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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement

Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement(continued)

  1. We need individualized instruction. Each student needs to progress at his or her own pace. In some classrooms, students each work alone at their own pace through a series of workbooks or tasks. We don't have a problem if some aspects of the curriculum are individualized and students work on them alone at their own pace. In fact, this is a good learning experience both because students work at developmentally appropriate levels and learn individual responsibility. We do have a problem if individualized instruction of this type is the only kind of instruction in the classroom. There are too many important social skills that are not acquired if students never work with others. Additionally, interaction produces intense engagement with the curriculum and the construction of knowledge. This in turn produces far better long-term memory than does memorizing for a test.
  2. I have special needs students. Autistic students can't cooperate. The research on cooperative learning in classrooms with special needs students is very clear. Three consistent outcomes are found: Compared to special needs students in traditional classrooms, special needs students in cooperative learning classrooms 1) perform better academically, 2) have higher self-esteem, and 3) are liked and appreciated more by the other students in the class.10 This is no mystery. Special needs students integrated into traditional classrooms tend to be lost and ignored. When integrated into teams, they are included, encouraged, and tutored by teammates. It is heartwarming to see special needs students being cared about and cared for by teammates and classmates. While it is true that students with autistic spectrum disorder are a special challenge in cooperative learning classrooms, it is not true that cooperative learning is not effective or appropriate for those students. In fact, parents of autistic students report cooperative learning to be one of the most beneficial educational experiences for their students.11 When working with students with special needs in the cooperative classroom, it is important to work with their teammates; we help teammates discover what to say and do and what not to say and do to help students with special needs. It is a positive experience for the teammates to learn how to relate to others with special needs.
  3. My students won't be able to cooperate. Years ago I had an amusing and revealing experience. I was in the Kagan booth at a large educational conference. Two teachers were walking by. As they passed, one looked up at our booth and then turned to the other teacher and said, "That is the Kagan booth. I would like to try cooperative learning, but my students aren't cooperative enough." I found the comment amusing because from my perspective, if students aren't cooperative, the thing they most need is cooperative learning so they can learn to be cooperative. The comment is revealing because it verbalizes a fear some teachers have: My students simply won't be able to cooperate. One of the strongest findings of cooperative learning is that students become more cooperative. Behavioral measures show students in classrooms in which cooperative learning is used display more sharing, helping, and giving.12 Paper and pencil measures show students in cooperative learning classrooms have more social skills, have more friends, and are more empathetic. If the fear is that students cannot cooperate, the best thing to do is ease in with very simple structures that have social skills built in such as taking turns, praising, listening, and helping. Students develop core social skills in the process of learning. Students won't magically become more cooperative. They acquire those skills through daily practice.
    "One of the strongest findings of cooperative learning is that students become more cooperative."
  4. I have multi-grade classrooms and each grade has different content. Teachers of multi-grade classrooms find cooperative learning to be a very powerful tool in creating a cohesive, collaborative classroom. Heterogeneous, multi-grade base teams are formed. Teambuilding within those teams overcomes the tendency for students to identify only with their students of their own grade level and prevents the higher-grade students from assuming a superior attitude toward those of the lower grade. When students need to work on grade-specific content, they break out from their heterogeneous base team and work in grade-alike teams.
  5. My students don't like cooperative learning. Some teachers try cooperative learning, meet resistance from students, and abandon the effort, concluding their students don't like cooperative learning. Resistance from students will occur if, when first introducing a new cooperative learning structure I make the content too difficult. For example, let's say I am introducing RallyRobin. If I have students RallyRobin possible new titles to a difficult poem, some students who did not understand or like the poem may well respond by saying, "That is stupid!" It is safer for them to put down cooperative learning than to admit in front of a peer that they did not understand the poem. The solution to this is to introduce new structures with very easy, fun content—content that is within the capacity of the lowest achiever in the class and which the students would enjoy talking about. So rather than RallyRobin new titles for the poem, it is RallyRobin what you would buy if you were given $1000.

    Students do differ in their preference for cooperative, competitive, and individualistic work. Some students, if given the choice would work only alone. Others most enjoy competition. And yet others prefer to work cooperatively. Whichever way we initially structure the classroom, we will please some students and not please other students. If we set out to please the most students, our choice would be cooperative learning because the vast majority of students prefer to work cooperatively compared to competitively or alone.13

I Don't Need to Change the Way I Teach

    I Don't Need to Change the Way I Teach

    1. I learned in the traditional way and it worked well for me; it can work for my students too.
    2. What I am doing is working; Why change? I want to serve my students, and I know what I am doing works.
    3. My administrator doesn't care, so why should I?
    4. Each teacher needs to find his or her own way of teaching. The Kagan Structures are too rigid.
  1. I learned in the traditional way and it worked well for me; it can work for my students too. It is natural to want to give our students what has worked for us. What we need to realize is that most of the pupils in our classrooms in many ways are not like us. Most of us who succeeded in school were good at sitting still, listening attentively to lectures, taking good notes, studying those notes, retaining that content, and delivering it back on a test. We were strong in the verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences. We came from a generation that was not inundated with electronic stimulation. In fact, for many of us the teacher's lecture was one of the most stimulating things in our environment. Further, we came from a generation in which respect for adults was a given. For today's students all that has changed. What worked for us will not work for many of today's youth. For many students today a teacher's lecture is boring compared to the high level of multi-media stimulation to which they have become accustomed. Using traditional methods we have low achieving, non-traditional learners who are failing. Collaborative active engagement instructional strategies are better tailored to the needs of students accustomed to quick paced, multi-modal stimulation — students who are much more concerned with peer status than with approval from adults.

    A personal experience brought that home to me. I was asked to provide training in cooperative learning in a district that had once been very successful. The older teachers in that district had been accustomed to great success using traditional methods which relied heavily on lecture and solo worksheet work. They said the same methods were not working with today's youth. After they began using active engagement strategies they reported that students "woke up." Their students came alive, actively interacting with each other over the curriculum. One teacher said to me, "Using these strategies my students look like students use to look. They are interested and engaged. The old methods just don't work with this generation."
  2. What I am doing is working; Why change? I want to serve my students, and I know what I am doing works. If we are using traditional sit-and-get instructional strategies that do not include peer-to-peer interaction over the curriculum, even if we are successful in delivering our academic curriculum we have not served our students fully. By using cooperative structures for engagement we can do a better job of delivering our curriculum while at the same time delivering a whole additional curriculum that includes social skills, leadership skills, emotional intelligence, and a range of thinking skills. Students cannot acquire social skills if they do not interact with others. And social skills will serve our students as much as academic skills in the job world, and in their personal lives. Why deliver one curriculum if in the same amount of time we can deliver additional curriculums? The traditional teacher who is being successful is defining success in a narrow way that won't serve students as fully as the enriched curriculum embedded in cooperative learning.
  3. My administrator doesn't care, so why should I? At one level this comment is not logical: As professional educators, we should care about best serving our students whether or not our administrator cares. At another level this comment reveals one of the most important sources of resistance to innovation. If an administrator doesn't come to the workshop, doesn't do walk-throughs, doesn't use the structures in staff meetings, and doesn't give recognition and support to teachers willing to try new ways to teach, then teachers know "this too will pass." If the site leader is not involved, the feeling among teachers is that this cooperative learning workshop was just one more workshop; there will not be a long-term commitment to making cooperative learning structures stably part of every teacher's instructional repertoire. Most teachers adopt the attitude toward an innovation that their administrator adopts. If teachers know they will be held accountable for implementing because their administrator will be watching, their attitude and behavior shifts.

    If you are a teacher put off by the non-involvement of your administrator the only advice I can give is to focus on how best to serve your students and how best to create a class that not only will be successful for your students, but which will be a joy to teach. I can't count the number of teachers who have said to me, "Before using the structures, I was looking forward to retirement. Now I am looking forward to my next day of teaching."

    If you are a teacher, or specialist who is trying to overcome resistance in your building and have an administrator who is not involved, my advice is to use as many tricks as you can to get administrator involvement. Ask if you can demonstrate a structure in the next staff meeting. Invite the administrator to watch you or a teacher using the structures and ask her or him to give you feedback on level of student engagement. Provide the administrator articles about the power of the structures. Encourage your administrator to attend a cooperative learning workshop or training for administrators. Create a newsletter to share success stories. Have the administrator listen to National Public Radio's podcast on why lectures are outdated.14 Talk with the administrator about your excitement and ways the teachers could use support (walk-throughs, notes of appreciation, sharing of success stories).
  4. Each teacher needs to find his or her own way of teaching. The Kagan Structures are too rigid. Teachers rightfully resist being told what to do. No one wants to have to follow a script or a package that inhibits her individuality or creativity. The structures are not a package approach to teaching; they do not say what to teach and do not even say which structures to use in a lesson. They are simply options we can choose from. Teachers that know a variety of structures do not feel constrained; they feel liberated. If an artist has only a few colors and one brush, the creativity of the artist is not diminished if we offer that artist more colors and a range of different types of brushes. The structures add to the potential of a teacher to teach in creative ways. No one is scripting the teacher. No one is saying you must use this structure to teach this lesson. Rather, if that teacher knows a variety of structures, the teacher has more options to choose from. To use a different analogy, is a builder constrained or liberated when we put new and powerful tools in her toolbox? The structures are tools to help us build learning experiences; they do not constrain us. It is up to us as creative educators to determine the kind of learning experiences we want to construct.