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Team Teaching and Student Learning: A Rough-and-Tumble Enterprise

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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There\'s a messiness to team teaching that presents some of its biggest challenges, but also some of its most promising opportunities. Team teaching moves beyond the familiar and predictable and creates an environment of uncertainty, dialogue, and discovery. And that is what learning is all about



The posting below looks at the advantages of having various perspectives that result from team teaching. It is from the introduction by Kathryn M. Plank in the book, Team Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, edited by Kathryn M. Plank. Published in Association with The National Teaching and Learning Forum. Copyright© 2011 by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Team Teaching and Student Learning: A Rough-and-Tumble Enterprise


Our knowledge of the world comes from gathering around great things in a complex and interactive community of truth. But good teachers do more than deliver the news from that community to their students. Good teachers replicate the process of knowing by engaging students in the dynamics of the community of truth. (Palmer, 1998, p. 115)

There's a messiness to team teaching that presents some of its biggest challenges, but also some of its most promising opportunities. Team teaching moves beyond the familiar and predictable and creates an environment of uncertainty, dialogue, and discovery. And that is what learning is all about.

Whether one is looking at classifications of critical thinking, or definitions of deep approaches to learning, or models of cognitive and ethical development (see Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001; Bowden & Marton, 2004; Perry, 1968), the goal for student learning is a dynamic, complex, and often unsettling place. In reporting on his study of what the best college teachers do, Ken Bain (2004) says, \"[P]eople learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assumptions, and examine their mental models of reality\" (p. 18).

Team teaching in itself is not really a teaching method and will not make achieving these learning goals inevitable. The instructors must still design a course and implement methods that challenge students to \"grapple with ideas\" and \"rethink their assumptions.\" But team teaching does provide an ideal environment for this type of engagement, in part by making it almost impossible to stick with a teacher-centered classroom in which the teacher is the sole authority delivering knowledge to the students. The interaction of two teachers-both the intellectual interaction involved in the design of the course and the pedagogical interaction in teaching the course-creates a dynamic environment that reflects the way scholars make meaning of the world.

Almost by definition, team teaching encourages students (and teachers) to view the subject matter from multiple perspectives. When multiple teachers represent multiple perspectives on course content, they move students away from dualistic thinking toward higher (and deeper) stages of cognitive and ethical development. Students who enter a course wanting to see the teacher as the source of the \"right\" answers are now confronted with two or more teachers who have different views and sometimes completely different methodologies. While this may create some anxiety for students, as we discuss later, it also models for them how different perspectives come together to construct meaning.

Perhaps the dearest example of multiple perspectives comes in a common model of team teaching: the interdisciplinary course in which faculty from different disciplines teach around a common topic or theme. The next two chapters of this book explore two such courses. In chapter 1, Amy Jessen-Marshall and Hal Lescinsky, a microbiologist and a paleontologist, respectively, at Otterbein University, talk about their course, \"Origins,\" which uses the techniques and perspectives of two different science disciplines to examine the question of human origins and evolution. In chapter 2, Min-Ken Liao and Sarah Worth of Furman University describe their course, \"Disease and Culture,\" which examines the social, cultural, and ethical impact of disease from the divergent perspectives of philosophy and biology. As Liao and Worth say, \"We believe this type of collaborative and interdisciplinary interaction in and of itself is a powerful demonstration to students that focused, interdisciplinary, team approaches to the pursuit of knowledge are at the core of a liberal arts education.\"

If it is true that \"the undergraduate experience, often criticized as being fragmented, is challenged to develop more coherence by introducing students to essential knowledge, to connections across the disciplines, and to the application of knowledge to life beyond the campus\" (McDaniel & Colarulli, 1997, p. 19), then higher education has been responding with greater emphasis on working across disciplinary boundaries. Both of these courses are products of initiatives intentionally designed to promote greater interdisciplinarity. \"Origins\" is part of Otterbein's Integrative Studies Program, a core element of the university's liberal arts mission, which \"aims to prepare Otterbein undergraduates for the challenges and complexity of a 21st century world\" by emphasizing \"interdisciplinary and integrative skills, competencies, and ways of knowing\" ( Likewise, Furman's general education program brings \"a greater variety of intellectual perspectives into meaningful dialogue with one another, thus highlighting for students both the complementarity and the uniqueness of departmental and disciplinary voices\" (Invigorating Intellectual Life, 2005).

This interplay of disciplinary voices is also evident in an introductory science course offered in the 1990s at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (described in chapter 5). In this course, taught by Ronald Duchovic and a team of faculty from different disciplines in the sciences, \"it quickly became obvious that each question raised in the class discussion can be examined from the perspective of multiple, discipline-specific paradigms.\" The goal was to help students see the nature of scientific thinking and begin to understand how scientists make sense of the world.

Seeing differences between different perspectives is an important first step for students, but perhaps even more important is for them to see the connections. For example, Jessen-Marshall and Lescinsky describe how in their \"Origins\" class, \"students will see how different fields address common questions, using a variety of techniques that support the validity of scientific tenets. This interconnectedness, often underappreciated by nonscientists, is in large part what gives scientists confidence that their understanding is correct.\" In a time when scientific literacy is becoming more important, classes such as these can contribute to students' becoming more knowledgeable citizens.

What these teachers are observing is a model of cognitive apprenticeship. Team teaching can \"provide a means of focusing more on the process of learning instead of only on accumulating content knowledge\" (Shibley, 2006, p. 271). Or, as Duchovic says of his course, students get to \"hear a scientist think.\" When multiple instructors engage with each other in the class, they make their thinking processes and intellectual frameworks visible, thus encouraging greater metacognition on the part of the students, and better understanding of how we know what we know.

While interdisciplinary teams are one way to encourage this focus on process, it works for other kinds of partnerships as well. In chapter 3, Robert Richter and Margaret Thomas of Connecticut College bring together two very different sets of professional experience to the course \"Arts and Community.\" Richter, who holds a staff position in arts programming, and Thomas, a faculty member in music theory, use the interplay of their two roles to model the concept of community that is central to the course topic.

Demonstrating yet another configuration, Mathew Ouellett and Edith Fraser discuss in chapter 4 how an interracial team of teachers from different institutions can facilitate students' understanding of race and racism in social work in their course, \"Racism in the United States: Implications for Social Work Practice,\" in part by having a team of teachers \"modeling authentic collaboration across racial differences.\" As Ouellett and Fraser say, \"Perhaps the most unanticipated outcome of our teaching has been the discovery that, from our students' perspectives, observing our daily interactions and relationship as colleagues was more important to their learning than the formal curriculum.\"

In modeling the scholarly and professional processes of their fields, these teams of teachers can also create a learning environment where it is safe for students to confront intimidating subjects like science or challenging topics like racism. Seeing their teachers learn from each other and even disagree with each other models for students how scholars and informed citizens within a community of learning can navigate a complex and uncertain world.

Of course, none of this happens automatically. For example, although Jessen-Marshall and Lescinsky constructed their course to have pairs of labs exploring related topics from two different disciplinary approaches, the connection between the labs that was so apparent to them was at first lost on the students. They learned that they needed to make the connections clearer and more explicit for students, even to the point of renaming the two different labs part 1 and part 2 of the same lab to reinforce the connections.

Similarly, just watching teachers interact is not enough. I once took class as a student in which team teaching consisted mainly of four teachers arguing with each other in front of an audience of befuddled students. The teachers may have enjoyed the intellectual interplay of different disciplinary paradigms, but they apparently forgot that novice learners do not always see or understand the structure of content knowledge enough to appreciate this kind of dialogue.

In contrast, the classes described in this book all use many reflective activities-journals, reflection papers, guided discussion-to help students see the connections and grapple with complex and conflicting ideas. The combination of modeling reflection for the students and having students engage in their own reflection provides the kind of cognitive apprenticeship that introduces students into a community of learning.

As the Furman University curriculum review committee states, \"Stimulating the mind for the pursuit of knowledge [is] a rough-and-tumble enterprise\" (Invigorating, p. 9). Learning is indeed a rough-and-tumble enterprise and so is team teaching. But team teaching can also create an environment that makes this exploration safe. One method is to work actively to build community in the class. For example, Richter and Thomas's class attended arts performances together, and Liao and Worth's students bonded by baking cookies together to raise money for mosquito nets in Africa. But it also helps students to see their teachers learning and questioning.


Anderson, L. W., & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching and assessing: A revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bowden, J., & Marton, F. (2004). The university of learning: Beyond quality and competence. London: Routledge.

Invigorating intellectual life: A proposal for Furman University's academic program and calendar. (2005, September 10). Report to the Furman Faculty from the Curriculum Review Committee.

McDaniel, E. A., & Colarulli, G. C. (1997). Collaborative teaching in the face of productivity concerns: The dispersed team model. Innovative Higher Education, 22(1), 19-36.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Perry, W. (1968). Forms of intellectual and ethical development in the college years. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston.

Shibley, I. A. (2006). Interdisciplinary team teaching: Negotiating pedagogical differences. College Teaching, 54(3), 271-274.