Kagan Cooperative Learning: Finding its place in a knowledge based curriculum

An Action Research Project by Kate Gilbert (Geography)

Reading time: 8 minutes

Background

I have been teaching for 6 years now and throughout all stages of my career so far, Kagan strategies are often shared as good practice, or referenced on Twitter or highlighted as strengths during lesson observations. As such, I have used Kagan strategies tokenistically in my lessons throughout my career but have never looked into whether the idea of cooperative learning could be fully embedded across Schemes of Work and adopted as an entire educational philosophy.  As such, I have used Professional Development time this year to investigate the full breadth of cooperative learning as opposed to stand alone strategies to see how easily it can be used within a classroom where pedagogical approaches seem to be moving away from the notion of cooperative learning to an increase in the focus on the acquisition of knowledge.

Kagan Cooperative Learning

In order for cooperative learning to be embedded, Kagan identifies seven keys: Structures, Teams, Management, Classbuilding, Teambuilding, Social Skills and Key Principles. Each will briefly be outlined below with a summary of how effective each element was when implemented within my classroom.

Key 1: Structures

In short, structures are the relationship between the teacher, the students and the content of a lesson and how these are delivered, received and processed. The structures used are content free and so can be applied to a wide range of topics and embedded over time. On reading Kagan Cooperative Learning (by Dr S Kagan and M Kagan, published by Kagan Publishing)  I realised that this is where many of the key strategies I already utilised in my lessons could be found. This I assume is because the rationales behind them make good sense in terms of general classroom practice (Carousel feedback, Find the Fiction, Think Pair Share). However, using the book to understand their place in the overall context of cooperative learning has been a beneficial one, especially in relation to the links between the other 6 keys identified by Kagan. Therefore, a starting point for this project was to identify the structures that I already use and aim to adopt more into my lesson planning. Although this was a good place to start, my previous experiences of Kagan (staff briefings, twitter etc.) had given me the misconception that the structures utilised in lessons were the main feature of cooperative learning when in fact in order to fully establish the principles, all seven keys need to be used together. As such, the project I intended to undertake – a review of the utility of different Kagan structures – became much broader by attempting to incorporate more of the keys, rather than just structures into my lessons.

Key 2: Teams

The key idea Kagan is developing here is that rather than pupils working in groups, they work in teams. The key difference here being that teams have a strong identity, ideally consist of 4 members and endure over time, with a recommendation of teams working together for 6 weeks. The idea of cooperative learning is one that I wholeheartedly support. In my first year of teaching, I changed the layout of my classroom each term ranging from rows, pairs and tables of various sizes. Whilst I also found that tables of 4 worked the best, logistically my classroom isn’t big enough to accommodate this. As such, I have four tables of 6 and two of 4 which are heterogeneous as recommended by Kagan. However, along with logistical challenges, building teams can also be difficult with constant changes to seating plans (i.e. when new information is received about a pupil, or friendship issues that arise at various points during the year) and the time needed to dedicate to building said teams. In an educational environment where the acquisition of knowledge is now more important than ever, time taken away from this to build a team identity can seem to be a waste when teams may constantly change and I only see pupils for a maximum of 5 hours a fortnight. As such, the key idea has been taken forward, but the activities that come along with this have not as discussed in relation to Key 5 below.

Key 3: Management

This aspect is the general management of the class and classroom to promote cooperative learning, for example managing noise levels and setting up the classroom in groups. Due to the layout of my classroom and the pedagogical choices I make in relation to group work tasks, this is an aspect I have already had to consider for my classroom such as giving clear time warnings and using hand claps instead of my voice to gain attention during group tasks. As such, this element of embedding cooperative learning did not require any changes to my normal classroom routine.

Key 4: Classbuilding

Classbuilding is about building a culture in the classroom with a sense of safety and belonging. There are many structures suggested for building this and the book makes a strong argument as to why developing this is important. However, I cannot help but feel that many of the structures suggested would be most suited to a primary school setting or developed and fostered within tutor time as opposed to lesson time due to their lack of application to content. The notion of pupils feeling safe enough within the classroom to take risks and feeling like they belong is not limited to Kagan but is a wider requirement for effective teaching. At secondary school level, this is largely developed through building relationships with pupils, asking about interests and having the time to praise them when they get it right. As such, I feel that any time spent using the Kagan strategies for class building during subject lessons could be better utilised with the strategies above.

Key 5: Teambuilding

Teambuilding is similar to classbuilding but on a smaller scale within teams. Despite being sceptical to begin with I found that short activities such as devising team names, identifying favourite hobbies etc. acted as ice breakers for unfamiliar groups and in some cases identified common factors that brought groups together. As such I have learnt that building pupil-pupil relationships within the classroom is just as important as building pupil-teacher relationships, especially in a cooperative classroom where the focus is moving away from teacher-pupil dialogue. This is something I will consider moving forward. However, some suggestions such as a birthday calendar were deemed to be more suited to primary school age children and so strategies need to be selected on appropriateness.

Key 6: Social Skills

Social skills encompass all aspects of interactions within our classrooms and are vital life skills that pupils need to develop. Kagan strategies aim to develop these skills by talking answers through, allocating team roles, providing structures for conversations and feedback and modelling good examples of social skills. Pages 11.6-11.7 highlight various social skills and match them to the structures discussed previously. Kagan also identifies a dozen learning roles for pupils to assume during group work. Whilst these were trialled with younger years, it was deemed that the name and nature of the roles are more suited in a primary school setting. “Quiet Captain” and “Materials Monitor” in a secondary school classroom were deemed as patronising to the pupils and some roles were seen as being higher status than others. Instead, a social skills checklist was utilised. Expectations were given of each team and every member of the team was expected to ensure that the expectations were followed. For example, the “Praiser” role was instead listed within the checklist as “show appreciation for teammates ideas and contributions”. As the teacher, I would then circulate and listen out for examples of this being demonstrated to fill in the social skills observation sheet. This resulted in a similar outcome to that envisaged by Kagan but was more adapted to the pupils I teach.

The chapter also identifies various characters who can appear during group work and the ways to overcome their dominance/shyness etc. Whilst the strategies were helpful and gave me some ideas as to how to manage different scenarios, a difficulty arises here where all pupils in the class can fit into one category or another. As such, a variety of skills are covered in different topics to ensure that all aspects are addressed.

Key 7: Basic Principles (PIES)

The acronym PIES stands for Positive interdependence, Individual accountability, Equal participation and Simultaneous interaction, where if all are in place, then pupils will be actively engaged in the learning process and as such increase their rate of academic achievement.

Positive interdependence – pupils need to work together in order to achieve. They are dependent on one another.

Individual accountability – each pupil is accountable and must bring something to the table or is randomly selected to share/give idea so no free riders

Equal participation – everyone is expected to have a voice. A partner share with your B partner sharing as much as partner A

Simultaneous Interaction – Pupils are talking at the same time so more time is dedicated to active participation

As such, tasks need to be set in order to take account of this. This lead to a re-think as to how I structure group work tasks in the future so that all pupils have ownership over a particular area. In addition, cooperative learning moves away from the emphasis on teacher-pupil dialogue. As such, pupils themselves become more active in their learning and allows more time to be dedicated to this. This aspect of Kagan has lead to a restructuring of group work where pupils take more responsibility and I act as an observer to their learning process and give feedback based on this rather than content.

Conclusion

Overall, taking more time to explore Kagan strategies has been a beneficial one. Initially I thought that I could dip in and out of particular sections of the book as I held the misconception that Kagan was largely about the structures used in lessons. Although this was a misconception, arguably I feel that it is the structures themselves that are perhaps most useful in a secondary setting and the main ideas that I will be developing further. I think that whilst it is unfortunate that our education system now seems to favour content heavy courses with the key way to test pupils being how much they can remember, I think we as teachers need to remember that the rationale behind Kagan and cooperative learning is a strong one and has a plethora of research to support its impact on raising achievement. As such, whilst I may not be fully embedding all of the 7 keys discussed above, cooperative learning can most definitely complement direct instruction from the teacher by giving pupils the chance to practice skills.

Ultimately, we as teachers could cover the curriculum through didactic teaching but it removes the element of consolidation and enjoyment that pupils need to experience. As such, I have found that Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies most definitely still have a place in a knowledge based curriculum but may not be deployed in the immersive way that the author may have intended.

Featured image: ‘Silhouettes’ by geralt on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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