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Dr. Spencer Kagan

Breakouts To Energize Brains and Boost Achievement

Special Article

Breakout Groups are Brain Friendly

In three different ways, frequent breakouts align instruction with how brains best function:

Breakout Groups Nourish Brains. Whenever there is major muscle movement in the classroom, heart rate and volume increase, pumping more nutrients to the brain. Breathing rate and volume increase also, so the blood that is pumped to the brain is better oxygenated. The process of getting up and moving into new groups involves major muscle movement so breakout grouping actually results in better nourished brains!

Breakout Groups Light-Up Brains. Breakout groups break the routine of always working with the same teammates. As students experience the novelty of working with new partners, their brains are more engaged because brains focus on and attend more to novel stimuli.

Breakout Groups Allow Processing. Lecturing places content into short-term memory. For it to be placed into long-term memory, students need to process the content. Interaction over the content, regardless of whether it is recall, analysis, discussion, or evaluation is a form of processing. This leads to better retention of the lesson content. Students remember a great deal more of what they say than what they hear. Verbalization activates the brain. Literally, as students verbalize their learning, they are re-wiring their brains, making dendrite connections. Processing places the content into long-term memory.

Breakout Groups Foster Equity

It is ten minutes into a lesson and the teacher wants to check for understanding among students or wants to have students be more actively engaged. The traditional teacher who asks questions of the class and calls on individual students to respond, actually increases the achievement gap. Why? Because the high achievers are the ones raising their hands and the low achievers are hiding. The traditional teacher actually calls most on those who least need the practice and least on those who most need the practice. If the teacher simply has students turn to a partner and talk over the content, the teacher falls into the same trap of increasing the achievement gap. Why? Because in each pair the higher achiever does most of the talking. Inadvertently, with unstructured interaction in groups the teacher is falling into the same trap as the traditional teacher, providing the most practice for those who least need it and giving the least practice for those who most need it. We call unstructured interaction group work. Group work does not ensure gains for all students because it does not structure for the basic PIES principles of cooperative learning, including equal participation. When we have students interact in their breakout groups, we do not want to do group work; we want to carefully structure the interaction of students for true cooperative learning. We accomplish this by use of carefully designed Kagan Structures. In a Timed Pair Share, each student gets equal time. In a RallyRobin, each student gets equal turns. All of the Kagan Structures are carefully designed to equalize participation and so reduce rather than increase the achievement gap. Frequent use of breakout groups coupled with true cooperative learning interaction structures creates greater equity. It also creates a greater love of learning as students get to do what they most want to do — interact in positive ways with their peers.


Kagan, S. & Kagan, M. Kagan Cooperative Learning
Kagan, L., Kagan, M., & Kagan, S. Teambuilding.
Kagan, S. Teams of Four are Magic! Kagan Online Magazine, Fall 1998.
Kagan, S. The "E" of PIES. Kagan Online Magazine, Summer 1999.