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Articles by Dr. Spencer Kagan

The Instructional Revolution

Functions of Teacher Questions. We ask questions of our class for a variety of reasons, including: 1) To check for understanding; 2) To create active engagement; and 3) To promote thinking. Regardless of the function, the interactive structures are far more efficient than the traditional approach of having one student at a time respond. If we want to check for understanding, we listen in as students respond. In this way we don’t hear only from the high achievers. The result: a far more representative sample of our class. If our goal is to create engagement, we are better off having all students respond rather than just a few. The interactive structures also serve better to foster thinking. If it is a multiple response question and we use the traditional structure and call on each student to give one response (objects that float, elements that combine with oxygen), each student thinks of only one response. In contrast, in RallyRobin each student thinks of many responses. Further, the traditional structure pushes us to ask brief-answer questions because we know a very lengthy response by one student will result in boredom and disengagement by many in the class. We end up playing trivial pursuit. In contrast, if we are using Timed Pair Share, we feel comfortable posing long-answer questions. We are comfortable allowing students to elaborate and articulate their thinking at length, knowing all students will be engaged.

RallyRobin: Madrid, Spain

There is an additional reason teachers may ask a question of the class: The teacher may ask a difficult question knowing only some of the students know the answer. They may either want to reward those who do know the answer, or want to have a high-achieving student verbalize a correct response as a model for the others. In our view, we should not be asking questions for these reasons. We can serve as a better model than the student we happen to call on, and what we win in rewarding those who know, we lose in making others feel inadequate. Asking questions we know many or most students cannot answer creates a subset of losers in the classroom. They leave class with diminished self-worth and are quite likely to dislike class content, teacher, school—or all three!

Practicing Teacher Demonstrated Skills: Sage-N-Scribe. Instead of passing out worksheets and having students work alone to practice a skill, a teacher can break with tradition by using a Kagan Structure for active engagement. There are many mastery structures to choose from, but let’s examine just one—Sage-N-Scribe. Students are seated in pairs with one worksheet. For the first problem Student A (The Sage) tells Student B (The Scribe) exactly what to write or do as the Scribe carries out the instructions given by the Sage. The Scribe may coach if the Sage needs it, and congratulates the Sage upon problem completion. The students switch roles after each problem so the Scribe becomes the Sage.

Advantages of the Alternative Structure. As simple as this structure is, it has numerous advantages over having students work alone. A Geometry teacher described one of the most important advantages of the alternative structure. At last year’s Kagan Summer Academy, an older teacher approached me and told me the following:

I came back for a second year of summer training for one reason: I have been teaching Geometry for over 20 years and after last year’s training, my students finished two full chapters more than they ever had. I did not think it was possible!

I was somewhat taken back and asked her, “If you formed teams, did teambuilding, and classbuilding, and even some Silly Sports, and took time to teach the students new structures, how could you possibly get through so much more curriculum?” She explained, "In the past, I would demonstrate at the board, then have students practice independently, assigning the problems at the back of the chapter for homework. Each class period we would spend up to fifteen minutes going over the homework, working on the problems students had missed. When we put Sage-N-Scribe in place, students got their correction opportunities before doing their homework, so they hardly ever missed problems on the homework. We saved all that class time!"

Sage-N-Scribe allows guided practice before individual practice. This ensures students are successful during independent work.

Sage-N-Scribe: Des Plaines, Illinois

Breaking from the traditional solo practice structure does a great deal more. In the traditional method, students do not get feedback on their work until the teacher has had time to correct, grade and return their papers. With Sage-N-Scribe, students get immediate correction opportunities. They cannot practice a whole worksheet wrong. Further, reinforcement is peer based and students work harder for praise from a peer, than for a mark from the teacher.

Peer norms in the classroom change radically. In the traditional approach when the teacher passes back the graded papers, there is a negative social comparison process: Who got the best grades? Who is up? Who is down? Who beat whom? Students experience themselves in competition with each other. With Sage-N-Scribe students feel themselves to be on the same side; the structure creates a community of learners eager to help each other.

Another advantage, of course, is that students are verbalizing their thinking. As they verbalize, they listen to themselves. They become more aware of their own thinking, more focused, and more likely to self-correct. The structure fosters meta-cognition—thinking about one’s own thinking. At the same time the students become more aware of the thinking of others. They listen to their peers. Lower achieving students have the advantage of listening to higher achieving students who model correct ways to approach problems.

Students acquire social skills as they work together to complete their worksheets or problems. Rather than working in isolation, the students are listening to, coaching, and praising each other. In mixed racial classrooms, race relations improve dramatically when students work together cooperatively. Research demonstrates they more often make cross-racial friendship choices, and both cafeteria seating patterns and playground play patterns become more integrated.

Another of the advantages of interactive structures is that they align instruction with the stimulus level to which modern students have become accustomed. When I was a student half a century ago, there were no DVDs, GameBoys, MTV stations, Tivos, color TVs, iPods, video games, Wiis, or web based forms of information and interaction. The teacher was the most exciting thing in our environment. We listened to the teacher with fixed attention because the teacher was a source of stimulation. Today, the interest level a teacher can provide pales in comparison to all the other sources of stimulation to which students are constantly exposed. To have students work alone, for many students today, in their words, is “just plain boring.” In contrast, interactive structures provide rich stimulation and are more aligned with the stimulus level today’s students have become accustomed. Students can capture and hold each other’s attention far better than can problems on a piece of paper to be worked on alone. Today’s students have more interesting things to do. In essence we are in competition with media, and our best tool in this competitive game is to create a stimulus-rich learning environment. And there is no stimulus more engaging for most students than other students.

Like with RallyRobin, Timed Pair Share and all the other interactive structures, during Sage-N-Scribe, students are getting to do what they most want to do: Interact with their peers. The experience of working in an enjoyable context translates to more love of learning. The most common thing students answer when asked about what they think about working in structures is “It’s fun!”

Sage-N-Scribe: Leander, Texas

Enrichment, Not Replacement. Although there are many advantages to adding interactive structures to our instructional repertoire, those of us advocating structures are not advocating a replacement model. We are not saying, “Never call on one student and never have students work alone — use interactive structures instead.” Rather, we are advocating intelligent choice. We want to add to the instructional options available to teachers. Students need to learn to sit quietly and work alone. They need to respond with their own answers without interacting. They also need to know how to work with others. By adding interactive structures to our toolbox of instructional strategies, we enrich the experiences of students, providing a broader set of skills. By asking the question, “How do I want to structure the interaction in my classroom at this moment?” we are able to intelligently choose rather than unthinkingly adopt the way of the past. We become more reflective, sometimes choosing interactive structures and sometimes choosing traditional structures, depending on our goal.

Empirical Research Results. The advantages of using interactive structures described here are supported by a great deal of empirical research. Hundreds of research studies show cooperative learning leads to increased achievement, reduction of the gap between low and high achievers, improved social skills and social relations, improved ethnic relations, increased self-esteem, and greater liking for teacher, school and academic content.1 Details of numerous empirical research studies demonstrating the positive effects of Kagan Structures can be viewed on the Web: www.KaganOnline.com/research

Resistance To Change
It is amazing that with more powerful alternatives readily available, there is such widespread adherence to inefficient traditional instructional strategies. Why? It is not because the alternative structures are difficult to learn or implement. Few instructional strategies are easier than a simple RallyRobin, Timed Pair Share, or even Sage-N-Scribe. A great deal can be said about why we stick to non-adaptive habits. Therapists spend years with clients, often with little success, trying to wean them from self-defeating patterns of behavior, trying to get them to adopt simple behavior patterns that will serve them and others better. Let’s examine a few of the dynamics that make teachers and schools so resistant to change.

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