Why Do We Need Academic Teaming?

by | May 29, 2019

Throughout these last few years, I’ve visited many schools and spoken with educators around the country. I see educators working very hard every day with a desire to prepare their students to persist through life’s challenges and succeed in the new economy. Teachers are often asked to take on initiative after initiative in the pursuit of this vision. At the same time, students are harder to engage and have increasingly complex and diverse needs. Teachers may have students who are suffering from trauma, students who do not speak English, and students who are academically talented but struggling to learn social skills due to overreliance on technology—all in one classroom. Teachers are expected to give every single one of these students access to an excellent education that equips them with social, emotional, and cognitive skills. It’s no wonder teachers are fatigued.

What if one key instructional shift could accomplish what other reforms have long aspired to achieve? What if teachers no longer had to constantly push their students toward the learning—what if students actually pulled each other into the learning? We can’t ask teachers to do more. We have to create a classroom environment where students do more.

What if teachers no longer had to constantly push their students toward the learning—what if students actually pulled each other into the learning?

Academic Teaming in an elementary classroom

Students engaged in rigorous learning with their academic teams at Jefferson Elementary School in Grand Island Public Schools, NE

In traditional classrooms, instruction is teacher-centered. The teacher is in control, keeping the lesson moving to cover the many topics students will need to know for their tests. The teacher does most of the talking while the students listen quietly. The teacher may feel pressure to engage and hold students’ attention and to cover all the content. Students process information from the teacher’s lecture by completing independent work, with some occasional grouping activities. During this time, the teacher must make sure students stay on task and behave appropriately, while also trying to address all the questions and concerns that arise. It is often very difficult for teachers to manage this while at the same time determining if students learned the lesson and at what depth. In this environment, students are rarely self-motivated to take ownership of their own learning as the teacher is doing most of the work.

Kindergartners peer teaching

Kindergartners peer teaching at Spring Lake Elementary School in Seminole County Public Schools, FL

Academic teaming is a model of instruction that creates a structure for student ownership, while empowering educators and bringing the joy and energy back into the classroom. When I walk academic teaming classrooms, I see students vigorously debating, pushing each other’s thinking, and supporting their peers. Often, the teacher points out that many of these star student leaders were once shy and non-participating or had negative behavior problems in the past. Now these students self-assess their progress to academic goals and self-regulate their own behavior. If they had remained in a traditional classroom, it’s possible no one would realize their leadership potential—the students themselves may have never known that they were capable of so much. I’ve spoken to teachers who were ready to retire and decided to keep teaching because they are so excited and proud to see what their students can do in teams.

School should be fun and cognitively challenging for students and teachers. With academic teaming, teachers can focus less of their energy on things like correcting student behavior and more of their energy on designing rich learning tasks. Educators are less likely to burn out and become exhausted once students begin to shoulder some of the responsibility for their own learning outcomes—and teaching becomes more gratifying.