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Articles by Dr. Spencer Kagan

The Instructional Revolution

Dr. Spencer Kagan
(Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2008)

As the world around them changed, schools did not. At least they did not change in the most important way they needed to change—how teachers teach. Instructional practices in schools have remained remarkably resistant to change. This is true worldwide. I have now trained teachers and observed classrooms in over twenty countries. Wherever I go, whether it is into schools in industrialized cities in wealthy countries, or rural towns and villages in poor countries, instructional strategies are remarkably similar. They are similar to each other and similar to what they were several hundred years ago.


Traditional Instructional Strategies

Let’s review two of the most commonly used traditional instructional strategies: 1) The way we have students respond to teacher generated questions, and 2) The way we have students practice a teacher-demonstrated skill.

Answering Teacher Generated Questions. To check for understanding, to generate active participation, and/or to reinforce a correct response, a traditional way to structure the interaction in a classroom is the familiar Teacher-Student Question-Answer. The teacher asks a question of the class and students who know the answer wave their hands, hoping the teacher will call on them. The teacher then calls on one student, and that student gives an answer, hoping for approval from the teacher. For example, the teacher may ask, “What is a good adjective to describe the main character in the story?” For questions that have more than one right answer, the teacher may call on several students, one after another.


Traditional Structure: During Teacher-Student Question-Answer, the teacher calls on one student. None of the other students has the opportunity to articulate their thinking through verbalization; they either passively listen, or tune out.

Practicing Teacher Demonstrated Skills. To have students practice a teacher-demonstrated skill, a traditional way to structure the interaction in a classroom is Solo Worksheet Work. The teacher demonstrates the skill and then has students work alone applying the skill to new problems, often provided in the form of a worksheet, problems on the board, or problems at the end of a chapter. Often students are admonished to work alone, to “keep their eyes on their own papers.” For feedback and evaluation, students turn in their worksheets; the teacher grades them; and the teacher then passes the corrected and graded worksheets back to students.

Revolutionary Alternatives
What is remarkable about these traditional ways of structuring the interaction in classrooms, is that we can go almost anywhere in the world and/or go back in time several centuries in almost any country and observe these approaches to instruction operating almost unchanged. While the world advanced through the agricultural, industrial, and information revolutions, schools failed to advance through instructional revolutions.

But we are about to.

Let’s consider alternative ways to structure the interaction in classrooms and their advantages over the traditional approaches. At Kagan, for almost 40 years we have been experimenting with, researching, and developing alternative ways to structure classroom interactions. We have now developed over 200 instructional strategies designed to engage different types of thinking and learning. These innovative strategies, known as Kagan Structures, radically transform the way students and teachers interact. They are fresh, creative, easy-to-implement and enjoyable methods that enliven the classroom and greatly enhance learning. In this article we will focus on just three of the more than 200 Kagan Structures: RallyRobin, Timed Pair Share, and Sage-N-Scribe.

Answering Teacher Generated Questions: RallyRobin. Let’s take the example of the teacher who wants the students to think of adjectives to describe a character in a story. Instead of calling on one student after another, each to name one adjective, the teacher could use RallyRobin. The teacher would have students form pairs and then say, “Turn to your partner and do a RallyRobin: Take turns naming adjectives to describe the main character.” Partners then take turns naming adjectives.


RallyRobin: Primary students in Sydney, Australia

Advantages of RallyRobin. In the same amount of time that the traditional teacher can call on and respond to at most four students in the class, each giving one answer, by using RallyRobin the teacher has every student in the class give many answers! Compared to the traditional approach, RallyRobin works miracles for active participation. Would we rather have four students think of and give one answer each, or would we rather have every student in the class think of and verbalize several answers? If our goal is to have students think of many possible answers to a question, in effect, to generate an oral list, RallyRobin accomplishes the goal far better than does Teacher-Student Question-Answer. Younger students might do a RallyRobin to name colors or to create or devise possible alternative endings to a story. Older students might RallyRobin prime numbers, inert elements, possible causes or consequences of an historical event, or literary techniques. Because, like all Kagan Structures, RallyRobin is content free, it is used at all grades with a very wide range of academic content.

Answering Teacher Generated Questions: Timed Pair Share. No one structure is best for all types of thinking. If our goal is to have students elaborate their thinking in depth rather than to generate a list of answers, Timed Pair Share works far better than RallyRobin. In Timed Pair Share, students in pairs each speak for a predetermined amount of time, usually for a minute. Their partner gives them undivided, uninterrupted attention. Sample content for Timed Pair Share includes: Tell your partner about the picture you plan to draw. What are three alternative hypotheses that could explain your data, and which do you think is the best? Which adjective do you think best describes the main character, and why? Explain what you think were the most import consequences of World War II? What is one literary technique you plan to use in your story, and how will you use it?

Advantages of Timed Pair Share. As with RallyRobin, during Timed Pair Share, in the same amount of time we might call on and respond to two or three students, each sharing for a minute, we have every student in the class share for a minute. Again, we generate a miracle of active engagement. Because students are talking directly to a partner, they are far less likely to tune out compared to when they are looking at the back of the head of someone responding to the teacher. Through Timed Pair Share, students learn to listen attentively to a peer, acquiring active listening skills such as eye contact, and showing interest.

The advantages of RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share, however, are not limited to increasing active participation. There are many advantages. By using these active engagement structures, students who do not participate in the traditional classroom become engaged. Many students are too shy, find it too risky, or are too limited in their language fluency so will not raise their hand to answer in front of the whole class. Those same students are quite comfortable and become fluent interacting with just one other student. In each class, isn’t it always the same handful of students with their hands waving to be called on, and another subset of students who never raise their hands? With RallyRobin everyone participates, not just the high achievers.


Timed Pair Share: Carrbridge, Scotland

How we structure our classrooms communicates values. The meta-communication from teacher to students with the traditional class structure of calling on those who know, is that some know and some do not. Some are better than others. My job as a teacher is to evaluate. There is a very different meta-communication with RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share: We all have ideas of value to share. My job as a teacher is to allow you to express and elaborate your thinking. We are all part of a community of thinkers and learners.

The identity and self-esteem of students improves in classrooms in which RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share are used. With the traditional structure, we create winners and losers, some who know and some who do not. Those who don’t raise their hands leave class feeling inferior to those who always know the answer. The message: Some of us are better than others. With RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share there is a very different message: We all have important contributions to make. With the interactive structures we equalize status and students all leave class with a feeling of worth.

Students develop social skills during RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share that they do not acquire in the traditional class. They learn to listen to and respect their peers. Because everyone responds, not just the high achievers, the meta-communication in the class is everyone has unique contributions of value, not just the high achievers. Because during RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share students each turn to face a partner, talking directly to them, they hold each other on task. Their level of engagement increases dramatically.

Students do not come to school to see us! With interactive structures, students get to do what they most want to do—interact with their peers. Liking for school, class, and subject matter increase because students are more engaged and because thinking about the content is within an enjoyable context.

Another advantage of the interactive structures over the traditional approach is authentic assessment. One reason to have students verbalize their thinking is so we can assess their level of thought. With the traditional approach, we hear only from the high achievers or those that think they know the answer, so we sample a highly skewed segment of the class. As students do a RallyRobin or Timed Pair Share, we listen in to a representative sample of the class obtaining a much better understanding of the level of thinking of our students.

Because RallyRobin and Timed Pair Share are content-free instructional strategies, they are powerful at any grade-level with any academic content. Kindergarten students may do a RallyRobin naming community helpers; older students may do a RallyRobin to review events from their history chapter.

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