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.

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.

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.

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.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Keep This Simple

  1. Kagan is fantastic, the training that we got wasn’t. There were hundreds of different strategies you could have used that were Kagan based. I see people use Gallery Walks a lot and haven’t seen one used that made sense, I don’t see why people use them.

    But on to your real point, it is a shame that other teachers don’t sit in on others. I try to do it because I learn a lot by doing it and also it is good for the kids to see you in the classroom (not trying to toot my own horn). I did sit in on a 6th grade last week and took a spelling test, I may have got one wrong because I spelled deceived wrong. There are many teachers in your building that you can learn from, some what to do and others what not to do.

  2. I totally agree that observing other teachers in their craft is a missed opportunity for new and looking to improve teachers. I am in my first year teaching here in Michigan and my mentor teacher is great to talk to during and bounce ideas off of, but I really wish I could observe him teach a few of his mastered lessons. In my last week of my student teaching, I asked my cooperative teacher if I could observe the other math teachers in the building. By doing that, I picked up a on of great tips and ideas that I have now incorporated into my teaching.

    Part of becoming a greater teacher in my mind involves taking ideas and lessons from the teachers right in our building, but the opportunity to do that is sometimes not as accommodating as it should be.

    Ps, I was able to successfully give a post test this week that was the exact copy of a pre-test that my students took at the start of the year. I felt just as skeptical that they wouldn’t be able to keep it together but 4 out of 5 of my classes understood the meaning and how I wanted them to take it seriously…and they did great on it! The other class is…well…we all have that one class that we just can’t seem to figure out why they are the way they are.

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