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How to make your class more interactive – part 1: Kagan and stations

Teaching is hard. There’s a lot you have to get through and always, not enough time. 

It’s easy to fall into a routine, and that routine can become a rut. More often than not, that rut is one of endless independent work, largely done on worksheets. 

No doubt this is an efficient way to teach, but not really the most exciting (for you or your learners). Worse, in a world of increasing teamwork and community, it leaves learners without these vital skills. 

Many of us remember the way group work once went: one kid did most everything (because they knew how) and everyone else messed about. It wasn’t very much more engaging than independent work. 

Take heart! These are not your only options. 

In this series of blogs we’re going to look at ways to increase interaction and develop community learning in your class. The first options we’re looking at are: Kagan Structures and Learning Stations. 

What are Kagan Structures?

Kagan structures are, well, structured ways for students to interact. 

That means each learner has a specific role and tasks that they need to complete in order for the overall assignment/task to be completed. 

What does that mean? Well, let’s look at a compare and contrast scenario. 

In traditional group work, the educator gives the group a task to complete, such as read the passage and answer the questions as a group. There’s no structure there. Any learner can read, any learner can write answers, any learner can say what they think the answer is, and no learner has the express job to check to see if they’re correct. In traditional group work, the lack of structure often leads to one or two learners taking charge and doing everything.

This style doesn’t build community. It builds resentment. 

The learner “doing all the work” may feel put upon. The learners who may have needed more time, or were less outgoing may feel passed over or unimportant. No one feels great. 

The learning has not been improved. Bad day at the office for all involved.

Now, Kagan structures, on the other hand, give every learner a specific task that only they may do. In the same scenario you may use a structure like Rally Table (the structures all have names). 

In this scenario, students take turns making contributions. One learner may read a paragraph, the next learner may think of an answer to a reading question from that paragraph, the next checks the answer for accuracy and the last learner writes it down. 

After that, the roles rotate to the next learners. (If you read, you speak; if you spoke, you check; if checked you write and if you wrote, you read). You keep passing roles until the task is complete. 

No one can take over, and no one can be skipped. It leaves learners feeling they can be a help to each other. 

In addition, Kagan makes sure all of the roles are equally important so everyone feels they contributed something and got something valuable back.

It really turns up the warm and fuzzies in your learners.

How do Kagan structures work?

Kagan structures work by fostering community and trust between learners. You can’t really tear them out of their context. 

Kagan includes whole class, group and partner bonding activities that serve as brain breaks and trust building activities. 

Kagan doesn’t pick groups randomly either. There’s extensive guidance on how to best pair and group your students to maximize how well they interact with one another. 

It also has tons of structures and variations you can use for a wide variety of tasks. No matter what you’re teaching there will be a Kagan structure you can use. They range from ways to adapt a mundane worksheet, to full projects. 

Kagan trainings are pretty popular in education (I learned about them from one) but they also offer pretty comprehensive materials for the curious. 

They also place a large importance on building community. Before trying structures for academics, Kagan recommends practicing them with fun topics as well as doing class and team-building.

How can I incorporate Kagan into my practice?

Kagan is best implemented systematically. If you look into them and really love them, you may want to invest a summer going to a training and then reworking your lesson plans to incorporate these structures. 

But, if you’re flying the plane while you’re building it (as many of us are!) It’s ok to start small. Pick up a book. Make some good groups and start with one whole class builder a month, and a team or partner building activity every week.

Pick no more than 3 structures that work well with what you teach and start to pepper them in every week or so. Once you and your learners are comfortable with that, add more. 

Although the books and trainings will tell you this is a system that must be implemented with fidelity, the truth is that even a little of it really helps with learner engagement and interaction. 

Let yourself grow into it! Like most things it can be a learning process.

What are learning stations?

Learning stations can be many things. They can be a way of chunking tasks. They can be a way to build intrigue. They can work like an adventure. They can also be a series of worksheets in sad, manilla file folders. 

At their heart, a station is just a small task that can be completed in any order. They can be placed around the room so learners need to travel to them, or they can travel around through the learners.  

Like with group work, they are only as good as the roles and structures they contain. Bad stations are just travel-based group work. Good stations make the learner feel immersed in a problem or a question.

Ideal stations would have a theme. One of my favorite ones I ever saw was treating a Plebeian uprising in ancient Rome like a crime scene. 

Each station had a clue about what happened, told from a different “witness’s” point of view, or a photo or a chart that gave a clue as to what happened. At the end they made a big poster with lines drawn between clues and statements to draw a conclusion. 

It took something that could have been a dry reading and turned it into a pretty gripping mystery. 

Stations are a good way to add context to something you’re studying. If you’re teaching a book, like Night, stations can be used to look at different aspects of life in Nazi germany. Your stations can have discussion questions, tasks to complete or personal reflections on the artifacts at hand. 

Stations are best when they take something macro and help students look closely at its component parts.

How are they different from Kagan structures?

As I mentioned above, a station is just roving group work if you leave it unstructured. 

Stations actually work amazing with Kagan structures. 

Got a group discussion task at one station? Try talking chips

Got a station where you review some material? Try fan and pick

Since Kagan Structures are excellent at making students all have specific and valuable roles they work beautifully in station activities.

Do you have to use Kagan structures? Of course not. If your stations are part of some sort of fanciful role play, the roles can come pretty naturally. 

If you tell them they’re all museum staff who will need to create an exhibition based on the information from the stations, you can have a curator, who decides what’s going in and why, a writer, who creates the words on the wall (and maybe the guide), a designer who lays out the guide and exhibition and the preparator who puts all the elements into the exhibition. Each learner has a valuable task and has to listen to everyone else and learn together to create a coherent “exhibition”. 

If you’re not creating something quite that elaborate, I’d stick to Kagan structures though. They’re very handy.

How can I incorporate them into my practice?

Now stations can be as high or low maintenance as you’d like. 

They work wonderfully as a review activity. You can place something (like a problem or a diagram, etc) in a folder and then have the students and their partners explain how it fits in with their learning.

If you’re feeling like going big you can include role playing and multi-day phases with a culminating project like a play or a diorama. 

If you’re just starting out, I like the ones that kind of split the difference. Take a bunch of smaller things and break them up. 

Create stations that have them practice those skills or look at that information in different ways. Use Kagan structures at some of the stations, others can be more straight-forward worksheet type things. 

Put them around your class so students have to move to them. Set a timer for the start of the activity and another to clean up the station. 

As you get more confident you can build them up into more grand adventures.

You’ve got this!

Be patient with yourself and have fun exploring. Read through a Kagan book or pin some fun station ideas. 

Start small and manageable. You can create stations that just have a different discussion question at each where students write their group consensus before they leave. 

If you’re going from completely independent learning to groups and stations there will be hiccups, but embrace that as part of the learning and exploration process. Be honest with your learners that you’re learning too, and trying to make their class more engaging. They’ll likely be more patient with you too. 

Sometimes it’s just fun to break out of your rut and try something new. Don’t be scared! You’ve totally got this!

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