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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Kagan Connections—The Rigor/Relevance Framework

The Rigor/Relevance Framework: Where Kagan Structures Fit In continued

Part 2: Where Kagan Structures Fit In

Now that we have a basic understanding of the model, we can return to our original questions: 1) Are Kagan Structures compatible with the Rigor/Relevance Framework? 2) If so, where do Kagan Structures fit in?

The short answers are: 1) Yes, Kagan Structures are compatible with this framework, and 2) Kagan Structures fit in every quadrant of the model.

The Thinking Continuum—Kagan's Thoughts on Thinking

In the article Rethinking Thinking3, Dr. Kagan illustrates how Bloom’s Taxonomy doesn't align with our modern-day understanding of the thinking. The taxonomy was a great step forward in thinking about thinking and still has very practical implications for teachers. But it was conceived in 1956, in a time before PET scans, fMRIs, and really before the blossoming of the field of cognitive neuroscience. Bloom’s Taxonomy just doesn't jive with what we know today about the brain.

Advancements in brain science have given us a more modern and accurate understanding of thinking. Rather than a hierarchy as Bloom proposed, thinking skills are more differentiated and independent than this early model proposes. But we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bath water. That is, just because the taxonomy may not be scientifically accurate, that’s not to say that thinking at all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t important to develop. Indeed, to prepare our students with 21st century skills, thinking at all levels of the taxonomy is essential! But so too are other thinking skills largely ignored by the taxonomy. We can think of thinking skills like a pie. Bloom offered one way to cut the pie. There are other, more differentiated ways to cut the thinking skills pie. Below is a model aligned with an information processing approach to thinking skills, adapted from an earlier article4:

Structure for Thinking

Thinking Skills

Synonym & Related Skills

Sample Structures


1. Recalling

Drawing info into Working Memory, Memorizing, Paraphrasing, Recollecting

Flashcard Game (Semantic Memory);
Sage-N-Scribe (Procedural Memory); Simultations (Episodic Memory)

2. Summarizing

Abstracting, Comprehending, Describing, Observing, Processing

Three-Step Interview; Timed Pair Share

3. Symbolizing

Choreographing, Drawing, Illustrating, Translating, Verbalizing, Visualizing

Draw What I Write; Window Panning;
Mind Mapping

4. Categorizing

Associating, Classifying, Grouping, Patterning, Rearranging, Sequencing, Sorting

Find-A-Frame, Fill-A-Frame

5. Shifting Perspective

Empathizing, Visual/Spatial Perspective Taking

Paraphrase Passport


6. Analyzing

Decontextualizing, Disembedding, Dissecting, Dividing, Separating

Pairs Compare; Same-Different

7. Applying

Adapting, Decontextualizing, Transferring


8. Inducing

Example to Idea, Inferring, Observing, Hypothesis Generation and Testing

Find My Rule

9. Deducting

Deducting, Drawing Conclusions, Idea to Example, Reasoning

Logic Line-Ups

10. Calculating

Estimating, Solving, Applying, Checking

Pairs Check; RallyCoach


11. Brainstorming

Creating, Elaborating, Exaggerating, Inventing, Reversing

4S Brainstorming; Jot Thoughts

12. Synthesizing

Associating, Blending, Building, Combining, Creating, Integrating

Team Statements

13. Predicting

Anticipating, Estimating, Extrapolating, Sequencing

Estimate Line-Ups

14. Evaluating

Assessing, Criticizing, Decision Making, Determining Fallacies, Interpreting, Prioritizing

Sum-the-Ranks; Agree-Disagree Line-Ups

15. Questioning

Hypothesizing, Inquiring, Investigating

Q-Matrix, Spin-N-Think

Admittedly, no organizational system will be perfect. But what we like is that this system is both differentiated and functional. The information segment of the economy is the largest and fastest growing section. We need to prepare our students with the full range of information processing skills. Notice the Sample Structures column. For each type of thinking skills, there are Kagan Structures designed to access, engage, and develop that thinking skill. For example, to develop deductive thinking skills, the teacher may use the structure Logic Line-Ups. In a Civics class, the teacher may provide students clues about famous African Americans and students deduce the sequence of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, President Obama, and Rosa Parks in a line up. In the same class, the teacher may use the structure Find My Rule to have students induce the difference between Malcolm X’s militant approach to civil rights and Dr. King’s nonviolent approach. Two structures develop very different thinking skills: Logic Line-Ups develops deductive thinking and Find My Rule develops inductive thinking thinking.

Bloom’s Taxonomy and the Rigor/Relevance Framework do a great service to education in that they emphasize moving beyond knowledge and comprehension. Education too often focuses narrowly on the ability to regurgitate basic facts to the exclusion of independent thinking. The Kagan model agrees that "higher-level" thinking skills are indeed important for educators to develop. However, the model strives for a more robust view of thinking skills and encourages educators to develop the full range of thinking skills using a wide range of structures that produces the many different types of thinking.

This broader approach to thinking fits well with Rigor/Relevance Framework's "real-world" thrust. If our goal as educators is to prepare students for the real world which is constantly changing and largely unpredictable, then our mission should be to develop the full spectrum of thinking skills that students will need throughout their lives beyond the classroom. We can’t predict how the world will change, especially in the face of an explosion of information and technology. But we can predict with some accuracy that equipping students with a range of thinking skills is a forward-thinking education.

The Application Continuum: Kagan's Embedded Curriculum and Project Structures

Focusing now on the application side of the framework, where does Kagan fit in? The basic proposition of the Application Model is that there is a continuum of how knowledge can be applied. On one side of the continuum, students memorize basic information, facts, and formulas to be able to use their knowledge to score well on the test. But is that the real reason we have students go to school? To score well on tests? Our goal is to prepare students for the real world, not just for the world of tests.

The far side of the application continuum recommends that students be able to apply their learning to the real world. That their knowledge in math is not confined to circling the correct answer on the test, rather students should be able to actually use their math skills how adults would use them in the real world. Application of math skills in the real world include predictable procedures such as balancing a checkbook. And for even greater relevance, according to the model, students should be able to use their math skills for unpredictable applications in the real world such as analyzing if a marketing promotion was profitable given many unknowns.

The more relevance we can create in the classroom (or even outside the classroom), the more worthwhile the education. If we follow this line of thinking to its logical extreme, curriculum specialists need to radically re-think what we are teaching our kids. Non-academic curriculum might actually trump academic curriculum. Instead of history and obscure algorithms, curriculum would be more relevant if we taught more practical and pervasive subjects that all students would benefit from such as thinking skills, social skills, communication skills, and teamwork skills. Highest on the list of employability skills are communication skills, interpersonal skills, and teamwork skills.5 Many obscure history facts and complex math algorithms have little relevance in everyday life, but the ability to work successfully with others is a life skill that few can do without. Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence6 makes a brilliant case for why EQ (Emotional Intelligence) may be more important than IQ. Interpersonal relationships are an integral part of emotional intelligence, and those who develop their personal and social skills in schools are better prepared for success in the real world.

The Embedded Curriculum. To our knowledge, the Application Model doesn't explicitly call for teaching social-emotional skills, emotional intelligence, and life skills curriculum as they are variously called. But its basic underlying tenet—the call for curriculum to be more relevant—suggests non-academic skills should also be an educational priority. From the teacher's perspective, this creates a tug and pull. Do we teach academic curriculum, some of which could qualify as irrelevant, yet is still required by standards and expectations? Or do we teach those ever-important life skills and thinking skills?

Kagan's answer is both! With barely enough time to cover the existing academic curriculum, how do we pile on a social skills curriculum and then add to that a thinking skills curriculum? Kagan's solution is to teach them all simultaneously using structures that simultaneously teach academic curriculum, higher-level thinking, and communication—all through highly interactive cooperative instructional strategies.

Our earlier Civics class example described how a teacher developed two very different thinking skills while focusing on the academic content. Let’s examine Numbered Heads Together, one of over 200+ Kagan Structures to see the power of the embedded curriculum in Kagan Structures. After teaching a math lesson on percents, the teacher displays on the screen a word problem using percents. Students are seated in teams. First, they individually solve the problem. Then, they put their heads together with teammates to reach consensus on the answer. When ready, the teacher calls on a student to share the team's answer. The structure is a simple alternative to independent practice. Upon analysis, we see how re-structuring instruction has a dramatic impact on the learning experience.