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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Why Call on Just One When We Can Call on Everyone?

Objective 3: Practicing a Skill

Often we use direct instruction to demonstrate a skill. Following direct instruction, we want students to practice the skill that has been demonstrated. For example, we might want younger students to practice punctuation, middle level students to practice graphing coordinates, and older students to practice balancing chemical equations.

Traditional Strategy: Independent Practice

The most common strategy to have students practice a skill following direct instruction is Independent Practice, usually individual worksheet work. The teacher gives each student an individual worksheet, has the student work alone either in class or as homework, and then students pass in their worksheets for teacher correction and grading.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has predictable, negative consequences:

  1. When the worksheets are passed out in class, some students who did not understand the direct instruction are too embarrassed to ask the teacher or classmates for help and struggle with the worksheet without someone to help them.
  2. When the independent practice is to be done as homework, some students do not discover they do not fully understand the skill until they attempt the homework problems. They have no one to turn to, become frustrated, and dislike the content and/or feel bad about their lack of ability.
  3. For some students working alone is boring or difficult. The minds of others easily drift. All of these students often have their pencils on their worksheet, but their minds are somewhere else.
  4. Some students who did not understand the direct instruction choose to rationalize not doing the work, saying, “This work is dumb.” They save face, preferring to say “This work is dumb,” rather than “I wish I understood, but don’t.”
  5. Some students, knowing they have performed poorly on the homework, are too embarrassed to turn it in.
  6. Some students think they know the skill, but don’t so they practice wrong. Wrong practice is more harmful than no practice, strengthening dendrite connections that become likely to fire again. Unlearning an incorrect response is more difficult than simply learning a new response.
  7. Some students who think they know the skill, turn in their worksheet expecting a good grade, only to receive a bad grade and have their expectations dashed because they have practiced wrong.
  8. Some students know the skill well, so they finish in class substantially before other students. They may become something of a management problem: “What do I do now.” Other students seeing they are slower feel bad about themselves.
  9. When students get their papers back, they glance at their papers for a grade and then engage in a competitive social comparison process looking around to see who they beat and who beat them. The result: lower self-esteem for students with poorer grades.
  10. When students are asked why they did the worksheet, the most common response is “For a grade.” Learning is viewed as merely the means, the bottom line is getting a grade.

Engagement Strategy: RallyCoach

One of several engagement strategies is RallyCoach. Students work in pairs with one worksheet and one pencil for each pair. Student A does the first problem, verbalizing their thinking. Student B watches, listens, and coaches if necessary. The coach offers help when necessary and compliments their partner when the problem is finished correctly. Then students switch roles. Students continue switching roles to complete the additional problems on the worksheet.

Structuring the interaction in the classroom this way has predictable, positive consequences:

  1. If students need help, they get immediate coaching.
  2. Students can’t practice wrong.
  3. Anxiety is lowered as students know they can receive help if they need it.
  4. Often students can use “kid language” to explain a procedure, communicating better than the teacher.
  5. The work on mirror neurons demonstrates that modeling is a very powerful way to learn. In RallyCoach every second problem is modeled for students.
  6. Students get more frequent feedback correction opportunities, and reinforcement — after every problem, not every worksheet.
  7. Students receive immediate correction and reinforcement rather than delayed feedback only after the teacher has time to correct the papers.
  8. Students feel supportive of each other; they feel themselves to be part of a community of learners
  9. RallyCoach allows differentiation: pairs can be working on different content.
  10. Students learn social skills including: taking turns, listening, coaching, and complimenting
  11. Students do not feel they are working for a grade and/or to beat each other; they feel they are working to learn and to help each other.
  12. When students are asked why they are doing RallyCoach, the most common responses are “To learn,” and “To help each other.” Learning is not merely the means to a grade, it is the bottom line.

Why call on only one?

As we allow volunteer participation in our classrooms and call on one student at a time to respond, we necessarily call most on the high achieving students. This inequitable participation increases the achievement gap. We increase the achievement gap also when we hand out the worksheets for students to practice a new skill without offering a safety net for those who did not fully understand the direct instruction. Again the high achievers get the best practice while the low achievers struggle or become disengaged. Widely accepted instructional strategies are unacceptable!

The three engagement strategies described here, RallyRobin, Timed Pair Share, and RallyCoach are but three of over 200 “Kagan Structures for Engagement.” The steps of these structures, their research support, as well as their theoretical rationale are spelled out elsewhere1. A teacher need only use several of the structures to radically transform a classroom: A large subset of disengaged students become part of a community of learners, increasing overall achievement and reducing the achievement gap between high and low achievers.

Admittedly, unlearning a behavior is more difficult than learning a new behavior. Because of our mirror neurons, all of us who have become teachers have had years of training in the traditional strategies before we ever became teachers. Year after year we observed our own teachers calling on one and we just adopted that approach when we became teachers. We use the “Call on One,” and “Individual Worksheet Work” approaches because we tend to teach the way we were taught. Here we are calling for a revolution: An Instructional Revolution2. It takes courage to leave the beaten path and set off on a path less traveled. But the rewards are tremendous. Teachers adopting the engagement strategies often state that the new way of teaching not only produces radically improved achievement and decreased discipline problems, but that it has changed their attitude toward teaching: “I used to look forward to retirement, and now I look forward to each day of teaching.” Improved achievement among students when the engagement strategies are used has been summarized in published research studies and on the Web3. The decreased incidence of discipline problems also has been documented4.

From my own perspective, the most important outcome of using these powerful structures for engagement is to change social orientation. Students learn in our classrooms how to interact with others. When meeting someone new, students leaving traditional classrooms are more likely to engage in a social comparison process: “Who is better, who is worse?” Or even worse, they may hope for the failure of others to look good or to inflate their self worth. Students leaving classrooms in which they have learned to work together and support each other are far more likely to ask, “How can we work together; how can we help each other?”

Engagement strategies give teachers leverage. With a good lever, little effort produces big results. These engagement strategies are powerful levers. With little effort, by adopting these simple, easy-to-use cooperative engagement strategies we can radically transform classroom interactions, create more equitable outcomes, and positively transform social character!


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

2. Kagan, S. “The Instructional Revolution.” Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter, 2008.

3. Heusman, S. & D. Moenich. “Catalina Ventura School.” In Kagan, S & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.

• Burkich, S. “Anderson County Schools.” In Kagan, S & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.

• Maddox, J. “Foster Road Elementary School.” In Kagan, S & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.

• Borland, R. “Berkley Elementary School.” In Kagan, S & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.

• Williams, R. “Lincoln Elementary School.” In Kagan, S & M. Kagan. Kagan Cooperative Learning. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing, 2009.

4. Lee, D. “Mills Hill School – A Journey Towards Success.” Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter, 2009.