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Spencer's Thinkpad

An Interview with Dr. Spencer Kagan

Michael F. Shaughnessy
EducationViews Senior Columnist

To cite this article: Shaughnessy, M. An Interview with Dr. Spencer Kagan Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #56. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com

First of all, tell us about yourself, your education and your experiences?

I received my Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCLA. I was a research professor at the University of California, Riverside for 17 years. During that time I published research on cooperation and developed cooperative learning methods. I developed a program to train student teachers in cooperative learning. Based on the success of these methods, I founded Kagan Publishing and Professional Development to share these powerful teaching strategies more broadly with educators. We offer professional development throughout the United States and in over a dozen countries. The publishing arm of the company has created an extensive line of books, software, and resources to help teachers enhance engagement in their classrooms.

What exactly is the Kagan program all about and when did it start?

Kagan is all about engagement. More specifically, Kagan Structures are engaging teaching and learning strategies that have their roots in cooperative learning. The program is based on my research in cooperative learning which began in 1969. I developed methods for studying the cooperativeness of children, that were later used in many parts of the world. I found students were cooperative or competitive based on the situations in which they were placed. Applying this to the classroom, I developed cooperative learning situations that not only helped students become more cooperative and caring, but thanks to the high degree of student engagement also had a dramatic positive impact on academic achievement.

Is there a philosophical base to this program?

The Kagan Structures are based on four basic principles that have a profound effect on student interaction patterns and learning. These four principles are symbolized by the acronym PIES:

  • P—Positive Interdependence is a situation in which students cannot reach their goal without helping each other. Students feel themselves to be on the same side, working for a common goal.
  • I—Individual Accountability is a situation in which each student is held accountable for their individual contribution.
  • E—Equal Participation is created by situations in which each student has an equal amount of time or turns to participate.
  • S—Simultaneous Interaction describes situations in which most or all students are participating at once.

When we use traditional methods we violate those principles. Student relations suffer. Students are easily disengaged. Learning is less equitable and we create achievement gaps between different groups of students. For example, when we call on one student to respond to a question posed by the teacher, some motivated students may be engaged, but most students are free to mind-wander, violating all four principles. In contrast, we can use a simple Kagan Structure, a RallyRobin for example. In this structure, students are in pairs, and they take turns giving brief responses to the teacher’s question. All students are engaged, not a select few. With Kagan Structures, more students are engaged more often and we create greater learning for all students. Together with my colleagues, we have developed over 200 structures, each with different functions. There are structures for memorizing content, for mastering skills, for brainstorming, decision-making, teambuilding, classbuilding, and for developing a range of specific thinking skills.

Let’s ask about some specific aspects of the program—RoundRobin?

RoundRobin is another simple Kagan Structure. In small teams (usually four students), each student in turn shares an idea or answer with the team. We call these learning strategies “structures” because they structure student interaction. Each teammate takes a turn sharing. This simple structure can be used across the curriculum and across the grade levels. In the primary class, students take turns sharing with their teammates their predictions of what’s going to happen next in the story. In the secondary social studies classroom, students share with their teammates one thing they learned about FDR’s New Deal. Everyone’s engaged.

Numbered Heads Together—What does this have to do with learning?

Numbered Heads Together is a more elaborate Kagan Structure. Students are usually in groups of four, each with a number, 1,2,3, and 4. The teacher poses a question and students individually write their best answer. Students put their heads together and reach consensus as a team on the best answer. Following that, the teacher randomly calls a number and students with that number share their best answer without referring to notes, or solve a similar problem.

The structure holds all students individually accountable, each responding to each question. It provides students support for learning and puts teammates on the same side. This is quite in contrast to the traditional classroom in which only the high achievers choose to respond and students are actually competing against one another rather than working together to learn.

Jot Thoughts—What are you trying to accomplish?

Jot Thoughts is a team brainstorming structure. In a brief time, teams generate many ideas, usually followed by a processing of the ideas generated. Like all Kagan Structures, the basic interaction sequence is repeatable and therefore teachers can plug in different content to use the structure time and again to create student engagement over the curriculum. In the science class, Jot Thoughts could be used to brainstorm things that float, things a magnet will stick to, examples of a mixture, good electrical conductors, and so on.

How does the Kagan program address “authentic assessment”?

It is helpful for teachers to have a realistic idea of what their students know and what they can do. In the traditional classroom, the teacher asks for volunteers to respond. It’s the high achievers who usually respond. The teacher receives a very unrepresentative student sample. It may appear students get it when in fact only some do. In contrast, when the teacher uses Kagan Structures, students interact in their teams and the teacher circulates to listen in and observe. The teacher is observing genuine interaction rather than show-off behavior by a few. The teacher is better informed, knowing in the moment if students are really getting it and it’s time to move on, or if students need more input or practice.

StandUp–HandUp–PairUp—What are you trying to accomplish with this?

StandUp–HandUp–PairUp gets students out of their seats and interacting with classmates. Sometimes it is used for Classbuilding to improve classmate relations. We do this explicit relationship building to create a caring class atmosphere where students feel known and supported and to combat the violence and the bullying that plagues traditional competitive and individualistic classrooms. Getting up, moving around the classroom, interacting with multiple classmates is also very brain-friendly. Students who would otherwise disengage, are now active, alert, interacting with multiple classmates over the curriculum.

Quiz-Quiz-Trade—What is going on with this structure?

This is another favorite Kagan Structure. Students circulate in the room, each with a question card. They pair up, quizzing each other using their cards, coach or tutor each other if necessary. They then trade cards to find a new partner to quiz again. Quiz-Quiz-Trade turns monotonous practice into a fun learning game. There are many Kagan Structures, each designed to achieve different classroom objectives. Quiz-Quiz-Trade is particularly strong for content mastery and memorization. Students love it.

Where have Kagan Structures been implemented and what has been the result?

Hundreds of studies and meta-analyses have found cooperative learning outperforms traditional learning.

Kagan Structures have been implemented at all grade levels throughout the U.S. and internationally. The research findings on cooperative learning and Kagan Structures are astounding. Hundreds of studies and meta-analyses have found cooperative learning outperforms traditional learning. Some studies find achievement gains of 30% or more and drastic reductions in the achievement gap. In addition to achievement gains, cooperative learning and Kagan Structures are found to decrease discipline referrals, increase prosocial behavior, improve relations, elevate self-esteem, and improve classroom climate. Students prefer Kagan Structures to traditional method by about 12 to 1.

What have I neglected to ask?

I imagine there are some readers of this interview who are new to Kagan Structures. Hopefully they are intrigued about the prospect of using simple research-based instructional strategies to boost student engagement and learning. Their question might be: Where can I learn more about this approach to teaching that is taking the education world by storm? First and foremost, I would encourage teachers to attend a workshop. Kagan Professional Development has a USA Tour with workshops across the country.
Teachers describe a Kagan workshop as that “aha” moment that often changes the path of their educational career for the better. Once you experience this type of full engagement firsthand, you truly understand the potential it holds for your students.

If that’s not an option, our book Kagan Cooperative Learning is the single most comprehensive resource available for learning about the Kagan approach.

What resources are available online and where can they be accessed?

Our website, www.KaganOnline.com offers a wealth of resources on this revolutionary teaching approach. On the website, there are free articles, videos, an online magazine, video-based courses, research articles, tips, training opportunities across the country, and a catalog full of support resources. We’ve worked for the past three decades to research and refine our approach to engaging disengaged students and to make these methods as accessible to educators as possible. We continue to develop new resources and offer new courses for teachers wanting to make meaningful student engagement a reality.