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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing.
Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 2012. www.KaganOnline.com

Kagan Cooperative Learning is arguably the most comprehensive and effective approach to classroom instruction. At the heart of this approach to teaching are research proven Kagan Structures for Engagement. Why doesn't every teacher use Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures? The reason most teachers don't implement Kagan Structures for Engagement is because they have never heard of them. In the United States, Kagan Professional Development provides more than 1,000 workshops a year and trains upward of 60,000 teachers annually. That's a lot of teachers, yet it is just a drop in the educational bucket. When they are trained in the Kagan Structures, most teachers make some structures part of their daily instructional repertoire. Some revolutionize their classrooms and schools making Kagan Structures their primary instructional approach—with amazing positive results. Nevertheless, some teachers who are trained in the structures do not adopt them on a regular basis and a few are reluctant to try them at all.

The question becomes: Why? During our trainings we show conclusive evidence of the power of the structures to boost achievement, reduce the achievement gap, foster acquisition of social skills and a variety of other benefits including improving language learning, thinking skills, communication skills, leadership skills, and employability skills as well as reducing the number of discipline referrals. In our workshops we practice the structures, show that they are easy to implement, and have teachers generate ways to use them in their classrooms. Yet some teachers do not consistently implement these powerful instructional strategies. Why?

The answer is resistance. Compelling research demonstrates unequivocally that Kagan Structures are a partial remedy to the most pressing challenges in education: Use of the structures boosts achievement, reduces the achievement gap,1 dramatically improves social skills, and decreases discipline problems.2 If the medical profession were to develop a new operational method that produced quicker and fuller recovery rates as well as lower mortality rates, refusal by a doctor to use that procedure would be viewed as medical malpractice. How then can we overcome resistance among teachers to methods with greater success rates? One way is to analyze and respond to the reasons teachers give for not trying the Kagan Structures. Thus, this article.

I am writing for three audiences. First, I am writing to those teachers who, after training, do not adopt. Second, I am writing for teachers who try the structures a few times, but do not persist in developing their own and student competence in the structures. Third, I am writing for those teachers, trainers, and administrators who are convinced of the power of Kagan Structures, and who would like to help reluctant teachers overcome their resistance. A frequent question I get in workshops, which is echoed in our discussion boards and sent to us in letters and emails: "I use Kagan Structures and they are great, but some teachers in my building won't even try them. What can I do?" If you are one of those people dealing with a reluctant teacher, I provide arguments and information that can help you overcome their resistance.

The percentage of teachers who are reluctant or resistant to trying Kagan Structures, or who lack persistence in using the structures, is small. However, we have worked with literally hundreds of thousands of teachers over the decades and thus have heard a variety of fears and rationalizations some teachers express to explain their reluctance or refusal to use the Kagan Structures. In addition, before writing this paper I consulted with the leaders of Kagan's international partnerships in many different countries asking them about sources of resistance in their countries. Interestingly, each country provided different answers: In one country, those that resist the Kagan approach do so mainly because they distrust packaged solutions, feeling each teacher should develop his or her unique approach to instruction. In another country, the interpretation of "no child left behind" has been to emphasize individualized instruction to deal with struggling students, and the byproduct has been a move away from instructional approaches that teach the same curriculum to the whole class. All together, we have collected 24 reasons teachers give for their reluctance to try Kagan Structures.

I have categorized the reasons into four groups: 1) Fear of what might happen if I use structures; 2) The feeling that Kagan Structures are not appropriate for my students; 3) The belief that I don't need to change how I teach; and 4) The feeling that structures are too difficult for me to implement. Some of these reasons will be relevant to your situation; others will not. My recommendation: Don't read this article from beginning to end. Rather, skim the article and read those portions relevant to your situation. This article can serve as a reference. If you or a teacher you are working with has a particular source of resistance, you will probably find it here. After presenting each reason for resistance, I provide evidence and counter arguments that hopefully will put that concern to rest. At least it might motivate you to persist in developing competence in the structures for engagement. Ultimately, of course, the only real way to put these concerns to rest is to try the structures for engagement enough times that you and your students are comfortable with them — at that point, you will find your fears unwarranted and reap the rewards of higher achievement among your students as well a greater joy in teaching.

In a final section of this article, I will suggest that many of the reasons given for resistance are really rationalizations: The resistance to trying cooperative learning structures is deeply rooted in the process of becoming a teacher. But let's leave that discussion until later. For now, let's examine and respond to the whole range of reasons teachers give for their reluctance to try the structures.

Reasons for Resistance

I Fear…

  1. Students will get off task. Because we cannot be everywhere at once, and students are interacting at the same time all over the classroom, they might get off task without our knowing it. While it is true that some students will get off task, nevertheless we win in the bargain. Why? In the traditional classroom, when the teacher is talking or asking a question, many students are daydreaming. They are off task. The probability of their daydreaming is far less if they are interacting with a partner. In the traditional classroom, the teacher asks a question of the class, asking perhaps, "What are reasons the United States entered World War II?" Some students raise their hands to be called on while the minds of others wander. In the classroom using Kagan Structures, after asking that same question, the teacher has students in pairs do a RallyRobin. After Student A names a reason, it is Student B's turn. Student B needs to respond. The structure does not leave room for minds to wander: the students hold each other on task. This is true not just for RallyRobin, but for all Kagan Structures because all Kagan Structures are carefully designed to create equal participation and individual accountability.

    With regard to getting off task, when we examine worksheet practice, the advantages of cooperative learning are even greater. In the traditional classroom, students work alone. With no one giving them feedback, they can become bored. They may have a pencil on the paper while their mind is elsewhere. They appear on task, but really are not. This almost never happens when structures for engagement are used because students take turns doing problems and receive immediate feedback. When a peer says, "It is your turn to do the next problem," it is hard to get off task.
  2. I Fear…

    1. Students will get off task.
    2. Students will share wrong answers.
    3. I won't be able to cover the curriculum.
    4. The class will get out of control.
    5. If I change everything, I don't know what will happen.
    6. Cooperative learning is blind leading blind.
    7. It won't work.
    Students will share wrong answers. In the traditional classroom, the teacher hears and can correct any wrong answer that is verbalized. After all, as the teacher calls on one student after another, students are talking only to the teacher so the teacher hears everything that is said. When a teacher shifts to Kagan Structures, often pairs are interacting all over the room all at the same time. The teacher cannot be everywhere at once, so cannot correct all wrong answers.

    This fear is justified: Wrong answers will be shared and not always corrected when we shift to having students share with each other, not just with the teacher. Nevertheless, we still come out ahead. The data shows achievement increases in cooperative learning. The question becomes, Why would achievement go up if wrong answers are shared and not always corrected? The answer is that the probability of a correction is actually greater in the cooperative learning classroom compared to the traditional classroom.

    In the traditional classroom, when the teacher asks a question, some students have the right answer in their head and others do not. Who is it that raises their hand to be called on? It is the high achievers or those who think they know the answer. The lower achievers and those with the wrong answers are far less likely to raise their hands, so they are seldom called upon and usually don't get a correction. It can be argued that they get the correction when they hear the right answer from a peer. But by not verbalizing their wrong answer, they may still believe it. Further, because they are not participating, they may tune out. Thus, they can leave class with the wrong answer still uncorrected! In contrast, with the structures for engagement, every student responds. We have a norm in the class that if a student hears an answer he or she is not sure is correct, everything stops and the students check with others or with the teacher. Not all wrong answers will be corrected in the cooperative learning class, but the probability of a correction is dramatically greater in the cooperative learning class than the traditional class. In the traditional class the very students who need a correction do not verbalize and so do not get the needed correction, whereas in the cooperative learning class all students are verbalizing their thinking and so have a opportunity for a correction.

    With regard to correcting wrong answers, when we examine paper and pencil practice, the advantages of cooperative learning are even greater. In the traditional classroom, students do worksheet work alone. With no one giving them immediate feedback, they can practice a whole worksheet wrong, reinforcing a flawed procedure. This cannot happen in the cooperative learning class because students work in pairs or teams and receive feedback after every problem.
  3. I won't be able to cover the curriculum. Teachers today are under extreme pressure to cover the curriculum. Some feel there is not enough time to do cooperative learning and to cover the curriculum. In responding to this legitimate concern, I like to ask, "Who needs to cover the curriculum?" If the goal of the teacher is to cover as much curriculum as possible, the teacher needs only to stand in front of the class and talk fast! The teacher will cover the most curriculum that way, but very little will be mastered or retained by students. Our goal as teachers isn't really to cover the curriculum. Our goal is to maximize student learning. To maximize learning, students need to be actively engaged, processing the information and practicing the skills provided by the teacher. This does take time, but the results are clear. Nearly a thousand research studies demonstrate cooperative learning leads to more mastery of the content than does traditional approaches to instruction.

    One of my favorite examples of cooperating learning allowing a teacher to cover more of the curriculum occurred several years ago at our Annual Summer Academy. An elderly teacher approached me and thanked me. She said she was returning for training for the second year. The reason she was thanking me and had made the trip back to Florida for additional training was that by using Kagan Structures, she found she could cover more of her curriculum that she had ever imagined. She was a geometry teacher and had been teaching that content for over twenty years, several classes each semester. She knew exactly how many chapters she could cover in a semester. When she adopted Kagan Structures, she discovered to her surprise that in each class she covered three more chapters than ever before!

    I asked her how that was possible. I asked if she did teambuilding, reformed teams, did classbuilding, brain breaks and energizers, and the other things we recommend. Her answer was yes to all those questions. I asked how, with all those extra activities, she had time to cover three more chapters.

    Her response was simple. Prior to the Kagan training, in each class period she would do a demonstration of a new skill at the board and then assign homework for students to practice the skill. Being a very conscientious teacher, she would correct the homework and spend about ten minutes at the beginning of each class period going over and re-teaching frequently missed homework problems. After training in Kagan Structures, she inserted RallyCoach at the end of each class so students could practice and give each other feedback and coaching on the new skill. To her surprise, when she graded the homework, the students had hardly missed any problems. RallyCoach provided guided practice before independent practice. Those students who had not understood the direct instruction now were receiving a correction before going home to either practice wrong or give up. Because there were very few missed homework problems to go over, this teacher saved almost all of the ten minutes of re-teaching that she had done traditionally. Ten minutes a day, five times a week, is almost an hour. An hour a week of extra time for instruction allowed the class to cover three additional chapters a term. Cooperative learning allows us to cover more rather than less curriculum!
  4. The class will get out of control. In the traditional classroom, students don't speak unless called on. In theory, management is easy: there is no talking, moving, or interacting to deal with. In fact though, because we are trying to prevent students from doing what they most want to do—interact and move—management can be quite difficult. In the cooperative learning classroom, students are often interacting and moving. We are going with, rather than against, what students want to do so there is less resistance. Nevertheless, managing interaction and movement in the cooperative classroom involves a new set of skills. Because students are allowed to do what they most want to do: talk, interact, create things, and move there is a release of a lot of energy. The class can easily get out of control if the teacher does not have cooperative learning management tools. For example, students learn a quiet signal, so the teacher can silence the class and receive full attention in less than five seconds. Clear roles and timers ensure control within teams. Modeling with teams and using structures to check for understanding ensure directions are understood and students do not get off task. There are dozens of management tools that make cooperative learning more efficient and which allow the teacher to be fully in control at all times.