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Kagan Cooperative Learning Chapter 1



My classroom furniture cannot be rearranged. How can I possibly do cooperative learning?

Teachers can do successful cooperative learning, working around furniture that is bolted to the floor! Probably my most challenging experience in releasing the power of cooperative learning was in India. In some classrooms, there were over seventy students per class in rooms much smaller than what is common in Europe or the USA! There was no space at all for a teacher to move among the students; the classrooms were literally packed with students. Nevertheless, we could form groups of four and do most of the structures. And the students loved it! In labs, we often do cooperative learning by simply having students move their lab stools to gather around ends of lab tables. Many kindergarten teachers take advantage of a rug area. Each student may have her/his carpet patch. Although the students are on the floor, they know who is their face partner and who is their shoulder partner. When there is a will, there is a way! For room arrangement ideas, see Chapter 8: Management. During demonstration lessons with fixed furniture, often I have found it easiest to first have students form pairs and then for the pairs to pair up to form teams of four, gathering as best they can to face each other. When possible, I try to have students sit in groups of four so all four students have easy access to each other (sitting in a circle, not a line), with no student with her/his back to the front of the room.


With students all interacting at once, won’t noise escalate? Will my class get out of control?

Years ago I worked extensively in Chaparral Middle School in Diamond Bar, California. Chaparral went on to win the coveted Golden Bell Award as a model middle school for the state, in part based on their excellent use of cooperative learning. I mention this here because the classrooms at Chaparral were open—many had walls only shoulder high with openings to other classrooms. So we had to develop ways of doing “quiet cooperative learning.” We detail how to deal with noise level in Chapter 8: Management. By having students formulate their own plans to use quiet inner voices (a voice that cannot be heard by a neighboring team), reflect on how well they are using inner voices, hold up quiet teams as a model, assign a Quiet Captain for each team, teach students and have them develop silent cheers, and so on, it is possible to have very quiet but enthusiastic cooperative learning.

The issue of control is key to successful cooperative learning. Many teachers fear by allowing students to talk and interact, they might lose control of their classrooms. In cooperative learning, we release a great deal of energy. We are allowing students to do what they most want to do: talk, interact, and move. In the cooperative learning classroom, we must always be able to stop the release of energy and/or direct it in a productive way. That is why we provide a whole chapter on management that deals with noise, questions, and other management issues.

The social skills program associated with cooperative learning also eliminates many management and discipline problems. For example, students learn how to keep on task, appreciate rather than put-down ideas of others that differ from their own, and deal in positive ways with a teammate who is bossy, aggressive, or shy. See Chapter 11: Social Skills.


Do students sit in teams all class period?

We advocate stable, well-formed teams. When students enter class, they sit with their teammates. There are many advantages to carefully selected, stable teams. See Chapter 7: Teams. The advantages include heterogeneous achievement levels maximize tutoring; integrating teams improves race relations; carefully assigning special needs students assures their needs are met; and separating students with behavioral issues minimizes problems. Further, stable heterogeneous teams make classroom management far easier: with a high achiever on each team, the teacher has a student aide for every three students. If students are in stable teams, it is easy to shift between direct instruction, teamwork, and pair work. Without any interruption, at any moment the teacher can say, “Make sure everyone on your team knows....” Also, for pair work, if students are in teams of four it is easy to say, “Turn to your face partner” or “Turn to your shoulder partner.” Students in stable teams bond, becoming more supportive of each other; they learn how to learn together. So the answer to this question is yes: We recommend students sit in their teams all class period.

Even with well-established base teams, students often do not sit in teams all class period. We recommend frequent use of classbuilding structures in which students leave their teams to work with classmates. Further, occasional breakouts to learning centers, sponge activity tables, anchor activities, random teams, and interest teams all create additional learning opportunities.

Most teachers who experience Kagan Cooperative Learning immediately understand the power of stable teams and jump right in to rearrange the furniture and carefully assign students to stable, heterogeneous teams from the start. Some teachers take a few weeks to make the transition. They leave students in rows or in whatever seating configuration they are now using, easing into cooperative learning by first doing classbuilding activities and using simple structures—with random pairs, or by having students either turn to the person in the row next to them or having every other student spin around to work with the person behind them.


What do I do with students who are frequently absent or frequently pulled out?

When assigning students to teams, we spread around the most frequently absent or pulled-out students so our teams of four generally don’t become less than teams of three. Sometimes, though, if many students are pulled out frequently, we form teams of four with two students who frequently leave and two students who stay. When the students leave, the remaining pair teams up with another remaining pair to form a team of four. These and many other options for team formation are covered in Chapter 7: Teams.

Cooperative learning gives us several management techniques that help us deal with the frequently absent student. We set a norm that teammates will explain what has been missed to the returning absentee. Further, we set up homework buddies so absent students know who to call to get their assignments or to get help with homework.