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Dr. Spencer Kagan

The Instructional Revolution

It is amazing that with more powerful alternatives readily available, there is such widespread adherence to inefficient traditional instructional strategies. Why?

Modeling and Mirror Neurons. As a new teacher, when we first stood in front of our class to teach and it was ten minutes into the lesson, without prior thought we asked a question of the class. The students who thought they knew raised their hands. We called on one. The student answered and we gave either a compliment or a correction. That interaction sequence was not in our lesson plan. Why did we carry it out with no planning? We had observed that sequence so many times that it was burned in our brain. It was simply what teachers and students do in classrooms. We now know that when we observe a behavior performed by others, our mirror neurons fire as if we were performing that behavior. We actually practice behaviors by watching them. Before we became teachers, as students, we observed traditional instructional strategies so many times, we were primed to carry them out when we became teachers. Further, the work on neuroplasticity shows that the more we practice a behavior, the more space it occupies in the brain and the harder it becomes to change. We actually become hard-wired for traditional structures. But history is not destiny: neuroplasticity means we have the capacity for change. By practicing theses simple interactive structures we re-wire our brains to make teaching both easier for ourselves and more effective for our students.

Three Fear Factors. Some who have noticed the resistance to change, have blamed teachers, accusing them of fear of failure, fear of the unknown, unwillingness to admit one does not know everything, and even laziness. But resistance to change most often comes from legitimate fears from well-intended, motivated, intelligent teachers. It turns out, though, analysis reveals those fears are unfounded.

Fear Factor 1. Students will share wrong answers. In traditionally structured classrooms, we have the luxury of hearing (and correcting if necessary) everything that is said. If students answer only to us, we can correct any misconception they verbalize. It is very discomforting for many teachers to abandon that structure and adopt new interactive strategies that mean many things will be said that we will never hear. One of the most common questions I get in giving workshops is, “What if students share wrong answers?”

Let me assure you: Wrong answers will be shared! There is no way around it. When we use interactive structures, some students will verbalize wrong answers that we will never hear and never be able to correct. As counterintuitive as it seems, though, we still win dramatically in the bargain. Why? Well, which students have the wrong answers in their heads—the high or low achievers? It is the weaker students who have misconceptions, and in traditional classrooms it is precisely those students we seldom or never call on. They simply do not raise their hands. The result: They leave class with their misconceptions uncorrected! When we introduce interactive structures, all students verbalize their ideas and their ideas then become subject to correction opportunities. We set up a norm in the classroom: If anyone hears an answer that they are not certain is correct, we stop and check it out. Because we have heterogeneous teams, low achievers are interacting with higher achievers, increasing the probability of correction opportunities. When we use interactive strategies, not all wrong answers are corrected, but a much higher percentage of wrong answers are corrected than when we use traditional strategies. When we use traditional methods, most wrong answers are never verbalized, so go uncorrected.

Three Fear Factors: 1. Sharing Wrong Answers 2. Off-Task Behavior 3. Losing ControlFear Factor 2. Students will get off task. The second fear factor is that if we cannot hear all that students say in our class, students will get off task. Again, let me assure you: Students will get off task! But again, we win in the bargain. How is this possible? In the traditional classroom, students are called on one at a time. This means that only one student is verbalizing and the other students are relatively inactive. While looking at the back of the head of a student answering the teacher, many students find more interesting things to think about than the answer being given by the one student who was called on. They fantasize. They daydream. They pass notes. They whisper. In the traditional classroom many students are off task—we simply don’t know it. Far fewer are off task in the classroom using interactive structures because the students are holding each other on task. During RallyRobin, after my partner shares an answer, I have to share an answer. The structure holds me on task. During Sage-N-Scribe, we are both on task all the time because one is the Sage, saying what to do, while the other is the Scribe, carrying out the action.

Fear Factor 3. I will lose control. When I first began trying to convince schools and administrators to use cooperative learning methods, it was an uphill battle. In those days, a good class was a quiet class. Administrators equated silence with good classroom management. If no one was talking, the teacher was demonstrating control of the class. In fact, good classroom control is not keeping everyone silent and in their chair; good control is the ability to get the class silent and to get everyone seated and attentive when desired. A teacher who has everyone moving, interacting, and totally engaged and who can simply raise a hand and quickly have everyone silent and with alert attention on the teacher is demonstrating far better classroom control than the teacher who never lets students talk or move. The use of interactive structures must be coupled with management signals, procedures, and routines. We cannot feel comfortable allowing students to interact if we are not confident that with ease we can get their focus fully back on us or on a task. At Kagan workshops we never train teachers in interactive strategies without coupling that training with the associated management strategies.

With interactive structures, students get to do what they most want to do—interact with their peers.Traditional v. Modern Views of the Function of Schools. In the early days of industrialization, many viewed schools as having two major functions: 1) Socializing obedience and 2) Sorting. Many students were headed for assembly line jobs where obedience and conformity were highly valued. Preparation for those jobs placed little or no premium on thinking or creativity. Given that, schools placed a great deal of emphasis on following directions, obedience, and performing rote tasks repeatedly on one’s own. It was important also to sort students—who would go on to design and own the factories and who would go on to punch a time clock? Separating the winners and the losers was a traditional function of schools, and our over-emphasis on competition and grading is a remnant from that era.

Today, we must prepare students for a very different world. Because of the accelerating change rate, we can’t predict with any certainty the kinds of jobs our students will work in. We can say with certainty, however, that our students will need social interaction skills. Three fourths of all new jobs involve working on a team at least part of the time, and that percentage is increasing. Complexity and interdependence are the defining characteristics of the modern workplace—no one person can build a computer. Teams work to coordinate efforts with other teams. As we move toward interactive structures in our classrooms we are aligning the classroom experience with the work world of the future. We are preparing our students with skills for success.

Traditional v. Modern Views of the Learner.
Traditionally we viewed learners as empty vessels and our job as teachers was to fill them with the knowledge and skills they would need for success. In the day when most people worked on farms, basic numeracy and literacy was sufficient. Today we cannot predict how our students will work. The accelerating change rate means many of our students will work at jobs we can only dimly imagine. We are not certain of the technical and academic skills they will need. We can be certain, though, they will need social skills, teamwork skills, and thinking skills as they deal with the increasingly complex interdependent work world of the future. Further, they will have to become lifelong learners. Half of what an engineer learns in school is outdated five years after graduation. And the half-life of knowledge is shrinking as technology is used to create new technology at an ever-increasing rate. Thus, our job as teacher has changed. Rather than filling our students with known facts and skills, increasingly we must see our job as fostering thinking skills as habits of mind and imbuing students with a love of learning. We are moving away from the traditional, control oriented, sorting view of the function of school and away from the empty vessel view of students. We are moving toward a vision of school as the place where we foster maximum growth of the unique potential of each individual. Interactive structures align our practice with that vision.

The Instructional Revolution
What we teach has changed. Sources of information have changed. The jobs for which we must prepare our students have changed. The world is rapidly changing. It is time we change the way we teach. Traditional instructional strategies prepare our students for the world that was. Interactive structures prepare our students for the world that will be. The instructional revolution is inevitable.

Today, we must prepare students for a very different world.

1 Kagan, S. & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.