The 30-second briefing: What are Kagan structures?

In this week's instalment of her series looking at teaching ideas and theory, Sarah Wright tells you everything you need to know about Kagan structures

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What are Kagan structures?

Spencer Kagan was a US educationalist and psychologist who wanted to increase the use of cooperative learning in the classroom. To achieve this, he created a bank of simple step-by-step activities, or “structures”, to give more purpose to group work.

Don’t we do enough group work already?

Well, the Kagan theory works on the idea that classrooms are still very teacher-driven places with children all sitting in rows…

My desks are arranged in a horseshoe. Why should I listen to this guy?

Kagan makes the point that with traditional questioning strategies, where the teacher poses questions and pupils put their hands up, only one child at a time gets to answer. His strategies work on the principle that all children should be actively engaged and equal participants in learning.

Rather bizarrely, he refers to children as “hogs” or “logs”. A “hog” is the kid who has their hand up before you’ve uttered a single syllable of a question, while the “log” is reluctant to volunteer and is all too happy to let others dominate.

OK…How do we stop the hogs from taking over?

Kagan suggests that we put children in too many competitive situations, when we should be encouraging them to collaborate. His activities are designed to make group work more structured, giving each child a specific role and responsibility. The idea is that this will raise engagement and, on the tail of that, achievement.

What are the activities like?

They encourage children to debate, collaborate and participate. The truth is, you’ve probably tried and tested many of them in your classroom without knowing it. Strategies like “think, pair, share” and “corners” come from Kagan.

In some instances, the structures seem to favour pure enjoyment rather than focusing on the learning. Engagement is vital in a primary classroom, but some of the structures are a little conceited. I’d suggest they are better for refreshing the techniques you use, rather than revolutionising them.

Would it get a battering on Twitter then?

Put it this way: I certainly wouldn’t start referring to children as “hogs” and “logs” on my feed any time soon.

Should I be giving it a go?

Unless you are a teacher who has their children in rows and does nothing but question from the front, this isn’t going to set your practice on fire. Worth a snoop, but nothing ground-breaking.

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University. She tweets as @Sarah__wright1

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