Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2003: Volume 7, Issue 4

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Shared Insights from University Co-Teaching Greg Conderman, Northern Illinois University Bonnie McCarty, College of Charleston, SC
Greg Conderman, Ed. D is Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning. His research interests include assessment, instructional methods for mild disabilities, and teacher preparation. Bonnie C. McCarty, Ph.D is Assistant Professor of Special Education and graduate program coordinator, Foundations of Secondary and Special Education Department. Her research interests include creative curricular approaches for teaching social competence, service learning, and special educator retention. Abstract Many educators across all levels of teaching and disciplines are exploring new ways of collaborating and effectively delivering instruction to diverse groups of students. In this article, we describe our experience with university co-teaching with special attention to using learning centers in an upper-level education course. * * * Imagine having opportunities to reflect daily upon a shared teaching experience, learn and immediately implement new and effective instructional and assessment techniques, and gain greater insight into your discipline---all within an atmosphere of shared mutual trust and respect. Such opportunities are probably rare in higher education, yet these were some benefits of our recent encounter with university co-teaching. Here we share perceptions of our university co-teaching experience with special attention to the benefits for students and professors. Co-teaching is an approach where two professionals deliver substantive instruction to a group of students within a single physical space (Cook & Friend, 1995). Often, co-teaching is a chosen vehicle to initiate or expand collaborative efforts among and between colleagues. Our collaboration involved co-teaching a three-week summer Inclusion Strategies course enrolling 30 secondary general education juniors and seniors. Although we brought to this voluntary experience different life experiences, teaching backgrounds, and university department affiliations (one from Special Education and one from Foundations of Education), we shared a passion for preparing successful general educators for their critical role in inclusion, a need for using our creativity in this course, familiarity with the co-teaching literature, and mutual professional respect. We believe these elements provided the structure for a successful and rewarding experience that allowed us to experiment and grow within a safe and supportive environment. We also maintain that our collaborative approach provided unique instructional benefits for our students as well as powerful professional benefits for ourselves. Instructional Benefits for Students Co-teaching can provide unique instructional benefits to students. We had different, yet complementary educational backgrounds, teaching experiences, instructional and assessment strengths, and areas of professional expertise. Ignoring this vast amount of life experience would defeat a critical purpose of co-teaching---to enrich the teaching-learning process for students and co-teachers. By pooling our resources, materials, experiences, and strengths, the classroom experience was richer than if the course had been taught independently, and students were exposed to different, and sometimes divergent examples, anecdotes and stories, and ways of thinking about inclusion as a result of this shared storehouse of experiences. Our approach to the course reflected Bess’s (2000) premise that instructional roles are so diverse and require such different mixes of tasks, talents, and temperaments that some parts must be played by more than one person. Further, the co-teaching experience allowed us to implement approaches we might not have considered if teaching the course alone. One of these examples---which we expand upon here---is the use of learning centers, or station teaching. Learning Centers---Not Just for Kids Anymore Learning centers or learning stations are tools where individuals or small groups participate in teacher-directed or student-directed activities that promote active exploration of learning objectives (Isbell, 1995). Learning centers help students make choices, expand oral communication, enhance creative abilities, develop social skills, understand others, develop responsibility, and learn persistence in task completion. Although their use is typically associated with early childhood or elementary settings, like Eifler (2000), we discovered learning centers to be a viable instructional tool---and a justified alternative to lecturing---that engaged college students with selected course outcomes. According to Friend and Cook (2003), station teaching is one of the 6 types of instructional approaches associated with co-teaching. Although station teaching requires co-teachers to share responsibility for planning in order to divide content, each professional can deliver instruction in a center consistent with his or her teaching style. Further, students benefit from the small group approach. We developed 5 learning stations that each accommodated 6 students. Every center was developed around a critical course outcome that promoted student interaction through an applied and authentic task. Students had already received some instruction, read the necessary material or were provided with sufficient background information associated with the centers. Our stations included: • Station 1: Students examined questions on rating scales that are often used to assess students with behavioral needs. This experience resulted in a discussion regarding assessment, rating scale questions, the subjective vs. objective nature of observing and assessing behavior, and the role of professional ethical practices in the assessment process. • Station 2: Students worked independently or in pairs to reconstruct a poorly written classroom test. This center required students to apply recently acquired skills in test construction (Conderman & Koroghlanian, 2002) and testing accommodations. • Station 3: Students compared and contrasted two high school United States history textbooks with very different instructional approaches. Students reflected upon their personal philosophy about teaching---and in particular teaching students with disabilities. Students also learned how to apply the concept of “considerate textbooks” (Armbruster & Anderson, 1988) to their future classroom. • Station 4: One co-teacher modeled how to use concept diagrams, an effective way to present information clearly to students in disciplines where vocabulary and concepts may be confusing (Bulgren, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1988). Students participated in this interactive activity using research-based forms and procedures. • Station 5: One co-teacher reviewed the significant elements of the capstone inclusion project that required students to apply content enhancement strategies (Lenz, Deshler, & Kissam, 2004) to their future classroom. This station reviewed the elements and procedures of course and unit organization and allowed students to share progress with and receive individual guidance from the instructor and each other. In each student directed center, we included clear written directions and all necessary materials, including tables and chairs. Students needed to complete each station within 15 minutes and circulate among all centers within the class period. In addition to providing a forum for practicing important class content, we modeled the teaching modalities they had studied and reflected with them our preparation process. As part of their reflections, students discussed their experience from the perspectives of both learner and teacher. We all learned that physical set up is critical to the success of learning centers. Co-teachers must be able to visually “touch base” with each other in order to keep the pace of instruction uniform. Stations must be set up to allow for as few distractions or “previews” as possible. Together, we refined an understanding of the extensive planning and preparation involved if student success in constructing knowledge independently is to be achieved. Our students not only recognized what they had learned from the experience but the work involved in creating the experience. Professional Benefits for the Co-teachers In addition to the unique student instructional benefits that arise from co-teaching, powerful opportunities for personal and professional growth and reflection are available for co-teachers. We found three conditions to be especially important for fostering our professional growth through co-teaching. One condition necessary for professional growth through co-teaching is frequent (if possible daily) time reserved for reflecting upon the day’s events and planning for the following day. Before we made a commitment to co-teach, we discussed the necessity for a common time for daily planning and reflection. Honoring this time proved to be an invaluable jewel in our quest for growth, and we looked forward to this time of sacred insight. As Palmer notes, “Recovering the sacred might be one path towards recovering the inwardness without which education does not happen…we could recover our sense of community with each other…this community is absolutely at the heart of good teaching” (p. 6). We found that our reflection and planning were more effective if they occurred immediately after teaching the class while events were fresh. Sometimes we discussed class presentations or activities, other times we shared perceptions of certain students, and we often wondered if we were presenting too much information at once. Verbalizing these statements to each other became part of our daily debriefing that allowed us to then plan for the next day. The second necessary condition for fostering our own growth was confidence in the safety of the co-teaching relationship. Even though we planned and reflected together, co-teaching is still a vulnerable endeavor. Most college professors are prepared for and comfortable teaching their own classes their own way without a great deal of visibility from colleagues. Co-teaching exposes one’s strengths as well as one’s weaknesses. This could be quite threatening unless a great deal of trust exists between co-teachers. Until this trust develops, co-teachers might find themselves stuck in the beginning co-teaching stage characterized by guarded, careful communication where partners communicate superficially, begin to develop boundaries, and attempt to establish a professional working relationship. Some teachers in this stage find it difficult to move from a social relationship to a professional relationship due to feelings of intrusion or invasion (Gately & Gately, 2001). One minor issue we needed to clarify during this stage was how to address each other in front of students. We became comfortable referring to our partner as “Dr. C” or “Dr. M”. Only after the safety element was firmly established could we consider the third condition helpful in our collaborative relationship, which was an environment that promoted a spirit of parity. According to Friend & Cook (2003), parity means that each person’s contribution to an interaction is equally valued, and each person has equal decision-making power. Gately & Gately (2001) note that co-teachers may have to progress though a compromising stage before parity develops. The compromising stage is characterized by give and take communication with some compromising on both parties. The compromises co-teachers discuss form a level of trust that leads to parity. Some of our “give and take” decisions involved decisions such as how we would introduce a topic, or how we would assess student mastery of the material, but neither co-teacher was expected to “give up” elements they strongly believed were critical for maintaining course integrity. Professional Benefits The professional benefits resulting from the co-teaching experience can be grouped according to the dimensions of teaching competency outlined by Miller and Miller (1997). These authors discuss three skills needed for college teaching success: (1) knowledge of the subject matter; (2) knowledge of instructional planning, delivery and evaluation; and (3) personal characteristics and behaviors. The co-teaching experience provided an opportunity for our professional growth in these areas. Knowledge of Subject Matter Each of us brought a different base of expertise and experience to the teaching platform. One instructor’s research focused on characteristics and learning strategies for students with mild disabilities. The second instructor’s life’s work focused on creative instructional procedures for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders and autism. The co-teaching relationship allowed us to learn from each other and provided students opportunities to learn from “experts”. Being released from the responsibility of being “expert” in all things allowed us each to pose true questions as learner within the context of the instructional day. We each completed our summer teaching experience with a strengthened knowledge base and an enriched understanding of areas of disability we had not had the recent opportunity to research intensely. Knowledge of Instructional Planning, Delivery and Evaluation Each of us brought a strong commitment to providing quality learning experiences to university students as well as a belief that modeling evidence-based approaches is critical to instructing future educators. These two cornerstones provided a basis for sharing activities and materials we had personally found successful in separate teaching experiences. For example, one instructor was skilled at test writing while the other was less than passionate about the task. The co-teaching experience allowed the novice test-writer to learn to construct meaningful objective test items from a skilled mentor. This new skill was transportable to future instructional situations. Conversely, one instructor was comfortable in establishing an open-ended learning scenario and was skilled in posing higher-order questions to guide student exploration. The second instructor, less comfortable with an unscripted format, viewed and learned a model of a constructivist approach to teaching and has incorporated similar ideas into other teaching situations. The co-teaching experience allowed us to share the workload. We took turns with the routine tasks of preparing outlines and materials for class. We shared mutually in acquiring videos, grading assignments and tests, and responding to student questions and concerns. When we had a new idea for an instructional activity, we were able to “play it out” to a safe and trusted audience and work out the glitches before “playing it to the house”. Teaching was fun! Knowledge of Personal Characteristics and Teaching Behaviors Some of the most intense challenges in teaching emerge when one is faced with students who present personality characteristics that “rub us the wrong way” or students who have significant life challenges that impact their course performance. In these times of struggle or crisis, the college instructor comes face to face with personal biases and beliefs. One of the most enriching and satisfying aspects of the co-teaching experience was sharing these responsibilities. When critical issues emerged related to student attendance or performance, we consulted about strategies for unified action. Although sometimes difficult to hear, we grew professionally by becoming aware of our “hot spots” in relation to student behavior and performance. The daily debriefings provided a “checkpoint” that consistently moderated student interactions. We had a means for checking our perceptions and exploring our prejudices. It was comforting having a partner in making possible life altering decisions about student’s lives. Conclusion In closing, we encourage the use of co-teaching and learning stations as viable instructional tools in higher education. Students learn much from faculty modeling the techniques and procedures presented in lecture and clarified in class discussion. As one model of co-teaching, centers provide students and faculty a dynamic means for intensive, interactive hands-on practice and exploration with critical course content. Finally, co-teaching provides a forum for reflection on common, shared experience from different perspectives, allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge and explore and demonstrate associated dispositions. The decision to co-teach was, perhaps, at first a pragmatic one, made to assist our departments in covering a needed section of a required core course and to afford us the opportunity to gain teaching ideas from one another. However, the experience quickly became much more. The daily debriefing that began with discussions of routine events quickly transformed into discussions of the heart of the university teaching experience. The opportunity to experience the daily realities of teaching a group of demanding students with diverse needs within the context of a mutually respectful and trusting professional relationship energized our zeal for teaching. As Palmer (1999) emphasizes, “Community emerges when we are willing to share the real concerns of our lives. But in our society, you are reluctant to bring your concerns to me because you fear I am going to try to “fix” you—and I am reluctant to receive your concerns because I fear I am going to have to “fix’ you. We have no middle ground between invading one another and ignoring one another, and thus we have no community. But by practicing ground rules that release us from our mutual fears, by teaching us how to live our questions with one another rather than answer them, the gift of community emerges among us--a gift of transformation “( p. 11). We each were in some way transformed by our co-teaching experiences. We reaped the professional rewards of increased knowledge, new instructional ideas and skills, and personal insights that this profound sense of community can have on the life of teaching. But most importantly, our students, and hopefully their students, benefited as well. References Armbruster, B. & Anderson, T. (1988). On selecting “considerate” content area textbooks. Remedial and Special Education, 9 (1), 47-52. Bess, J. L. & Associates (2000). Teaching alone teaching together. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Bulgren, J. A. & Schumaker, J. B. & Deshler, D. D. (1988). Effectiveness of a concept teaching routine in enhancing the performance of LD students in secondary-level mainstream classes. Learning Disability Quarterly, 11, 3-17. Conderman, G., & Koroghlanian, C. (2002). Writing test questions like a pro. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38 (2), 83-87. Cook, L.,& Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 28 (3), 1-16. Eifler, K. (2000, August/September). Learning carousels. The Teaching Professor, 14 (7), Madison, WI: Magma Publications. Friend, M., & Cook, L. (2003). Interactions: Collaboration skills for school professionals. (4th editon). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Gately, S., & Gately, F. (2001). Understanding co-teaching components. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33 (4), 40-47. Isabell, R. (1995). The complete learning center book. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House, Inc. Lenz, K.B., Deshler, D.D., & Kissam, B.R. (2004). Teaching content to all: Evidence-based inclusive practices in middle and secondary schools. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Miller, W.R & Miller, M.F. (1997). Handbook for college teaching. Sautee-Nacoochee, GA: Pinecrest Publications. Palmer, P. The Grace of Great Things Recovering the Sacred in Knowing, Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from: May 25 2003. The article is an adaptation of the keynote address delivered at the conference on Spirituality in Education, sponsored by the Naropa Institute May 30-June 3, 1997. Palmer, P. (1999). Evoking the spirit. EducationalLeadership, 56 (4), 6-11.
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August 2003