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.


Sparta Students Speak Out

Our students have been involved with Teaching Matters, a non-profit group based out of New York City, for about three months now. Teaching Matters, among the many services they provide for a fee to a district, hosts a free website called Writing the City, where middle school writing can be showcased. We have about seven active pages, with several more pending submission of student work. It is password protected, and teachers have the right to restrict whether or not a story is made public, or kept private so only space members can see it. They also have the opportunity to make it a feature, which then opens it up to be placed on the front page of Writing the City.

Mainly language arts teachers in our middle school have been using it for various genres, but recently one of our 8th grade science teachers did some individual research on federal regulation of roller coasters at amusement parks and found some interesting data. Once she shared this with her students, the idea to write their Senators and appeal to them to change the way the government regulates the rides was hatched. Mrs. Ciolino then approached me about whether or not Writing the City would be an appropriate venue. Any chance I get to show off student work, or rather have the students put themselves out there for a wider audience, I immediately take. Check out the public letters here.

In my initial presentation to the students, I pose a simple question to them: how many people do you expect to read the stories or essays you write for class? The standard answer is between 2 and 4 (teacher, student, peer-reviewer, and maybe parents). I then ask them if they knew their story or essay was going to be read by 20, 30, 40, or in one case 1600 people, would they do anything different when they were engaged in the writing process? Overwhelmingly they agree that they would. Audience, magnified like that, appeals to the sense of community and identity that middle school and high school children have; their “story” becomes a part of who they are in the society of school. The power of those numbers has a legitimate affect on student performance; I don’t have the academics to prove that yet, but it is something I am seeing through this experience.

The hands-down best part of this has been on days when I am in classes showing them how to post their first story and they start seeing their work appear online. They go nuts, but then things quiet down as more stories are posted, until the room is nearly silent. They are reading each other, like they never would have before.

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