We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Ursla Le Guin (1929-2018)

National Book Foundation speech, 2014

The Only Thing?

I like stories. Here is one:

Once upon a time there was a wise man. He was responsible for inequality control. Every year he would receive a quantity of empty vessels. Carefully he'd place the vessels into a large pot of water and heat. At the end of the year he'd examine the vessels. Some would shine and he would praise them. Many would be chipped or cracked, the heat too much. These vessels he simply threw away. After all, he knew that every year he would have some more.

I also like quotations. Here are two:

Teachers questions, like their tests, are traps.
Winning isn't everything – it's the only thing

The first is from the late John Holt, homeschooling advocate and author of Teach Your Own. The second is from the late Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers NFL team. You may be wondering about the connection, you may even be wondering about the story, but at this moment I'm thinking about the Berlin Wall.

A long time ago I was struggling to learn German. I'd chosen to do German because doing German meant I had one less science subject to deal with. By the age of 15 I had learned to loath science. I just never got on with the teachers. I didn't really get on with the German teacher either, and I certainly wasn't inspired to learn much German, but the lessons were marginally more tolerable than French. Watching woodworm eat my school desk would have been more tolerable than French, but that's another story.

One day the German teacher asked us about the Berlin Wall. I can't remember why but he wanted to know who could describe the Berlin Wall. I rarely volunteered to answer questions but, this time, I wanted to answer. I was certain I knew the answer – My father had been to Berlin and had described going through the Wall. In my mind the Wall divided East Germany from West Germany, it ran through the city and the city was split by the border. From my father's description I hadn't realized that Berlin was completely inside East Germany. The teacher scoffed at my answer. I was humiliated. Not that that was new. School was a daily dose of minor humiliations, but this time I had done it to myself, and that hurt. I guess that's why I remember it even now, decades later.

Oh, teachers, be wary of your words.

And be wary of your actions. In terms of cause and effect, in terms of learning, what we teach is insignificant compared to how we teach it. For me this is the real strength of Dr. Spencer Kagan's structural approach. It clearly recognizes that content and the way of presenting the content (structure) are separate. Structure acts as a container for content. Structure shapes the interaction between students, and between the students and the teacher. Personally I feel that the interaction between people takes precedence over the interaction between the student and the content. I'll elaborate.

I work in Japan, primarily with young children (ages 2-6). I do English with them. That is, we play through using English. Now, if two children want to use a toy at the same time, resolving the dispute takes precedence over using the toy. Resolving the conflict must come first, and the way the conflict is resolved will almost certainly have a longer-lasting effect on a child than what is gained by using the toy. So a lot of what I do is helping children to accept differences and sort out conflicts. Accordingly I don't initiate the use of competitive games because these structures are inherently contradictory to this kind of problem-solving. Having said this, if children want to play a competitive game that is another matter. Their freedom of choice supersedes any program I may have. The reason for this is simple. I believe in freedom. For me, the idea of compulsory education is something of an oxymoron. “The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders," says school reform advocate John Taylor Gatto, former New York State Teacher of the Year and three-time New York City Teacher of the Year; and I tend to agree. Learning of content is incidental to the actual structure of most schools. As Spencer Kagan has pointed out, there is always a structure present in the classroom whether the teacher recognizes this consciously or not. But further, there is always the structure of the school and classroom structures sit inside this. The structure of the school is remarkably similar to that of a prison, or if not a prison then a farm.

Here is another story. When I was 16 the deputy head of the school I was attending decided that I should study for the Oxbridge Exams - the school wanted me to go to Oxford University and taking the Oxbridge Examination was a requirement. As the school had previously made me do various official examinations early I had quite a few free periods. Since I lived close by I began returning home when I had no scheduled class. One day I was called to the headmaster's office, where he politely requested that I restrict my comings and goings to the school's break times. So there was the headmaster, condoning my breaking the school rules. I was willing to agree to the headmaster's request though I couldn't understand his logic. He thought it would be less disruptive if I left at break time but, in effect, it meant that more students saw me coming and going. There was no justice in the situation, no democracy, just power. I was allowed to break the rules because the school wanted something from me.

What kind of learning is that?

How often does it happen in your school?

Depending upon where we choose to work, the degree to which we can promote freedom is restricted. We are more likely to be able to control the structures we use within the classroom than to effect the larger structure of the school itself. For myself I am very wary of using structures that promote the teacher as a centre of learning or authority. I'm very suspicious of structures that instill the habit of obedience. I especially despise the situation where the teacher asks the class a question and the students raise their hands to answer. This is not only authoritarian, it is competitive. I've seen children race to raise their hands to be called on, only to forget what the actual question was in the first place. Students can become more intent on winning the attention of the teacher than knowing the answer. Moreover, the question is invariably a test. If I point at a picture of a jackal and say, “What's this?” I've created a test. Students know that I know the answer, so why am I asking? Those who know have no reason to answer except to please me, curry favour or show off. Those who don't know are having their ignorance pushed in their faces. This wouldn't be the case if the question were genuine. Accordingly, I sometimes play a game with children where I put flashcards on my forehead and ask “What's this?” without being able to see the picture on the card. But this still doesn't remove the competition. For that, another structure is required, and here it is in sequence:


  1. Students who know, whisper to those who don't, so everyone knows.
  2. Teacher asks a question.
  3. Those who know the answer stand.
  4. Students who know the answer walk over to one seated student and whisper the answer.
  5. Students receiving the answer stand and whisper to another seated student.
  6. Process continues until all students are standing.
  7. Teacher gives a countdown, and all students simultaneously shout the answer.

Of course, it's possible that two or more answers might be generated, in which case the shout won't be simultaneous. In this case it would be up to the class to determine how to reach a consensus or think about ways to find the answer. But I think this structure sidesteps the competition inherent in the traditional approach while also reducing the role of teacher as authority.

Ideally I believe that Whisper should be unnecessary, as there are more democratic structures available. Having said this, teachers tend to be creatures of habit, and old habits can be tough to cast aside. It's all too easy to ask a class question and create a competition. Whisper offers a chance to replace a competitive structure with a non-competitive one.

I've said I liked stories. Actually there is some doubt about whether Vince Lombardi ever made his ‘winning' quote. Perhaps it is just a myth, though apparently he later said, “I wish to hell I'd never said the damned thing.” Either way, here is another quote from him:

Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.

And I think the same can be said for freedom.

January 2004
Kagan Online Magazine

Special thanks to Spencer Kagan for writing the action steps of the Whisper Structure