Investigating the impact of Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies on pupils’ learning

An Action Research Project by Daniel James (Business Studies)

Reading time: 9 minutes

This is an investigation into the practical implications of using Kagan Cooperative Learning and its impact on pupils’ learning.

1.1 Introduction:

In the traditional taught classroom the teacher may provide some instructions or a knowledge based element followed by some activity and a question and response section to track progress. The teacher may also ask questions and expect responses from students; this is sometimes delivered in a differentiated manner where the questions are posed at differing levels depending on their ability level.

As outlined by Kagan (2009)[1] “Traditional learning is either whole-class, with the teacher leading the class, or independent practice work”, as such this can lead to an environment that is not as conducive to learning as we might think.  The traditional classroom creates a more intimidating learning environment where students are picked for their answers, where the teacher is in charge of learning and as such often lacks engagement.

Kagan offers a different approach to this where interaction is an expected part of the learning environment. This need not be at odds with the traditional classroom, as outlined Kagan (2009)[2] “Cooperative learning compliments rather than replaces direct instruction; it is used to cement learning that occurs via direct instruction”.

“[T]eachers believe Kagan Structures are instructional strategies designed to promote cooperation and communication in the classroom, boost students’ confidence and retain their interest in classroom interaction.”[3]

The whole idea behind Cooperative Learning is the act of allowing students to directly interact with their own learning. In this action research project I will explore some of the learning structures outlined by Kagan and report on their impact on attainment, knowledge development, enjoyment and confidence in the classroom.

1.2 The Structures

In Kagan (2009) they introduce the idea of the replacement cycle which suggests that with each academic cycle there is a new teaching and learning approach that replaces its predecessor.  The phrase “It is all cyclical” rings true here.  Kagan (2009)[4] says that because of this replacement cycle, experienced teachers get jaded and “give little or no effort… It is tragic for teachers who get turned off to the whole process of educational innovation”.

The ‘Cooperative Learning Structures’ approach has been designed to break this replacement cycle, getting rid of the need to plan one off cooperative learning lessons and instead implement structures that can be used as part of any lesson. “Don’t do cooperative learning lessons; make cooperative learning part of every lesson”. (Kagan 2009)[5]

2.1 My Approach

Throughout the last academic year I have used my year 9 Business classes as a focus for developing and researching the use and impact of Kagan Cooperative Learning strategies on the progress and engagement of students. The two classes have 31 students each, are roughly 50:50 in gender split and have a range of behavioral and learning needs, they are broadly mixed ability.

Throughout the year I have used a range of Kagan structures as outlined in the book “Cooperative Learning”. These structures were used multiple times across both classes, at points they were adapted to fit the subject specific content, and were evaluated as to their effectiveness.

2.1.1 How the structures were evaluated

The structures were evaluated on a three point scale these were:

  1. How time effective the structure was (Time needed to setup Vs. overall impact)
  2. Impact on student subject understanding
  3. Impact on student engagement

When evaluating against these three areas I used a 5 point scale with 1 being not effective, 5 being extremely effective. The judgements were based on students’ responses to in-class questioning, assessment of tests and exercise books and through observation.

Example judgement:

Fig 1

3.1 Findings

3.1.1 Fan-N-Pick

Each team of four has a set of question cards.  Pupil #1 holds a set of cards with questions on them, pupil #2 selects a question to ask, player #3 answers the question, player #4 checks whether the answer is right or wrong and praises or tutors, or in the case of opinion based questions,  paraphrases the thinking that went into the answer.  Roles rotate on each round.

Fan-N-Pick was used when teaching the topic of business structures. This was used as there were complex areas of ownership and control that the students need to grasp. The setup of this task was time intensive but once set up did highlight student understanding and areas where further consolidation was needed. This structure also enabled all students to take an active role in the peer assessment and challenge of one another and so improved engagement in the lesson. Overall, this structure was effective and once set up should provide a range of assessment opportunities for the teacher.

Fig 2

3.1.2 Find Someone Who

In this activity the teacher prepares a sheet/list of questions.  Pupils circulate around the class forming different pairs on each round.  Each person in the pair then take it in turns to ask and then answer a question for the other person.  Pupils record the answer on their sheet and their partner initials the answer they have given.  The activity continues with pupils moving to form a pairing with a new person.

This structure was used in a recap lesson on stakeholders, their objectives and the impact they can have on business. The idea behind this activity is that each student is given a sheet with a series of questions relating to the topic and they move around the room trying to find people who had the answer (hence ‘find someone who’). I liked the principle idea behind this and  it encouraged the students to move around the room, however with a class of 31 this proved to be a challenge with students shouting to find the answer and all too often the more able students were swamped with questions. The other issue with this is that although answers were recorded and they were correct, this did not lead to increased understanding because the responses were taken at face value and not examined in greater detail.

I further used this strategy following a series of lessons covering e-commerce. This time students were only allowed to ask a partner student one question and as such had to be strategic with which questions they asked which students. The other adaption was that the students had to stick to their side of the room and thus limiting access to only 14/15 other students. Overall, this structure needs time to embedded and strict expectations need to be applied so that no student gets a “freeride”.

Fig 3

3.2.3 Round Table

In Round Table pupils in a group take it in turns to add an answer, idea or contribution to a project the whole group is working on.  The use of a single task sheet/pen or pencil emphasizes the cooperative nature of the task.

This strategy was very effective when used to examine extended questions relating to how a business could improve its cash flow. This activity was simple to set up and the students were provided with an exam based questions where there were multiple answers, each of which were valid. The students took it in turns to add to the previous answer put down by their table and by the end of the time each row (table) had an answer that was backed up and justified. Most of the rows found this engaging and understanding of the topic was shown to have greatly increased among these students, however where rows did not engage this was due to no student in that row wanting to “take a chance” and put an answer forward. When I went to these rows and questioned their understanding they all had appropriate ideas but were initially unwilling to share with their table.

Overall an effective strategy, that if used regularly with student’s who have built up their resilience, will impact positively on engagement and understanding.

Fig 4

3.2.4 Timed Pair Share

In Timed Pair Share pupil A talks to pupil B on a topic given by the teacher for a set period of time.  Pupil B responds with a positive comment – these might be set up in the form of sentence starters, “One thing I have learned from listening to you is…’, ‘Your most interesting idea was…’, and so on.  Roles are then reversed and a new topic given by the teacher.

This structure like the previous one was very time efficient to set up and I found made for effective teacher assessment as part of a mini or full plenary activity. I was able to move around the room as students explained all they knew about the topic to their partner. Students were encouraged not to repeat what their partner had said but they could develop it if they felt some detail was lacking. Overall, this was effective and the only issue was when students did not correct their partners’ mistakes for fear of upsetting them. This is an area that could be worked on by teaching students how to give and receive constructive criticism.

Fig 5

Notes:

[1] Kagan, S. Kagan Structures: A Miracle of Active Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009. www.KaganOnline.com

[2] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning Pages 1.4. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009.

[3] Kagan, S. Kagan Structures: A Miracle of Active Engagement. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall/Winter 2009. www.KaganOnline.com

[4] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning. Page 6.5 . San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009

[5] Kagan, S. Kagan, K Kagan Cooperative Learning. Page 6.6 . San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. 2009

Featured image: ‘Classroom’ by OpenClipart-Vectors on Pixabay.  Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

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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

The Awkward Mole

A sharing best practice post by Jodie Johnson (Mathematics)

This activity sharpens up pupils’ ability to precisely follow a particular process to complete a specific task.  These examples come from Maths but they could apply equally well to any process in any subject.  For instance, ‘constructing a perpendicular bisector on a line’, ‘bisecting an angle’, ‘drawing an equilateral triangle’ etc., etc.

awkard-mole

Step 1: Pupils A and B sit back to back with Pupil A facing the teacher/board with an incomplete worksheet (see above)

Step 2: The teacher silently demonstrates the process to complete a task on the board.  Pupil A copies the teacher’s demonstration onto their worksheet.

Step 3:  Without changing position Pupil A now explains to Pupil B how to complete the process on their worksheet by giving clear verbal instructions (they are not allowed to look at what Pupil B is doing)

Step 4: Pupil A and B look at the results and discuss the instructions given (were they specific?, were they clear?, how could they be more precise? how could they be improved), in order to refine and perfect them.

Step 5: (Here is where the ‘awkward mole’ comes in!)  You now invite a ‘random’ pupil to come up to the front and follow the instructions they are given by another member of the class to demonstrate how to complete the process in front of the class.  Unknown to the rest of the class you have primed the ‘random pupil’ to be your ‘awkward mole’ and instructed them to be as awkward as possible when following the other pupil’s instructions – to take instructions literally, to deliberately ‘misunderstand’ ambiguous instructions and so on.  The onus is then on the pupil giving the instructions to refine their thinking and instructions until they succeed in getting the mole to ‘get it right’!

In one case a pupil instructed the mole to ‘draw an arc’, so that’s what he did with Noah and the animals too!

You can prime more than one pupil to be your mole in the lesson and don’t forget to reverse the roles for pupils A and B so they both get a turn.

Featured image: Mick E. Talbot, Mr Mole, CC BY-SA 3.0