Let’s Keep This Simple

Several years ago, for about 18 months, a wave of professional development came through our school that focused on Kagan Cooperative Learning Structures. We got trainings, and books, and flip cards filled with structures with cute little names on them.

And it all seemed very… I don’t know… complicated.

Now, Cooperative Learning is a fantastic model, especially if the contexts are rich enough to make the interactions necessary. However, the Kagan model has changed the game a little bit, and I’m not sure if it is for the better. It seems to me that there are some problems with looking at cooperative learning in this way.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example from my class.

This morning, I knew three things:

1. I needed a good, quick, formative assessment of what my classes knew about right triangle trigonometry and what they didn’t.

2. To get that, I needed to engage them in a variety of simple problem-solving activities.

3. On a Monday morning like this, the last week before spring break, the Monday after the first weekend of March Madness, the first Monday in a while without snow on the ground, the week of the first sporting events of the spring season here in Michigan…

They were NOT going to engage sitting in their seats doing a quiz.

Sitting still wasn’t going to work out today.

So, I took the different types of situations I wanted, created nine different problems, printed them on sheets of paper and taped them around my room.

The I grouped the students and sent them around the room to solve one problem every 2-4 minutes and then report back what they were confident with, so-so with, and confused about.

I still needed to assess them.

According to Kagan, I used a Modified Gallery Walk with a possible Rally Coach with a likely Carousel Feedback. It was effective because it followed the PIES framework of Positive Interdependence, Individual Accountability, Equal Participation and Simultaneous Interaction (Kagan, 2009).

So, I taped the problems to the wall one question and a time and sent them around the room.

I don’t want to sound like I am making fun of Kagan. I’m not. A ton of R & D went into creating the program, the vocab, and the resources. But, at least in this case, we’ve taken a fairly simple principle of knowing what your class needs and being flexible and WILDLY over-complicated it with a ton of gimmicky-sounding vocabulary.

But teachers need to have a variety activities to use in order to be flexible, right? Without programs like Kagan, where do they go to get them?

How about the expert down the hall?

We as a teaching culture have lost the value of the classroom observation. In the schools I’ve been in, teachers hardly ever get a chance to see each other teach. It could be that this is what has caused the need for books, seminars, and flip-cards. We aren’t letting our teachers share. Seeing what the masters of the craft do when there are 25 real, live students in their room is a whole different experience… a powerful experience… an experience that we are leaving on the table.

I have been mentored by three different teachers. I was NEVER directed by my principal to observe them teach. I have mentored two different teachers. I had to ask special permission, and make all the arrangements in order to observe them or to have them observe me. It shouldn’t be this way.

When we over-complicated things, they become confusing and overwhelming. We’ve been forced into this by not letting our novice teachers watch the master teachers at work. It seems reasonable to assume that the example set by the expert next door will spread good practice a lot farther than the 400-page book that never gets read.