Sunday, October 9, 2011

Collaborative teaching: What might it look like?

When we talk collaborative teaching in open learning spaces shared by a number of teachers, I’m not always sure we’re talking about the same thing. There are a number of approaches that can be considered as ‘collaborative’ but there are some substantial differences between them. This is very relevant when looking at open learning spaces and shared teaching areas.

Often I hear comments from teachers who used to work in open-plan units that they’d still have their own class, occupy their own part of the space, plan work for their own students and rarely engage in working alongside colleagues. Whilst the space offered potential for collaboration it wasn’t always harnessed. I acknowledge that this wasn’t always the case but it was a big factor in the failure of the open-plan schools.

Collaborative teaching can be defined as “two or more people sharing responsibility for educating some or all of the students in a classroom” (Villa, Thousand and Nevin, 2008, p. 5). They suggest that it “involves the distribution of responsibility among people for planning, instruction and evaluation for a classroom of students (p. 5). What it’s not they add, is one person teaching, to be followed by another teaching a different subject, or one person teaching while the other one’s preparing material at the photocopier!

Collaborative teaching, at times called co-teaching or team teaching, has been around for quite a while in one guise or another. It first gained popularity in the 1950s, then evolved during the 1960s before becoming widespread in the early 1970s, particularly in open-plan primary schools, before enjoying something of a resurgence in the 1980s (Friend & Reising, 1993). Now as we move into modern open learning spaces teachers are once again examining how teaching collaboratively can impact on student learning and outcomes. There is though I believe a resistance towards collaborative practice, at times caused by the legacy of open-plan.

Villa, Thousand & Nevin (2008), and I’ve included a few of their references here, report four different models of co-teaching, (developed by the National Center for Educational Restructuring and Inclusion, 1995). These are supportive, parallel, complementary and team teaching. It’s worth exploring the differences between them.

Supportive teaching describes the situation when one teacher takes the lead instructional role and the other moves around the learners to provide support on a one-to-one basis as required. Friend and Reising (1993) refer to this as ‘one teachers/ one drifts’.

Parallel teaching is when two or more teachers are working with different groups of learners simultaneously in different parts of the classroom, what Friend & Reising (1993) calls ‘station teaching’.

Complementary teaching is when “when co-teachers do something to enhance the instruction provided by the other co-teacher(s). For example, one co-teacher might paraphrase the other's statements or model note-taking skills on a transparency” (Nevin, Thousand, & Villa, 2007).

Team teaching by comparison is when two or more teachers do what teachers do for a class, to plan, teach, assess and take responsibility for all the students in the room, taking an equal share of responsibility, leadership and accountability (Nevin, Thousand, & Villa, 2007).

A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning is a very useful read for anyone interested in collaborative teaching models and the authors extensive work is key for anyone interested in further reading. It unpacks the four models extensively with plenty of examples. The authors suggest that no one approach is better than the others and all have their merits. Their suggestion is that as teachers gain confidence in a collaborative situation they will find situations where each of the four models are useful and appropriate. The case study by York-Barr et al (2007) which I’ve looked at in a previous entry looks like a good example of the team teaching approach.

I’d also highly recommend looking at a great post on team teaching by Kathleen Morris. She talks about the day to day running of a collaborative pair of teachers and addresses issues such as planning, assessment, reporting etc. Judging by all the responses she’s had there’s a lot of interest in the subject.

I’m interested in how these different approaches apply to modern open learning spaces and what sort of evidence is available on how they impact on student outcomes.


Friend, M., & Reising, M. (1993). Co-teaching: An overview of the past, a glimpse at the present, and considerations for the future. Preventing School Failure, 37(4), 5-10.

National Center for Educational Restructuring and Inclusion. (1995). National study on inclusion: Overview and summary report. New York: City University of New York.

Nevin, A. I., Thousand, J. S., & Villa, R. A. (2009). Collaborative teaching for teacher educators: What does the research say? Teaching and Teacher Education, 25, 569-574.

Nevin, A. I., Thousand, J. S., & Villa, R. A. (2007). Collaborative teaching: Critique of the scientific evidence. In L. Florian (Ed.), Handbook of special education research (pp. 417-428). London: Sage.

Villa, R. A., Thousand, J. S., & Nevin, A. I. (2008). A guide to co-teaching: Practical tips for facilitating student learning (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

York-Barr, J., Ghere, G., & Sommerness, J. (2007). Collaborative teaching to increase ELL student learning: A three-Year urban elementary case study. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 12(3), 301-335.

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  2. Hi Chris, thanks for this posting. I am now in a MLE and while the environment is great, the pedagogy just does not seem to have a point of difference from that of a normal single cell class. So the reference material in your post should help us in our next stage of the journey.
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