An Instructional Innovation That Lingers: Team Teaching

Team teaching made a huge splash in the 1960s (see Ngram viewer for the popularity of the phrase). Teachers volunteered to work together during the school day in teaching their classes. Many versions of team teaching appeared in both elementary and secondary schools (see here). Yet over time, the innovation faded. No surprise since the historic way of organizing teaching in age-graded schools–one teacher in one classroom–remains dominant. While team teaching is an option for teachers to embrace, it now occupies only a narrow slice of the pedagogy U.S. teachers use in 2023.

Still, it remains a viable option for teachers in elementary school grades and middle and high school academic subjects. The highly heralded innovation of the 1960s continues in many classrooms as a way for teachers to collaborate, it is uncommon enough in schools that The New York Times recently described a Mesa (AZ) school where a teacher team worked with 135 students in a Mesa, Arizona school.

What is team teaching? In brief, team teaching is collaborative planning and enactment of lessons among two or more teachers in a building; sometimes called co-teaching it can happen in elementary schools at the grade level (e.g., three sixth grade teachers combine their classes and divide instruction among themselves) while in secondary schools team teaching occurs within and across academic subject departments (e.g., history and English, science and math, art and English). In some instances, teachers are responsible for large groups of students as in open space elementary schools once popular in the 1970s. These teachers decide when to have all students together for lectures, small discussion groups, and independent work. So there are many variations in the form and content of teach teaching (see here and here).

What problems did team teaching aim to solve? Promoters of the innovation in the 1960s and since saw team teaching as a way of breaking down the organizational barriers embedded in the age-graded school organization such as each teacher with her own classrooms isolated from peers in the same grade or department. Isolation of teachers from one another in comparing and contrasting approaches to lessons prevented collaboration that, in turn, limited students’ exposure to different ideas and ways of teaching and, at the same time limited teacher growth in subject matter, pedagogy, and managing students. Both critics of and advocates for public schools noted how little collaboration occurred between professionals in schools.

Did team teaching work? Anecdotal evidence from teachers more often than not underscored increases in job satisfaction that team teaching brought to participants. As to whether team teaching produced gains or losses in student academic performance, well, research findings are mixed (see here, here, and here). Because the concept of “team teaching” can take many forms in schools–and does–determining students’ academic outcomes as a result of teacher collaboration is largely futile. The literature, as scarce as it is, comprises dissertations, studies of particular teams in a school, and similar case studies (see here, here, here, and here)

As to solving the problems of teacher isolation and insulation within the age-graded school, I have not yet found any such evidence. To look for evidence, researchers have had to document  the situation in schools prior to introduction of team teaching then whether schools modified their schedules sufficiently to give teams of teachers adequate time to plan and coordinate teacher schedules, especially in secondary schools, as well as insert into weekly schedules back-to-back classes so the team teaching could be enacted. Again, such studies I have yet to find.

Have I team taught?

Yes, I have taught high school social studies and university courses with colleagues. I found the planning and execution of jointly made plans both exciting and exhausting. It was a lot of work including intricate scheduling glitches that had to be worked out but, overall, I found the experiences rewarding as a teacher, ones from which I learned a great deal from my collaborators.

For example, Roberta Rabinoff Kaplan and I taught English and social studies at Cardozo High School (Washington, D.C.) in the mid-1960s. And in Stanford University’s teacher education program in the 1990s, I team taught a social studies methods course with Lee Swenson, then an Aragon High School history teacher. Historian of education David Tyack and I teamed up to teach “History of School Reform” between 1987 and 1998. Out of that collaboration came our book, Tinkering toward Utopia.

I enjoyed very much the planning together and actual teaching that I and my team-mates did. Sure there were conflicts over choice of content, which materials to use, who would do what and when during the lesson, and similar decisions. More often than not, we negotiated compromises in order to collaborate and conflicts eased. It was a great deal of time and work to teach with someone else and (there is no “but”), it stretched me both intellectually and pedagogically.

What has happened to team teaching?

Both formal and informal team teaching continues in U.S.schools. No longer an attractive slogan, elementary and secondary school teachers of like mind and with a cooperative principal work out arrangements to team teach for a few years and then return to their teaching alone as they had for years. With the ubiquity of classroom technologies and the buzz around “personalized learning,” team teaching has become a way of teachers (both special education and regular classroom teachers) working together as coaches of teachers, teams working at grade level responsible for large groups of students, and the like (see here). And there are schools that rediscover team teaching and crow about it (see here).

Finally, other variations of teaming have emerged over time such as teacher residencies where a beginning teacher (akin to medical residencies in hospitals) is paired with an experienced teacher and both work to teach students cooperatively. Over a two-year period, the neophyte gains important content and skill knowledge as well as techniques to manage classrooms when they become full fledged teachers (see here, here, and here).

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “An Instructional Innovation That Lingers: Team Teaching

  1. David F

    Hi Larry, thanks for this. We had a team taught course between an English and History teacher in a class labelled American Studies for many years. The class was very well-liked and always full, but was a burden on our admin to schedule the same students for both sections and in personnel costs, as both teachers had credit for both the English and History sections–even though they were facilitating from the back of the room. Our admin finally decided pre-COVID to split the two sections apart rather than continuing to support the team-taught model. The classes still runs independently of each other and perhaps a future admin will reconsider…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, David, for your comment on your team-taught course. Yep, administrators are in the catbird seat when it comes to scheduling. What you described occurs time and again particularly when there is turnover in the principalship.

  2. The title of a 2001 meta-analysis is pretty clear: ‘A Meta-Analysis of Co-Teaching Research: Where Are the Data?’ (check https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/074193250102200501) For our More Urban Myths about Learning and Education book we checked if there were studies published since that day, but there were still few results.

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