Team Teaching: Education for the Future
Ingrid Shafer, Ph.D.
University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma


The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma is a small, state supported liberal arts institution offering programs leading to Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees. In 1965 a new set of official guide lines was put into effect which stated specifically that USAO should identify fresh and viable approaches to the problems of higher education and-employ interdisciplinary methods of instruction. As part of an extensive institutional revision begun at the time, a forty-one credit hour interdisciplinary core sequence was developed to be completed by all graduates. Theoretically all courses within the IDS Program are tearn-taught, but occasional deviations from this pattern occur, particularly in evening classes and during the summer when enrollment is relatively small. 

Teams are constituted by instructors from different academic fields who bring a variety of perspectives to the subject under consideration. While some problems have been experienced, team teaching has generally been successful both in terms of faculty response and student acceptance. Personally, I have participated in two to four team-taught courses per trimester since 1968, and find this method of instruction particularly suited to my temperament and educational philosophy.

While team teaching may seem new and experimental, it actually has a long career ranging from the Socratic dialogue to public medieval disputations.

There is no more effective method of simulating in the classroom real life conditions of conflicting demands and competing values.  In this paper I am going to attempt to assess relative advantages and disadvantages of team teaching. I am also going to offer a number of concrete suggestions for successful implementation.

Let us first define the term. Team teaching is open to several interpretations. For the purposes of this presentation I am assuming the following: Two or more instructors are involved in the same course. Team members may come from closely allied disciplines, or they may derive from fields as disparate as art history and theoretical physics. Thus, while team teaching is frequently connected with an interdisciplinary approach to learning, the mere presence of a teaching team in a classroom does not by itself indicate a crossing of disciplines. 

Given the two or more instructor model, two versions of team teaching in the strict sense can be identified. 

(A) All instructors are jointly responsible for course content, presentations, and grading. They interact in front of the class, discussing specific topics from divergent perspectives.

(B) All instructors are jointly responsible for course content and grading. However, they take turns presenting material appropriate to their individual areas of specialization. At times when they are not called upon to lecture, other participants remain in an essentially subordinate role, contributing no more than occasional comments and questions. 

A third model is occasionally called team teaching, but lacks the shared responsibility and coherent structure of the first two. In this version, one coordinator alone is responsible for course content and grading. Extensive and regular use is made of guest lecturers and panels, and the material presented in this manner is an integral part of the overall course design.

In order to discuss relative advantages and disadvantages of team teaching, I am going to construct a fictional dialogue involving a proponent (P) and an opponent (O) of the method. The opposition speaks first:

0: How can any responsible instructor be in favor of team teaching? All it does is confuse and frustrate students. They leave these classes not knowing whom to believe and what to think. Respect for learning is sufficiently low without adding fuel to the fire by permitting ourselves to be publicly humiliated. Students come to us expecting answers, not double talk; solutions, not problems. Of course, scientists and scholars disagree among themselves, but they are mature experts capable of handling ambiguity, not undergraduates in need of firm guidance.

P: You are right. Team teaching tends to confuse students. It does so on purpose. The beginning of learning is the Socratic admission of ignorance. Education provides us with methods of approach, not infallible solutions. If students are to function adequately beyond the artificial classroom environment, they must realize that important issues are complex and open to numerous and often contradictory interpretations. They must come to terms with the paradoxical nature of knowledge. The opinions of experts are no more valid than the boundaries of their academic fields, their professional training, and their personal talents and biases. College students need to understand that neither reason nor the scientific method provides us with absolute certainty, and that Ultimate Truth does not reside with any one discipline or individual. Initially, students will be surprised, disturbed, even frustrated by the unusual atmosphere of a team-taught class. Instructors must be aware of this potential reaction, and help their students adjust. Otherwise, totally confused, some might simply give up trying.

0: Your method might work well for a small number of selected students. At best, the majority will be delighted to watch the spectacle of professorial combat, cheering the one who is glib of tongue and whose opinions most nearly match their own. Students, in general, have no way of evaluating positions taken by faculty. To them, there is no difference in kind between carefully developed and tested theories and mere imaginary constructs based on prejudice and limited understanding of the subject matter. Few students if any capable of critical thought. They must master the basics, before they can be permitted to attack authority.

P: How do you propose that they learn to think for themselves without practice? By challenging their colleagues, and doing so respectfully, without attacking one another personally, team members demonstrate the value of questioning assumptions on factual or logical grounds. They show that friends can disagree profoundly on interpretations and remain friends. In this kind of environment, learning becomes a cooperative venture, an exciting activity far beyond passive ingestion and rote regurgitation of material. Students and professors can begin to see themselves as co-learners and co-teachers.  Team teaching gives students the chance to develop their powers of independent critical reason, as they learn to choose from among alternatives in responsible and intellectually respectable ways. It is up to participating team members to ensure that presentations do not degenerate into circus performances on a regular basis.

0: I cannot help being uncomfortable with the tendency of team taught courses to blur all distinctions, even those which are essential for disciplinary integrity, among academic fields and methodologies. There is something chaotic and uncontrollable able about this mode of instruction. How can you ever be certain of the precise outcome of a given presentation? Unless each step is carefully orchestrated in advance (which takes considerably more time than generally available for class preparation), there is the danger of digressing far afield, leaving essential points unsaid, and possibly failing to communicate at all.

P: Again we are in agreement. Only our perspectives differ. Team teaching is designed to discourage rigidity and tunnel vision among participating instructors as well as students. If disciplinary boundaries are temporarily blurred, they will surely come back into focus as students and faculty return to their respective specialties. Team teaching allows for spontaneous exploration of alternatives within the context of a given and unique situation. This dialogic interplay of ideas opens up hidden reservoirs of creativity, and can precipitate an experience akin to the religious phenomenon of enlightenment, when suddenly, inexplicably, new patterns begin to emerge. The best moments are not rehearsed and cannot be replicated. They simply happen. Thus, team teaching involves daring to take risks. So does living.

0: Isn't it common for some team members to carry the major burden of a particular class while others fail to show up, or arrive ill prepared? What happens if the team members cannot agree on grading criteria and students become aware of the fact that some individuals are considerably more lenient than others? Occasionally one team member may be genuinely more competent and responsible than another. Also, if team members are ill matched, or psychologically unsuited for the method, open hostility, ad hominem attacks, and behind-the-scenes backbiting may result. Surely any or all of these problems would tend to interfere with the effective implementation of a team-teaching model.

P: I agree.  By itself team teaching is certainly no panacea and cannot automatically eliminate all vestiges of human imperfection. There are people who are simply not meant to serve as team members. An instructor who is incompetent, irresponsible, and personally insecure is not going to function well in any class room, alone or with others. Even competent individuals who are uncomfortable with having their assumptions challenged or those who thrive on adversarial modes of communication will disrupt the team teaching process. Team teaching does not cause these problems, it merely puts them on public display in a court of one's peers. While this is a painful process for everyone concerned, at least it is self-correcting by ensuring that certain individuals either develop their ability to engage in genuine, non-adversarial dialogue, or accept other assignments in the future. In these cases, students are surely going to benefit from a team which permits compensation for personal shortcomings by adjusting responsibility to match capabilities. Fortunately, extreme instances of this kind are relatively rare. Generally, team teaching encourages faculty to perform exceptionally well. The presence of professional peers serves as subtle reinforcement to keep lecture notes current, grade conscientiously, and resist the temptation to get by with a minimum of effort. Most interpersonal difficulties are merely the result of insufficient planning and lack of coordination. These are minor irritations which can be alleviated with a minimum of effort.

This concludes the dramatized portion of this presentation. Given the possible advantages and disadvantages of team teaching as discussed, the following suggestions for successful implementation come to mind:

A. Team teaching should not be left up to chance. Careful planning is essential, even more so than in a classroom left to one individual, since team teaching -- like marriage -- depends on the compatibility and mutual respect of those involved. Participating faculty must be carefully picked and allowed to choose their team members. No one should be required to participate. Only individuals who volunteer and are competent in their fields, professionally and psychologically secure, and comfortable with spontaneous public debate are suitable.

B. Students in a team-taught course should be carefully and continuously reminded of the purpose of the experience. They should be encouraged to seek help if they are frustrated and confused.  They should be reassured that papers and essay examinations will be graded on the basis of internal coherence and not agreement or disagreement with a particular instructor's hypothesis. In other wards, students will be encouraged to think for themselves and construct the best possible argument consistent with the data.

C. Faculty should avoid competing for student approval and applause. Team teaching is not a political campaign, and cooperation combined with empathy and the willingness to represent controversial positions, are valuable characteristics of the individual team member. Instructors who are familiar and comfortable with the method are superbly qualified to introduce others to the art of working as a team. While permanent incompetence and irresponsibility are fortunately rare, new members are frequently insecure and in need of guidance. The classroom itself provides apprenticeship opportunities. 

D. Once a team has been constituted and classes are in session, sufficient time must be allowed for planning and division of responsibilities. It is imperative that relative strengths and weaknesses of participating faculty be assessed objectively. Team teaching is exceptionally flexible and offers the unique opportunity of compensating for individual idiosyncrasies in such a way as to have instructors function at their very best. It is helpful to have one team member in charge of mechanics, such as arranging for planning sessions and keeping records.

E. Administrative support is essential for continued success of a team teaching model. Faculty participants must be compensated equitably. If instructors are expected to be present whenever a particular class is in session, they should be given full credit for the course despite the fact they do not necessarily lecture themselves each time. They must prepare in order to be able to respond, and listening may occasionally prove more taxing than talking. Large enrollments common in team taught classes should make this a financially viable option.

In conclusion, I hope that this brief presentation has helped to demystify team teaching. There is nothing mysterious or exceptionally unique about this approach. It is simply an instructional model which lags behind in popularity. This, I believe, is unfortunate, because it can be one of the most effective methods of dealing with certain topics, particularly those involving cross- and multi-disciplinary inquiry, conflict resolution, and value formation.

This paper was originally presented at the National Meeting of the American Culture Association, Wichita, Kansas, 23-26 April, 1983.  Team teaching is still used at USAO, and, upon re-reading the paper after seventeen years, it seems even more relevant today, as it is becoming ever more apparent that the future of humanity may come to depend on our ability to view issues from multiple perspectives and dialogue with the other. 


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Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
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Posted 1 December 2000
Last revised 18 January 2001

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