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Speak easy

Ian Jamison discovers a sure way to fire up the logs and pen the hogs.As an RE teacher, I'm always on the look-out for new ways of managing class discussion - I'm sure we're all familiar with the experience of having one or two students paying attention and the others merely somnolent.

A couple of years ago, I encountered Cooperative Learning Structures - ways to get pupils working together developed by Spencer Kagan - and have been impressed with the way that it consistently and radically boosts student engagement at all levels.

It's especially helpful when dealing with complex topics at A-level, such as Vedic religion within Hinduism, or those big difficult philosophical questions (such as "what does it mean to be a good person") because it gives students a chance to revisit their learning through rapid, structured discussion.

These are two very simple structures for improving discussion:

1 Stand up. Hand up. Pair up

Students all stand up and raise their hands to indicate that they are looking for a partner. At this point, you can "engineer" the couples. When they pair up, they give their partner a high-five and wait for the next instruction.

2 Rally Robin

Students are given a question or problem to think about based on what they've just been taught ("think time" is important - a few seconds are perfectly adequate) and then discuss it for a set amount of time, alternating their responses as in a tennis rally. At the end, introduce an opportunity for praise. For example: if your partner told you something that you had forgotten, give them a high-five and tell them they're amazing. If one student gets something wrong, their partner should not interfere but wait until their turn to correct the mistake.

"So what?" I hear you cry - why is this better than the paired discussion I use all the time?

By getting the students to stand up and move about, you are introducing some energy and novelty into the lesson; by introducing a timed rally, you are reducing "hogs and logs" - those who either dominate or opt out of discussion. Everyone takes part. You are also making them feel safe - they are only sharing their ideas with one other person - while putting them under pressure to perform.

Regular use of this technique helps students overcome fears of speaking in front of others and you dramatically increase the chances that new information is retained. By getting them to praise each other, you are positively reinforcing their learning

It's a simple approach but it has huge impact. I've been teaching RE for 15 years and I'm pretty lively in class, but I feel I've only been most effective during the past two years when I've been using these methods

Ian Jamison is head of RE at Kingsbridge Community College, Kingsbridge, Devon. He is a 2007 Teaching Award winner

No cheating

Don't adapt, change or do your own version. These structures have been developed to embody simple but important principles.

These are just two of over 200 structures developed by Dr Spencer Kagan. For more information, visit www.kaganonline.com.

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