’ mathematical reasoning and sense-making rather than on other teacher actions or teaching ( Wessels, 2018 ).

Another potential benefit of RLs is teacher dialogue, consisting of more meaningful reflections. During the implementation of RLs in Ireland, teachers engaged in meaningful dialogues about pedagogy and student learning, fostering deeper levels of reflection on their understanding and practice knowledge ( McSweeney and Gardner, 2018 ). Similarly, a study in Singapore concluded that after four RLs and discourse analyses, a balance was achieved in mathematical representation while escalating the construction of meaning-making ( Fang et al., 2019 ).

Nonetheless, the field’s understanding of RLs remains limited, especially regarding methods of sharing work with others. Whitney (2020) examined cases of LS teams in the US and found that most LS teams did not distribute their learning to the field. Individuals external to the team observed the RL and engaged in subsequent post-lesson discussions.

This study has two objectives. First, we gathered the evaluations of observers outside the LS team when they attended an RL in Chile. Second, we examined how observers’ beliefs affected their evaluation of RL. Thus, our research question (RQ) was, “To what extent do teachers’ beliefs affect the perceived contributions of an RL in the context of an LS process?”

1.2 The Chilean context and teachers’ predisposition to observation

Our first study aim was to gather the evaluations of observers attending an RL in Chile. Participation as an observer in an RL may share similarities with teachers’ own evaluation processes, particularly in the context of observing pedagogical practices and sharing best practices with peers. Potential apprehension could exists among educators because of the history of teacher performance evaluations in Chile. This subsection briefly describes the historical perspective of the Chilean teacher evaluation system.

Chile’s experience with teacher performance evaluation is distinctive, particularly considering its past political developments. During Chile’s dictatorship (1973–1989), the teaching profession experienced a significant weakening, resulting in a substantial unemployment rate among teachers. Following the return to democracy in the 1990s, concerted efforts were made by the national government, in collaboration with teachers’ unions, to rectify the adverse consequences of past politics ( Avalos and Assael, 2006 ; Assaél and Cornejo, 2018 ).

One contentious aspect of these remedial efforts was the introduction of an annual grading system exclusively within public schools (municipality-dependent), which has frequently been perceived as punitive and arbitrary by educators ( Avalos and Assael, 2006 ; Taut et al., 2011 ; Assaél and Cornejo, 2018 ). Despite some modifications over the years, the prevailing sentiment among teachers was that these evaluations remained unjust and were penalizing. Moreover, these evaluations impose additional work burdens on teachers, exacerbated by the prevailing practice of unpaid overtime among educators in Chile. This evaluation is referred to as the “Teaching Evaluation” and is mandated by law.

In 2016, a significant change occurred when a second method of evaluating teachers was introduced, referred to as the “Teaching Career Evaluation.” This evaluation encompassed all teachers associated with schools that received state funding. Consequently, educators from state-funded educational institutions were included in the evaluation process ( Martínez, 2022 ; Colegio de Profesores, 2023 ). Importantly, the evaluation was not designed to supplement the existing evaluation system but introduced an additional evaluation more closely associated with the years of a teacher’s career. Consequently, teachers within the public system were subject to evaluations from two distinct systems, increasing their workload and the demands placed on them.

Both evaluations were designed to reinforce the teaching profession and contribute to improving the quality of education. The “Teaching Evaluation” comprises four key components: (1) a self-assessment rubric; (2) an interview conducted by a peer evaluator; (3) a third-party reference report; and (4) a portfolio showcasing an in-video pedagogical performance. Each component includes a rating assigned to the teacher, classifying teachers into different performance levels: outstanding, competent, basic, or unsatisfactory. The “Teaching Career Evaluation” includes (1) an evaluation of specific and pedagogical knowledge and (2) the same portfolio used in the “Teaching Evaluation.” According to Alvarado (2012) , the teachers’ performance and their students’ academic performance on math- and language-standardized national tests have been positively correlated.

Teachers who received favorable evaluations progress to higher tiers within the Teaching Career framework. The upper tiers often entail augmented salary packages and improved working conditions ( Manzi et al., 2011 ). Engagement in these evaluative assessments may be a financial necessity for some teachers due to the comparatively modest salaries that educators in Chile receive ( Assaél and Cornejo, 2018 ; Avalos-Bevan, 2018 ), rather than an opportunity to foster reflection between peers regarding their pedagogical practice and work ( Assaél and Cornejo, 2018 ; Avalos-Bevan, 2018 ).

Consequently, public school teachers in Chile have experience with being observed and engaging in discussions with others regarding their teaching practices. However, these experiences may be biased toward an emphasis on assessment and evaluation, which, in turn, translates into an economic impact.

2.1 Participants

The participants in this study were observers of at least one RL hosted by different LS teams. The survey and methodology were approved by our ethics committee. An open invitation to complete the survey was sent to the participants of three different RLs sponsored by the Center for Advanced Research in Education (CIAE). Participants answered the survey between March and May 2020. All RLs were Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-related and planned for primary education, with an open invitation to elementary and secondary school teachers, academics, researchers, educators, future teachers, school administrators, and educational authorities. The teachers who taught the lesson were experienced teachers. Two were held in Santiago, Chile, in 2017 and 2018, and the third in Valparaíso, Chile, in 2019. The last RL was conducted within the context of the XI Regional Conference on Lesson Studies.

A total of 97 participants answered the survey, and 92 agreed to participate, resulting in a response rate of 94.84%. Of the 92 participants, 62 were women (67.39%), and 30 were men (32.61%). Regarding the participants’ occupations, 70 were in-service teachers (76.08%), five were student teachers (5.43%), and 17 (18.47%) had other roles related to education, such as academics, members of a school board, and principals.

Regarding the participants’ observation experience, the information available is limited. As explained in the previous section, teachers in Chile have experience being observed; however, we do not have evidence of the level of training that the participants received as observers before attending the RL.

2.2 Instruments

A questionnaire was developed to assess participants’ perceptions of the RL’s contributions to their skills and beliefs.

2.2.1 RL contribution to pedagogical practices, overall LS evaluation, and future participation

Participants answered five Likert-scale questions regarding the contribution level of RL to their (1) knowledge of the subject matter, (2) instructional strategies, (3) skills to monitor the level of understanding of the students, (4) lesson planning skills, and (5) abilities to assess the students’ understanding of the content. Participants evaluated the contribution of RL by choosing one of five options (from 1 =  not at all to 5 =  extremely relevant ). This type of question, which includes scale with neutral option, has been used in previous studies to evaluate the impact of LS on teachers’ professional development ( Alamri, 2020 ), participants’ perception of changes in intercultural competence for lesson study ( Sakai et al., 2022 ).

Participants also answered a Likert-scale question about their overall evaluation of RL that was rated from very poor (1) to very good (5), as well as a question regarding whether they would participate again in an RL session, which was rated as yes , maybe , or no .

2.2.2 Teachers’ beliefs about learning

The Teacher Beliefs Interview (TBI), a semi-structured interview protocol, was developed to describe and map various epistemological beliefs held by science teachers ( Luft and Roehrig, 2007 ). Based on the TBI, teachers’ beliefs range from teacher-focused to student-focused. The TBI includes seven items assessing their knowledge and learning beliefs. Depending on the teachers’ responses, their beliefs were coded into five categories: (1) t raditional , with a focus on information, transmission, structure, or sources; (2) instructive , with a focus on providing experiences, teacher focus, or teacher decisions; (3) transitional , with a focus on teacher/student relationships, subjective decisions, or affective responses; (4) responsive , with a focus on collaboration, feedback, or knowledge development; and (5) reform-based , focusing on mediating student knowledge or interactions. The traditional and instructive categories are teacher-focused, whereas the responsive and reform-based categories are student-focused. This instrument has been employed in prior studies about LS and teachers’ beliefs. In the study by Tupper (2022) , the TBI was utilized alongside other instruments to assess the relationship between teachers’ beliefs, self-efficacy, and professional noticing with multiple lesson study experiences. Similarly, Fortney (2009) incorporated the TBI, among other instruments, to investigate how teachers reconcile student-centered instruction with their preexisting traditional beliefs about teaching. Finally, Yakar and Turgut (2017) also used the TBI and found that through lesson study preservice teachers changed their beliefs toward more student-centered.

Of the seven questions on TBI, four were related to learning beliefs. The other three items were related to knowledge beliefs. Three questions regarding learning were included in the questionnaire (the fourth question was excluded because it asked about science learning). Rather than adhering to the open-ended format, we modified the approach by incorporating the three questions that asked the participants to choose between two real-life strategies using concrete examples. These three questions were related to the participants’ beliefs about learning. This adaptation led to a structured multiple-choice format, providing participants with clear examples while maintaining the integrity of the TBI’s underlying principles. Table 1 shows the questions, examples, and mapping suggested by Luft and Roehrig (2007) for assessing the participants’ beliefs.


Table 1 . Questions in the survey and the corresponding response mapping based on TBI.

The Cronbach’s alpha was calculated to measure the reliability of the instrument. The results showed that the instrument had an estimated α equal to 0.68.

2.3 Analysis

To answer the research question, a descriptive analysis and stepwise logistic regression model were performed for each dependent variable. Five independent models were tested, one for each dependent variable.

2.3.1 Dependent variable—RL contribution

The five dependent variables were the RL contributions to knowledge, instruction, monitoring, planning, and assessment. Each variable was binary, with value 1 being assigned when the participant evaluated the RL’s level of contribution as either very or extremely and a value of 0 being assigned for all other ratings.

2.3.2 Independent variables

Participants’ beliefs were considered independent variables. Thus, there were three independent variables, each corresponding to one of the three questions regarding how participants (1) maximized learning in their classrooms, coded as max_learning; (2) knew when their students understood, coded as understanding; and (3) knew when learning occurred in their classrooms, coded as learning.

As with the dependent variables, each independent variable was binary, with the variable being scored as Student Focused (SF) when participants chose strategies that were mapped as student-focused and/or transitional on the TBI ( Luft and Roehrig, 2007 ) and Not Student Focused (NSF) in any other case. In other words, if a participant chose a responsive (R) and/or reform-based (RB) strategy alongside a transitional strategy, the participant was coded as SF. In all other cases, the participant was coded as NSF. Table 2 shows the scenarios in which participants were classified as having SF. The participants were classified as having NSF for all other combinations of selected strategies.


Table 2 . Categorization of participants’ answers based on number of strategies selected.

2.3.3 Other explanatory variables

Two other independent variables are also considered. The first was sex (woman or man), while the second was the participant’s occupation ( in-service teacher , student teacher , or other ).

The stepwise logistic regression selection considered a full model with all the variables involved (max_learning, understanding, learning, sex, and occupation) and a base model with only sex as an independent variable ( Figure 1 ).


Figure 1 . Models explaining the level of contribution of the RL used in the stepwise logistic regression. (A) Full model with all the variables involved. (B) Base model with sex as the independent variable.

The notation for the full model is:

For the base model, it is:

Model selection used the R function stepAIC ( Zhang, 2016 ), which iteratively adds and removes predictors to the base model. Thus, the best model was selected based on its lower AIC value ( Akaike, 1974 ). This process was performed independently for each dependent variable: the level of contribution of RL to (1) knowledge, (2) instruction, (3) monitoring, (4) planning, and (5) assessment. Finally, when a variable was significant, the odds ratio (OR) was reported as a measure of the association between exposure and outcome ( Szumilas, 2010 ).

3.1 LS evaluation and future participation

Overall, the LS received a positive evaluation: 76.09% of teachers evaluated RL as either good or very good ( N  = 70). When asked if they would participate again in RL, 86.95% reported that they would. The distribution of the answers is shown in Figure 2 .


Figure 2 . Number of answers of the participants’ overall evaluation of RL and future participation.

3.2 Participants’ beliefs

Table 3 summarizes the distribution of teachers’ beliefs after categorizing them as either SF or NSF.


Table 3 . Distribution of the observers’ beliefs for each independent variable, based on the TBI categories.

3.3 Reported RL impact on pedagogical aspects

Table 4 shows the level of contribution of RL to pedagogical practices as reported by the participants. The aspects with the highest levels of impact were planning and assessment, while the aspects with the lowest impact on teachers’ pedagogical practices were monitoring and instruction.


Table 4 . Evaluation of the contribution of RL to different aspects.

3.4 Impact of participants’ beliefs on RL contribution

Table 5 summarizes the distribution of the level of contribution by belief for the three independent variables. Results in Table 5 suggest that participants’ beliefs might influence the perception of the RL contribution. The data imply a consistent trend where observers with SF beliefs tend to value the RL contribution more than those with NSF beliefs. Moreover, the differences are more or less pronounced depending on how those underlying beliefs are measured (i.e., max learning, learning, or understanding).


Table 5 . Distribution of evaluation of the contribution of the RL based on the category of observers’ beliefs.

Differences in the RL’s contribution based on the observers’ beliefs were observed. Regarding monitoring skills, 72.34% of those with SF beliefs (measured with the variable max_learning) valued the contribution of RL as very or extremely , while less than half of observers with NSF beliefs shared the same valuation.

In terms of assessing skills, 76.60% of participants with SF beliefs (measured with the variable max_learning) rated the contribution as very or extremely , compared to 55.56% of those who were NSF.

The results for the instructional skills varied. When considering the observers’ beliefs measured by the variable max_learning, 74.47% of the observers with SF beliefs valued the contribution of RL positively, in contrast to 48.89% of those with NSF. In contrast, when measuring beliefs by the variable learning, 71.05% of observers with NSF beliefs valued the contribution as positive, whereas 55.56% of observers with student-focused SF beliefs shared the same view.

3.4.1 Knowledge

The summary of the logistic regression model is shown in Table 6 .


Table 6 . Logistic regression summary for the selected model illustrating the contribution of RL to knowledge.

The selected model was the base model (AIC = 121.87), with sex as the only independent variable. However, sex was not a significant predictor of the probability of evaluating contribution to RL ( p  = 0.14; Table 6 ). Thus, the participants’ beliefs did not add information when explaining the contribution of RL to their knowledge skills.

3.4.2 Monitoring

The summary of the logistic regression model is shown in Table 7 .


Table 7 . Logistic regression summary for the selected model showing the contribution of RL to monitoring.

The model that best explained the contribution of RL to monitoring skills was the independent variable max_learning after controlling for sex and occupation (AIC = 121.44). The variable max_learning had a significant positive estimated value ( p  = 0.035), whereas the other variables (i.e., sex and occupation) were not significant. In other words, when holding the variables of sex and occupation constant, participants with SF beliefs (measured through the variable max_learning) were more likely to rate the contribution of RL on their monitoring skills as very or extremely (OR = 1.99, 95%CI [1.06, 3.85]).

3.4.3 Planning

The selected model considered max_learning and understanding as independent variables, controlling for sex (AIC = 108.29). Table 8 summarizes the corresponding logistic regression results.


Table 8 . Logistic regression summary for the selected model showing RL’s contribution to planning.

In the selected model, the three independent variables had nonsignificant estimated values. The variables max_learning and sex had positive values, while understanding had an estimated negative value.

3.4.4 Assessing

The model that best explains the contribution to assessment is the independent variable max_learning, after controlling for sex and occupation (AIC = 117.66). Table 9 summarizes the corresponding logistic regression results.


Table 9 . Logistic regression summary for the selected model showing RL’s contribution to assessing.

In the selected model, max_learning had a positive and significant estimated value ( p  = 0.039). Thus, when holding the variables of sex and occupation constant, observers with SF beliefs, measured through the variable max_learning, were more likely to value the contribution on assessing as very or extremely , in contrast to the observers with NSF beliefs (OR = 2.01, 95%CI [1.05, 3.98]).

3.4.5 Instruction

The model that best explains the contribution to instruction had the independent variables max_learning and learning controlled for by sex (AIC = 114.68). Table 10 summarizes the corresponding logistic regression results.


Table 10 . Logistic regression summary for the selected model showing RL’s contribution to instruction.

In this model, the variable max_learning had a significant, positive estimated value ( p  = 0.002), whereas the variable learning had a significant, negative estimated value ( p  = 0.007). Thus, when holding the variable of sex constant, observers with beliefs which were SF, measured through the variable max_learning, were more likely to value the contribution on assessing as very or extremely , in contrast to the observers with NSF beliefs. Further when controlling for the variable of sex, observers with beliefs that were NSF, measured through the variable learning, were more likely to value the contribution on instruction as very or extremely .

4 Discussion and conclusion

This study has two aims. First, we aimed to collect evaluations of observers outside the LS team when attending the LS Research Lesson stage. Second, we examined how the observers’ beliefs affected their evaluations of RL. Thus, the research question (RQ) was, “To what extent do teachers’ beliefs affect the perceived contribution of a Research Lesson in the context of a lesson-study process?”

Evidence indicates that LS teams do not share their learning with their peers, thereby losing opportunities to share and discuss their experiences with the educational community. An RL provides teachers new opportunities to observe experienced teachers to model their own learning experiences and discuss curricula and standards, helping persuade teachers to align their teaching with policy and evidence-based recommendations. However, little is known about the RS stage, particularly regarding how to share work with others. Whitney (2020) studied cases of LS study teams in the US and found that most LS teams did not distribute their learning to the field, and instances of people outside the team watching the research lesson and participating in post-lesson discussions existed.

Nonetheless, a relationship has been observed between beliefs and classroom practices ( Skott, 2001 ; Stipek et al., 2001 ; Schoenfeld, 2011 ). Moreover, these beliefs could affect teachers’ changes in the context of professional development programs ( Maass, 2011 ). de Vries et al. (2013) found a relationship between teachers’ participation in Continuous Professional Development programs and their beliefs.

This paper aims to reduce the existing gap between the implementation of LS in Japan and in other countries. When considering the implementation of LS in Chile, it is critical to look at teachers’ predisposition to observation. Historically, teachers of public schools have experience in being observed; however, class observation has been associated with assessment and evaluation. Although this research does not specifically inquire about teachers’ beliefs regarding observation, it is an important element to consider in the teaching culture of Chile. For example, by conducting RL observation, Chilean teachers could focus more on evaluating aspects that are important in their own teaching evaluation, such as class planning and student assessment.

The results show that, in the Chilean context, when explaining the perceived contribution of the RL, observers’ beliefs improved the models’ performance, contributing to instruction, monitoring, planning, and evaluation. The current findings are beneficial, as they provide insights into how different participants value their contributions to RL. Furthermore, LS teams should consider this when issuing open invitations to external individuals to observe RL. Understanding the influence of participants’ beliefs on their evaluation of a situation is valuable. In addition, these findings can help develop strategies for more effective LS implementation, such as designing two types of LS, one adapted to teachers with beliefs about teaching focused on students and the other adapted to teaching beliefs focused on teachers. To the best of our knowledge, this dual strategy is currently not a part of LS implementation, at least in Chile. LS teams could easily explore this dual strategy, which could improve teachers’ professional development. In terms of practical implications, we believe that by adapting different types of LS, the whole group collaboration within each RL could lead to a richer discussion on aspects of the lesson. It would bring to the forefront those aspects that might not initially appear to contribute significantly. As a result, it would promote reflection among observers based on their own beliefs. Moreover, this dual strategy could help emphasize the benefits of the methodology and strengthen the overarching goals of the LS by highlighting those aspects that are less appreciated within each group.

LS encompasses multiple stages and requires dedication from the LS team. This paper provides initial insights into a single stage of LS based on a limited sample. Nonetheless, future research should focus on the whole process, considering a more holistic perspective of the LS implementation. Similarly, future research could explore the beliefs of the LS team, rather than solely focusing on the observers of the RL. Additionally, considering other contextual factors such as school culture, previous observation experiences, and administrative resources to participate in Professional Development activities. For instance, it would greatly enrich the analysis of future research to know the level of expertise participants have in conducting observations. This would allow us to understand more deeply which aspects teachers highlight depending on their experience in observation. Finally, the students’ behavior, which was outside of the scope of this work, may be affected by changes in their routine, such as the physical space allowing for a large number of observers or different teachers than those they are used to. On the other hand, we used the TBI ( Luft and Roehrig, 2007 ) in a novel manner, which was developed to be used as an interview. We used the open-ended TBI questions and provided the participants with concrete examples based on the framework developed by Luft and Roehrig (2007) , thereby framing the questions in a multiple-choice format instead of an open-ended approach. While this method proved helpful in explaining the differences in the perceived contribution, future research should study alternative instruments for assessing participants’ beliefs. In particular, the questionnaire instrument has a Cronbach’s alpha value of 0.68, which is close to the threshold of reliability; the reliability of this instrument might impact the measurement properties for this study, and the results should be taken with caution. Furthermore, a qualitative approach could provide insights into how and why those beliefs influence the participants’ perception of RL’s contributions.

Finally, in the Chilean context, opportunities for collaboration and peer observation that extend beyond evaluation purposes are important. The current study is an example of how people outside the LS team can benefit from different pedagogical aspects of this methodology. Future research should assess changes in teachers’ beliefs to determine whether the reported value of RL affects their daily practices.

Data availability statement

The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be made available by the authors, without undue reservation.

Ethics statement

The studies involving humans were approved by Comité de Ética de la Investigación (CEI) de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales de la Universidad de Chile https://facso.uchile.cl/facultad/comites/comite-de-etica-de-la-investigacion . The studies were conducted in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. The participants provided their written informed consent to participate in this study.

Author contributions

DC: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing. EM-D: Formal analysis, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing, Investigation. RA: Funding acquisition, Supervision, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing.

The author(s) declare financial support was received for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article. This research was funded by ANID Postdoctoral Fellowship Nb. 3180590 and ANID/PIA/Basal Funds for Centers of Excellence FB0003.


Authors gratefully acknowledge the support from ANID Postdoctoral Fellowship Nb. 3180590 and ANID/PIA/Basal Funds for Centers of Excellence FB0003.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Keywords: lesson study, research lesson, peer observation, teacher professional development, teachers’ beliefs

Citation: Caballero D, Mella-Defranchi E and Araya R (2024) The impact of observers’ beliefs on the perceived contribution of a Research Lesson. Front. Educ . 9:1331293. doi: 10.3389/feduc.2024.1331293

Received: 31 October 2023; Accepted: 21 March 2024; Published: 10 April 2024.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2024 Caballero, Mella-Defranchi and Araya. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Daniela Caballero, [email protected]

This article is part of the Research Topic

Global Lesson Study Policy, Practice, and Research for Advancing Teacher and Student Learning in STEM

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Related links, south african journal of education, on-line version  issn 2076-3433 print version  issn 0256-0100, s. afr. j. educ. vol.39 n.1 pretoria feb. 2019, http://dx.doi.org/10.15700/saje.v39n1a1680 .

Benefits and challenges of lesson study: a case of teaching Physical Sciences in South Africa

Ayodele Abosede Ogegbo I ; Estelle Gaigher I ; Trisha Salagaram II

I Department of Science, Mathematics and Technology Education, Faculty of Education, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa. [email protected] II Department of Physics, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

This study explored teachers' experiences in the teaching of electricity and magnetism during a Lesson Study intervention. Using a case study research design, a sample of 4 physical sciences teachers was conveniently selected from schools in rural and suburban areas. Due to logistical challenges, the 4 participants were grouped into 2 separately functioning lesson study pairs. Data were collected through multiple sources including semi-structured interviews, observations of classroom teaching and Lesson Study meetings, field notes, participants' initial lesson plans and reflective writings. It was found that collaboration through Lesson Study enhanced teachers' professional teaching strategies, networking skills, lesson plan writing, classroom management, self-efficacy and positive attitudes towards teaching. However, challenges such as lack of time, lack of institutional support and insufficient instructional materials pose a threat to teachers' participation in Lesson Study. It is therefore recommended that policy makers develop strategic plans to promote the use of Lesson Study as a school-based professional development initiative. Further research on Lesson Study in pre-service science teacher education may pave the way towards professional collaboration as a sustainable practice amongst science teachers. This may ultimately improve the performance levels of science learners in South Africa.

Keywords : electricity and magnetism; lesson study; physical sciences; professional development; science teaching


Physical Sciences is offered as a subject combination of physics and chemistry in South Africa at the Further Education and Training (FET) level. As economic development is being enhanced by innovations rooted in the application of physics, the effective teaching of physical sciences becomes very important to meeting the technological needs of South Africa (SA). Nevertheless, the number of people with the required critical, analytical, problem-solving and technical skills needed to join the South African science community seems to be inadequate, due to learners' poor performance in physical sciences. This is a serious concern for the country because it inhibits the growth of the South African economy.

The poor performance of learners in physical sciences over many years is evident in the National Senior Certificate examination results (Department of Basic Education (DBE), Republic of South Africa, 2016). Typically, less than 40% of learners achieve above 40%, indicating a shortage of well-prepared students entering engineering and science courses at universities. Compared to other countries, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) reveal that South African learners typically perform below the level expected at the international rating (Reddy, Prinsloo, Arends, Visser, Winnaar, Feza, Rogers, Janse van Rensburg, Juan, Mthethwa, Ngema & Maja, 2012). Many factors contribute to this poor performance, but the shortage of adequately trained teachers is undeniably a key factor. Of particular concern is teachers' professionalism, which includes teachers' effectiveness, professional competence, knowledge about the content of the subject, teaching methods, by these means contributing to the comprehension of difficult basic concepts (Anderson & Barnett, 2011; Reddy et al., 2012).

Electricity and magnetism have been identified as a conceptually challenging topic in South Africa (DBE, Republic of South Africa, 2015:183; Hekkenberg, Lemmer & Dekkers, 2015) as well as the international arena (Saglam & Millar, 2006). This topic forms one of the core knowledge areas in the physical sciences curricula worldwide (DBE, Republic of South Africa, 2011; Guisasola, Michelini, Mossenta, Testa, Viola & Testa, 2008). Finding ways to improve learners' conceptual understanding of this challenging topic may contribute to an overall improvement of performance in science. Kriek and Grayson (2009:99) argued that "teachers need to simultaneously develop their content knowledge, teaching approaches, and professional attitudes" to increase the quality of passes in physical sciences.

Efforts to revamp the South African education system through improving teacher's competence, professional knowledge, behaviour, self-efficacy, classroom practice, skills and professional status as teachers have been ongoing for several years (Hofmeyr, 2015). These efforts have included the introduction of the Integrated Strategic Planning Framework for Teacher Education and Development (ISPFTED), the introduction of different ongoing continuing professional development programmes across the Nation, revision of the Curricula, teacher support through the Integrated Quality Management System, and the Quality Learning and Teaching Campaign (Department of Education (DoE), Republic of South Africa, 2007; Withers, 2011).

However, learners' performance in physical sciences remains low, supporting the call for the continuous professional development of South African physical sciences teachers.

There is a need to investigate whether research-based classroom practices may lead to achieving better learner outcomes in SA. The practice of Lesson Study has been credited with the high performance of Japanese learners in TIMSS (Pang & Ling, 2012; Stigler & Hiebert, 2009; Stols & Ono, 2016). Consequently, the approach has been widely adopted across other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States as a means to improve learner performance. In view of its success in Japan, Lesson Study may be beneficial as a professional development strategy for SA Science teachers.

The current study seeks to explore teachers' experiences regarding the teaching of electricity and magnetism during a Lesson Study intervention. The study addressed three questions:

1. How does Lesson Study influence teachers' professional knowledge? 2. How does Lesson Study influence teachers' attitudes and beliefs? 3. What are the contextual factors affecting teachers' participation in the Lesson Study process?

The study is focused on teachers' experiences, therefore classroom practice and learner outcomes are not investigated. Though classroom practice is observed, the purpose is to understand teachers' learning during Lesson Study.

Literature Review

Teacher's competences

Blömeke and Delaney (2012) claim that teachers' competences include the professional knowledge, professional beliefs, attitudes, skills and motivational variables that support the mastery of effective teaching and learning. Shulman (1987) described professional knowledge as the knowledge base required for teaching which answers the question of what teachers need to know. Research indicates that teachers' knowledge and classroom practices are highly influenced by their beliefs, conceptions, skills, attitudes and motivation (Blömeke & Delaney, 2012; Ernest, 1989). Attitude can be described as the way an individual's personality, beliefs, values, behaviours, and motivations attained from experience is expressed through words and behaviour (Ambusaidi & Al-Farei, 2017; Gun, 2012).

The construct of teacher professional knowledge has been a subject of controversy in the research community for quite some time. There has been series of ongoing debates about what constitute the professional knowledge base of teachers (Corrigan, Dillon & Gunstone, 2011; Jones & Straker, 2006; Shulman, 1987; Tamir, 1988; Zeidler, 2002). Tamir (1988) argued that professional knowledge domains for physical sciences teachers include knowledge of specific topics taught, general pedagogy, topic-specific pedagogy, general education, personal experiences and foundational knowledge of the profession. For the purposes of the current study, teachers' professional knowledge was explored within the topic of electricity and magnetism, focusing on teachers' knowledge of the topic, knowledge about learners' difficulties and knowledge of suitable teaching strategies.

Considering the challenges faced when teaching physical sciences in the 21st century, research claims that the professional knowledge of science teachers should focus on teachers' intellectual work, work organisation, the social and cultural context of science teaching (Corrigan et al., 2011). Hence, achieving quality physical science education and better learner performance requires teachers to regularly update their knowledge base through continuous participation in professional development programmes aimed at improving their professional competence and classroom teaching to enhance learners' outcomes (Coe, Carl & Frick, 2010; Ono & Ferreira, 2010).

Lesson study

Lesson Study is described as a classroom inquiry model which requires teachers to work together in small groups as they jointly plan, teach, observe, analyse and refine classroom lessons to improve their teaching practice (Cerbin & Kopp, 2006; Coe et al., 2010; Fernandez, 2002; Ono & Ferreira, 2010; Pang & Ling, 2012; Stols & Ono, 2016). The process of developing teaching practice within the context of Lesson Study requires teachers coming together to plan a lesson, observe the teaching and learning process during the lesson, evaluate the content of the lesson and mode of delivery, use suggestions from evaluation to prepare better lessons. Lesson Study has four phases, which are:

• goal setting based on desired objectives, which involves considering life-long goals for learners' learning and progress, studying guidelines and syllabus; • planning which involves the development of the lesson plan by selecting or revising research lessons, anticipating learners' responses, and gathering evidence of learners' learning; • teaching of research lessons by one of the group members while others observe the lesson and collect data on learners' learning; and • in-depth critique of research lessons by reflecting, discussing and sharing information on what is learned and its implications for instruction (Lewis & Hurd, 2011).

Research indicates that Lesson Study supports teacher learning through critical discourse by knowledge construction in a social learning environment (Dudley, 2013). Teachers have been able to build school professional learning communities and develop their professional knowledge in terms of subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge through the phases involved in Lesson Study (Cerbin, 2011; Coe, 2010; Fernandez, 2002; Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005; Stols & Ono, 2016). However, teachers' knowledge should not be limited to their cognitive abilities only, but also include their affective abilities. Studies have shown that Lesson Study also builds teachers' professional character, increases self-confidence, enhances focus on learners' learning, improves the quality of teachers' classroom practice and improves learning outcomes (Cajkler, Wood, Norton, Pedder & Xu, 2015; Cerbin, 2011; Coe, 2010; Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005). It has also been reported that Lesson Study improves learners' academic achievement due to teachers' learning (Cerbin, 2011; Fernandez, 2002; Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Stols & Ono, 2016). Though Lesson Study supports teachers' natural inclination that continuously improve instruction by taking new initiatives, it focuses more on learners' thinking and learning rather than the teacher (Lewis & Hurd, 2011). Studies reveal that teachers in some part of the western world have started adopting the Lesson Study model as an instrument for promoting experienced learning among teachers and learners (Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Lewis, Perry & Murata, 2006; Ono & Ferreira, 2010).

Despite the benefits attributed to the practice of Lesson Study, there are challenges and contextual factors that also contribute to the failure of successful and sustainable implementation of Lesson Study (Adamson & Walker, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005; Saito & Atencio, 2013). Research indicates that establishing sincere collaboration among teachers during Lesson Study is difficult and messy (Adamson & Walker, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005). This could be due to teachers' nervousness in opening their classrooms to their colleagues, difficulty in criticising one another, and deliberately avoiding any kind of conflict among themselves (Adamson & Walker, 2011; Fernandez, 2002; Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005). Providing constructive criticism and feedback to teachers during team discussions could create conflict and tension among Lesson Study participants (Adamson & Walker, 2011; Rock & Wilson, 2005). Similarly, unequal power relationships that exist among Lesson Study participants may cause some to over criticise observed teachers' practice (Saito & Atencio, 2013). Such power issues may pose potential threats to the successful implementation of Lesson Study.

Another major challenge that may possibly limit the effective practice of Lesson Study is time constraints (Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Yeap, Foo & Soh, 2015). Teachers have different teaching periods and responsibilities, so it is difficult to find a common time to effectively meet, engage in discussions and observe each other's classroom lessons. It is possible that the practical challenge of time and teachers' reluctance to open their classroom to other colleagues for observation, accept constructive feedback, and resistance to changing their sense of professional beliefs, responsibilities and identities are likely to pose a threat to Lesson Study practice within and across South African schools.

Theoretical Framework

This study is underpinned by social constructivism (Vygotsky, 1978) and andragogy, i.e. adult learning theory (Knowles, 1980). Social constructivism posits that knowledge is constructed through social interactions negotiated based on reflection, discussion, and explanation (Rock & Wilson, 2005; Vygotsky, 1978). Therefore, reality and truth are subjectively constructed in a social environment (Creswell, 2003; Nieuwenhuis, 2014). The basis of social constructivist theory in this study lies on individual teacher's attempt to construct knowledge during the Lesson Study process by designing, teaching and reflecting on lessons within an environment where they socially collaborate with one another. This collaborative practice created an opportunity for teachers to build a community of practice where they could learn from each other. Ability to successfully complete new tasks could increase individuals' confidence and motivation to undertake more complicated challenges during their classroom teaching. This describes how cognitive growth may occur in individual teachers as they develop their knowledge and effectiveness based on their sociocultural environment and interaction with one another during this Lesson Study intervention (Vygotsky, 1978; Warford, 2011).

The adult learning theory proposed by Knowles (1980) provides practical references to understand the improving of teachers' practice by Lesson Study. Knowles argues that adults learn based on experience, self-concept, relevance, orientation, readiness to learn, and motivation to learn. As adult learners, the self-concept allows teachers to be in control of their own learning process, as they become actively involved in planning lesson objectives aimed at addressing learners' difficulties. Teachers also draw from their experiences and reflection on learners' challenges to develop practical skills that may enhance learners' conceptual understanding and develop teachers' knowledge. This implies that andragogy describes how teachers learn to understand and support their learners while becoming self-directed adult learners.

Describing and explaining the feasibility of Lesson Study integrate both theoretical perspectives by requiring teachers as adult learners to collaboratively create meaning and establish a link between their teaching practices and the learning process using real classroom situations as experimental activities. Teachers' willingness to engage in this Lesson Study intervention could inspire them to become lifelong learners seeking to improve their professional knowledge, skills, and classroom practice.

Since the study explored the effects of a Lesson Study intervention within an interpretivist paradigm, a case study design with a small sample was required. Finding teachers who were willing to participate was a challenge, probably because participants were expected to not only attend and participate in time-consuming Lesson Study meetings, over a period of several weeks, but were also expected to agree to video recording of their lessons. Sixteen schools were approached, from which only three agreed to participate. The participants were unable to function as a single typical Lesson Study group due to logistic reasons, therefore the four teachers were grouped into two Lesson Study pairs. Two Grade 11 teachers from a rural school acted as Lesson Study pair A, while the other two participants were Grade 10 teachers from city schools who acted as Lesson Study pair B. A detailed representation of the participants' information is provided in Table 1 , using pseudonyms to ensure anonymity and confidentiality.

Lesson Study Procedure

Each Lesson Study pair participated in this research for a period of five weeks in the Lesson Study activities. Pair A (Grade 11) participated in the third term (July to September) of 2016, while Pair B (Grade 10) participated in the second term (April to June) of 2017. Each Lesson Study pair explored three different research lessons. For each of these research lessons, only one Lesson Study cycle was conducted, due to scheduled school programmes. The phases involved in this Lesson Study intervention include the preparation phase, teaching and observation phase, discussion and reflection phase for each of the three research lessons.

At the preparation phase of each cycle, the Lesson Study pair collaboratively planned a lesson by setting goals and designing the teaching and assessment strategies. These planning sessions lasted for about 60 to 90 minutes each. During the teaching phase of the Lesson Study cycle, the jointly prepared lesson was taught by both participants in their classrooms, while video recorded from the rear of the classroom to collect information based on learners' learning and teachers' teaching. These recordings were played back during the reflection phase, where the relevant pair of teachers viewed and analysed the recorded teaching, discussed and reflected on the learners' understanding of the topic. It enabled participants to discuss whether the learning goals were achieved based on designed assessment and the lesson planned. The focus of their discussion was not only on the teachers' teaching, but also on the learners' understanding of the difficult concepts that were taught. Teachers identified teaching and learning gaps based on their reflections and generated recommendations, which could be used in future planning and improvement of their individual classroom instruction.

Data Collection and Analysis

The data were collected from multiple sources, including semi-structured interviews, observations of classroom teaching and Lesson Study meetings, field notes, narrative accounts, documents such as participants' initial lesson plans and reflective writings. The choice to use multiple sources afforded the researchers the opportunity to gather in-depth knowledge about the Lesson Study model, in a way that encourages convergent lines of inquiry (Nieuwenhuis, 2014; Small & Uttal, 2005; Yin, 1994), supporting trustworthiness.

The data were analysed using qualitative content analysis. Nieuwenhuis (2014) describes content analysis as an iterative and inductive process, which uses the similarities and differences in the text to support or disconfirm claims about the phenomenon being studied. In order to understand and interpret participants' responses as data, their words and actions were interpreted in form of codes emerging from data and a priori codes identified from the literature, keeping the research questions in mind. The recorded observations were also repeatedly viewed and supported by the field notes. Though the first author acted as principal researcher, the second author did independent checks of data coding thereby enhancing trustworthiness.

Findings and Discussion

The findings are presented in terms of three predetermined themes derived from the research questions. These themes are teachers' professional knowledge; teachers' attitudes and beliefs; and challenges to Lesson Study.

Teachers' Professional Knowledge The Lesson Study process enhanced participants' understanding of how learners learn. For example, Martha indicated during the first planning meeting that she would demonstrate magnetic fields, while learners observed the pattern formed by iron filings. Alex then remarked that allowing learners to observe, draw and discuss the magnetic field lines around the magnet can make the teaching of magnetic fields effective for learners' understanding. During the teaching phase, Martha asked learners to not only observe, but also draw and explain their observations as suggested by Alex. During the reflection session she remarked: "I normally do this demonstration with learners but not asking them to observe, draw and explain what they saw" This indicates that the collaborative planning session had a positive impact on Martha's pedagogy knowledge regarding the visualisation of magnetic field lines.

Lenox also indicated how he gained insights into knowing how learners learn:

This aspect of planning, where you anticipate learners' responses to questions asked in the class, has actually helped me to be in tune with how learners are likely to respond and not to respond to questions asked (Lenox interview).

Alex indicated that he learnt to introduce lessons by using challenges from real life to engage his learners.

I never really took time to relate my lesson to things in learners' immediate environment [. .. ] So yes, relating to you made me realise the significance of letting learners know that for instance circuit is everywhere, on our phones, television, sound system and all that. (Alex interview)

These events show how participating in Lesson Study develops teachers' knowledge of how learners learn through discussions around the planned research lesson, supporting the findings of Murata, Bofferding, Pothen, Taylor and Wischnia (2012).

In the planning meetings of the three research lessons conducted by each Lesson Study pair, discussions were focused on learners' difficulties, teaching methods and activities to be used. Participants reported on how collaborating with another teacher improved their knowledge of teaching strategies as well as content knowledge:

The interesting aspect of this is the group discussion, because I was able to understand how to explain the direction of magnetic field on the board using my hand and problem-solving aspect on magnetic flux which my partner fully explained to my understanding because I was finding it a bit confusing. (Mbali)
I will say my knowledge of electromagnetism is improving and my mathematics knowledge with respect to the required concept needed in physics is also gradually improving due to participation in this practical training (Lenox interview). I realised that having class observations like this helped me to identify the gaps between learners' understanding of the lesson and my method of teaching the lesson (Alex interview).

Analysis of the initial interview revealed that Mbali previously used the teacher-centred approach of teaching in addressing learners' difficulties. However, during her teaching of the planned research lessons, it was observed that she started her teaching with questions and called out learners to solve problems on the board. During the final interview, she indicated that participating in Lesson Study had improved her pedagogical approach and practice.

Now I know that learners have to be properly grouped before they can make meaningful discussion amongst themselves. Now I know that I have to pick the average learners and group them with the slow ones so they can motivate one another as compared to before when I just ask them to group their selves. (Mbali interview)

However, there were incidents revealing that inadequate understanding of content was not resolved during the group meetings. This was observed with Pair A, where both Lenox incorrectly explained aspects of Faraday's law while Mbali did not distinguish between magnetic fields and induced magnetic fields in her explanations. These mistakes were not addressed during their reflection meetings, as it became clear that neither of them had a clear conceptual understanding of electromagnetic induction, meaning that they were not able to support one another to improve their understanding and teaching of this phenomenon. This implies that improvement in teachers' knowledge due to participation in lesson study could possibly improve learners' performance.

Teachers' Attitudes and Beliefs Analysis of participants' reflections during meetings and the final interview revealed that participating in this Lesson Study intervention had a positive effect on their attitudes and participants reported improved competency to teach concepts that they found confusing. Mbali indicated during the first planning meeting that when teaching electromagnetism, she focuses on factual content and avoid answering some questions that learners tend to ask. Later, she reported that participating in Lesson Study improved her confidence level:

It has helped me to a greater extent in bringing down this wall I have built around me when teaching electromagnetism, which I initially don't answer some questions that learners tend to ask. I just teach and leave (Mbali interview).

During the initial interview, Lenox indicated little concern about learners' problems in electromagnetism since learners are not assessed in the final Grade 12 examinations.

When we moderate for marking, we hardly consider electromagnetism as a difficult topic because learners are not assessed on that topic at the matric level (Lenox interview).

This remark revealed a low level of enthusiasm and competency in teaching electromagnetism, caused by his belief. However, during the lesson observations, he did show enthusiasm when teaching the topic planned collaboratively with Mbali. This unexpected enthusiasm suggests that critical reflection on teaching electromagnetism changed his beliefs on the value of addressing learners' difficulties in the topic. This conclusion is supported by another change, demonstrated by an early remark that despite teaching for many years, teachers may lack confidence to teach specific topics, because they don't "like" those topics. In the final interview, he indicated that working together with others during Lesson Study improved his confidence to teach electromagnetism.

I have a feeling that I am beginning to build my own self-confidence in some aspects of this physics concept (Lenox interview).

Alex regards Lesson Study as valuable compared to other professional development initiatives:

The whole process is a valuable one and significantly important. One phase serves as a building block for the other so I don't think to separate any will be effective. You know I have attended few collaboration activities but time has not permitted me to practice what I have learnt. But this one gives you the opportunity to immediately practise what you learn or what you have done with others to see how effective it works.

Martha revealed that she changed her perception on developing new teaching methods. She previously regarded re-teaching by using explanations as the only way to assist when learners seemed not to understand. However, engaging in Lesson Study changed her perception on how to improve, as demonstrated during reflection:

Mr Alex's suggestion on allowing learners to observe, draw and discuss the magnetic field lines around the magnet made me realise that I could develop new ways of teaching the learners the same lesson if I take my time to critically reflect on the method I used in teaching the lesson before and not just re-teaching using the same method.

Martha's experience implies that reflection is not only useful to enhance teachers' pedagogical practice in addressing learners' difficulties but also provides opportunity to gain an accurate understanding of how teachers' beliefs, attitudes, and practice are connected (Abd Rahman, 2005).

Contextual Factors and Challenges

Analysis of participants' reflections during the interview and Lesson Study meetings revealed lack of availability of time as a practical challenge affecting teachers' participation in this study. In the literature, time constraint is a commonly cited challenge that limits teachers' continuous practice and effective participation in Lesson Study (Lewis & Hurd, 2011; Yeap et al., 2015). During the data collection, it was observed that participants from Lesson Study Pair A, though in the same school, had different teaching periods and responsibilities, so they struggled with finding a common time to effectively meet, and to observe each other's classroom lessons and engage in discussions. The Lesson Study process is time-consuming (Fernandez, 2002) and not accommodated into teachers' usual work plan. It appears that the sampled teachers considered their participation in this study as an additional responsibility to their professional duties since specific time was not allocated in their daily or weekly schedule for participation in professional development programmes. Participants' reflection on the unavailability of time was attributed to contextual factors such as workload, shortage of physical sciences teachers in a school and other professional responsibilities.

Obviously ... time factor because the curriculum is loaded and we have few physical sciences teachers in school so it's difficult telling me to sit and plan a lesson with other teachers (Lenox interview). I think the time is the main factor because our learners struggle with the pace of physical sciences. For instance, in Grade 12, we just introduced organic chemistry and the time allowed in the CAPS [Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements] document is not nearly enough to cover all the content that learners need to know. And we have too many public holidays which shortens the term. (Martha interview) First, an idea like this should be made known and facilitated by the department. Personally, I think I will still love to do something like this probably with teachers in my school if the principal approves of it, and if the other teachers in science field are willing to because teachers are not willing for anything these days due to the many tasks involved in this profession. (Alex interview)

Apart from time, lack of support from teacher unions, school principals, as well as district and the provincial education departments were mentioned as challenges to implement Lesson Study as regular practice. Other contextual factors that could hinder teachers' effective participation and continuous practice of Lesson Study as reported in this study include teachers' interest and commitment to professional development, fear of being criticised, lack of specialised physics teachers, professional experts or subject advisers.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This study contributes to the knowledge base research in understanding how the process of Lesson Study may be used as a form of collaborative action research to enhance teaching of physical sciences in South Africa. Results illustrated how teachers' professional knowledge as well as beliefs and attitudes can be improved during the Lesson Study process. Findings revealed that the collaborative planning was experienced as beneficial by all four participants. However, it was also found that Lesson Study may be inefficient in cases where there are gaps in teachers' content knowledge. It is therefore essential that a subject specialist participate in Lesson Study meetings to provide support where inadequate content knowledge obstructs meaningful cooperation.

Though Lesson Study combines several desired elements for an effective professional development programme, there are numerous challenges and contextual factors affecting teachers' participation and continued practice of Lesson Study in South Africa. Practical challenges like teachers' work load and the small number of physical sciences teachers in schools, compounds the problem of finding time for collaborative activities. Furthermore, lack of resources and lack of support from management and teacher unions are hindering teachers' effective and continuous practice of Lesson Study.

It is recommended that educational stakeholders should be actively involved in the formation and maintenance of organisational structures that supports teachers' effective participation in Lesson Study. This may contribute to enhance teachers' knowledge and practice, enabling SA learners to achieve at competitive levels in physical science and join the South African science community.


The first author would like to appreciate the support received from the University of Pretoria Postgraduate Research Support Bursary in completing the research on which this paper is based.

Authors' Contribution

AO and TS conceived the study. AO designed the study, implemented the method, collected the data and wrote the first draft of the paper. EG supervised the study, assisted in data interpretation and presentation of results. TS co-supervised the study. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

i. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

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Received: 25 March 2018 Accepted: 9 January 2019 Published: 28 February 2019

  • Our Mission

Personalized Professional Development

Lesson study helps teachers improve by focusing on collaboratively planning and revising a single lesson.

Three teachers looking at student work in the school library

There’s a form of cogent professional development that requires teachers to collaboratively create, participate in, and reflect on a lesson. It’s called lesson study, and it’s research-based, student-centered, and eye-opening.

What Is Lesson Study?

In lesson study, one teacher teaches a team-crafted lesson while their team observes. I was on a team with two classmates from my online graduate course, but the number of teammates can vary. The lesson the team works on is called a “research lesson” because it’s grounded in the research and best practices that team members bring to the process after agreeing upon the learning goals. After discussions and improvements, a second teacher teaches the revised research lesson.

Catherine Lewis and Jacqueline Hurd outline the pedagogical benefits of lesson study in Lesson Study Step by Step: How Teacher Learning Communities Improve Instruction , and teachers can apply Lewis and Hurd’s four-step method of peer-generated professional development to incite powerful, thought-provoking discourse and reflection.

1. Creating the study curriculum and formulating goals: To begin the work of relationship-building, my two teammates and I discussed what our classrooms looked and sounded like. We determined our goals for our lesson, and voted upon a number of tasks that we felt were aligned with our goals. We agreed to use an instructional framework outlined in the book 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions to guide our lesson.

Our goal was to explore the first and fifth Standards for Mathematical Practice:

  • SMP 1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • SMP 5: Use appropriate tools strategically.

We settled upon Graham Fletcher’s “ Array-bow of Colors ,” a three-act task about using multiplication of two-digit factors to determine the number of Skittles in a jar. Our fourth and fifth graders knew various multiplication strategies but had no formal exposure to the standard algorithm. The strategy each student would choose would provide rich evidence about individual understanding of multi-digit multiplication.

2. Planning: Lewis and Hurd direct educators to find research content to support the focus of the lesson. This step creates the opportunity for teachers to deepen their content knowledge, share familiar instructional strategies, and create a bank of new ones.

This second step was critical to planning the research lesson because it required us to become aware of current research-based practices. Our research articles focused on types of questions that would facilitate, guide, and deepen our students’ thinking. We read, took notes on, and debated resources such as “The Importance, Nature, and Impact of Teacher Questions” by Jo Boaler and Karin Brodie, in order to apply our newfound information to our lesson.

We also took time to solve the task ourselves in as many ways as possible to anticipate student computations and misconceptions, create questions that we would ask to facilitate student thinking, and plan alternatives and extensions for struggling and advanced students.

3. Teaching the research lesson: In a normal lesson study, the teacher team is in the classroom for the teaching of the research lesson, observing and recording how student learning is impacted by the lesson design and how students react during the task.

Because my teammates and I don’t live in the same place, they were not in the room when I went first and taught it, so I recorded the lesson, which helped me critique myself. My reflections and the critical feedback of my teammates were both data for revising the lesson.

I asked several of the questions my teammates and I had generated together and recorded student work on an anticipation guide I had designed in order to connect the least sophisticated strategies to the most sophisticated strategies for the students.

4. Reflecting: In lesson study, teachers use things like student behavior, engagement, and interest level to analyze the depth of learning that has occurred. Reflecting requires teachers to discuss the supports they provided for students and, more importantly, to focus on the barriers to learning that may have been present in the research lesson.

Because we discussed the missteps in my execution of our lesson plan, my teammates and I adjusted (or retaught, in my case) accordingly to prevent these missteps from being learning barriers moving forward. These adjustments deepened our content knowledge as well, which is a compelling effect of lesson study.

Because I reflected upon the lesson from the students’ point of view, my focus remained on how to enhance their learning and thinking. Strengthening student learning allowed me to strengthen my own capabilities.

Lessons Learned

Lesson study allowed me to, as Lewis and Hurd wrote, view my instruction “through the eyes of students and colleagues.” It was a humbling experience, and it reminded me that even the best plans can be revised and enhanced.

Our lesson study was not quick—it took about four weeks. But there are shorter variations of lesson study that you and your colleagues can adopt.

If you decide to try a lesson study, I think you’ll find that it can help deepen relationships, provide impactful learning for both students and teachers, and serve as valuable professional development.

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  • 05 April 2024

After the genocide: what scientists are learning from Rwanda

  • Nisha Gaind

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A 1994 photograph shows the altar in Ntarama Church, where more than 5,000 people were murdered during the genocide against the Tutsi. Credit: Lane Montgomery/Getty

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Kigali, Rwanda

The church at Ntarama, a 45-minute drive south of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, is a red-brick building about 20 metres long by 5 metres wide. Inside are features seen in Catholic churches around the world: pews for congregation members, an altar, stained-glass windows and a cross adorning the entrance. Then there are the scars of the unimaginable: piles of blood-stained clothing hanging along the walls and glass cabinets containing more than 260 human skulls, many fractured or shattered, some with rusted weapons still penetrating them. Nearby, wooden sticks and roughly carved clubs lean against the altar.

Ntarama is the site of one of the many massacres that occurred during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda — one of the worst atrocities of the late twentieth century. Starting on 7 April that year, in 100 days of horrifying violence, members of the Hutu ethnic group systematically killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi — or more than one million, according to the Rwandan government and other sources. The killers ranged from militias to ordinary citizens, with neighbours turning on neighbours. Many moderate Hutu and some of the Twa minority group were also killed.

lesson study research articles

Rwanda: From killing fields to technopolis

More than 5,000 Tutsi were murdered at Ntarama, among them babies, children and pregnant women, many of whom were raped before they were killed, says Evode Ngombwa, site manager at the Ntarama Genocide Memorial, one of six sites in Rwanda that commemorate the atrocity. “People used money to bribe the perpetrators so that they could choose the way of being eliminated. Instead of killing them with machetes, they could choose to be shot,” says Ngombwa as he walks me through the church. With more remains being found each year, about 6,000 people are now buried there in mass graves.

This month, Rwanda and the world begin commemorations to mark 30 years since the start of this atrocity. The genocide is now one of the most studied of its kind. Researchers from social and political scientists to mental-health specialists, geneticists and neuroscientists have investigated the event and its aftermath in a way that hadn’t been possible for previous atrocities.

This work is especially important now in light of violent crises in several parts of the world, including in Ukraine , Israel and Gaza , Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although there is debate about whether these conflicts meet the definition of genocide, some share similar characteristics. Research conducted into atrocities such as the genocide in Rwanda can help to inform responses and longer-term approaches to healing.

Despite the difficulties of these studies, researchers say that they are working towards developing a theory of genocide and the conditions that spur mass violence. They are providing guidance for first responders, as well as those involved in peacebuilding and supporting survivors of other systematic mass murders and of war. Some of their approaches have been used in other conflicts. And the research on Rwanda is offering lessons for how scholars can improve studies of similar events.

Young people light candles at a commemoration ceremony for the genocide in Rwanda

At a vigil in April 2019, young Rwandans commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide. Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty

“Genocide studies are important,” says Phil Clark, an international-politics researcher at SOAS, part of the University of London, who has studied Rwanda for more than two decades. “If we can start to understand why and how genocides happen, and especially if we can compare genocides across the world, we should ideally be able to build a general theory of how these terrible events are even possible.”

One of the lessons emerging from Rwanda is the importance of involving — and supporting — local researchers, whose work, language skills and access to traumatized communities can be essential for understanding the roots of violence and the best techniques for reconciliation. This can be difficult — in Rwanda’s case because the genocide wiped out almost its entire academic community. Now, through programmes aimed at elevating local scholars’ voices, their work is finally reaching a wider audience.

Patterns of violence

Before 1994, the field of genocide studies was dominated by the Holocaust — the systematic killing of 6 million Jewish people by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. “It’s only in the last 20 years that other genocides have entered the discussion,” says Clark. But research on Rwanda didn’t start immediately. “It was only maybe 10–15 years after the genocide that scholars started to really interrogate this question of what drove hundreds of thousands of everyday civilians to participate in mass violence.”

lesson study research articles

Rwanda 30 years on: understanding the horror of genocide

Scholars say that it’s important not to forget the genocide’s strong link to colonialism in Rwanda. In the early 1900s, Belgian colonizers began formally dividing Rwandan people into social classes: Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Designations were often based on pseudoscientific ideas, including phrenology and arbitrary observations, such as how many cattle a person owned. Ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi intensified over the decades and several massacres of Tutsi occurred in the period leading up to 1994. This set the stage for a descent into genocide — a legal term that is defined by the perpetration of certain crimes that are intended to destroy a particular group, and is codified by the United Nations’ 1948 Genocide Convention.

Each genocide is unique, says Timothy Longman, a political scientist at Boston University in Massachusetts, who first went to Rwanda in 1992 and returned in 1995 as a researcher with Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that was one of the first to investigate the event. “But there also are some common patterns,” he says. Researchers can learn a lot from studying cases such as Rwanda, the Holocaust and other genocides, he says. “It helps you to prevent violence from happening elsewhere.”

One of the main scientific contributions of studies so far are the insights from mental-health researchers, many of whom were on the ground in the immediate aftermath. Over the past three decades, they have documented the initial trauma of an entire country and the slow recovery of survivors and their children, many of whom are prone to being retraumatized. With few available resources, Rwanda had to build up its mental-health services and it has gained unique experience in responding to the atrocity’s aftermath.

Complex consequences: bar chart that shows the prevalence of mental-health issues among genocide survivors in Rwanda.

Source: Y. Kayiteshonga et al. Rwanda Mental Health Survey 2018 (Govt of Rwanda, 2021).

At the Rwanda Biomedical Centre (RBC) in Kigali, the nation’s main health organization, Jean Damascène Iyamuremye recalls his experience of 1994. “I witnessed everything that happened.” Iyamuremye was a 28-year-old training to be a medical assistant, but the genocide spurred him to specialize in mental health. He was among the first medical staff supporting survivors. “We were like firefighters,” says Iyamuremye, who is now director of the psychiatric unit in the RBC’s mental-health division, which oversees countrywide services.

The first care came mostly from outsiders. Non-governmental organizations provided psychological interventions such as counselling for the survivors, most of whom had experienced physical violence as well as unimaginable emotional trauma from the mass killings they’d witnessed. After the genocide, 96% of Rwandans experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the extreme violence 1 .

It took time for the country to develop its own mental-health resources. In 1994, Rwanda had only one psychiatrist, Naasson Munyandamutsa, who was living in Switzerland at the time and lost most of his family in the violence. Munyandamutsa returned quickly to Rwanda to work at the country’s sole psychiatric hospital, where he began training mental-health responders and psychiatrists.

While Munyandamutsa, who died in 2016, led the training of practitioners in Rwanda, many Rwandans went overseas to train. But about half didn’t return, says Iyamuremye.

It wasn’t until 2014 that Rwanda had its own school of psychiatry, at the University of Rwanda in Kigali. Even now, the country has only 16 psychiatrists, 13 of whom graduated from that facility, to serve a fast-growing population of 13.5 million.

Evidence-based interventions for survivors, such as counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy and medication, have continued — but people still bear significant mental scars from their experiences (see ‘Complex consequences’). In Rwanda’s most comprehensive mental-health survey yet, conducted by the RBC in 2018, about 28% of genocide survivors reported PTSD symptoms, compared with 3.6% of the general population (see ‘Trauma’s long shadow’).

Trauma's long shadow: bar chart that shows the prevalence of PTSD among genocide survivors in Rwanda.

Sources: Ref. 1; A. Eytan et al. Int. J. Soc. Psychiatr. 61 , 363–372 (2015); Y. Kayiteshonga et al . Rwanda Mental Health Survey 2018 (Govt of Rwanda, 2021).

Long-term support for survivors is important, because many can become retraumatized. For example, media reports about violence in nearby parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo can bring back memories, says Iyamuremye. And yearly commemorations that last from April to July, called kwibuka in the national language, Kinyarwanda, bring challenges. “You will see people who fall, who are agitated, who cry” because what they experience triggers a memory, says Iyamuremye.

For this year’s commemorations, the RBC and other organizations have trained 5,000 responders around Rwanda to support distressed people. But Iyamuremye and his colleagues have learnt that the commemorations themselves can be therapeutic: they give people the opportunity to talk about their trauma and support each other.

And researchers have found that even people who weren’t alive during the genocide are suffering. “Intergenerational trauma is a challenge and a reality in Rwanda. This needs to be targeted with strong, strong interventions,” says Iyamuremye.

Trauma across generations

At the Rwanda Military Hospital on Kigali’s outskirts, Léon Mutesa , a physician and, for a long time, the nation’s only geneticist, is seeing mothers and babies at his paediatric clinic. Mutesa, who directs the Center for Human Genetics at the University of Rwanda, was the first to explore the effects of Rwandans’ trauma at the genetic level. As an undergraduate in the early 2000s, Mutesa saw that children born to women who had been pregnant in 1994 also exhibited signs of trauma. During commemorations, the children expressed symptoms such as PTSD, depression, anxiety and hallucinations from an event that they hadn’t experienced.

Inspired by studies of Holocaust survivors 2 , Mutesa devised a small study to investigate whether the trauma from the genocide had left epigenetic marks on individuals’ DNA through the addition of methyl groups to certain regions.

In that study 3 , conducted in 2012, Mutesa’s team sampled blood from women who were pregnant in 1994 and their children, as well as control participants who weren’t exposed to the genocide. The team found evidence that genocide survivors and their children bore similar epigenetic marks on certain sections of DNA.

Portrait of Leon Mutesa sitting at a desk

Geneticist Léon Mutesa has studied DNA markings in genocide survivors and their children. Credit: AP Photo

Hoping to start a larger study, Mutesa collaborated with Stefan Jansen, a Belgian neuroscientist who had been at the University of Rwanda since 2011. In 2017, the pair, with US partners, won funding from the US National Institutes of Health to extend their investigations.

“We found that those mothers who were exposed had around 24 differentially methylated regions, which is really high compared to the control group,” says Clarisse Musanabaganwa, a medical research analyst at the RBC who was part of Mutesa and Jansen’s team. The team found that many of the methylated regions were the same in mothers and in the children that they were pregnant with during the genocide 4 , 5 . The research indicates a way in which trauma can transcend at least one generation, and the researchers suggest that lasting effects could be passed down through multiple generations through a mechanism of epigenetic inheritance.

But the idea of multigenerational epigenetic inheritance is controversial . Many scientists are sceptical about whether methylation marks on DNA in humans can be inherited.

“I’m not aware of any really convincing case where the transgenerational inheritance — inheritance of methylation patterns — has been demonstrated,” says Timothy Bestor, a molecular biologist in Gaylordsville, Connecticut, who holds an emeritus position at Columbia University in New York City.

But Mutesa and Jansen are seeing some practical benefits of their work. When the scientists discussed with study participants that their trauma could influence their children, they saw the participants’ resilience increase. For instance, if survivors’ children were performing poorly in school, parents now saw a possible reason. The researchers could support children with psychotherapy. “They could now understand why this is happening to their children,” says Mutesa.

Biological studies also have a broader importance, says Jansen. “We want to evidence that, and have that recorded for history: this is what happened.” The evidence helps to fight genocide denial, he says.

Beyond the epigenetic analyses, Jansen and his colleagues have strengthened methodological approaches to studying community mental health in Rwanda. These studies have informed research on conflicts elsewhere, such as in Iraq, says Jansen.

Lessons from Rwanda

The bulk of the research on the genocide in Rwanda has been in the social sciences and humanities — studying topics from reconciliation, peacebuilding and justice to the role of ethnic designations in a society after conflict. For instance, neighbouring Burundi, which experienced ethnic violence in a roughly decade-long civil war that started in 1993, chose to recognize ethnicities, whereas the Rwandan government eradicated formal ethnic distinctions after the genocide. In a global study 6 that compared countries that had taken either approach after war, those that chose to recognize ethnic groups scored better on societal markers such as peace, democracy and economics.

Skulls of the victims of the genocide at Ntarama Church are displayed as a memorial on shelves against a brick wall of the church

Some of the skulls of people who were killed while seeking refuge at Ntarama in April 1994 are on display in the church. Credit: Nichole Sobecki/VII/Redux/eyevine

The growing literature on genocides has revealed that they have huge ramifications that extend well beyond the borders of the countries where they happen, say researchers.

“In terms of the scale of violence, the scale of disruption, the scale of suffering, they are enormously important events,” says Scott Straus, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Studies had been conducted almost exclusively by Western scholars — although that’s starting to change . In the past decade, as discussions of decolonizing research began in academia, Clark started working with the UK-based Aegis Trust, which runs the Kigali Genocide Memorial. An analysis by Clark and his colleagues of 12 relevant journals showed that from 1994 to 2019, just 3.3% of studies on post-genocide Rwanda had been done by scholars from the nation (see go.nature.com/3qapae7 ). In 2014, with funding from the Swedish and UK development agencies, the Aegis Trust launched the Research, Policy and Higher Education (RPHE) programme, an effort to invite Rwandan scholars to submit research proposals.

“There are cultural nuances that have to be told by the very people that go through those experiences,” says Sandra Shenge, who is director of programmes at the Aegis Trust based at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, and former RPHE manager. The grants were modest — just £2,500 (US$3,150) each. But the response to the programme was amazing, says Shenge. The first call received more than 500 applications.

The aim was for Rwandan scholars to share their stories and for external researchers to provide support with advice on methodology, publishing and how best to disseminate results. These studies are collected in a resource called the Genocide Research Hub .

“The RPHE was the best thing that happened to Rwandan researchers,” says Munyurangabo Benda, a philosopher of religion at the Queen’s Foundation, an ecumenical college in Birmingham, UK. “It is the only space where Rwandan research has begun to have impact on policy.”

Photographs of victims on display at the Kigali Memorial for Victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide

Photos of lives cut short by the 1994 killings are on display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Credit: Chris Jackson/Getty

Benda’s research 7 , 8 ,supported by the RPHE, has already influenced policy. His project examined a state programme on reconciliation that had grown from a grassroots effort. His work exploring the guilt felt by children of Hutu people was inspired by the experience of his young nephew in Denmark, whose father was a Hutu. One day, his nephew’s class was studying the genocide in Rwanda and classmates asked him: “Were your family killers or survivors?” His nephew was traumatized.

The research helped to shape programmes that the Rwandan government offers for students of various ages, says Benda.

The RPHE programme also holds lessons for making the broader academic community more inclusive. According to Clark, “the problem is with journal editors and peer reviewers”, who often dismiss work from Rwanda and other countries because of preconceived ideas of quality based on where the work has been produced.

A theory of genocides

Another author whose work has been published through the Genocide Research Hub is sociologist Assumpta Mugiraneza 9 . From a hilltop office with views over Kigali, Mugiraneza runs an organization called the IRIBA Centre for Multimedia Heritage. Iriba means ‘source’ in Kinyarwanda, and the centre collects audio-visual archives of testimonies from the genocide and of life before 1994.

Mugiraneza says she started this work to capture Rwanda’s heritage, which was in danger of disappearing. The country’s historic oral traditions were eroded by colonization, which imposed reading and writing. As a result, Rwanda’s history is written without this richer heritage, says Mugiraneza. “Let’s go back to what we have in common: sound and image.”

Assumpta Mugiraneza

Sociologist Assumpta Mugiraneza runs the IRIBA Centre for Multimedia Heritage. Credit: Carl De Keyzer/Magnum Photos

The centre, she says, is designed “to support the process of reappropriating the past”. To think about genocide, “we must dare to seek humanity where humanity has been denied”.

IRIBA’s work is extraordinary, says Zoe Norridge, who studies African literature and culture at King’s College London. “That’s the kind of work that can be done by Rwandan scholars in depth in a way that I think outsiders never really reach.”

Researchers agree that studying atrocities is a difficult undertaking. “Research involves talking to survivors who have endured unimaginable horror and putting yourself in the position to listen and hear and be empathetic,” says David Simon, who directs the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Still, scholars say that, through these studies, they are developing a broader understanding by identifying similarities among different genocides. These include what happened in Rwanda and the Holocaust, as well as in the genocide of the Armenian people in 1915 and of the Herero and Nama people in what is now Namibia, starting in 1904.

All of them shared common ingredients, according to researchers. The first is racializing members of society and identifying an ‘inferior’ segment of the population to be eliminated. Other factors include planning organized massacres and spreading an ideology across a whole society. The last component is the involvement of the state and its institutions, such as religious establishments and schools, as participants in the killings, says historian Vincent Duclert, who is France’s leading scholar on the 1994 genocide.

Studies in Rwanda helped to solidify the theory, says Duclert. “This pattern was really reinforced by the genocide of the Tutsi.”

Another lesson from Rwanda, say researchers, is the need to seek multiple narratives — from people inside and outside the region, and from perpetrators as well as survivors. “In 1994, and in the years immediately after, there was a very simple narrative about the Rwandan genocide being driven by ancient tribal hatreds, and that it almost explained itself away,” says Elisabeth King, who studies peace, conflict and education at New York University. Scholars, says King, have a crucial part to play in developing nuanced accounts of the complex political and social factors that underlie these events. Those explanations, in turn, can help researchers and others to understand why people commit atrocities, and could ultimately contribute to developing approaches that help to stop them.

Belongings, including ID cards labelled 'Tutsi', of the victims of the genocide at the Ntarama Church in Rwanda are on display as part of the memorial at the church

Belongings of people killed at Ntarama, including identity cards, which showed people’s ethnicities. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP Photo/Alamy

Straus is also studying causal factors shared by different genocides, and why some conflicts that have the ingredients of genocide do not escalate into them — violence in Mali in the 1990s and Côte d’Ivoire in the early 2010s are two examples 10 .

Some scholars say that studying genocides can yield many benefits, but that stopping them from happening is ultimately a political matter decided by nations and international bodies.

Aggée Shyaka Mugabe, acting director of the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Rwanda, is pessimistic about the extent to which studying genocides can ultimately stop them. “What we publish informs public policies,” says Mugabe, who studies transitional justice and peacebuilding 11 . But that doesn’t translate into something everyday people can understand, he adds.

Some have also raised concerns that it can be difficult for Rwandan researchers to study topics related to genocide freely, because of pressure from the government to follow a certain narrative on politically sensitive issues. But Mugabe rejects the idea that research done inside Rwanda isn’t useful because of the perceived political pressure. “Some of my papers have a critical aspect,” he says. “There is no police trying to tell me what to write or what not to write.”

Survivors’ stories

One concern among scholars is that there has been less focus on elevating the voices of survivors, given that judicial inquiries focused so much on perpetrators.

Jean Pierre Sagahutu is one of those survivors. “I can’t tell you everything that happened in 1994 because it’s too hard,” he says. “I remember everything as if it were yesterday,” he says. “It’s as if I’m seeing it now.” Sagahutu survived by hiding in a septic tank for more than two months. In that time, his father and mother were killed. Originally trained as an accountant, Sagahutu began driving taxis after the genocide and worked as a ‘fixer’ for people visiting the country for projects, often interviewing génocidaires , the perpetrators of the violence against the Tutsi. “Sometimes my ears hurt, but it made me understand what the people had really done. And in the end, it became therapy.”

In 2019, he met Duclert, whom French President Emmanuel Macron had commissioned to conduct a study on France’s role in the genocide, owing in part to the French government’s support of Rwanda’s pre-genocide Hutu government. In 2021, Duclert presented his 1,000-page report 12 , which concluded that French authorities saw evidence of a coming genocide as early as 1990 but didn’t take enough measures to stop it.

Sagahutu takes positives from Duclert’s report, but says that scholars have more work to do: “I’d like researchers to try to learn, to really dig and find out what the real causes of the genocide were,” he says. “Because the genocide was not a game of chance, it was something that had been well prepared for a long time.”

One of the most important tools for researchers is recording the testimony of survivors, says Yolande Mukagasana, who wrote the first comprehensive survivor’s account of the genocide, which was published in French in 1997 13 . Mukagasana, now 69, has remained a writer and activist, and is determined to keep the memory of the genocide against the Tutsi alive. As part of her work, she has talked to survivors of other genocides and mass killings and she sees similarities in these events, regardless of where in the world they happened. “The ideology of hate is the same,” she says, adding that survivors experience “exactly the same suffering”.

Black and white portrait of Yolande Mukagasana

Yolande Mukagasana wrote the first comprehensive account of the genocide by a survivor. Credit: Chris Schwagga

In 1994, Mukagasana was a nurse and a successful Tutsi woman who ran her own health clinic. When the killings started, Mukagasana and her husband separated, hoping that their three children would be safer with him. During the months of the genocide, in which she was protected by Hutu people, she began writing her testimony on scraps such as cigarette packets.

Mukagasana’s husband and children were killed. When she reached safety at the Hôtel des Mille Collines — featured in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda — one of the first things she wanted was a pen and paper to record what had happened.

At IRIBA, Mugiraneza knows the importance of documenting the events of 1994. But she also strives to collect evidence of life before. “The marriages. The love songs. The buildings, the proverbs, the stories — all those things that are so magnificent but are seen as trivial.”

“People negotiate a space for thinking, for giving meaning to life — which allows us to better understand what extermination and death are.”

Nature 628 , 250-254 (2024)

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-024-00997-7

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  • Published: 12 April 2024

Healthcare team resilience during COVID-19: a qualitative study

  • John W. Ambrose 1 ,
  • Ken Catchpole 2 ,
  • Heather L. Evans 3 ,
  • Lynne S. Nemeth 1 ,
  • Diana M. Layne 1 &
  • Michelle Nichols 1  

BMC Health Services Research volume  24 , Article number:  459 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

67 Accesses

Metrics details

Resilience, in the field of Resilience Engineering, has been identified as the ability to maintain the safety and the performance of healthcare systems and is aligned with the resilience potentials of anticipation, monitoring, adaptation, and learning. In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the resilience of US healthcare systems due to the lack of equipment, supply interruptions, and a shortage of personnel. The purpose of this qualitative research was to describe resilience in the healthcare team during the COVID-19 pandemic with the healthcare team situated as a cognizant, singular source of knowledge and defined by its collective identity, purpose, competence, and actions, versus the resilience of an individual or an organization.

We developed a descriptive model which considered the healthcare team as a unified cognizant entity within a system designed for safe patient care. This model combined elements from the Patient Systems Engineering Initiative for Patient Safety (SEIPS) and the Advanced Team Decision Making (ADTM) models. Using a qualitative descriptive design and guided by our adapted model, we conducted individual interviews with healthcare team members across the United States. Data were analyzed using thematic analysis and extracted codes were organized within the adapted model framework.

Five themes were identified from the interviews with acute care professionals across the US ( N  = 22): teamwork in a pressure cooker , consistent with working in a high stress environment; healthcare team cohesion , applying past lessons to present challenges , congruent with transferring past skills to current situations; knowledge gaps , and altruistic behaviors , aligned with sense of duty and personal responsibility to the team. Participants’ described how their ability to adapt to their environment was negatively impacted by uncertainty, inconsistent communication of information, and emotions of anxiety, fear, frustration, and stress. Cohesion with co-workers, transferability of skills, and altruistic behavior enhanced healthcare team performance.

Working within the extreme unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19 affected the ability of the healthcare team to anticipate and adapt to the rapidly changing environment. Both team cohesion and altruistic behavior promoted resilience. Our research contributes to a growing understanding of the importance of resilience in the healthcare team. And provides a bridge between individual and organizational resilience.

Peer Review reports


The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the complexity and dynamic nature of healthcare systems. It also created a unique opportunity to look at the concept of resilience through the lens of the healthcare team versus the more common approach of situating the concept within the individual or the organization. The early phase of the pandemic was marked by challenges, such as limited access to personal protective equipment, personnel shortages, drug shortages, and increased risks of infection [ 1 , 2 ]. Ensuring patient safety and proper functioning requires coordination and adaptation of the healthcare team and various processes across the health system infrastructure [ 3 , 4 ]. Resilience results from adaptive coordination which enables healthcare systems to maintain routine function in the face of all conditions [ 5 , 6 ].

Resilience in healthcare has been operationalized through resilience engineering, an interdisciplinary aspect of systems engineering focused on promotingpatient safety through the design, implementation, and management of healthcare systems [ 7 , 8 , 9 ] (e.g., how healthcare systems adapt and adjust to maneuver through the daily complexities and challenges to identify effective practices, prevent errors and maintain resilient performance) [ 6 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 ]. Resilient performance in healthcare is proposed to be the net result of reaching the threshold of four resilience capabilities within the system: anticipation, the ability to expect and prepare for the unexpected; monitoring, the ability to observe threats to daily system performance; responding, the ability to adapt how the performance is enacted; and learning, the ability to learn from present and past accomplishments within the system [ 12 ]. At present, there is a paucity of research on the resilience of the healthcare team as a cohesive, singular conscious source of knowledge in a highly complex healthcare system. While the resilience of both healthcare systems [ 11 , 13 ] and healthcare workers [ 14 ] has been investigated, there is a gap in knowledge specific to the resilience of the healthcare team as a unified singular consciousness. The circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique opportunity to understand the resilience of the healthcare team in a highly complex system as a singular aware entity within the system; how it acknowledges itself, defines its purpose, and performs under extenuating circumstances. This shifts the emphasis of individual and organization resilience to the resilience in the interconnected healthcare team that extends beyond the boundary of any single person.

The adapted model situates the healthcare team as a cohesive singlular conscious source of knowledge within an intricate and highly complex system [ 15 ]. This model was designed as a bridge between resilience found in individuals within the healthcare system and the organization to emphasize the healthcare team as an aware, unified whole. Our model [ 15 ] combines the existing Systems Engineering Initiative for Patient Safety (SEIPS) model [ 16 ] (version 1), which is based on five domains (organization, person, tasks, technologies, and tools), and environment and the Advanced Team Decision Making Model [ 17 ], which includes components for team performance [ 17 , 18 , 19 ]. Team performance is comprised of team identity, team cognition, team competency, and team metacognition [ 17 , 18 , 19 ]. Team identity describes how the team identifies their purpose to help one another [ 17 ]. Team cognition describes the state of mind of the team, their focus, and common goals [ 17 ]. Team competency describes how well the team accomplishes tasks, and team metacognition describes problem solving and responsibility [ 17 , 19 ], Fig.  1 .

figure 1

Healthcare Team as a cohesive, singular conscious source of knowledge in a highly complex system. The continuous variegated border represents the singularity and connectedness of the healthcare team within the system. The gears represent the processes, people, technology, and tasks within this highly dynamic healthcare system

The purpose of this qualitative research was to describe resilience in the healthcare team during the COVID-19 pandemic with the healthcare team situated as a singular conscious source of knowledge defined by its collective identity, purpose, competence, and actions. Additionally, we sought to identify factors that may facilitate or hinder the healthcare team from achieving the necessary capabilities to monitor, anticipate, adapt, and learn to meet the standard for resilient performance.


A qualitative descriptive design [ 20 , 21 ] was employed. The interview guide was framed using the adapted model to explore various aspects of healthcare team performance (identity, purpose, competence, and cognition). These questions were pilot tested on the first 3 participants and no further changes were needed. Specifically, we aimed to investigate resilience capabilities, decision-making processes, and overall healthcare team performance.

Sampling strategy

A purposive snowball sample was used to identify healthcare team members who worked in U.S. acute care settings between January 2020–December 2020. This sampling method was used to ensure recruitment of participants most likely to have insight into the phenomenon of resilience in the acute care setting.

Inclusion criteria

To explore a wide range of interprofessional experience, participants were recruited across geographic regions and professional roles through personal contacts and social media [ 22 , 23 , 24 , 25 ]. Eligible participants included English-speaking individuals ages 20 and older with a valid personal email address, internet access, and the ability to participate in an online video interview. Potential participants had to be employed full or part-time for any period from January 2020–December 2020 in any of the following acute healthcare environments: emergency room (ER), intensive care unit (ICU), COVID- 19 ICU, COVID-19 floor, gastroenterology inpatient unit, endoscopy suite, operating room (OR), post anesthesia recovery room (PACU), pre-operative holding area, hospital administration, or inpatient medical and/or surgical patient care unit.

Exclusion criteria

Healthcare team members who did not complete the pre-screening survey or failed to schedule an interview were not enrolled.

National recruitment in the U.S

Upon approval by MUSC Institutional Review Board (IRB), registered under Pro00100917, fliers, social media posts on Twitter TM (version 9.34 IOS, San Francisco, California) and Facebook TM (version 390.1 IOS, Menlo Park, CA), and word of mouth were used to initiate recruitment efforts. Interested participants were sent a link to an electronic screening survey explaining the purpose of the study and verifying the respondents’ eligibility to participate. Informed consent was obtained from all subjects.

Data collection

Data were collected via an initial screening questionnaire to determine eligibility. Data were managed using REDCap™ (version 11.2.2) electronic data capture tools hosted at MUSC. Demographic data included age, sex, race, professional role, years of experience, geographic region, patient population served, practice specialty area, and deployment status during the pandemic. Deployment refers to the reassignment of personnel from their primary clinical area to another area to meet the demands of another clinical area without regard for the participant’s clinical expertise. Qualitative data were collected through semi-structured audio video recorded interviews to understand the healthcare team in their natural environment. Recorded interviews were conducted via Microsoft® Teams (version, Microsoft Corporation) from the PIs private office to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission and promote participation across the U.S.

Data monitoring and safety

The quality of the demographic data was monitored to ensure completeness. Potential participants who submitted incomplete responses on the questionnaire were excluded. Interviews were transcribed using software, transcriptions were reviewed and verified for accuracy, and then uploaded to MAXQDA Analytics Pro, Version 2022 (VERBI software) to facilitate data analysis. Transcripts were not returned to the participants. Qualitative codebooks, institutional review board (IRB) logs, and other study records were stored on a secure university server, with access limited to authorized study personnel. Adherence to Consolidated Criteria for Reporting Qualitative Research (COREQ) standards were maintained throughout the study and analysis [ 26 ].

Data analysis

Quantitative analysis.

Demographic data were analyzed using SPSS Statistics for MAC, version 28 (IBM). Both descriptive statistics for the continuous variables of age and years of experience (mean, standard deviation) and frequency tables (age, sex, race, role, geographic region, population served, deployment status) were analyzed.

Qualitative analysis

The Principal Investigator (PI) (JA) and senior mentor (MN) independently coded the interview transcripts. Open coding method was used to identify the categories of data [ 22 , 27 ]. Both a reflexive journal and audit trail were maintained. Codes were identified through induction from participant experiences and verified through weekly consensus meetings, while theoretical deductive analysis was guided by the adapted model and the four resilience capabilities (anticipation, monitoring, responding, learning [ 12 ]. Reflexive thematic analysis (TA) [ 28 , 29 , 30 , 31 ] was used to analyze the coded data and generate themes. Data were collected and categorized into the codebook until no further codes were identified by the PI and research mentor [ 22 , 27 ]. Participant checking was not employed.


The eligibility pool was established based on survey completion. Eighty-nine healthcare team members opened the online screening survey; 21 were incomplete and eliminated from the dataset, which left a pool of 68 potential eligible participants. Eligible participants (100%) were contacted by email and phone to determine their interest in completing the study interview. Twenty-two participants completed screening surveys and study interviews between May–September 2021, equating to a 32.5% enrollment rate. Participant interviews lasted between 21 and 91 min with an average of 43 min. None of the interviews were repeated. Participant demographics, including descriptive statistic and role key, are noted in Tables  1 and 2 , respectively.

Five themes were identified: team work in a pressure cooker , healthcare team cohesion , applying past lessons to present challenges , knowledge gaps , and altruistic behaviors .

Teamwork in a pressure cooker

The theme teamwork in a pressure cooker describes the relentless pressures and emotional stressors (e.g., fear, anxiety, frustration, and stress) experienced by the healthcare team from the risks and potential threats associated with COVID-19 contamination and infection. Factors associated with these pressures included risk of COVID-19 exposure, lack of COVID-19 testing, rapid changes to policies and procedures from the standard, personnel shortages, limited physical space, and limited supplies. Exemplary quotes highlighting participant descriptions of these pressures or subthemes are noted in Table  3 .

The healthcare team described an unprecedented level of stress in the workplace as the healthcare team had to adjust to rapidly changing protocols. The lack of protective equipment, shortage of providers to perform patient care and a lack of a familiar clinical routine saturated them in overwhelming pressure and emotions that stuck to them as they navigated uncharted territory. Exemplary quotes highlighting the healthcare team’s descriptions of these emotions are noted in Table  4 .

“It was…uncharted territory for me.” (P1, DIR) “You were stuck in a situation you never— you didn’t know when it was going to end.” (P4, RN PACU) “They have not enough staff—they can’t do it—they—I don’t know what we’re going to do.” (P6, DIR). “When we deployed—trying to get re-accustomed to the changes—with the needs that had to be met was very difficult.” (P10, RN ENDO) “I wasn’t about to sign up for extra time working in under those stressful conditions.” (P17, RN PACU)

The fear of the unknown, combined with the constant need to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances, led to widespread stress, frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion within the healthcare team. This theme was characterized by the constant pressure both inside and outside of work experienced by the healthcare team.

“Driving to the hospital, crying, driving back from the hospital, crying, still doesn’t sum it up— surrounded by people who were just dying. And what could you do?” (P6, DIR) “It was constant. It was terrible. I couldn’t sleep at night. I’d wake up worried.” (P8, ER MD) “It was kind of like just keep sending the Calvary forward—and when one drops, you just walk over them.” (P17, RN PACU) “It was always there—COVID here, COVID there—you never could just completely get away from it. It was basically the center of everybody’s conversation everywhere you went or if you were on the phone with somebody.” (P18, RN COVID ICU) “I was having to call my parents before I’d leave my apartment to go into work— to vent to them and cry— to let out my frustration and my anxiety—and have them essentially convince me to go into work.” (P19, RN ICU). “Working so much— COVID was all that was on my brain—and it was a lot of pressure.” (P22, MGR)

Working during COVID-19 challenged the resilience of the healthcare team in the face of constant fear and uncertainty. The pressure to maintain team performance, while dealing with constant fear associated with the pandemic effected the healthcare team’s resilience.

“I have to tell you that after being in hospital—I don’t feel resilient right now— doing all the things I’ve done—I just want to be out of the hospital— [crying] I can tell you that it will stay with me the rest of my life— It will always stay with me.” (P6, DIR) “I feel like my team has used up all of their resilience. I don’t think there’s much left.” (P8, ER MD)

However, one team member stood out as an exception. They reported the pressures from the environment helped them to make decisions. This demonstrates that environmental pressures affect members of the healthcare team differently. They reported that the pressure and intensity of the situation sharpened their focus and allowed them to make choices more quickly and effectively.

“I make better decisions when I’m under pressure.” (P22, MGR)

Healthcare team cohesion

The theme healthcare team cohesion describes the unique experience of working together during the pandemic that created a means among the healthcare team to form close relationships and unite. This bond was characterized by the emergence of strong interpersonal connections among healthcare professionals during the COVID-19 pandemic. These connections shaped healthcare team relationships and were a factor in the collaborative decision-making processes within healthcare team for their day-to day functions. This cohesive bonding was fueled by the stress and uncertainty of the situation, which brought the healthcare team together illustrated by their solidarity, camaraderie, trust, and empowerment.

“All those decisions, important decisions were made together.” (P7, CRNA) “Everyone felt like they were they were, you know, in a in a battle zone and on the same side—and so that kind of brought people together.” (P8, ER MD) “I think our team worked as one.” (P11, CEO)

Solidarity described the sense of unity evident among the members of the healthcare team. This was characterized by connectedness and a sense of reliance on one another that promoted teamwork and resilience within the team from support both given and received. The sub-theme camaraderie described the close personal connection and support between the healthcare team that went beyond normal social interactions prior to the pandemic. These connections were filled with trust and respect for other healthcare team members.

“I think we were all trying to do the best we could do and help each other do the best they could do—I think early on just camaraderie helped a lot within the department and, you know, just relying on each other for support.” (P8, ER MD) “We knew that we can depend on each other and we all had different skill sets— I think that that was very important—that made us feel secure— rather than going alone.” (P10, RN ENDO) “We [The ICU Nurses] developed a sense of camaraderie that I mean, it’s nothing I’ve ever felt before, like we had to trust each other with our licenses, with our own health—my resiliency came from my coworkers.” (P14, CHG RN) “One of the things that I think the pandemic did in a positive—was—I believe that the teams that I worked for really started to solidify. We leaned on each other. I felt more of a team environment than I had had pre-pandemic—I felt that people were a bit better together. We all needed each other, and we all leaned on each other, and we gave each other support—more so than before COVID- 19.” (P15, CRNA) ”The nurses on the unit were always there for me—they became my friends— my family.” (P19, RN ICU)

The sub theme of empowerment referred to the ability of the healthcare team to confidently make decisions and assume responsibility for their actions within the healthcare setting. This process involved a sense of authority and the ability to exercise agency in decision-making together to respond and adapt to the demands the healthcare team experienced. The combination of solidarity, camaraderie, trust, and empowerment resulted in a strong sense of cohesion within the healthcare team which led to improved relationships and enhanced resilience in their performance.

“I felt that I felt that the team—we all needed each other and we all leaned on each other and we gave each other support—more so than before COVID.” (P15, CRNA) “How do you want to handle this? What’s the plan?—and we collaborated in the true sense of collaboration.” (P15, CRNA) “We just knew that we could count on each other—we knew that we could count on each other at any time if we had questions, because we all worked so closely together during this. We really became a really tight knit group, and it was great.” (P22, MGR)

The benefits of the cohesion found in the healthcare team were significant and apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The strengthened relationships and increased resilience allowed for improved communication and collaboration, leading to better patient care and outcomes. Despite these advantages, it was noted by one participant that the relationships developed were not sustained beyond the peak of the pandemic.

“Now that COVID is kind of at bay in our area, it’s kind of gone back to the same way it was— it has not stuck.” (P15, CRNA)

Applying past lessons to present challenges

The theme applying past lessons to present challenges describes how the knowledge and understanding gained from prior participant experiences was used to adapt to the novel clinical and infrastructural challenges faced during the pandemic. Past experiences facilitated the healthcare team to strategize ways to meet the demands of the healthcare system during this time.

Participants described two strategies the healthcare team used to improve the system’s ability to adapt and function effectively: changing roles and deploying personnel. The process of changing roles involved assigning new responsibilities to individuals based on priority-based initiatives, while deployment involved transferring clinical staff from areas with lower patient care needs to those with higher needs to optimize their utilization. Eleven participants (50%) were affected by these strategies. Of these, 73% were assigned to clinical areas for direct patient care, while the remaining 27% underwent a role change to support the operational needs of the system. The participants’ preexisting work relationships, specialized clinical expertise, and leadership abilities helped them adapt to their new clinical and non-clinical roles, which in turn enhanced the resilience of the healthcare team.

“We wanted to make sure that we were putting people into the right area where their skill set could be used the best.” (P1, DIR) “I’m known for moving people forward—I’m also well known for speaking up when I don’t think it is right and there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t think was right— and not only speaking up, I’m also going to come with the solution.” (P6, DIR)

Participants indicated the lessons learned from prior experience positively impacted team performance and improved patient care outcomes. There were two significant examples in the data: the perspective of a nurse who was redeployed to work in an obstetrics unit (P5, ENDO RN) and the perspective of a nursing director (P6, DIR) whose role was changed to develop a program to ensure adequate staffing.

“Because we [the team of interprofessionals] were all very familiar with what we had to do at the task, at handit [the experience of the provision of care] was very fluid—I think it’s because of our years of experience and working with each other for so long that it just worked out very well ”. (P5, ENDO RN) “Staff believed in me when I said I would do something— I could galvanize people because of my reputation of caring for staff, so I was chosen specifically because of my ability to move people forward in spite of things.” (P6, DIR)

Participants identified being assigned to unfamiliar clinical areas or working with unfamiliar patient populations as a barrier that hindered their ability to adapt to clinical situations. The lack of clinical competence among some personnel led to an increase in workload for other healthcare team members, who had to provide additional instruction and guidance on how to complete the task. Decision-makers who deployed nursing staff to a clinical area with higher staffing needs may have believed that the individual nurse had specific clinical skills that would be helpful in that area, and this was not the case.

“She [the patient] felt like it was that he [the new nurse]—really didn’t know what he was doing—not only were we kind of reintroduced to that role of caring for patients where we haven’t been recently, but we’re also in a teaching mode, too, for the new nurses—we had to prioritize how sick the patients were, from basic vital signs to wound dressings to respiratory, and help those new nurses know which to attend to first.” (P10, RN ENDO) “Nurses weren’t really put in a place with enough support and enough resources to be able to do a job, and to do a job that maybe they haven’t done for a few years.” (P10, RN ENDO)

The participants indicated that clinical competencies of a healthcare provider in one patient population may not necessarily be applicable to another patient group. For instance, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse who has experience in managing Extra Corporeal Membranous Oxygen (ECMO) in newborns may not have the necessary skills to care for adult ECMO patients in an adult COVID-19 intensive care unit.

“The ECMO nurse was a NICU nurse, so she really could not help me.” (P14, CHG RN)

Knowledge gaps

The theme knowledge gaps refers to the disparity between the existing knowledge of the healthcare team and the knowledge required for the team to effectively respond and adapt to the needs of the healthcare system. The lack of COVID-19 specific knowledge led to gaps in the healthcare team’s understanding, while the lack of communication made it difficult for necessary information to be effectively conveyed and received (e.g., medical logistics, human resources, and other operational policies and procedures). This knowledge gap created a barrier to healthcare team resilience as their capacities to surveil, anticipate, and respond were diminished from the lack of knowledge.

“That [information] is pretty fundamental to how you [the healthcare team] function.” (P17, RN PACU) “I don’t think any amount of preparation could have actually prepared us for how bad COVID was—but we were very, very, very unprepared.” (P18, RN COVID ICU) “It was confusing, it was disruptive to the patients that we had there. They sensed that. And that’s— OK—screw with me, screw with my colleagues, but don’t screw with the patient.” (P21, RN ENDO)

All the participants in leadership roles during the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of having a thorough understanding of the information and effectively communicating it to the frontline healthcare team members most involved in providing patient care.

“There’s nothing worse than having to learn something in the moment and not being prepared for it.” (P1, DIR) “That made us communicate in multiple ways throughout a day because we all know people learn and adapt it could be in print. It could be in person; it could be a video. We tried to have multiple ways of getting messages out and knowing we needed to repeat messages because this was so unknown, and people were so stressed.” (P11, CEO)

One team member (P13, CRNA), highlighted areas where there were gaps in knowledge in greater detail.

“It was as if the unit was being run by all these sort of substitute teachers that were called in at the last minute. Nobody knew where stuff was—nobody knew what the protocol was—the communication was terrible.” (P13, CRNA)

The cumulative effect from the knowledge gaps contributed to the lack of a practical working knowledge for the healthcare team and affected the healthcare team’s ability to anticipate what needed to be done and adapt their performance to accomplish it. Despite knowledge gaps, healthcare team members reported their capability to learn was facilitated by incremental gains in practical knowledge through their experience over time.

“—people got to be experts at protecting patients and keeping themselves safe.” (P8, ER MD) “I think it kind of was like on the job training at that point, I felt like we were all just trying to survive—learning was like—you went out —then you came back, and you would share how things went.” (P15, CRNA) “You tried to educate yourself so you could be safe.” (P17, RN PACU)

The participant responses received from the leadership (CNO, Directors, and Manager) and front-line personnel (administrative staff, nurses, and physicians) regarding the importance of communication highlighted a difference in perspective. Leadership exhibited a strong commitment toward effective communication and made efforts to ensure all healthcare team members were well informed. On the other hand, the frontline participants indicated instances where communication strategies were not perceived as effective.

“I wasn’t contacted by a manager from the unit or anything to be able to reassure, reassure me that things were being followed through and it should be okay, so that was tough.” (P10, RN ENDO) “It really seemed like there was no communication between—like staffing and the floor—we would get up to the floor and they would say, who are you? What are you doing here? What are we supposed to do with you?” (P20, RN OR)

Altruistic behaviors

The theme altruistic behaviors , encompasses the participants’ perception of their obligation and accountability to their patients and healthcare team, and their steadfastness in supporting the healthcare team even if it meant facing personal or professional repercussions. This readiness to aid the healthcare team and accept consequences showcased their altruism and commitment to the healthcare team. The team’s dedication to both their patients and each other was a primary focus driven by a strong sense of responsibility and obligation.

“I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and feel like I did the right thing—.” (P6, DIR) “My resiliency came from my coworkers. I wanted to come back to work to help them.” (P14, RN COVID ICU) “People really looked out for each other—and people were really kind and compassionate to each other—we all were in this together.” (P15, CRNA) “I’m grateful for the experience that I had and all of the different patients that I was able to help in my time there definitely solidified that being a nurse is what I needed to do—and why I chose the profession is exactly what I should have been doing.” (P19, RN ICU) “You just have to go with what seems right—.” (P22, MGR)

A defining characteristic of this theme was a willingness to endure consequences for the benefit of the healthcare team. These consequences varied from contracting the virus, facing criticism from the healthcare team, to foregoing financial incentives, and even job loss.

“I felt like I was punished for speaking up and I was punished for doing the right thing for patients.” (P6, DIR) “I mean, I literally broke the law so many times. Do you know how many times I started pressors [vasoactive drugs to increase blood pressure] on patients that I had no orders for [because a physician would not enter the ICU]?” (P14, CHG RN)

We identified five key themes based on the coded data; namely teamwork in a pressure cooker , healthcare team cohesion , applying past lessons to present challenges , knowledge gaps , and altruistic behaviors . The researchers propose that stressors arising from the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the healthcare team’s resilience. In addition, strong healthcare team cohesion, selfless behaviors among the healthcare team, shared knowledge, and job competence within the healthcare team, enhanced resilient performance.

The healthcare team experienced significant stress and uncertainty, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is consistent with previous research that has shown that the unprecedented nature of the pandemic led to challenging working conditions, limited resources, lack of information, and concerns about infecting loved ones [ 32 , 33 , 34 , 35 , 36 , 37 , 38 , 39 , 40 , 41 , 42 , 43 , 44 ]. The collective global impact of COVID-19 on healthcare systems is likely a contributing factor to these stressors [ 45 , 46 , 47 , 48 ].

Our study, along with those conducted by Anjara et al. (2021)[ 49 ] and Kaye-Kauderer et al. (2022) [ 50 ], found that solidarity and camaraderie among healthcare professionals improve resilience. Specifically, Anjara et al. observed increased collaboration among the healthcare professionals they studied in Ireland during the COVID-19 pandemic, while Kaye-Kauderer et al. identified team camaraderie among their sample of front-line healthcare workers from New York. Kinsella et al. (2023) [ 51 ] reported that COVID − 19 offered frontline workers in the UK the opportunity to work together toward a common goal. Potential explanations for these findings align with the concepts of social capital proposed by Coleman [ 52 ] and social identification with other as proposed by Drury [ 54 ]. Coleman suggests an individual’s skills and capabilities are enhanced through their interdependent relationships with others [ 52 ]. Drury found in communities affected by disasters, mutual aid and support emerged from a shared social identity, which serves to strengthen the community [ 53 ]. Brooks et al. (2021) [ 54 ] conducted a study with healthcare, police, and commercial sectors in England. They found it was important for these individuals to receive support from and provide support to their colleagues to mitigate the psychological impact of disaster exposure [ 54 ]. In addition, like our findings, Aufegger and colleague’s 2019 systematic review [ 55 ] found that social support in acute care healthcare teams creates a supportive atmosphere where team members help each other communicate problems, fulfill needs, and deal with stress.

Our results are consistent with those of Liu et al. (2020) [ 32 ] and Banerjee et al. (2021) [ 44 ] who each found that healthcare professionals frequently feel a sense of personal responsibility to overcome challenges. One potential explanation for this may be the influence of collectivism in their cultures. Similarly, our study suggests the sense of camaraderie among healthcare professionals may also contribute to a sense of responsibility and increased altruistic behavior. However, other studies have highlighted different perspectives on healthcare professionals’ sense of responsibility and duty. Godkin and Markwell’s (2003) [ 56 ] revealed that healthcare professionals’ sense of responsibility during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak was dependent on the protective measures and support offered by the healthcare system where most SARS infected patients were hospitalized. More recently, Gray et al. (2021) reported that nurses’ sense of responsibility stems from their ethical obligations, regardless of potential personal or familial risks [ 57 ].

The altruistic behaviors described by our participants helped maintain the performance of the healthcare team. It is too soon to see the long-term impact from working in this high-pressure environment; however, past research by Liu et al. (2012) [ 58 ] and Wu (2009) [ 59 ] demonstrated that “altruistic-risk acceptance” during the SARS outbreak was shown to decrease depressive symptoms among hospital employees in China.

Our research on resilience has important implications for healthcare organizations and professionals. In order to ready themselves for forthcoming events, healthcare systems must emphasize the significance of shared knowledge and its influence on the healthcare team’s ability to foresee and monitor effectively. This knowledge can help the healthcare organization function as a unified entity, rather than as individuals in separate roles or clusters within the organization to improve healthcare team preparedness. Establishing a cohesive, clinically competent healthcare team benefits the organization and the patients served. Measures to enhance social support, improve communication and ensure clinical competence maintain healthcare team resilience.

There are several limitations to consider when interpreting the results of this study. First, the sample was obtained using purposive snowball sampling, which may have introduced sampling bias and may not accurately represent the larger population of healthcare team members who worked during the COVID-19, as 95% of the sample were white. Second, our study did not have equal representation of all interprofessional team members. It is possible that a more heterogenous sample regarding role, race and gender may have introduced additional codes. Additionally, the PI (JA) worked as a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthesiologist (CRNA) in acute care during the pandemic and personal experience may have introduced confirmation bias. Also, the focus of our research was to fill a gap in the existing knowledge of what is known about healthcare team resilience in pandemic disasters, and help to answer if and how it intersects with individual and organizational resilience. It is possible this novel conceptualization of healthcare team as a cohesive singular conscious source of knowledge did not adequately address this.

Steps to ensure rigor and mitigate any potential shortcomings of qualitative data analysis were the maintenance of a reflexive journal, a willingness of the PI to let go of unsupported ideas and constant verification of codes and themes with the research mentor (MN) for coherence and consistency within the coded data, selected methodology and research questions.

Overall, the extracted themes of teamwork in a pressure cooker; healthcare team cohesion; applying past lessons to present challenges; knowledge gaps; and altruistic behaviors illustrate comparable experiences within the healthcare team. As healthcare professionals and organizations continue to navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and other crises, our findings provide valuable insights into how team cohesion, along with altruistic behaviors, may enhance resilience capabilities to create and maintain a unified resilient healthcare team.

Data availability

The data for this study are confidential as required by the IRB approval. To protect the anonymity of the participants, the data are not publicly available. Additional information about the research method, Interview questions, informant data, and the study in general can be requested from the corresponding author, J.A.

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The authors want to thank all the interviewed healthcare team participants for their time and sharing their personal stories and for their continued service during the COVID-19 pandemic. We would also like to acknowledge Ayaba Logan, the Research and Education Informationist, Mohan Madisetti, the MUSC College of Nursing Director of Research, the staff of the MUSC Center for Academic Excellence and the reviewers of this journal for their constructive criticism.

This research (software, transcription services, etc.) was solely funded by the Principal Investigator, J.A.

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John W. Ambrose, Lynne S. Nemeth, Diana M. Layne & Michelle Nichols

Department of Anesthesia and Perioperative Medicine, College of Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA

Ken Catchpole

Department of Surgery, College of Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC, USA

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Conceptualization J.A., K.C., L.N., D.L., H.E., and M.N.; methodology J.A. and M.N.; J.A. led the study, recruited the interviewees, conducted interviews, led the data analysis, and drafted the manuscript. J.A., and M.N. conducted the data analyses; review and editing K.C., H.E., D.L., and M.N.; supervision M.N.; research project administration J.A. and M.N.; funding acquisition J.A. All authors reviewed the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John W. Ambrose .

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Ethics approval and consent to participate.

This study presented no greater than minimal risk to participants and met exempt status per regulatory criteria established by 45 CFR 46.104 and 21 CFR 56.104. The study protocol and all materials were approved by the MUSC Institutional Review Board (IRB), [Pro00100917 ]. All study procedures were followed in accordance with these standards.

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Ambrose, J.W., Catchpole, K., Evans, H.L. et al. Healthcare team resilience during COVID-19: a qualitative study. BMC Health Serv Res 24 , 459 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12913-024-10895-3

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Transformations That Work

  • Michael Mankins
  • Patrick Litre

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More than a third of large organizations have some type of transformation program underway at any given time, and many launch one major change initiative after another. Though they kick off with a lot of fanfare, most of these efforts fail to deliver. Only 12% produce lasting results, and that figure hasn’t budged in the past two decades, despite everything we’ve learned over the years about how to lead change.

Clearly, businesses need a new model for transformation. In this article the authors present one based on research with dozens of leading companies that have defied the odds, such as Ford, Dell, Amgen, T-Mobile, Adobe, and Virgin Australia. The successful programs, the authors found, employed six critical practices: treating transformation as a continuous process; building it into the company’s operating rhythm; explicitly managing organizational energy; using aspirations, not benchmarks, to set goals; driving change from the middle of the organization out; and tapping significant external capital to fund the effort from the start.

Lessons from companies that are defying the odds

Idea in Brief

The problem.

Although companies frequently engage in transformation initiatives, few are actually transformative. Research indicates that only 12% of major change programs produce lasting results.

Why It Happens

Leaders are increasingly content with incremental improvements. As a result, they experience fewer outright failures but equally fewer real transformations.

The Solution

To deliver, change programs must treat transformation as a continuous process, build it into the company’s operating rhythm, explicitly manage organizational energy, state aspirations rather than set targets, drive change from the middle out, and be funded by serious capital investments.

Nearly every major corporation has embarked on some sort of transformation in recent years. By our estimates, at any given time more than a third of large organizations have a transformation program underway. When asked, roughly 50% of CEOs we’ve interviewed report that their company has undertaken two or more major change efforts within the past five years, with nearly 20% reporting three or more.

  • Michael Mankins is a leader in Bain’s Organization and Strategy practices and is a partner based in Austin, Texas. He is a coauthor of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017).
  • PL Patrick Litre leads Bain’s Global Transformation and Change practice and is a partner based in Atlanta.

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What Researchers Discovered When They Sent 80,000 Fake Résumés to U.S. Jobs

Some companies discriminated against Black applicants much more than others, and H.R. practices made a big difference.

Claire Cain Miller

By Claire Cain Miller and Josh Katz

A group of economists recently performed an experiment on around 100 of the largest companies in the country, applying for jobs using made-up résumés with equivalent qualifications but different personal characteristics. They changed applicants’ names to suggest that they were white or Black, and male or female — Latisha or Amy, Lamar or Adam.

On Monday, they released the names of the companies . On average, they found, employers contacted the presumed white applicants 9.5 percent more often than the presumed Black applicants.

Yet this practice varied significantly by firm and industry. One-fifth of the companies — many of them retailers or car dealers — were responsible for nearly half of the gap in callbacks to white and Black applicants.

Two companies favored white applicants over Black applicants significantly more than others. They were AutoNation, a used car retailer, which contacted presumed white applicants 43 percent more often, and Genuine Parts Company, which sells auto parts including under the NAPA brand, and called presumed white candidates 33 percent more often.

In a statement, Heather Ross, a spokeswoman for Genuine Parts, said, “We are always evaluating our practices to ensure inclusivity and break down barriers, and we will continue to do so.” AutoNation did not respond to a request for comment.

Companies With the Largest and Smallest Racial Contact Gaps

Of the 97 companies in the experiment, two stood out as contacting presumed white job applicants significantly more often than presumed Black ones. At 14 companies, there was little or no difference in how often they called back the presumed white or Black applicants.

Source: Patrick Kline, Evan K. Rose and Christopher R. Walters

Known as an audit study , the experiment was the largest of its kind in the United States: The researchers sent 80,000 résumés to 10,000 jobs from 2019 to 2021. The results demonstrate how entrenched employment discrimination is in parts of the U.S. labor market — and the extent to which Black workers start behind in certain industries.

“I am not in the least bit surprised,” said Daiquiri Steele, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who previously worked for the Department of Labor on employment discrimination. “If you’re having trouble breaking in, the biggest issue is the ripple effect it has. It affects your wages and the economy of your community going forward.”

Some companies showed no difference in how they treated applications from people assumed to be white or Black. Their human resources practices — and one policy in particular (more on that later) — offer guidance for how companies can avoid biased decisions in the hiring process.

A lack of racial bias was more common in certain industries: food stores, including Kroger; food products, including Mondelez; freight and transport, including FedEx and Ryder; and wholesale, including Sysco and McLane Company.

“We want to bring people’s attention not only to the fact that racism is real, sexism is real, some are discriminating, but also that it’s possible to do better, and there’s something to be learned from those that have been doing a good job,” said Patrick Kline, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, who conducted the study with Evan K. Rose at the University of Chicago and Christopher R. Walters at Berkeley.

The researchers first published details of their experiment in 2021, but without naming the companies. The new paper, which is set to run in the American Economic Review, names the companies and explains the methodology developed to group them by their performance, while accounting for statistical noise.

Sample Résumés From the Experiment

Fictitious résumés sent to large U.S. companies revealed a preference, on average, for candidates whose names suggested that they were white.

Sample resume

To assign names, the researchers started with a prior list that had been assembled using Massachusetts birth certificates from 1974 to 1979. They then supplemented this list with names found in a database of speeding tickets issued in North Carolina between 2006 and 2018, classifying a name as “distinctive” if more than 90 percent of people with that name were of a particular race.

The study includes 97 firms. The jobs the researchers applied to were entry level, not requiring a college degree or substantial work experience. In addition to race and gender, the researchers tested other characteristics protected by law , like age and sexual orientation.

They sent up to 1,000 applications to each company, applying for as many as 125 jobs per company in locations nationwide, to try to uncover patterns in companies’ operations versus isolated instances. Then they tracked whether the employer contacted the applicant within 30 days.

A bias against Black names

Companies requiring lots of interaction with customers, like sales and retail, particularly in the auto sector, were most likely to show a preference for applicants presumed to be white. This was true even when applying for positions at those firms that didn’t involve customer interaction, suggesting that discriminatory practices were baked in to corporate culture or H.R. practices, the researchers said.

Still, there were exceptions — some of the companies exhibiting the least bias were retailers, like Lowe’s and Target.

The study may underestimate the rate of discrimination against Black applicants in the labor market as a whole because it tested large companies, which tend to discriminate less, said Lincoln Quillian, a sociologist at Northwestern who analyzes audit studies. It did not include names intended to represent Latino or Asian American applicants, but other research suggests that they are also contacted less than white applicants, though they face less discrimination than Black applicants.

The experiment ended in 2021, and some of the companies involved might have changed their practices since. Still, a review of all available audit studies found that discrimination against Black applicants had not changed in three decades. After the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, such discrimination was found to have disappeared among certain employers, but the researchers behind that study said the effect was most likely short-lived.

Gender, age and L.G.B.T.Q. status

On average, companies did not treat male and female applicants differently. This aligns with other research showing that gender discrimination against women is rare in entry-level jobs, and starts later in careers.

However, when companies did favor men (especially in manufacturing) or women (mostly at apparel stores), the biases were much larger than for race. Builders FirstSource contacted presumed male applicants more than twice as often as female ones. Ascena, which owns brands like Ann Taylor, contacted women 66 percent more than men.

Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The consequences of being female differed by race. The differences were small, but being female was a slight benefit for white applicants, and a slight penalty for Black applicants.

The researchers also tested several other characteristics protected by law, with a smaller number of résumés. They found there was a small penalty for being over 40.

Overall, they found no penalty for using nonbinary pronouns. Being gay, as indicated by including membership in an L.G.B.T.Q. club on the résumé, resulted in a slight penalty for white applicants, but benefited Black applicants — although the effect was small, when this was on their résumés, the racial penalty disappeared.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discrimination is illegal even if it’s unintentional . Yet in the real world, it is difficult for job applicants to know why they did not hear back from a company.

“These practices are particularly challenging to address because applicants often do not know whether they are being discriminated against in the hiring process,” Brandalyn Bickner, a spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said in a statement. (It has seen the data and spoken with the researchers, though it could not use an academic study as the basis for an investigation, she said.)

What companies can do to reduce discrimination

Several common measures — like employing a chief diversity officer, offering diversity training or having a diverse board — were not correlated with decreased discrimination in entry-level hiring, the researchers found.

But one thing strongly predicted less discrimination: a centralized H.R. operation.

The researchers recorded the voice mail messages that the fake applicants received. When a company’s calls came from fewer individual phone numbers, suggesting that they were originating from a central office, there tended to be less bias . When they came from individual hiring managers at local stores or warehouses, there was more. These messages often sounded frantic and informal, asking if an applicant could start the next day, for example.

“That’s when implicit biases kick in,” Professor Kline said. A more formalized hiring process helps overcome this, he said: “Just thinking about things, which steps to take, having to run something by someone for approval, can be quite important in mitigating bias.”

At Sysco, a wholesale restaurant food distributor, which showed no racial bias in the study, a centralized recruitment team reviews résumés and decides whom to call. “Consistency in how we review candidates, with a focus on the requirements of the position, is key,” said Ron Phillips, Sysco’s chief human resources officer. “It lessens the opportunity for personal viewpoints to rise in the process.”

Another important factor is diversity among the people hiring, said Paula Hubbard, the chief human resources officer at McLane Company. It procures, stores and delivers products for large chains like Walmart, and showed no racial bias in the study. Around 40 percent of the company’s recruiters are people of color, and 60 percent are women.

Diversifying the pool of people who apply also helps, H.R. officials said. McLane goes to events for women in trucking and puts up billboards in Spanish.

So does hiring based on skills, versus degrees . While McLane used to require a college degree for many roles, it changed that practice after determining that specific skills mattered more for warehousing or driving jobs. “We now do that for all our jobs: Is there truly a degree required?” Ms. Hubbard said. “Why? Does it make sense? Is experience enough?”

Hilton, another company that showed no racial bias in the study, also stopped requiring degrees for many jobs, in 2018.

Another factor associated with less bias in hiring, the new study found, was more regulatory scrutiny — like at federal contractors, or companies with more Labor Department citations.

Finally, more profitable companies were less biased, in line with a long-held economics theory by the Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker that discrimination is bad for business. Economists said that could be because the more profitable companies benefit from a more diverse set of employees. Or it could be an indication that they had more efficient business processes, in H.R. and elsewhere.

Claire Cain Miller writes about gender, families and the future of work for The Upshot. She joined The Times in 2008 and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting on workplace sexual harassment issues. More about Claire Cain Miller

Josh Katz is a graphics editor for The Upshot, where he covers a range of topics involving politics, policy and culture. He is the author of “Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk,” a visual exploration of American regional dialects. More about Josh Katz

From The Upshot: What the Data Says

Analysis that explains politics, policy and everyday life..

Employment Discrimination: Researchers sent 80,000 fake résumés to some of the largest companies in the United States. They found that some discriminated against Black applicants much more than others .

Pandemic School Closures: ​A variety of data about children’s academic outcomes and about the spread of Covid-19 has accumulated since the start of the pandemic. Here is what we learned from it .

Affirmative Action: The Supreme Court effectively ended race-based preferences in admissions. But will selective schools still be able to achieve diverse student bodies? Here is how they might try .

N.Y.C. Neighborhoods: We asked New Yorkers to map their neighborhoods and to tell us what they call them . The result, while imperfect, is an extremely detailed map of the city .

Dialect Quiz:  What does the way you speak say about where you’re from? Answer these questions to find out .

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White-sounding names get called back for jobs more than Black ones, a new study finds

Joe Hernandez

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A sign seeking job applicants is seen in the window of a restaurant in Miami, Florida, on May 5, 2023. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

A sign seeking job applicants is seen in the window of a restaurant in Miami, Florida, on May 5, 2023.

Twenty years ago, two economists responded to a slew of help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers using a set of fictitious names to test for racial bias in the job market.

The watershed study found that applicants with names suggesting they were white got 50% more callbacks from employers than those whose names indicated they were Black.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Chicago recently took that premise and expanded on it, filing 83,000 fake job applications for 11,000 entry-level positions at a variety of Fortune 500 companies.

Their working paper , published this month and titled "A Discrimination Report Card," found that the typical employer called back the presumably white applicants around 9% more than Black ones. That number rose to roughly 24% for the worst offenders.

The research team initially conducted its experiment in 2021, but their new paper names the 97 companies they included in the study and assigns them grades representing their level of bias, thanks to a new methodology the researchers developed.

"Putting the names out there in the public domain is to move away from a lot of the performative allyship that you see with these companies, saying, 'Oh, we value inclusivity and diversity,'" said Pat Kline, a University of California, Berkeley economics professor who worked on the study. "We're trying to create kind of an objective ground truth here."

From Jobs To Homeownership, Protests Put Spotlight On Racial Economic Divide

America Reckons With Racial Injustice

From jobs to homeownership, protests put spotlight on racial economic divide.

The names that researchers tested include some used in the 2004 study as well as others culled from a database of speeding tickets in North Carolina. A name was classified as "racially distinctive" if more than 90% of people with that name shared the same race.

Applicants with names such as Brad and Greg were up against Darnell and Lamar. Amanda and Kristen competed for jobs with Ebony and Latoya.

What the researchers found was that some firms called back Black applicants considerably less, while race played little to no factor in the hiring processes at other firms.

Dorianne St Fleur, a career coach and workplace consultant, said she wasn't surprised by the findings showing fewer callbacks for presumed Black applicants at some companies.

"I know the study focused on entry-level positions. Unfortunately it doesn't stop there. I've seen it throughout the organization all the way up into the C-suite," she said.

St Fleur, who primarily coaches women of color, said many of her clients have the right credentials and experience for certain jobs but aren't being hired.

"They are sending out dozens, hundreds of resumes and receiving nothing back," she said.

What the researchers found

Much of a company's bias in hiring could be explained by its industry, the study found. Auto dealers and retailers of car parts were the least likely to call back Black applicants, with Genuine Auto Parts (which distributes NAPA products) and the used car retailer AutoNation scoring the worst on the study's "discrimination report card."

"We are always evaluating our practices to ensure inclusivity and break down barriers, and we will continue to do so," Heather Ross, vice president of strategic communications at Genuine Parts Company, said in an email.

AutoNation did not reply to a request for comment.

The companies that performed best in the analysis included Charter/Spectrum, Dr. Pepper, Kroger and Avis-Budget.

Workplace Diversity Goes Far Past Hiring. How Leaders Can Support Employees Of Color

Workplace Diversity Goes Far Past Hiring. How Leaders Can Support Employees Of Color

Several patterns emerged when the researchers looked at the companies that had the lowest "contact gap" between white and Black applicants

Federal contractors and more profitable companies called back applicants from the two racial groups at more similar rates. Firms with more centralized human resources departments and policies also exhibited less racial bias, which Kline says may indicate that a standardized hiring workflow involving multiple employees could help reduce discrimination.

When it came to the sex of applicants, most companies didn't discriminate when calling back job-seekers.

Still, some firms preferred one sex over another in screening applicants. Manufacturing companies called back people with male names at higher rates, and clothing stores showing a bias toward female applicants.

What can workplaces — and workers — do

Kline said the research team hoped the public would focus as much on companies doing a bad job as those doing a good one, since they have potentially found ways to remove or limit racial bias from the hiring process.

"Even if it's true, from these insights in psychology and behavioral economics, that individuals are inevitably going to carry biases along with them, it's not automatic that those individual biases will translate into organizational biases, on average," he said.

St Fleur said there are several strategies companies can use to cut down on bias in the hiring process, including training staff and involving multiple recruiters in callback decisions.

Companies should also collect data about which candidates make it through the hiring process and consider standardizing or anonymizing that process, she added.

St Fleur also said she often tells her job-seeking clients that it's not their fault that they aren't getting called back for open positions they believe they're qualified for.

"The fact that you're not getting callbacks does not mean you suck, you're not a good worker, you don't deserve this thing," she said. "It's just the nature of the systemic forces at play, and this is what we have to deal with."

Still, she said job candidates facing bias in the hiring process can lean on their network for new opportunities, prioritize inclusive companies when applying for work and even consider switching industries or locations.

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Study reveals no causal link between neurodevelopmental disorders and acetaminophen exposure before birth

NIH-funded research in siblings finds previously reported connection is likely due to other underlying factors.

Acetaminophen exposure during pregnancy is not linked to the risk of developing autism, ADHD, or intellectual disability, according to a new study of data from more than 2 million children in Sweden. The collaborative research effort by Swedish and American investigators, which appears in JAMA , is the largest of its kind and was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Scientists compared siblings — who share genetics and other variables such as parental health, environmental exposures, and socioeconomic factors — and were able to limit the influence of other potential risk factors. This allowed them to focus specifically on, and eliminate, the risk associated with acetaminophen. The study design was unique due to the size of the population captured in the Swedish Medical Birth Register and the Swedish Prescribed Drug Register. Before siblings were considered, there appeared to be a small increase in risk for neurodevelopmental disorders in children exposed to acetaminophen, which was noted in previous studies.

Acetaminophen is commonly used as a pain reliever and fever reducer and is found in a variety of medicines available over the counter and via prescription. It is often taken during pregnancy instead of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, known as NSAIDs, which can cause low levels of amniotic fluid, according to the Food and Drug Administration . The reasons pregnant people might take acetaminophen, including fever, or conditions such as chronic migraine, could be, and in some cases are, associated with an increased risk for later neurodevelopmental disorders following pregnancy. 

One limitation of this study is that it relies on data from prescribed acetaminophen and from self-reporting from pregnant people during prenatal care. It may not capture all use or dosage in all people, particularly over-the-counter medicines. However, the number of patients included in the study sample and the ability to control for many other confounding factors support the conclusion that acetaminophen is not directly linked to an increase link of autism, ADHD, or intellectual disability.  

To inform best preventative strategies, additional research is required to fully understand the genetic and non-genetic factors that increase the risk of autism, ADHD, and intellectual disability.

This study was supported by NINDS (NS107607).

Vicky Whittemore, Ph.D., program director, NINDS

Ahlqvist VH, et al. “Acetaminophen use during pregnancy and children’s risk of autism, ADHD, and intellectual disability.” JAMA. April 9, 2024. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2024.3172

NINDS  is the nation’s leading funder of research on the brain and nervous system. The mission of NINDS is to seek fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.

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Action Research in Agricultural Development Projects: Case Study of a Dairy Project in Ethiopia

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  • Published: 13 April 2024

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  • Augustine A. Ayantunde 1 ,
  • Abule Ebro 1   nAff2 ,
  • Tinsae Berhanu 1   nAff3 ,
  • Demewez Moges 1   nAff3 &
  • Jan van der Lee 1  

For development projects, an action research approach is often encouraged to enhance participation of end-users or beneficiaries at various stages of the project to realize the desired social transformation in the target communities. The project under consideration in this study adopted action research for some of its activities. A review of the project action research activities was conducted as part of the strategic reflection for lesson learning and to inform modification where necessary. The objectives of this study were (i) to assess the relevance of action research approach to implementation of project activities and, (ii) to draw lessons for agricultural development projects applying participatory approaches. Fifty-one participants involved in the project action research activities were interviewed on their understanding of action research, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and level of participation in action research activities. The perception of the participants interviewed regarding action research approach was that it is relevant and important for the project, and that it has provided a good platform for learning by all participants. Some key lessons from this study for development projects when applying action research approach include the need to focus on a limited number of issues or activities that can produce social transformation in the target communities, and the necessity of adequate planning for monitoring and documentation of learning by participants. From our study, action research is a pertinent approach in community development projects, but it should be well-planned to achieve the desired objective of social transformation in the target communities.

Avoid common mistakes on your manuscript.


In view of the action-oriented feature of action research and the necessity of participation of the potential beneficiaries for any development project to achieve social change in the target communities, a dairy project in Ethiopia entitled, “Building Rural Income through Inclusive Dairy Business Growth in Ethiopia” with the acronym “BRIDGE”, adopted action research as one of its main approaches. Action research approach was applied to the project components on forage development and feeding, dairy products marketing and value addition, and consumption of milk by school children. The project had a duration of 5 years (September 2018 – October 2023) with the overall goal of improved well-being for dairy farmer households and improved dairy sector performance in Ethiopia. By adopting an action research approach for the above-mentioned components, the emphasis of the project is on co-learning, capacity building and empowerment of the target communities. This implies that issues being addressed by the project come from and are of importance to the target communities.

Action research as a methodology can be applied in many contexts, such as community development, professional education, health education, organizational transformation, biodiversity conservation, and agricultural development (McNiff 2013 ; Reason and Bradbury 2008 ). For development projects, an action research approach is often encouraged to enhance participation of end-users or beneficiaries at various stages of the project (planning, implementation, evaluation and closure) to realize the desired social transformation in the target communities (Aragón and Glenzer 2017 ). Besides, action research is commonly advocated to ensure the integration of the knowledge and expertise of community members into local development projects (Kindon et al. 2007 ) based on the epistemological premise of existence of plurality of knowledge in a variety of institutions and locations. Applying an action research approach also ensures focus on the pursuit of practical issues that are of concern to the project target communities (Kindon et al. 2007 ).

Since the 1990s, action research has been on the rise as a leading paradigm within the social and environmental sciences to promote participation and working together of different stakeholders (McNiff 2013 ). In sub-Saharan African contexts, action research has been applied to various projects, such as a soil fertility management project in Tanzania (Mponela et al. 2023 ) as an approach to foster transformation of knowledge systems and learning among smallholder farmers; a tourism development project in Kenya as a vehicle to engage people in interactive learning processes to facilitate individual and societal change (Jernsand 2017 ); and a project on local forms of child protection in Ethiopia to reflect on the learnings from women in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) region (Lackovich-Van Gorp 2017 ; Martinez 2017 ). Rasheli ( 2017 ) also reported using an action research approach to address problems related to procurement management in two local government authorities in Tanzania, while Omondi ( 2020 ) highlighted the potential presented by participatory rural appraisal techniques, an offshoot of action research, to enhance collaborative learning and improve community knowledge for climate change adaptation in Kenya. Action research approach was also used in projects on AIDS prevention among school youth in Jinja, Uganda (Walakira 2010 ) and in Kajiado, Kenya (Ahlberg et al. 2016 ). Isobell et al. ( 2016 ) also reported using participatory action research in two community-based projects on violence prevention and peace promotion in South Africa. These publications show the relevance of action research to different research and development projects in sub-Saharan Africa, its action-oriented feature, and the broad contexts it can be applied to (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ). The guiding principles for action research in these development projects include inclusivity of relevant stakeholders, joint ownership of co-produced knowledge, participatory planning and effective facilitation of the action research process (Khan et al. 2013 ).

In this paper, action research is used as a family of approaches that pursue both action and research outcomes as reported by some authors (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ; Reason and Bradbury 2008 ; Beylefeld 2010 ; McNiff 2013 ). This implies that action research covers different hybrid approaches that have emerged in the past two decades including participative action research, practitioner action research, collaborative action research, participatory learning and action, and emancipatory action research (Kindon et al. 2007 ; McNiff 2013 ; Fahy 2015 ). Differences among these approaches are largely based on different level of commitment and influence of participants, and in the research process (Fahy 2015 ). Some similarities among these approaches are active participation, open-ended objectives, and commitment from the researchers and the participants to the research problem and active learning (Fahy 2015 ). In addition, it can be argued that the above mentioned action research hybrid approaches are part of a continuum of naturalistic, post-positivist, and systemic research methodology (McNiff 2013 ). This position of seeing action research as a family of approaches is consistent with the trend of many action researchers who are increasingly focusing on the points of convergence of these approaches (Fahy 2015 ). Regarding the emergence of different action research hybrid approaches, McNiff ( 2013 ) raised concern on an increasing tendency to compartmentalise action research with the perhaps inevitable consequences of territorialism. The associated danger with this, according to the author, is “losing touch with the voices of people in the streets and workplaces, which is what action research should be all about”. In the context of the BRIDGE project, action research approach is applied based on the principles of participation, inclusion and shared learning to enhance collaboration, empower participants, advance knowledge acquisition, and social change (Fahy 2015 ).

As reflection is a key and distinctive element of action research (McNiff 2013 ), a review of the BRIDGE project action research activities was conducted as part of the strategic reflection to inform lesson learning, modification or redesign of participatory action research approaches where necessary, and to facilitate proper alignment of the action research to the project implementation. The review of the action research activities of BRIDGE forms the core of this paper. The objectives of this study were to: (i) Assess the relevance of the action research approach to implementation of BRIDGE project activities by identifying the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of the various action research approaches applied. (ii) To draw lessons from this case study for agricultural development projects applying the action research approach, based on its strengths and weaknesses. In addition, the present study aims at contributing to the limited literature about perception of participants on action research (Niyobuhungiro and Schenck 2022 ) with focus on agricultural development projects in sub-Saharan Africa.


Action research approach as applied by bridge.

The action research approach as applied by BRIDGE followed the classic cycle of action to reflection as articulated by Lewin ( 1946 ), which entails a cycle of planning, acting, observing and reflecting. The action research process followed by the project for some specific activities listed in Table  1 is presented in Fig.  1 . In addition to the action research approach, the BRIDGE project also used value chain development approach to strengthen the nodes in the dairy value chain, a pluriform extension approach involving both public and private extension services for engagement with dairy farmers, and policy dialogue and influencing approach for engagement with policy makers.

figure 1

Action research cycle as applied to BRIDGE project activities

As presented in Fig.  1 , the action research process of the BRIDGE project began with the planning phase, which entailed stakeholders’ meetings involving development practitioners, extension services at district and regional levels, researchers, partners from Ethiopian universities and research institutes in the project areas, dairy farmers, and agro-input dealers to explain the overall goal of the project and to conduct participatory situation analysis regarding dairy production in the project areas. This phase led to joint identification of key issues for the project to focus on regarding feed and forage, silage making, access to forage seed, milk collection, conservation and consumption, milk quality and safety, and input and output markets. For some of these activities, there was participatory design of the on-farm demonstration trials, for example improved forage cultivation.

The acting phase focused on implementation of the jointly agreed activities to address the key issues identified in the planning phase, such as training of the farmers on planting of the improved forage seed, on-farm demonstration of improved forage species, and interviewing of the participating farmers. In addition, assessments or studies were conducted on some jointly identified key issues, such as milk quality along the value chain, milk cooling facilities, and a consumer insight study on the potential of probiotic yoghurt. The observing phase involved monitoring of the activities being implemented, including data collection and analysis, and organization of the farmers’ field day and visits to show the improved forage demonstration plots to a wide array of stakeholders. The reflecting phase entailed reporting, sharing and disseminating main findings from the action research activities, and revisiting certain activities. Learning by the stakeholders occurred at all phases of the action research cycle. The project activities to which the action research approach was applied are presented in Table  1 .

Conceptual Framework of the Study

As part of the reflection on the BRIDGE action research activities, a review was conducted between October and December 2022 by the first author who was new to the project to ensure a non-biased investigation. This was necessary to ensure validity and reliability of the findings about the action research activities. The review started with the planning phase, which included reading of the relevant project documents and publications on action research, particularly in the context of development projects (Table  2 ). This was followed by development of terms of reference for the review and drafting of guide questions for the interviewing of project participants. The investigating phase of the study consisted largely of individual interviews of the project participants and field visits to project sites in Oromia and Amhara regions of Ethiopia. Fifty-one participants were interviewed consisting of project staff, government extension officials, Ethiopian university partners, dairy cooperative members, agro-input dealers and dairy farmers (Table  3 ).

The participants who were interviewed had varied professional backgrounds, such as research, project management, advisory service, commerce, and mixed crop-livestock farming. The interview was semi-structured based on guide questions that were developed in advance (Table  4 ). Some of the questions asked focused on description of the action research, activities conducted using an action research approach, the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of different participatory action research techniques, and lessons learnt from application of action research. Notes were taken during the interviews and pictures were taken during the field visits. For the farmers and dairy cooperatives, the questions focused mainly on their perception of the benefits and disadvantages of using an action research approach for the implementation of certain project activities. The analysis phase entailed reviewing the notes taken and seeking clarifications where necessary, and analysis of data collected. The last phase of the review was to draft a report and share the main findings through a presentation and discussion. Recommendations from the review were also shared with the BRIDGE project management.

Results and Discussion

Description of action research by the interviewees.

As action research tends to be defined differently based on the discipline of the individual (Reason and Bradbury 2008 ), the individual interview started by asking the respondent’s understanding of action research. From the discussions with BRIDGE project staff and partners, action research was described as follows:

A research conducted involving the end-users with purpose of providing practical information for implementation of project activities.

The emphasis from this description is on participation of the end-users in implementation of research activities. As participation of different stakeholders is a critical element of action research, this description is consistent with definitions in the literature by McNiff ( 2013 ), and Lebesby and Benders ( 2020 ). Participation of different stakeholders is necessary in giving voice to the end-users and to enhance ownership of both the process and the outcomes (Loo 2014 ; Schulz et al. 2021 ). In stressing the importance of participation in action research, Brydon-Miller et al. ( 2003 ) observed that research conducted without a collaborative relationship with the relevant stakeholders is likely to be incompetent. Another key point from this definition by the project participants is action, that the research should be action-oriented to address practical issues of importance to the stakeholders. This is consistent with one of the tenets of action research, that is, it is research that leads to action (practice) and effects change or leads to innovation (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ). The “action” in “action research” is critical to testing knowledge in action or putting theory into practice (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ). The action to be undertaken by the relevant stakeholders may be both remedial and developmental (Kenefick and Kirrane 2022 ).

Action research is a learning platform to inform implementation or specific action by the stakeholders.

The emphasis of this description of action research is on learning that takes place along the action research cycle. This learning is by all stakeholders including researchers. The emphasis on learning in this description by the BRIDGE participants is consistent with observations in the literature on action research that learning is a fundamental element (McNiff 2013 ; Kindon et al. 2007 ). With involvement of different participants in a project, diverse opportunities for learning exist through interactions among the stakeholders, based on the premise that multiple types knowledge are available. This implies that researchers are not the only source of knowledge in action research. In BRIDGE, the researchers in the team brought their technical or propositional knowledge to action research activities, such as knowledge on forage agronomy for cultivation of improved forage species, feed resource management and ration formulation for silage making, knowledge on post-harvest management for milk conservation and processing, and knowledge on human nutrition for the school milk programme. The extension services used their practical knowledge on improved dairy husbandry, particularly on forage cultivation and feed conservation, to translate research findings into extension messages for dairy farmers. The indigenous knowledge of dairy farmers was useful in joint identification of constraints to dairy production in their communities and strategies to address the problems, like use of locally available feed resources. The dairy farmers also contributed to action research on crop residue treatment through use of locally available tools for physical treatment of crop residues. In addition, the farmers used their local knowledge in identification of a local brewery by-product called “atela” as a source of fermenting sugar for silage making instead of molasses which has become expensive and unavailable. So, different kinds of knowledge are used in BRIDGE with emphasis on transformation knowledge which produces practical solutions to the pressing concerns of the people (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ). For co-learning to take place, it is therefore necessary that issues that need to be addressed are jointly identified and co-implemented by all stakeholders, rather than being imposed by the researchers as in conventional research. In support of the “action” in action research, one of the respondents observed that: “There is a research fatigue among farmers, where researchers just come to collect data and disappear. Hence, there is need for research that translates into practical action, thereby contributing to improvement of the livelihood of farmers.” (Respondent PS 5).

From the above descriptions, it is obvious that many of the BRIDGE staff and partners have a good understanding of the action research approach, although the emphasis may differ from joint planning to participatory learning. This is not surprising, as development assistance agencies and non-governmental organizations have been good at applying the values and practices of action research to development projects, though they may not be able to articulate quite well the underlying theories, as observed by Mead ( 2002 ). One important element of action research that was missing from above descriptions is that of reflection, which may suggest that the reflection part of action research was weak in the action research activities of the project. From the discussion on the general understanding of the action research approach by the respondents, the most frequent keywords or phrases used were “learning platform”, “co-implementation”, and “technology demonstration” (Fig.  2 .). Action research was also described as a linkage between research and extension. Again in the keywords/phrases used, there was nothing on reflection or participatory evaluation. This is not unexpected for a development project, where project monitoring and evaluation is often top-down and extractive. In this regard, participatory evaluation may not be included as element of action research activities.

Perception of Action Research Approach by the Participants

The perception of the respondents regarding the action research approach of the project in our study was that it is relevant and important for implementation of project activities. It was also observed by most respondents that some of the action research activities are visible and widely adopted by farmers, for example, forage cultivation and silage making. Another impression of the action research approach was that it has brought different disciplines together to work on project activities. One of the respondents put this clearly: “Action research has removed working in silos and has bridged the disciplinary gap in the project” (Respondent PS 2). This observation is consistent with the interdisciplinary nature of action research (Brydon-Miller 2003).

figure 2

Key words or phrases used in describing action research by the respondents

Another common observation by the respondents was that action research has provided a good platform for learning by BRIDGE project staff, university partners, extension services and farmers. Through BRIDGE action research activities, knowledge was generated through processes of observation, inquiry, reflection and engagement by the participants. For example, through participants’ observation of and inquiry on improved forage demonstration plots, the dairy farmers learnt agronomic practices on cultivation of forage species which led to establishment of their own forage plots to address the problem of feed scarcity for their cows. Through demonstration of how to make silage, the farmers not only gained knowledge on how to make silage, but also learnt how to substitute molasses, the fermenting sugar for silage, with a local brewery by-product called “atela”. From the assessment of school milk programme, results showed that parents’ attitude towards consumption of dairy products changed positively within 6 months when they learnt about benefits of milk consumption to children and saw the effects on their children. For example, a parent said: “My daughter’s appetite for dairy products was very low, and we believed that milk would make her feel sick, but this was not the case when she joined the school milk programme. In fact, my daughter’s health has improved, her skin and hair are shining, and she has a lot more energy. Her performance at school has also improved” (Respondent PP6). The participants from extension service also reported that they have learnt skills on how to facilitate group discussion and collective action by the community through action research on improved forage cultivation. The researchers also gained knowledge on farmers’ innovation in forage cultivation. For example, in addition to technical advice from the researchers and extension service on forage cultivation, the farmers modified the guidelines by planting fruit trees, particularly avocado and vegetables (for example, hot pepper), along with the improved forage in one of the project locations in Amhara region. The rationale for this was to optimize land use (which is scarce), thereby maximizing returns, according to the farmers interviewed.

The observation that action research has provided a platform for learning is consistent with one of the descriptions of action research presented above. Nearly all the external partners of BRIDGE who were interviewed, acknowledged that they learnt about an action research approach for the first time through the project. One of the project partners said that: “Action research has put focus on research that addresses practical issues of the dairy farmers” (Respondent PP 5). This observation again re-emphasizes the “action” pillar of action research, as it is not a basic theoretical research, but applied, with focus on practical issues. In this regard, the action research activities in BRIDGE focused on addressing constraints to dairy production in the project locations. For example, the action research on forage cultivation, silage making and crop residue treatment was to address problem of feed scarcity for dairy cows. The school milk programme was in line with the Ethiopian Government policy on human nutrition to reduce malnutrition among children due to low consumption of animal source protein. The assessment of milk cooling facilities addressed the challenge of post-harvest losses through poor conservation of fresh milk. However, by focusing on practical issues affecting the target communities there is the danger that action research may become “all action” and “no research”, especially when applied to development projects. So, it is important that action research practices should be informed by theory (Reason and Bradbury 2008 ).

The perception of the participants that BRIDGE action research activities provide a good platform for learning, bridges disciplinary gaps and puts a focus on the practical issues affecting the participants is consistent with reported findings from applying an action research approach to development projects in sub-Saharan Africa (Wood and Govender 2013 ; Niyobuhungiro and Schenck 2022 ; Pittalis et al. 2023 ). Wood and Govender ( 2013 ) observed that there is learning through the action research process, as already discussed above. According to Pittalis et al. ( 2023 ), feedback from the action research participants based on their perception could provide support for the design of a locally relevant and contextualized intervention. In addition, this can contribute to co-development of knowledge, which requires collaboration of different groups of stakeholders, and this gives voice to the concerned communities on issues that affect them. However, the challenge from making use of the perception on action research of the participants is that there can be differences in the way individuals interpret and understand action research process, which may sometimes be difficult to synthesize for action planning for contextualized intervention (Niyobuhungiro and Schenck 2022 ).

Common Action Research Methods Used by BRIDGE

The most common methods or techniques used in action research activities by BRIDGE were Farmers’ Field Days (FFDs), on-farm demonstrations, and training (Fig.  3 ). FFDs and demonstrations were commonly used for cultivation of improved forage varieties and silage making in all the four project clusters. The Farmers’ Field Days and on-farm demonstrations for forage cultivation were based on four to eight forage plots of 0.25 ha each per project community, established and managed by dairy farmers with advisory support from extension service to serve as a learning platform for other farmers. Through these FFDs and on-farm demonstrations, improved forage species such as Napier grass, Desho grass, Panicum, oat, vetch and alfalfa have been cultivated on 4,733 ha of land by about 35,000 dairy farmers as at the end of 2022 in Amhara, Oromia, and Sidama regions of Ethiopia where BRIDGE activities were carried out, according to the project 2022 annual report (Unpublished). These techniques have been reported as common elements of participatory action research (Kindon et al. 2007 ) and they may enhance co-production of knowledge according to Omondi ( 2020 ). Other action research methods used by the project included training on different project related subjects, farmer to farmer learning, and campaigns, for example on milk safety. The least common techniques used in action research activities were laboratory analysis for feed and milk, rapid field tests for milk adulteration, and on-farm experimentation. Some of these methods are context-specific, such as campaign on milk safety, rapid field testing of milk quality, messaging to farmers, and sharing of extension packages, while others included adaptation of traditional social science methods like interviewing and surveying.

figure 3

Common action research methods used by the project

Participation in BRIDGE Action Research Activities by Stakeholders

Participation at all stages is fundamental for any action research project, as this is essential for fostering learning and achieving social transformation (Omondi 2020 ). Using the participation continuum proposed by Pretty et al. ( 1995 ), different action research activities by the BRIDGE project were mapped (Fig.  4 ). Another conceptual framework for participation that could be used in this study is the “ladder of stakeholder participation” developed by Arnstein ( 1969 ) based on examples from three US Federal social programmes for citizens. We used the participation continuum by Pretty et al. ( 1995 ), as it is more suitable for action research in development projects. As expected, the level of participation by different stakeholders varied for different action research activities. The level of participation ranged from passive participation for on-farm experimentation on crop residue treatment to self-mobilization for improved forage cultivation and silage making, which dairy farmers adopted and carried out on their own. The high degree of participation in forage cultivation and silage making shows that when the benefit to stakeholders, in this case dairy farmers, is obvious and immediate, the level of participation in action research can be high.

figure 4

Participation continuum of project action research activities

For meaningful and effective participation in action research activities, Kindon et al. ( 2007 ) proposed three core ethical principles to be adhered to, namely respect for participants, beneficence, and justice or equity. Respect for participants implies that people are treated as autonomous agents and that vulnerable participants are protected. Participation should not lead to domination by the community elites or to reinforcement of the pre-existing power hierarchies, which has not been beneficial to the community (Kindon et al. 2007 ). For many development projects, this is always a challenge, i.e., how to handle the existing power hierarchies in the community to prevent domination by the elites (Aragón and Glenzer 2017 ). The principle of beneficence, according to Kindon et al. ( 2007 ), should go beyond ‘doing no harm’, but maximize beneficial outcomes for participants and the community. Action research activities by BRIDGE, such as forage cultivation and silage making, were beneficial to dairy farmers in the project sites, as these led to significant increase in milk yield and consequently household income. The respondents also observed that the level of participation varied at different stages of the action research cycle for the project activities. For example, co-implementation of the action research activities generally tended to involve more and diverse participants, whereas design of specific interventions from jointly identified problem(s) tended to have fewer participants. The danger inherent in a low level of participation at any stage of the action research cycle is retention of researchers’ control, which can adversely affect ownership of the process and the outcomes (Brydon-Miller et al. 2003 ).

To ensure effective participation of stakeholders in environmental management, Reed ( 2008 ) proposed eight best practices, which are also valid for stakeholder participation in action research. These best practices include having an underpinning philosophy of participation that emphasizes empowerment, equity, trust and learning; embedding participation in the action research activities right from the onset, adequate representation of different groups of relevant stakeholders, and having clear objectives for the participatory process. Other best practices according to Reed ( 2008 ) are appropriate methods tailored to the local context, effective facilitation, integration of local and scientific knowledge, and institutionalization of participation. These best practices were applied to BRIDGE action research activities, though to a varying degree. For example, all relevant groups of stakeholders were adequately represented in BRIDGE action research activities (see Fig.  5 . with a picture of participants at Farmers’ Field Day) and the methods were tailored to the local context. However, the institutionalization of participation needs to be strengthened.

figure 5

Farmers’ Field days on improved forage at Mecha, West Gojam district, Amhara Region, Ethiopia (Photo credit: Abule Ebro)

SWOT Analysis of BRIDGE Action Research Activities

The action research activities covered in this SWOT analysis included forage cultivation, silage making, crop residue treatment, design of milk quality and safety programme, assessment of milk cooling facilities, assessment of dairy farm benchmarking, assessment of forage seed smart subsidy model, school milk programme, and consumer insight study on the potential of probiotic yoghurt (Table  5 ). Again, the common strength of the action research approach as mentioned by the interviewees for these activities was that of providing a platform for learning by different stakeholders. Learning by all participants in action research activities is essential for knowledge development, which could lead to purposeful individual and community action for socio-economic transformation (McNiff 2013 ). Lebesby and Benders ( 2020 ) observed that the primary purpose of action research is to produce practical knowledge for everyday life of the participants. The importance of learning by participants through action research was also reported by Omondi ( 2020 ) as essential for co-production of knowledge on climate change adaptation in the Mara River Basin in Kenya. The other reported strengths of BRIDGE action research activities were activity-specific. For example, strong participation was reported as one of the strengths of action research activities for forage cultivation and silage making (Table  5 ). This suggests that the degree of participation in an action research project or activity depends on its type or nature, potential benefit and cost, and socio-cultural contexts (Kindon et al. 2007 ).

The common weakness of BRIDGE action research activities mentioned by the respondents was the absence of systematic monitoring and documentation of learning by participants (Table  5 ). The challenge with such monitoring and documentation is a common issue when action research activities are led by researchers whose preoccupation about data collection is on technical parameters at the expense of collecting data on processes. Omondi ( 2020 ) observed this challenge in her study that most researchers may not be familiar with the elements of self-critique and reflection, which are fundamental for monitoring and documentation of learning while collecting data in an action research project. In addressing this challenge of the competence of researchers in conducting action research, Brydon-Miller et al. ( 2003 ) suggested that there should be changes in researchers’ practices. For example, the traditional epistemological methods of research, which tend to be extractive in nature, may be inadequate to capture the processes of learning by participants in an action research project. Other reported weaknesses of BRIDGE action research activities tended to be activity-specific.

Some opportunities of using an action research approach for the BRIDGE project activities, as reported by the respondents, included enhancement of farmers’ innovation, awareness raising, and strong interest in the action research approach by public extension services and research partners. The project research partners acknowledged during the interview that they learnt about action research through the project and that their capacity in participatory action research techniques has been enhanced. This response by project partners on enhanced capacity is consistent with the observation by McNiff ( 2013 ) that action research projects often leave behind enhanced capacities of the participants in view of the emphasis on collaboration and learning. The enhancement of farmers’ innovation through participatory action research reported by the respondents has also been reported by Mponela et al. ( 2023 ) for a project on soil fertility management in Tanzania. For example in BRIDGE, farmers’ innovations in forage cultivation included planting of fruit trees and vegetables along with improved forage cultivars on the demonstration plot. According to the farmers, these innovations were to optimize land use in view of land shortage. In general, opportunities of action research activities were also activity-specific.

The main threat to action research activities by the project as reported by the respondents is government policy, particularly on land use, which generally tends to favour crop farming. This can undermine forage cultivation. One of the participants put it clearly: “Government officials see the grazing land for livestock as a waste, especially near Addis Ababa, the capital, and would rather prefer that it is used for cropping” (Respondent PS 6). The increasing competition for land is driven partly by demographic pressure, leading to expansion of crop fields into grazing areas in order to produce more food to feed the rapidly growing population (Balehegn et al. 2020 ). Other threats mentioned by the respondents were specific to different action research activities. For example, the reported potential threats to the school milk programme were volatility of price and quality of milk supplied to the school.

The results of the SWOT analysis of the action research activities of BRIDGE are generally as expected for a development project. Maximizing the strengths, minimizing the weaknesses and utilizing the opportunities of these action research activities are critical to social transformation and developmental changes in the project target communities. Generally, these results on strengths and weaknesses of, and opportunities and threats for action research as applied by BRIDGE are context-specific, depending on the activity and location. These findings are consistent with the observation of Brydon-Miller (2003) that one of the weaknesses of action research is its localism, which makes it difficult in intervening in large-scale social change efforts. This implies that action research may produce a great good in a local situation, but may sometimes be difficult to extend beyond that local context. To enhance scaling of action research, a good documentation of the processes and the outcomes of action research activities is indispensable. Martin ( 2008 ) opined that two key challenges to be addressed to apply action research on a larger scale are sensemaking of the suitability to the project or project activities, and project design and implementation processes. For sensemaking, Martin ( 2008 ) proposed a number of questions to address, such as: Who are the players? Where is the power? What will motivate the larger public to take interest in any change? The author further elaborated on the second challenge that the design and implementation processes should allow for engagement of multiple perspectives and support inquiry and learning. For large development projects applying action research, these two challenges enumerated by Martin ( 2008 ) must be adequately addressed.

Lessons for Applying Action Research Approach to Agricultural Development Projects

Generally, the use of an action research approach by BRIDGE has contributed significantly to implementation of some project activities and has produced visible results, which are widely appreciated and adopted. These include for example cultivation of improved forage varieties and silage making. However, there was the impression from some of the respondents that the action research activities by the project are rather many, and that there should be focus on fewer key issues or activities that can produce social transformation in the target communities. Given that the action research approach can be applied to a wide array of issues and fields, the danger is always that it may be applied even where other research methods may be more suitable. The romanticization of action research as a participatory approach may lead to de-legitimization of other research methods that are not participatory, which is one of the criticisms of action research (Kindon et al. 2007 ). On the issue of suitability of an action research approach to different project issues, one of the interviewees said: “Action research is suitable in addressing practical issues at farm and community levels, but at higher scale (regional, national) another approach is needed” (Respondent PS 7). For community development projects where stakeholders’ participation is paramount, action research is not only relevant, but necessary to achieve the desired goal of community empowerment and social change. However, when it comes to issues such as policy dialogue and influencing, and development planning, other approaches may be necessary, as these require data aggregation at higher levels.

Action research requires patience from the researchers and other participants as it often takes significant time (Kindon et al. 2007 ). This was pointed out by some of the respondents during the interview. One of them said: “Action research activities tend to take too much time as the pace of implementation is slow” (Respondent PS 3). One of the interviewees asked rhetorically: “When do we exit the action research cycle as we cannot continue in the cycle perpetually?” (Respondent PP 4). This observation underscores the importance of a clear exit strategy for action research activities. Though the need for participation of all relevant stakeholders in action research activities is obvious, there should be some guiding rules or principles for stakeholders’ participation to avoid a tedious travelling through a winding alley during the action research process. This raises the need for necessary skills by the facilitators of the action research activities to achieve the jointly pre-defined objectives within the stipulated time. The length of time for action research activities should also be aligned with the project duration.

Another lesson from this study is the necessity of keeping focus on the bigger picture of the project. Following an action research approach may sometimes lead to new cycles of activities, which in principle is good, but has the danger that multiplied activities can lead to loss of focus on the bigger picture of the project. For example, in our study action research activities on farm-level demonstrations of improved forage cultivation may be difficult to communicate in terms of the bigger picture of dairy sector transformation in Ethiopia for the BRIDGE project. The need for focus on the bigger picture of the project necessitates prioritization of action research activities, as this will facilitate communication with policy makers.

As part of lesson learning from this study, it is important to emphasize the need for adequate planning for monitoring and documentation of learning from the action research activities. It should be clarified that monitoring of learning by the action research participants is not the same as monitoring or tracking progress of the project activities in relation to the defined milestones, which is often well-planned by the project management. Generally, the development agencies and non-governmental organizations are good in the conventional monitoring and evaluation in the context of project performance-based accountability in response to growing demand by donors for demonstrated success of development projects (Estrella and Gaventa 1998 ). The focus here is on monitoring and systematic documentation of learning at different phases of action research cycle, for example farmers’ innovations to introduced technology. This monitoring and documentation of learning is one of the major weaknesses reported by the respondents in this study. Therefore, there should be a clear plan right from the onset of the action research on how to monitor and document learning by the participants, as this is necessary for critical reflection and participatory evaluation of the activities being carried out. Lack of documentation of learning during the different phases of action research cycle can be an obstacle to innovative and wider use of all that action research can offer (Kindon et al. 2007 ). To aid planning of monitoring and documentation of learning, a few guide questions should be addressed. First, what monitoring and learning activities should be done? Second, who should do what? Third, how should it be done? Fourth, when should it be done? Fifth, how much will it cost per activity? Besides, participatory monitoring and evaluation of action research activities is necessary to enhance participation of stakeholders, to share experience among the stakeholders through systematic documentation of processes and outcomes, and to empower the local people to initiate, control and take collective action (Estrella and Gaventa 1998 ; Dodd et al. 2023 ). Dodd et al. ( 2023 ) suggested that participatory monitoring and evaluation should be built on the foundational elements of local cultures and trust-based relationships among the stakeholders.

For many development projects in sub-Saharan Africa, action research activities are donor-driven and often face funding problems at the expiration of the project (Isobell et al. 2016 ). Therefore, building capacity of key stakeholders in participatory action research approaches is necessary to be able to continue with essential activities in the target communities after the end of the project, and it is a form of empowering them which will facilitate institutionalization of the action research approach. The capacity building should include both the theory and practice of action research; it is important that the trainees have a conceptual understanding of action research, so that activities are not carried out haphazardly (Khan et al. 2013 ).

From the results of this study, our advice for developing similar action research projects is that there should be a good planning to ensure having right mix of stakeholders and for effective implementation of action research activities to achieve the objective of social transformation in the target communities. A clear exit strategy for action research activities, adequate budgeting as well as ensuring that the activities are informed by theory, should be part of the planning. However, there should be room for flexibility to adapt the plan to accommodate necessary emerging issues in the course of project implementation.

For development projects, an action research approach is often encouraged to enhance participation of end-users or beneficiaries at various stages of the project, and participatory learning and co-production of knowledge to realize the desired social changes in the target communities. In this regard, the project under consideration in this study adopted action research for some of its activities. The perception of the participants interviewed regarding the action research approach under the project was that it is relevant and important for implementation of project activities. Besides, the respondents reported that the action research approach has brought different disciplines together to work on project activities and that it has provided a good platform for learning by project staff, university partners, extension services, and farmers. Other strengths of action research reported by the respondents were activity-specific. The major weakness of action research as applied by the project is absence of systematic monitoring and documentation of learning by participants at all stages of the action research cycle. Some opportunities of using an action research approach for the BRIDGE project activities, as reported by the respondents, included enhancement of farmers’ innovations, awareness raising, and strong interest in action research approach by public extension services and research partners. Some key lessons from this study for development projects for applying an action research approach include: the need for focus on a few key issues and/or on activities that can produce desired socio-economic changes in the target communities; the importance of a clear exit strategy for action research activities to avoid a non-ending cycle of activities; the necessity of staying focused on the bigger picture of the project; the need for adequate planning for monitoring and documentation of learning from the action research activities; and building capacity of key local stakeholders in action research to ensure sustainability of project interventions. Action research is a pertinent approach in community development projects, but it should be well planned to ensure effective implementation to achieve the objective of social transformation in the target communities.

Data Availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author, Ayantunde, upon reasonable request.

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The authors acknowledge the staff and partners of the BRIDGE project who participated in the interviews on the action research activities during the review.

This work was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands through its embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed here are those of the authors alone.

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Present address: Ethiopian Society of Animal Production, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Tinsae Berhanu & Demewez Moges

Present address: SNV Ethiopia, P.O. Box 40675, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

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Wageningen Livestock Research, Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Droevendaalsesteeg 1, Wageningen, 6708 PB, The Netherlands

Augustine A. Ayantunde, Abule Ebro, Tinsae Berhanu, Demewez Moges & Jan van der Lee

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Ayantunde designed the study, conducted the interview on action research activities of the project and prepared the first draft of the manuscript. Ebro, Berhanu and Moges provided logistical support for the interview and the field visits, and contributed to the review of the manuscript while van der Lee provided critical review of the study design and contributed to the review of the manuscript.

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Ayantunde, A.A., Ebro, A., Berhanu, T. et al. Action Research in Agricultural Development Projects: Case Study of a Dairy Project in Ethiopia. Syst Pract Action Res (2024). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11213-024-09673-3

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