Co-Teaching Part II: Is Co-teaching Always a Good Idea?

This is part two of a two-part post on co-teaching. In the first post, Kim reflected on the importance of getting to know your collaborators in co-teaching projects. Here, research fellow Stephanie Dennie reflects on co-teaching best practices.

All hands on deck for co-teaching.

I’ve been working with Kim since fall of 2021 as a graduate fellow, supporting her and a colleague (Leora Swartzmann) as they try to build a co-teaching relationship across two related classes in two different faculties. This post reflects on what I’ve learned about best practices in co-teaching so far as part of my work with Kim and Leora.

A few things about me, perhaps, to get us started. I’m a doctoral candidate in the department of Classics at Western University. I teach and have taught both here and at Brock University, I have a passion for learning about teaching and learning in higher education – especially how creativity and interdisciplinarity fit into that practice.

In Classics I study the political, social, and cultural history of Sparta. My dissertation focuses on the use of social memory in civic performances to support the ruling families of Archaic and Classical Sparta. I’m very into how words and stories about the past, invented or not, are used for a particular benefit, nefarious or not, in the present, historical or not.

A picture of Stephanie

In my work with Kim, I mostly conduct research, perform administrative/organizational tasks, and observe. What am I observing? Kim and Leora, coteaching undergraduate students in theatre studies and community psychology in a class that has a community engaged learning component (CEL, Western calls it). This is not your average coteaching adventure, mind you, given that Leora’s class is a third-year, full credit course run over both the fall and winter semesters and Kim’s class is a second year, half credit course run in the winter term only. Additionally, the courses have their own course codes, syllabi, assessments, and classrooms. Highly unusual, indeed.

Interdisciplinary coteaching: What is it? Well, coteaching it is an educational process in which at least two instructors, sometimes more, participate in the planning and execution of a course.

The interdisciplinary aspect stipulates that this cotaught course, at its core, has an interdisciplinary focus, meaning the topic of the course is freed from the disciplinary bonds that so often bind us and opens the students (and instructors) up to different disciplinary approaches to a shared topic; ‘inter,’ a Latin prefix indicating reciprocity of some kind, often translated to mean ‘between,’ or ‘among,’ and disciplinary, the adjectival form of discipline, derived from the Latin noun disciplina meaning both learning/instruction and training/discipline (i.e., in a military or athletic context). So, inter-disciplinary, also an adjective, describes the noun it is paired with, here coteaching, meaning that the coteaching is characterized as participating in reciprocal instruction between/among different categories of learning/instruction/training.

The web of interdisciplinarity

What does it do? Interdisciplinary coteaching challenges both instructors and students to think outside of their own “area of expertise” to consider the interconnectedness of the phenomenon that is life happening around us right now. It also asks students and instructors to be curious in a broad sense that often makes us uncomfortable largely because of learned stigmas that inherently devalue other disciplinary perspectives or methods of knowing.

Throughout the last eight months of research and observation I have been seriously thinking about the practice of co-teaching. How do you do it effectively and equitably? I have begun to devise something I am rudimentarily calling the 5 Ws of co-teaching. Yes, I am going back to primary school when I first learned about how to analyse a story. My teacher said you need to identify the five Ws – who, what, when, where, and why.

One of the things I have encountered in my research and observations is that there is a great deal of optimism about coteaching – as well as enthusiasm – but there is little understanding of how to channel that into an effective coteaching relationship that is not formed anecdotally. For example, Leora and Kim met and began working together out of happenstance, not really thinking about, nor needing to think about at the time, what it meant for them to engage in a coteaching practice together.

The short, but key, questions

Thinking about the five Ws can provide a good starting point when considering whether or not to coteach, or in troubleshooting existing coteaching partnerships.

Who: starting interdisciplinary co-teaching partnerships

Partnerships are hard and coteaching requires a good one. Unfortunately, it is not enough for the instructors to be enthusiastic about coteaching for the cotaught class to be a success. You need a partnership that has a strong foundation in teaching and learning that you have actively developed. Some have suggested speed-dating.

Two horses drink from their water bar. One might muse, an archaeologist and a mathematician walk up to a bar…

At one university they had all the instructors who were interested in coteaching attend a speed-dating session in which they met to determine if they had a pedagogical and social ‘spark.’ Then, those who matched with one another, had extended meetings in which they discussed their approach to teaching, pet-peeves in the classroom, assessment strategies, how they thought about their relationship with their students, how they dealt with disruptions in the classroom, and the list goes on and on.

If they still wanted to see one another after this process, they might then consider problem-solving strategies and how they would navigate the differences they would inevitably encounter given their different approaches to teaching and learning so that the experience would be good for both them and the students.

All this is to say one does not simply walk into a co-teaching relationship.

That being said, some do. (Kim and Leora did! Yikes!) And that means it is important to, when possible, re-evaluate the coteaching partnership and ask these important, fundamental questions about pedagogical approaches and teaching philosophies. (Facilitating these discussions is another thing I do in my work with Kim and Leora.)

Working together already means that you have a foundation upon which you can build strategies to manage the differences that have already emerged. BUT, you must talk about the differences to understand their origin – this is where the magical growth for instructors happens, so don’t skip it.

Why and What: why is interdisciplinary learning in THIS CLASS important and what is it going to bring to the course that wouldn’t already be there in a more conventional format?

In order for a cotaught class to be successful, meaning the instructors and students both benefit, the instructors need to be able to clearly articulate an answer to the above question. Interdisciplinary learning will provide something new to a course, but most students report that the purpose of the partnership for their learning in the course needs to be explicit and do something novel for their learning.

We certainly encountered this for ourselves this term. The students felt uncertain about how the disciplinary knowledge of each instructor contributed to the outcomes of their individual courses. Again, Kim and Leora face an additional challenge in that their courses do not run simultaneously (meaning one is a full year and the other is one term) and they are administratively separate (i.e., separate course codes, syllabi, assessment, etc.).

To navigate this challenge, what we learned is the importance of clarity and to some extent uniformity for the students. The resources for both classes, we realized, need to have some overlap that reflects a clear reason for the partnership that works for both groups of students. It isn’t about explaining the partnership through the disciplinary perspective of each group, it’s about communicating a universal purpose to the students, period. And, most importantly, the purpose of the interdisciplinary learning needs to bring something unique to the table for the students – if the students in the class can get the same result without the coteaching/interdisciplinary aspect, then the course is missing the mark.

When and Where: Your classroom or mine?

Maybe you are interested in coteaching, and you have found the perfect partner who doesn’t think like you and doesn’t teach like you, but you feel confident you have developed great strategies for navigating those differences. Also, you have a great topic and have articulated why it is important to do and what it will bring to your students’ learning experience. Great! The only thing left is when and where?

Resource management

The biggest challenge, even more so than the time it takes to properly plan and prepare for co-teaching, is the institutional limitations that hinder and often prevent instructors from engaging in this enriching experiment. If you are not both full-time tenured faculty members, it is unlikely you will be able to engage in coteaching without some serious challenges. Most publications regarding interdisciplinary coteaching begin and end by emphasising the benefits versus the limitations of the institution to realize those benefits.

This is one of the biggest limitations Leora and Kim face in their coteaching. I have seen it in the organizational aspects of the course: the very fact that the courses are two separate courses shows this. There are time constraints due to the way courses are traditionally divided in the university’s scheduling system, there are limitations to funding and, again, the time needed to properly prepare a course of this nature requires more institutional support.

Bottom lines

While observing Kim and Leora in their interdisciplinary coteaching and conducting a literature review on co-teaching best practices and interdisciplinary learning I kept thinking the same thing, “Wow, co-teaching seems so great, but is it always a good idea?”

The short answer is: absolutely not!

– Spongebob happily presents my simple response, No! Absolutely not! with a rainbow.

Why? While research on coteaching in general and coteaching across disciplines specifically demonstrates that there are several benefits for both students and instructors, there are also serious challenges. For instructors, successful coteaching takes a great deal of planning and reflection. The process can be uncomfortable and makes you seriously question your own teaching style and philosophy. You cannot simply be willing and enthusiastic; it is an emotional, intellectual, and laborious commitment.

This is a somewhat pessimistic note to end my reflection on, but it is of the utmost importance to realize that although research shows that interdisciplinary teaching and learning has enormous benefits for both instructors and students, it is the institutions themselves and their organization that limits us most from tapping into the great potential that is coteaching.

This is precisely what makes participating in coteaching an act of activism in the classroom: it doesn’t fit the institutions model of knowing and, therefore, it is difficult to do, but I think we should still do it with the caveat that we push to be able to do it the right way and for the right reasons, not just because we want to.

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