The Kagan Method: teaching’s Holy Grail?

The first time I heard the word ‘Kagan’ was not a positive experience; a parent of one of my tutees (also a teacher) warned me of the impending hell when I told her that an entire INSET day had been dedicated to this newfangled teaching method. Thankfully, she was wrong! The training, delivered by Gavin Clowes from Teacher To Teacher (UK) Ltd. was engaging, creative and very thought-provoking.

Nobody is left behind

Kagan Cooperative learning, developped by Dr Spencer Kagan and associates, is a teaching and learning method designed to actively engage all students in their learning throughout a lesson. The underpinning idea is that, if all students are actively involved at each point during their lesson, their results will improve and behavioural issues will diminish greatly.

Kagan, however, isn’t just a philosophy; it’s also a collection of useful independent learning activities that can be used by teachers of all subjects with classes of all abilities. The characterising feature of each activity is that every student has something to do at every moment, meaning (for the MFL classroom) that everyone is practising their language skills at the same time!

Pick your activity

Kagan activities are not all suitable for the MFL classroom; they rely heavily on peer-to-peer discussion and the sharing of ideas and opinions between students, which requires too advanced a level of language for most MFL students. Some of the activities also lack the structure required for supporting student-to-student conversations in the target language. Some activities, however, are ideal for teaching foreign languages; here are my top three favourites:

  1. Quiz-Quiz-Trade
    Students circulate, each with a card with a target language phrase and its English translation written upon it. They pair up, and partner A reads the target language phrase. Partner B responds with the translation and then they swap roles. Partners then swap cards and circulate again before finding another partner and repeat the process. This activity is ideal for practising new vocabulary and ensuring that all students repeat a range of phrases.
  2. RallyCoach
    In pairs, students have one worksheet and one pen. They take it in turns to solve one problem each, explaining to their partner how they are solving the problem as they go. This activity works particularly well for grammatical constructions (negation, conjugation &c.) and is ideal for peer mentoring, when a stonger student is sat with a weaker student.
  3. Carousel Feedback
    This activity works best with a timer running. I have adapted it slightly in MFL lessons by combining it with another Kagan activity (RoundTable) to provide the necessary structure mentioned above: in groups of four, students take it in turns to add one idea to a mind map (for example nouns to complete the sentence Dans mon école idéale, il y a…). When the timer runs out, each group stands up and moves around the room, looking at other groups’ mind maps and noting down answers that they hadn’t thought of.

Don’t go calling Arthur

Despite the title of this post, I cannot unequivocally say that Kagan is the ‘Holy Grail’ of education; of the 36 activities elaborated by Kagan, only a handful are suitable for MFL teaching. The activities are also a bit samey, and if all teachers in the school start using them, students get quickly bored (five bouts of Quiz-Quiz-Trade in a day can be quite boring! Although this does make one reflect on the overuse of PowerPoint…). Nonetheless, Kagan training is an essential tool for every modern teacher’s arsenal, and the Kagan Cooperative Learning handbook is a must buy for any department.

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Earworms: infecting language learners with song

We all know how annoying a catchy tune can be; I was sleepily driving along the A28 last week when my trainee decided to put DiscoBitch’s C’est beau la bourgeoisie on the iPod at full pelt. I spent the rest of the day teaching KS3 with the words “I’m a bitch” rolling around my head on a loop. For the creative MFL teacher, however, this curse can be turned into a golden advantage.

Invading your students’ involuntary memory

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we fill our lessons with expletive-ridden rap in order to drive them mad. In fact, it’s not the words of the song I’m interested in; it’s the music.

Dr Daniel J Levitin of McGill University in Montreal remarks that songs are easier to remember than words alone, because of the combination of melody, rhythm and rhyme… and what’s more, he points out that this is nothing new; before the ‘invention’ of written language around 5 000 years ago, songs were a number-one way to remember and transmit information.

According to Dr Vicky Williamson, memory expert at Goldsmith’s University in London, ‘stuck-song syndrome’ or ‘Earworm’ sets off involuntary triggers in our memories, which can result in a song remaining lodged in our consciousness for days on end.

More information on the science behind earworms (and my source!) can be found here.

Teaching grammar with songs

Ok, ok, I’ll stop boring you with neuroscience. The point is that this inherent ability to more easily memorise words set to music can be a invaluable tool for the Modern Foreign Languages teacher.

I try not to overkill the singing method however; we all know how quickly a well-loved activity can bore a class to tears if it is used one time too many. I therefore use songs to teach the one thing that students find the hardest – grammar!

The key to using songs in the classroom is to pick something the students know; the last thing you want to be doing is spending an hour teaching them the notes when you could choose something they already sing backwards in front of the bathroom mirror while their mothers bang frantically on the door and beg them to use their hairbrushes on their hair and not as a microphone.

Monsieur M’s top tips

Using pop songs in your lessons is not difficult, and you don’t need to be Education’s answer to Katherine Jenkins or Jonas Kauffmann to do it; it just takes a bit of confidence and the ability to have a laugh, albeit sometimes at your own expense! Here are my top three tips to help you get started:

  1. Don’t play around with the music!
    The whole reason this method works is because the students already know the rhythms and melodies of the songs that you choose, so changing these to fit in with your words, no matter how slightly, will confuse them and detract from the sticking power of the song.
  2. Keep it simple!
    Chanting all conjugated forms of the principal modal verbs in the space of five seconds may be your party trick, but you’ll be lucky if the kids can manage the first three pronouns! My general rule-of-thumb is to use the verses for model sentences and the chorus for the conjugation of the tense in question, or the main grammar point that I’m teaching. Check out the song lyrics I’ve posted above for some ideas.
  3. Trust in yourself!
    Yes, yes – it would be hard to get cheesier than that, but you’d be surprised how far a little confidence will go. You don’t have to be a great singer to do this – just accept your tone deafness and scream the lyrics out. The kids will probably fall about laughing, but as soon as they see they you’re laughing too, the new competition will be to find who can sing worse than you! As long as they’re all getting stuck in, your song will succeed.

Good luck!

UPADTE! Check out recordings of my songs on my YouTube channel: MonsieurRMc.

Exams & Boards: which ones work?

Our school is, in many respects, the county’s only true comprehensive; in an area with such a widespread system of selection, most high-schools only draw from a catchment that has already had the highest achieving students ‘creamed off’.

This, however, is not a rant about selective education (I happen to be somewhat of a fan – unsurprising considering my own background). But teaching as I do in a school which draws from a neigbouring county with no selective education, I am confronted with the problem that my job is to engage and enthuse students of all ability ranges, and, hopefully, encourage them to continue studying a language for GCSE (in our school, languages are not compulsory). Once again, no ranting to be found – of course that’s my job.

The rub is that, with such a relatively low uptake at GCSE (one of my middle-set KS3 classes had an uptake rate of 25%) we are unable to stream students at GCSE level. The result is a class of hugely mixed ability (87% projected A*-C, but with students ranging from A* to E grades) which are all forced to sit a GCSE course.

Two questions therefore present themselves:

1/ is it fair to make all students who have a passion to study languages sit a GCSE course, as opposed to alternative qualification pathways?

2/ which GCSE course should we have them follow?

Please feel free to post your own thoughts on these questions.

GCSEs vs NVQs

When I was at school, NVQs were reasonably new, and risibly labelled as Not Very Qualifieds. My friends and I were, admittedly, a tad precocious and had been well fed on the idea that we belonged to the top 25% of society by our teachers. This condescending view of NVQs definitely marked me and, until recently, had even endured into the first years of my teaching career. This is, happily, no longer the case.

The problem with GCSEs is that the centralised syllabus forces teachers to cover topics that have little relevance to pupils’ lives or interests. What’s more, the new(ish) assessment set-up requires excessive amounts of the use of a range of complex language structures that would probably not be used all together in real life. How, then, can teachers offer qualifications that are both relevant and manageable for lower ability students?

The answer appears to be the NVQ. The advantages of the NVQ are that:

  • students can simultaneously enter different skills for different levels (eg: Speaking Level 2, Listening Level 3),
  • language study can be linked to a relevant area of vocational study,
  • assessment for each level can be undertaken & evidenced whenever the student is ready.

GCSE vs iGCSE           

I will not, I know, be the only teacher with an underlying couche of rage bubbling away whenever I see the Edexcel logo. This rage is perhaps a little ungenerous, since I teach and actually quite like their A Level French syllabus (despite some interesting marking weightings). But the fiasco surrounding the controlled coursework modules of their ‘new’ MFL GCSE has left a very bitter taste in many a teacher’s mouth.

The new controlled assessments, designed to replace the previous controlled and non-controlled coursework tasks, are as flawed as their predecessors; they take up huge amounts of time to administer; they evaluate unrealistic assessment criteria, simultaneously requiring students to use every single structure they have ever learnt; most schools’ Key Stage structures will mean that students have to sit a number of these assessments before they have completed a full programme of study. How is it fair to expect a student to sit a controlled assessment when they haven’t learnt everything they would need to be able to achieve the top marks?

Conversly, the Cambridge iGCSE, until now largely the province of Independent Schools, assesses students in each of the four core skills at the end of their course of study. Each assessment is designed to test listening, reading, speaking and writing skills of different levels and the positivie marking system rewards students for correctly used language.

Whilst I still have to decide whether it is worth persuading my department to switch to both NVQs and the iGCSE, this issue has certainly given me something to think about. If anybody else has experience working with either qualification in languages, their contribution to the debate would certainly be welcome!

What do you think?