When you get into school either today or tomorrow, whether it’s on your prep period, or during a walk through the halls, take note of who is doing the talking in your schools.  Is it the students?  The teachers?  Take this one into consideration as well:

Brains are more engaged when people are interacting with one another.

Are students interacting in your school?  Are they placed within situations that promote safe conversations and high-yield accountability?  What happens when these answers are “no?”

Kagan shared with us this image that clearly shows the activity within the brain when various learning tasks are going on.  What do you see?
Here’s what I see.

The person doing the talking is the person doing the learning.

Yes, I understand that I just wrote that on Saturday in reference to another session, but it is so much more telling when looking at these PET scans.

Try taking your next lesson plan, your next department meeting or faculty meeting (please do this there) and incorporate some cooperative learning structures into the process.  In looking back at this weekend, I am noticing a connection between two specific ideas: the Kagan structures and the Gradual Release of Responsibility model espoused by Fisher and Frey.  Here is that image once again:


Notice this: your direct instruction is not lost; you can hang onto your chalk and talk.  It just lives in a smaller space within your overall lesson or meeting structure.  That area where Fisher and Frey delineate at Guided Instruction and Collaborative Instruction is where the learning structures of Kagan reside.  So the flow goes “I-We-You(plural)-You(singular).”

Image Credits:

PET Scans: “Kagan Structures Enhance Brain Engagement!” images adapted from Rita Carter’s Mapping the Mind.

Gradual Release of Responsibility.  Image taken from this slidedeck.


Kagan’s Structures

Just a heads up: these next few posts are going to all deal with my time spent with Dr. Spencer Kagan.  His generosity in sitting down to answer my questions led to a bunch of information that would be irresponsible of me to put into one post.

For the second time in two days, I’ve been fortunate to sit down and have a truly transformative conversation.  Dr. Spencer Kagan, a psychologist and author of hundreds of books about using cooperative learning structures in schools, sat down with me after his session and we talked about the primitive needs of our brain and how they wreak havoc on modern learning, embedded curriculum and the lack of a separate curriculum for “21st Century Skills.”

Kagan’s session was based on this idea:

“unstructured interaction does not lead to equity in the classroom.”

and it forces you to think for a minute about what equity is, and what it means to decrease the gap in achievement in your classroom.  For me, when I begin thinking of that, or when I listen to a teacher talk about a class with children of widely varying abilities, I think of how difficult it becomes to make sure that beyond helping a child reach a year’s growth in a year’s time, but also making sure that the gap between the high-achievers and low-achievers is minimized.  In his session, Kagan showed us some examples of data he’s collected in which classrooms that had a huge achievement gap and were given direct instruction aimed at raising everyone’s test scores actually did work, only the gap between the high achievers and low achievers remained constant.  He then showed the same situation with an experimental group of a classroom that implemented true cooperative learning structures, and that gap nearly disappeared within a year’s time.


Cooperative Learning is based on four principles, according to Kagan and others, that fit into the nice pneumonic PIES:

  • Positive Interdependence – occurs when gains of individuals or teams are positively correlated.
  • Individual Accountability – occurs when all students in a group are held accountable for doing a share of the work and for mastery of the material to be learned.
  • Equal Participation – occurs when each member of the group is afforded equal shares of responsibility and input.
  • Simultaneous Interaction – occurs when class time is designed to allow many student interactions during the period.

Again, and I apologize if this is becoming a trend in my writing, this session focused on a lot of doing, coupled with some amazing information on how the brain worked.  Doing, rather than just sitting hearing about the theory, makes all of the difference in learning.  This was Kagan’s message overall.  Throughout the hour and half, we interacted in several ways with both those we did not know and those we did.  We used touch, interview, and most of laughter, to get ourselves in a ready state for learning to occur.

Whether you are an advocate of this theory, which I am, or not, it was hard to deny that the activities we engaged in: Sage and Scribe, Celebrity Interview, Hagoo, Take-Off/Touchdown, and a quiet signal, did not focus our attention and put us in a position to be receptive to learning not only from Kagan, but from our new colleagues as well.


Kagan, S (2007, February, 8). Simple Structures to Reduce the Achievement Gap. NCCREST, Retrieved March 16, 2009.

Great Example of Writing as an Assessment Tool

How can you tell if your students, and in my case, teachers, understood not only the content you asked them to study and apply, but also your assessment itself?  Our job is really simple when we get responses like the one below.  We asked our new teachers to blog about their use of cooperative learning in the classroom in response to last month’s session on that topic.  But we asked them to do it using the RAFT method where we gave them choices as to their Role, Audience, Format and Topic.  The choices ranged from the traditional to the non traditional, as you will see here.  Without further adieu:

Blackboard Rafting

Cooperative Learning R.A.F.T. – The blackboard speaks

Dear Resistant Teacher,

I know I’m kind of breaking the rules a bit here.

Most of the time you guys write to me. Or to be more accurate, you actually write ON me.

But I just wanted to shoot you a quick letter, and let you know what’s been going on in that idiot Jones’ class lately.

Some of this stuff has to be seen to be believed.

I know that you don’t really like Coop Learning, so I just thought I’d pass on this story to encourage you to keep a closed mind about it and keep all that mumbo jumbo out of your classroom. Believe me, it’s a complete waste of time.

You’re my last best hope. I know you’ve got the hard-headed sense to resist. Not like that damn hippie-wanna-be Mr. Jones. He actually buys into all that crap that Higgins and Sutherland keep pushing on him. What a loser!

So check this out.

Last week Jones is giving a test, right. Normal everyday kind of stuff.

But instead of cracking the whip and getting the kids to sit down, shut up, and work on their own – he’s got this whole touchy feely Cooperative Learning thing going on.

He has the kids playing some kind of review game. There all broken up into groups and coming up with questions to try to stump each other.

Of course, these little brats get all excited and start raising the volume. “Oh, I’ve got a great question!” and “Oooh, they’ll never get this one!”  It’s like a 3-ring circus in here. Everyone talking over eachother, raising their voices, learning on their own! What the hell?

First of all, isn’t it the teacher’s job to come up with questions? And aren’t the students supposed to keep their voices down in a classroom? I mean – really!

What is Jones thinking? That slacker’s working the room, stirring the kids up, letting THEM do all the work, while he sits back and does nothing. And they actually pay him for this.

And here’s the best part of the whole thing: Not a word is written on ME. Not a word!

I mean, hey, I don’t want to sound like a prima donna or something, but everybody knows I’M the star of the show, here. Am I wrong? Did I miss something?

The information is supposed to get written on ME! All eyes are supposed to be on ME, waiting for what I have to offer. But no. Not in Jones’ class. Kids are coming up with their own questions, writing on their own sheets of paper, challenging each other – with Jones sitting off to the side like some high school drop out in need of some direction.

Sure, the kids are excited and engaged – but that’s not what school is supposed to be about. Has everyone forgotten what school is for?

Teachers teach and kids shut up, listen, and take notes. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

And the Blackboard should be filled with notes, not sitting up here empty and out of the loop.

Kids these days! They’ve got no respect. And teachers are the worst of all. Because they should know better.

Anyway, I’m glad to know that you’re not going in for all this crap. It’s good to see that some of you guys still know how to treat a black board.

Times are tougher than ever. The pressure is on from every angle – especially those young rebels Higgins and Sutherland. But I’m here to tell you…don’t give in. Stay strong, man. You’re our last hope.

Yours truly,

Mr. B. Board

Using Cooperative Learning Structures to Teach Teachers

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Each month, we meet with our first year teachers in the district to help them adjust to the expectations and the rigors of being in the classroom everyday. I have spoken about this before, but the program uses Marzano, et al’s, book Classroom Instruction That Works as a framework for teaching strategies that are research-based and effective. More than anything we do instructionally, the workshops always help the teachers come together to discuss success and failure in their classrooms; it provides them with a support structure in which they can reflect on their practice and share their uncertainties about what they are doing.

Last month we spent some time with cooperative learning structures and how to use them to help students take responsibility for their own learning through collaboration. The feedback we got from that meeting was really positive, so this month we decided to use the structures as a means to teach the next theme in the book: Goal-Setting and Feedback.

One of the most significant parts of my own learning this year has been to make every attempt I can to be a practitioner of what I teach. You have read it here before: “Be the change you want to see in others.” So when we were planning this month, Dan and I created the sessions entirely around learning structures and reaching as many intelligences as we could. Here is a list of what we did and the accompanying structures:

  • Clock Buddies: as soon as they walked in we handed them appointment clocks on paper and asked them to make appointments at 12 (with someone not in your building), 3 (with someone in your building), 6 (someone in your subject area), and 9 (random). We used these throughout the session to organize ourselves.
    • this got them moving and engaging and really set the tone for their activity level for the day.
  • RAFT: Sternberg created this concept based on his three intelligences. What we did is ask the teachers to write an entry on their blog using the idea of choosing a Role (object in their classroom, a student in their classroom, an observing administrator), an Audience (a parent, an administrator, a reluctant c colleague, etc.) a Format (classified ad, instruction manual, letter to the editor, observation narrative, etc.) and write about a Topic (why should we use cooperative learning structures in the classroom?).
    • immediately it got them thinking differently because we asked them to reflect via a different modality then they were used to. A little cognitive dissonance is a good thing!
  • Walk and Talk: They read a section of the book on their own, then we used our 12 o’clock buddies and asked each group to do some guided reflection using a graphic organizer. However, we asked them to do it while on a Walk and Talk. Since yesterday was a gorgeous day here in New Jersey, we allowed them to walk anywhere on the school grounds, inside or out, and asked them to discuss the reading and fill in the graphic organizer as they strolled.
  • Wows and Wonders:” More reading was done independently and then we used our 3 o’clock buddies and paired the groups up to form larger groups. Since we were talking about goal setting, we asked each teacher to write a brief statement about how they use goal setting in their classroom. We then used a Round Robin format where they passed their statement to the left. Each person was responsible for writing a “Wow,” on the page and then passed it along to the next person in the circle until eventually they all received their own page back. We did the same again, only this time we asked each person to write a “Wonder,” statement on each other’s page.
    • This allowed everyone to get positive feedback, but also framed the constructive feedback in the form of a suggestive question, which works a lot better than a “you should have done this” statement.
  • Four Corners: After reading the feedback section in the book, we asked the teachers to pick one of the four research points made in the reading as the one that they would like to have a discussion about. Each corner of the room represented a different point. They moved to that corner and were asked to use a graphic organize to lead their discussion about that point.
  • Numbered Heads: as they discussed, we walked around and gave numbers to each group member. When it came time to wrap up, we picked numbers randomly and asked that that person tell us what their group discussed about a certain point within their topic.
    • this gave everyone time to add additional information to their organizer and hear points that pushed their own thinking.
  • Parking Lot: also as they were discussing feedback, Dan and I circled the room and distributed a blue and a yellow post-it not to everyone. We asked that on the yellow they tell us something about their own learning from the day’s session–what did you learn today? On the blue, we asked that they help us with our learning–what could we have done differently today? As they left the room for the day, they put the yellows on one wall and the blues on another.

We are in the process of sorting our notes out and going over the feedback (it was just yesterday), but I could already see that the teachers were engaged with one another at a level that we’d seen glimpses of before but couldn’t sustain. Also, on a selfish note, I did so much less talking, used so much less tech, and spent so much more time listening than I had in any of the the previous meetings.

If we are truly about changing the way our schools work, about reforming our practices to meet the needs of students, modeling said practices and methods should be the first order of business. Think of your next factulty meeting. How much will you move about the room to discuss an issue or concern or theory (trips to the food area don’t count)? Will the dialog be one-way, two-way, or circular and constant?

I realize that all meetings and sessions vary, and that decisions about presentation and lesson design are germane to the material itself, but when we can we should use what we know to produce lessons, meetings, professional development courses that we would want to sit through. Ask yourself, would you want to be in your class?