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College Quarterly
Fall 1995 - Volume 3 Number 1
Team-Teaching: A Strategy for Contextual Education
by Gregory G. Gaydos and Philip H. King

What does it mean to be an educated person, to have gone to college and graduated? Is it the mere acquisition of facts, of the body of knowledge extant in our field of study? We hope not: since knowledge and theory change so rapidly, whatever corpus of material we study will soon become obsolete, as old theory, findings, technology and social concerns give way to new ones. Thus, if education is primarily the introjection of a (more or less well understood) body of information, all college graduates run the risk of becoming progressively less competent, less educated over the years as their hard-won inventory of facts and concepts slip away from the centre of their discourse communities.

There must be more to education, something that remains with the former student, something that grows and becomes refined in the post-college years, something that does not become obsolete. This, ideally, is the mode of thinking that students internalize and make central to the way they view the world and interpret the experiences of life. This mode is characterized by open-mindedness, a willingness to rethink premises and to take in new information that may contradict earlier beliefs. It includes an ability to distinguish the important from the trite, causality from coincidence. It incorporates an appreciation for the contingent nature of knowledge and opinion, and the humility to realize that we are always students, though our college years may be long gone.

From this viewpoint, our college years are primarily years of practice in learning and the cultivation of such skills as logical reasoning, quantitative analysis, normative assessment, aesthetic appreciation, competent communication and in developing a love of learning and a sustaining motivation to know more, to see issues from perspectives other than our own, to attain more clarity, to get to the heart of perplexing problems. The subject matter studied is, though not merely incidental, secondary to this process. It matters less what we study than how we engage the subject matter. Any subject area, studied properly, can form a template for lifelong learning.

The pedagogical problem we wish to address is rooted in the perceptual problem addressed by Kant who wrote that we can never know reality, the noumena, the thing-in-itself. All we obtain from our environment is sense data, phenomena, from which we make pictures. Of course, we all think that we “see” what is there. We assume our perception is isomorphic to the neural impulses entering our eyes and ears and other sense organs prior to their filtration through association tracks, thus unmodified by learning. Yet, research by Donald Campbell and others has demonstrated that we do not see with our eyes and hear with our ears; we see and hear with our midbrain, which filters neural impulses through intrapsychic determinants such as personality, drive states, past experience, values and motives. Aristotle touched on this when he said that a coward excited by fear and a lover by desire, both perceiving an individual approaching at a distance, will “see” different people: the former his enemy, the latter his beloved: same noumenon, different phenomenon.

The naive realist may protest: “Surely, as the stimulus becomes clear, they shall have an agreement on perception.” The strength of the stimulus is certainly one factor in the creation of our neurological picture; yet strengthening the stimulus is no solution to the problem of intrapsychic differences. An Inuit will “see” twenty-four kinds of snow, each with a different name. Skiers will “see” about four kinds. A Hawaiian will “see” just snow.

The history of science is replete with the problematic nature of knowledge, as documented by historians, explained by philosophers and illustrated nowhere as engagingly as in the work of Thomas Kuhn (1962). Ptolemaic astronomers “saw” planets making epicycles in the heavens around a stationary Earth; then, Copernicus “saw” these same planets orbiting the sun. Priestly “saw” dephlogisticated air, while Lavoisier “saw” oxygen. Lamarck “saw” giraffes elongating their necks by stretching for food and passing on this acquired characteristic; later, Darwin “saw” the long-necked as survivors in the game of natural selection.

However perplexing these paradigm conflicts appear in the “hard” sciences, the problem intensifies in the social sciences. Margaret Mead “saw” a Samoa in the 1920s that was based on sexual permissiveness, which accounted for the lack of violence and the absence of rape. Recently Derek Freeman studied Samoa and “saw” a cult of virginity, and after examining Samoan newspapers of Mead's era (which Mead could not read), he “saw” extreme violence and a rape rate three times that of the United States. No doubt Mead's perceptions were influenced by having been sent out by Franz Boas to find a culture unlike our own in order to refute arguments of biological determinism with evidence supporting cultural determinism. Jensen observed statistical difference in I.Q. scores by race and “saw” intelligence as genetically determined. Others “see” culturally biased I.Q. assessments as giving false testimony to Jensen's thesis. George Gilder “sees” the 1980s as a vindication of supply side economics, providing the longest period of peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history. Kevin Phillips “sees” the 1980s as a decade of greed, a replay of the gilded age in which a few prospered and the many suffered.

From these examples, we can see that the primary task of higher education is not conveying subject matter, but engaging habits of mind in students that will enable them to make discriminations, to understand contexts, and then to self-sustain critical inquiry long after our influence is removed from their daily lives.

This task is particularly problematic in the teaching of political science (though the same holds true by degrees in any of the social sciences) for its subject matter is riddled with complexity, ripe with controversy, permeated by ideology, adrift in cross-cultural misunderstanding, and therefore often awash in confusion. No area of study is characterized more by a combination of relevance to the future life of the student as citizen and difficulty of grasping “reality.” Therefore, developing an effective teaching strategy that enables the student to make critical political judgements is of crucial importance.

When any single professor teaches a basic course in, for example, government and politics, a bias - good intentions to the contrary notwithstanding - is bound to be imparted. The passion that led to the choice of political studies as a career will be communicated to the students in terms of the professor's own deeply held views. In spite of disclaimers to the effect that “these are my views and not necessarily the objective truth” or, worse, “these are just the facts and not my views,” meta-communications will give the game away. Tone of voice, facial expression and gesture, topic choice and emphasis, all will conspire to influence the student in a manner closer to indoctrination than to education. Add to this the understandable desire of the student to want to please the professor for the sake of the grade (the holy grail of education from the perspective of many students) and what you have is a recipe for a skewed educational process, one in which students are more apt to adopt (or at least to mimic) the professor's views rather than to develop well-reasoned views of their own.

How then to counter the drift toward ideological indoctrination that is inherent in the teaching of controversial subject matter by any one professor? A non-answer is to purge curricula of controversial content. This is a bogus response in two ways. First, any claim that meaningful “objective” information can be imparted at all, much less in areas of social concern is epistemologically absurd. Second, any effort to remove questions of social relevance is an abandonment of one of the main sanctioned objectives of college education, the enhancement of competent citizenship. A genuine answer is given away by the word one.

The simple solution is team teaching. Not team teaching as traditionally conceived, wherein two or more professors teach separate blocks of instruction, each deferring to the other's area of expertise. This form, based on the untenable assumption that there is one knowable truth upon which everyone agrees, undercuts the critical thinking we wish to inculcate. Ideally, a course on Canadian political systems would be team-taught by a conservative, a liberal and a social democrat. With all three professors in the class at one time, three perspectives could be given on each specific topic with time allowed for debate among the professors and discussion involving the students as well.

We team-teach a course in U.S. government and politics in precisely this manner (save that in our political culture the social democratic view is less salient and we are able to pursue discussion from conservative and liberal positions alone). After debating an issue for about twenty minutes, we turn to the class and invite participation. Normally, students are reluctant to challenge a professorial authority but, since the students are likely to have a champion on stage, they can voice their beliefs secure in the knowledge that they will be protected from humiliation in the classroom and retaliation in the awarding of grades. This is exactly what has happened. Though initially bewildered by having two authority figures publicly disagree about the “truth,” by the second month of the semester the students had decoded the system and regularly joined in the fray. Students were empowered to think for themselves. Indeed, they were compelled to think for themselves, for we made it very clear that we would award good marks not for the ideological content of test and essay questions but for the standards of logic and evidence. Student evaluations of the course were laudatory and almost universally endorsed the concept of team-teaching.

Although contextual team-teaching (teaching from multiple ideologies or paradigms) is especially important in political science, it has broad application to other disciplines. Macroeconomics could be better taught by a Keynesian and a monetarist, sociology by a functionalist and a symbolic interactionist, psychology by a psychoanalyst and a behaviouralist, and so on.

Another facet of team-teaching is the modeling of civil discourse that it provides. In our course, great mutual respect was shown, even as we disagreed vigorously on the topic at hand. We feel that this process of respectful disagreement provided an implicit, but much-needed example, at a meta-level of instruction, in a time of escalating impatience with difference, communication breakdown, and resurgence of violence to settle disputes.

From a practical standpoint, those watching the purse-strings of the institution might have been inclined to protest that team-teaching represents a doubling of the instructional costs of education. Our solution to this problem was to double the normal class size at Hawaii Pacific University from 25 students to 50. Instead of doubling the students' fees, we doubled their perspective for the same price of admission.

Finally, in case some readers think it impertinent for two American professors to recommend teaching strategies to Canadian college faculty, and bridle under the implication of pedagogical imperialism, let us offer this reminder. Although we developed our own model of team-teaching quite independently of Canadian influence, we have become aware that our practice, while original in our setting, was nonetheless not unique. A similar approach was used in Seneca College's innovative Canadian Studies program as early as 1969. There, the late Peter J. Spratt, introduced a format wherein three and not two professors taught a number of thematic, interdisciplinary courses, each of which brought at least some of the ideological diversity that we here espouse. Our hope, then, is not that our Canadian colleagues will adopt or adapt our technique as an import under the intellectual property provisions of NAFTA, but that you may revive your own traditions, share your experiences with us, and develop an international dialogue as productive as those that undoubtedly take place independently on each side of the border.


Gregory G. Gaydos and Philip H. King teach political science at Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu and are frequent contributors to educational magazines in Canada.