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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement

Overcoming Resistance to Kagan Structures for Engagement(continued)

Implementing this Structural Approach is Too Difficult

    Implementing this Structural Approach is Too Difficult

    1. Change is difficult; I am comfortable in my way of teaching.
    2. It is too hard and complicated to form teams and rearrange my room.
  1. Change is difficult; I am comfortable in my way of teaching.
    "I have been teaching for many years. I am comfortable with my lesson plans. I don't want to throw out years of hard work and adopt a new way of teaching." Some teachers think adopting cooperative learning structures means changing everything. As teachers we have invested hours over the years developing our lessons. We are invested in those lessons and don't want to throw them out in favor of some new innovation in education. In fact, though, we don't change the curriculum at all. The structures for engagement are new, engaging, research-proven ways to deliver the existing curriculum. Our focus is on the how of teaching, not the what of teaching—instruction, not curriculum. You don't have to throw out your content; with structures you simply deliver that content in some new, exciting ways.
  2. It is too hard and complicated to form teams and rearrange my room. There is no question that forming teams takes some work as does rearranging the furniture in the classroom. My recommendation to those who are hesitating to take this step is: Don't. To get started with cooperative learning structures all we have to do is use some simple pair structures. Rather than calling on one student to respond to the teacher's question, the teacher simply has students pair up and do a RallyRobin, Pair Share, or any one of the dozens of other pair structures. Again: Baby steps to start. With time baby steps will lead to bigger steps.

    One way to make it easier for yourself and for your students is to introduce just one new structure, introduce it with very easy content, and use the structure repeatedly with different content until you and your students are very comfortable with the structure. Don't overwhelm yourself or your students by introducing a second structure before you and your students are comfortable with the first structure. I think of a teeter-totter with the structure on one side and the content on the other. At first, all the weight is on the structure, and there is almost no weight on the content. That is, while you and the students are learning a new structure, don't include difficult new content at the same time. For example, when first introducing a Timed Pair Share, the turns should be quite brief and the content something every student would enjoy talking about — favorite desert, movie or TV program they like, or gift they would love to get. There are two advantages of introducing a new structure with fun, easy content. First, students are not learning two new things at once; we are structuring for success. Second, there is seldom any resistance among students to talking about something they enjoy talking about.

    Another hint that can avoid resistance among students is how I pair them the first time I introduce structures. Although random pairs can work just fine, I can stack the cards in favor of success if I avoid pairing two very low students, two students who have a history of being disruptive, and, if I know the students, two students who do not like each other. Once I have established some stable pairs in the class, I can occasionally have pairs pair up and introduce teamwork. Again: baby steps for you and for the students.

    Some teaches who feel cooperative learning is too difficult or too complex have tried other methods of cooperative learning that in fact are too complex or difficult. Other methods of cooperative learning are lesson or project based. They involve complex lessons or projects. They take a lot of time to prepare and once the lesson is given or the project is complete, that lesson or project is "used up." That is, you only do a cooperative project or lesson one time and then have to plan a different project or lesson for the next cooperative learning activity in your class. Structures are different; they are used repeatedly. Once you know one structure, you can use it to generate an infinite number of activities with no special preparation or planning. You just plug in the new content. This makes cooperative learning easy, sidestepping extensive planning and preparation.

Reasons or Rationalizations?

Relatively recent findings in brain science provide insight that may explain the plethora of reasons given by the small minority of teachers who resist trying structures for engagement in their own classrooms. Mirror neuron research15 reveals that every time we watch someone perform, our brains fire as if we were performing that action. We are practicing the behavior without knowing it. The probability of our performing that behavior becomes greater. Most of us discovered that pattern when we became parents: In a moment of stress, without intending, we became our mother or father as we responded to our own child. Some of us have asked, "Where did that come from?" Without knowing it, for years as we observed our own mother and father we were practicing those responses. We were forming neural tracks ready to fire in a moment of stress, patterning our behavior on the parental model we observed.

There are many implications for educators of this finding about mirror neurons, but here I want to focus on just one: Mirror neurons may explain reluctance to trying new structures for engagement. How? From the time we entered school, by watching our teachers, we were in training to become a teacher. Each time one of our teachers asked a question of the class, had students raise their hands to be called upon, and then called on one student, our brains were firing as if we had done that. Neurons that repeatedly fire together wire together. When a neural sequence fires enough times, that neural track becomes mylinated, hard wired, primed to fire. So when, after years of latent practice, we became teachers, when we asked a question of the class, we were primed to call on just one student. We ran off that sequence without forethought and without asking if that was the best way to structure the interaction in our classroom. By being students in traditional classrooms we entered the teaching profession hardwired to become traditional teachers. Mirror neurons and mylination explain the persistence of the traditional approach to instruction.

Of course this process is not conscious. And anything we are hardwired to do is very difficult to change. When asked why we do or don't do something, we often do not know the reason. In this case, we don't know we have neural tracks mylinated, ready to fire off traditional teacher responses. So when asked why we persist in the traditional approach, we look for a reason. We rationalize. Teachers resistant to cooperative learning structures find one of the two dozen reasons to rationalize their behavior. They look for a reason to explain behavior that is rooted in unconscious processes that were reinforced for years as they watched their traditional teachers.

I accept that we are hard-wired to be traditional teachers and that breaking a habit is difficult. As I have indicated above in my responses to the fears and concerns of resistant teachers, I think there is one solution to overcoming resistance: Whether you are reluctant to use Kagan Structures for Engagement or if you are trying to encourage a reluctant teacher to use them, the solution is to take baby steps. Pick the simplest structure and experiment with it. Use it a number of time. At first it will be bumpy, but with practice it will become second nature. (Translation: we rewire our brains so we automatically run off the new structure.) The most efficient way to break a habit is to substitute new, more adaptive behavior. The payoff for substituting structures for engagement for the traditional, call-on-one-at-a-time method is tremendous. Not just because we can offer so much more engagement and learning for our students, but because teaching becomes so much more of a joy when we see our students light up with enthusiasm as they master our curriculum.


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