Thursday, 11 April 2013

Part 3: Traditional versus Kagan teaching approaches

As a teacher, questions contribute to our perception of understanding and learning. For many practitioners, once a concept has been described or an equation has been explained to students, a question will follow to test, gauge and reinforce the class’s understanding. Yet for many classes the same students will put their hands up, often the highest achievers or more confident public speakers. And once answered, the teacher is no better off. Even random selection can provide little value and insight into the class’s individual level of learning.

In this, the final article of our 3-part series on Kagan structures we delve deeper into the way that Kagan strutures are being applied, how they complement new styles of flipped classroom teaching and consider whether they serve as a replacement or supplement to traditional teaching techniques.

The risk here is that an unrepresentative sample will give an illusion that all students are ‘getting it’, when in reality the majority are not.

Creating authentic assessment with Kagan structures
Take a typical class size of 30 students: the teacher asks a question, nine hands go up and the teacher selects one student to answer. This tells the teacher that one student gets it but offers no insight into the other 29 learners. Kagan structures have been billed as a way of changing this, replacing lecturing with group collaboration and teacher observations, enabling the teacher to become a facilitator – gauging each student’s understanding and learning through face-to-face, informal assessment.

In their most simplified form, traditional teaching techniques are essentially made up of three basic principles: teaching content, testing knowledge and assessing understanding and performance. Flipped classroom teaching has already shown us that teachers can use complementary resources to teach students curriculum content. However, to develop authentic assessment and reinforcement, traditional techniques have been questioned over their reliability.

Traditional teaching techniques have come under increasing pressure from critics for their reliance on inauthentic assessment, whereby the class is dominated by the higher achievers and those more willing to speak in public. Proponents of Kagan structures offer an interesting alternative which uses group collaboration and problem-solving to test students’ understanding, engage them in cooperative learning and delivers an immediate and more complete method of assessment.

Not another training programme?

Teachers are over-burdened with constant threats of national curriculum reform, government-enforced initiatives and consistently high demands placed on performance tables. The pressure to deliver and implement new programmes is relentless, with often little time to prepare and pilot new teaching methods or lesson plans. Added to this are periodic evaluation and assessment from Ofsted on how well they fair against set performance criteria.

We’re not here to boost teachers’ egos but they do undergo a range of challenges that make trialling alternative teaching techniques a difficult prospect.

For Kagan advocates, however, this new approach does not add another programme to their list of pressures but instead offers a way to relieve their existing ones. What distinguishes Kagan from most other teaching methods is that it’s not a lesson-based approach. Cooperative learning should not be a one-off lesson structure but rather an integrated part of a teacher’s toolkit, used to transform student engagement and provide efficiencies.

The focus of Kagan structures is not to dramatically change and add complex layers but rather to develop an active, fun and collaborative approach – practitioners can deliver any level of content or subject curriculum, moulding a lesson to the learning objectives desired.

According to Dr Spencer Kagan, by these means Kagan structures do not create another thing to teach, but instead offer an easier way of teaching.

Preparing students for the workplace

The National Careers Service (NCS) offer support and advice to young people in the UK to help them make decisions on learning, training and work opportunities. Organisations such as the NCS have been formed to offer guidance to young people and encourage them to think about the transferable skills employers would find desirable. For many school-leavers the current economic climate has heightened competition for jobs, which is placing increasing pressure on individuals to develop their skill sets, and so become more attractive to potential employers.

While technical and academic performance is significant, employers are aware that these can be improved upon through training. However, softer skills such as responsibility, decision making, commitment and team working tend to be either personal characteristics or skills that have been fine-tuned over time.

By integrating Kagan structures in the classroom, students become actively involved in the learning process – listening, observing, communicating and engaging with their peers. Learners bounce off each other, working as a group to achieve a common goal and share in their success. For young people, these techniques can drastically improve their softer skills, helping them to improve and develop more advanced tools of communication, transferable in higher education contexts and the workplace.

Kagan classrooms have been found to facilitate personal development, enabling students not just to learn key, soft skills but to acquire them, building on them on a day-to-day basis.

Could you benefit from Kagan structures? Share your opinions and experiences.

Read related articles: 

Part 1: The benefits of Kagan classroom structures

Part 2: Examples of successful Kagan classroom structures