Kagan cooperative learning is built on a single tenet: engagement. When students are engaged and motivated, "learning sticks." In a Kagan classroom, all students must be engaged and accountable. There are, however, an overwhelming number of Kagan structures, and if you can't afford to attend expensive workshops, implementation may be difficult.
Full Participation Is the Driving Force
At first glance, this cooperative learning technique seems like traditional group work, but there's a major difference: It's impossible to hide in a Kagan classroom because each student must "participate frequently and approximately equally." Traditional teaching can lead to an ever-widening gap between high and low achievers, and the Kagan method aims to close that gap.
This model assumes that most teachers utilize direct instruction and then turn to the class for a question-and-answer portion. Usually, a few students answer the questions while the majority of the class remains disengaged. Kagan cooperative learning ensures that every student is actively involved.
Research on Kagan cooperative learning supports findings of "improved academic achievement, improved ethnic and race relationships, improved social skills and social relations, and increased liking for self, others, and school." Since these are goals for most schools, I thought it was worth exploring.
Structure Is the Kagan Foundation
Student interaction is at the core of the Kagan method, but it's not unstructured. Teachers are expected to implement Kagan Structures, which, according to the company website, are "instructional strategies designed to promote cooperation and communication in the classroom, boost students' confidence, and retain their interest in classroom interaction." Teachers aren't expected to stick with one Structure for learning; they can pick and choose the activities that will engage the different learning styles in their class. For example:
- Rally Coach is a Structure that requires students to pair up and take turns answering questions.
- To evoke longer responses, a teacher could use Timed Pair Share, where each student shares for a predetermined amount of time.
- To practice vocabulary, a teacher might implement Match Mine, where students sit behind barriers and one partner (the "sender") places items in arrangement. The other student (the "receiver") attempts to match their partner's arrangement, using only the sender's verbal instructions.
Further reading: What's the Most Effective Way to Learn?
The Realities of Using the Kagan Method
I wanted to know what real teachers had to say. Amazon reviews of the Kagan books are overwhelmingly positive: "Fantastic ideas! Very useful in today's classroom!" one reviewer wrote. Complaints centered around redundant ideas or the need for face-to-face implementation training.
After looking into it more thoroughly, I came up with these takeaways for any teacher interested in this method.
- Implementing Kagan Structures would require a great deal of training and practice; there are more than 200 Kagan Structures! I believe it would make the most impact if it were utilized throughout a district so students could have time to practice the techniques, and their skills would expand as they progress from grade to grade.
- It seems much better suited for grades K-8. In fact, the website—done in pink, blue, and yellow, with little cartoon characters—seems to cater to an elementary school audience. The book of Structures also boasts childish drawings and some rather elementary assignments that older students may find juvenile.
- The Kagan approach provides an array of techniques and Structures, but considering that teachers are overburdened with new initiatives and programs as it is, having enough time to learn, prepare, and implement them could be an issue.
- Most teachers already use cooperative learning in some way. I spoke with a few who said they learned most of these techniques in undergraduate and graduate school because engaging student-centered learning is a necessity these days. Even so, Kagan has value because it provides scripts that might make facilitating cooperative learning easier for educators, especially new teachers.
- There is a dizzying array of Kagan workshops offered around the country, and they're expensive. A one-day summer workshop in Fresno, California, for example, costs $219; a four-day workshop in the same location costs $749. School districts can also host workshops, and the price is only available upon request. However, after doing a bit of research, I found that it can be upwards of $35,000, so unless your school district has a great deal of money, this option is likely too costly.
Further reading: Accommodating Different Learning Styles
I remain intrigued by the Kagan cooperative learning method. Since my district could never afford the steep training prices, I plan on purchasing the Structures book whenever I have an extra $40 or an Amazon gift card. I believe there are some structures that a single teacher could implement into their classroom, and there are a few I'd be interested in adding to my repertoire.