Today my guest writer is Mark Springer. Mark is the author of several wildly successful books on learning: Watershed: A Successful Journey Into Integrative Learning and Soundings: A Democratic Student-Centered Education. He was also named a NMSA Distinguished Educator in 2004. A long time middle school teacher in Pennsylvania, Mark recently retired from the classroom. He is now is a full time consultant and is partnering with Nancy Doda to promote empowering students through integrative learning. Both Mark and Nancy will be on the staff of the 2011 Middle Level Education Institute.
I believe building genuine communities of learners through teaming lies at the foundation of middle level education. It helps both students and teachers achieve greater results than they can when working as individuals.
Learning requires taking risks. That can be frightening even to adults, but young adolescents can easily be overwhelmed. We see this all the time as students turn off or drop out when faced with challenges they see as too formidable for them to confront. In addition, just developing their sense of identity in relation to a larger world, many young adolescents may feel alone and isolated, which exacerbates their difficulties with learning. Providing young adolescents with an educational environment of support and collaboration gives them the sense of belonging and security that makes the necessary risk-taking of learning more manageable and far less daunting. This, in turn, improves the odds that the students can and will learn successfully.
Corollary to this is the obvious concept that the better a teacher knows his or her students, the more prepared that teacher will be to provide precisely what those students need in order to master their learning. Teaming makes it easier for teachers to build this familiarity with their students through teaming activities. In addition, teamed teachers share the same students and so can work in unison to share information and provide appropriate instruction across the students’ day.
So I obviously believe strongly in the efficacy of teaming. I must add, however, that I believe with equal firmness that smaller teams are generally more effective than larger teams. A two-person teacher team sharing the same smaller number of students – particularly if they share the same space as well – can build a more cohesive learning community than a team of four or five teachers sharing 120+ students divided among four or five classrooms. The partnered team will have more time with each student, greater communication with each other, and far more opportunities to implement integrative learning strategies. What is more, the students will see themselves as a more unified community because they can do so much more as an entire community. They get to know each other more fully, which leads to greater trust, which increases their willingness to take learning risks. Simply put, smaller teams maximize all the advantages of teaming in general.
That being said, it remains true that any teaming at the middle level is better than no teaming because teaming is more developmentally appropriate for young adolescents, which results in the potential for more challenging, equitable and empowering learning.