The research-to-practice gap refers to the discrepancy between research-backed data for best practices in education versus their application and practice in the classroom. Special education in particular has been a focus of the research-to-practice gap (McLeskley & Billingsley, 2008). In their 2008 review, McLeskey and Billingsley noted several reasons for the limited application of research theory in the classroom including qualifications and training of special education teachers, instability of special education teaching positions, and inadequate work conditions that make efficacy of practices difficult.
However, the review also noted that the best research based practices are implemented in “the context of collaborative school environments” (Cook Landrum, Tankersly & Kauffman, 2003 as cited in McLeskey and Billingsly, 2008, p. 299; Gersten & Dimino, 2001 as cited in McLeskey and Billingsley, 2008, p. 299) If we take time to examine certain theorists who figure prominently in educational psychology, it is understandable why co-teaching, a collaborative environment, makes the application of theory and research based practices more feasible in the classroom – for both special and general educators. The outline below applies co-teaching to the traditional theories of educational psychology in order to see how this research-to-practice gap might be reduced thanks to co-teaching.
Co-teaching and Piaget
Piaget described children as motivational learners who construct knowledge of their world through experience, accommodation and assimilation (Ormrod, 2011). Within a co-teaching model, teachers have more opportunity to integrate hands on learning experiences and create an active learning environment for all students that has been suggested to benefit students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 1994 as cited in Dieker, 2001; Mastroprieri & Scruggs, 1994; Mastroprieri & Scruggs, 1995 as cited in Dieker, 2001; Rowser, 1995, as cited in Diker, 2001; Schumaker & Deshler, 1994 as cited in Dieker, 2001). Especially by using either the alternative, parallel or station method of co-teaching, students have the ability to learn through manipulation and experimentation. Through the introduction of manipulatives, labs, and hands-on exploration that is allowed when more than one teacher is in the classroom, Piaget’s theory comes alive. But why does co-teaching allow for more hands on experience than a more traditional single teacher environment?
When two educators are in the room, more things are possible. Projects can be broken down into smaller groups, or two adults can circulate the classroom during whole-group time in order to make sure all students are on task. If students progress at different rates or begin with different ability levels, more teachers ensure that all students are receiving attention and receiving maximal benefit from the classroom activity (Murawski & Spencer, 2011).
What’s more, within Piaget’s model, children learn through assimilation and accommodation, or connecting ideas to existing schemes. When more than one teacher is present, there are more minds working to assist children in creating these connections. Perhaps in a one lead, one assist model, one teacher will jump in to assist learners in making their connections as the “lead” teacher progresses through the lesson (Beninghof, 2012).
Co-teaching and Vygotsky
Vygotsky’s model of educational development emphasizes the influence adults have regarding the cultural and educational development of children (Ormrod, 2011). Of central importance to Vygotsky’s model is the theory of the “zone of proximal development.” A child’s zone of proximal development, according to Vygotksy, is where the maximal amount of learning will occur. The task that falls within this zone is neither too easy nor too difficult for the student, but needs be completed and understood with assistance and support (Ormrod, 2011).
Vygotsky, more so than Piaget, allows for individual learning differences between students, for each individual’s zone of proximal development is unique to that individual’s progress in the classroom. Co-teaching allows for more differentiation, particularly in station teaching, parallel teaching, alternative teaching or team teaching. When there is more than one teacher in the classroom, students with different needs receive more attention and focus, whether it is by one assistant teacher during whole group instruction, or by grouping students as they progress through station work or alternative instruction. This model allows for students who are more advanced or those who might need extra assistance to receive directed attention without feeling labeled “different” from their peers.
Vygotsky calls for differentiation and support, and co-teaching is one way to address such needs for all children in the classroom (Beninghof, 2012; Murawski and Spencer, 2011).
Theories of Multiple Intelligences and the Co-teaching Approach
Another aspect of educational psychology that can be applied to co-teaching is the idea of multiple intelligences. Students learn and express intelligence in many different ways. Spearman’s concept of g, Cattell’s Fluid and Crystallized Intelligences, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences – all of these theories are attempts to define “intelligence” as it differs from traditional test and IQ scores.
Co-teaching is one way in which multiple intelligences can be incorporated into the classroom. More teachers who have different areas of expertise can create lesson plans that address different learning styles and preferences. Station learning can incorporate activities that address the subject material from different angles. For example, a hands- on activity could help tactile learners understand an activity that could be later reinforced by a worksheet or more typical lecture format for visual or auditory learners (Beninghof, 2012).
Social Development and the Co-Teaching Approach
Another aspect to highlight is the assistance of moral and social development that stems from a co-teaching environment. Students with and without disabilities are said to benefit socially and behaviorally from a co-teaching environment (Dieker, 1998; Hunt, Allwell, Farron-Davis & Goetz, 1996; Jones & Carlier, 1995; Murawski, 2010; Pugach & Wesson, 1995; Salend et al., 1997; Walther-Thomas, 1997).
For students with disabilities, a more positive sense of self can be developed from an inclusive environment due to reduced stigma associated with isolation from their peers (Jones & Carlier, 1995; Murawski, 2010; Salend et al. 1997; Walther-Thomas, 1997). What’s more, some research has noted that expectations for all students remain high in an inclusive setting, which could promote higher levels of success than in exclusive special education classrooms (Dieker, 2001; Murwaski, 2006).
Though it has been said before, having more teachers in a classroom allows for more opportunity to diversify and differentiate learning as well as increases diversity of interaction for students. Regardless of the educational theory, the co-teaching model can assist in implementing components of all theories. Though initially the change might seem daunting, for there is a lot involved in making a co-teaching partnership successful (see Murawski, 2010), when it works, it, theoretically at least, has the potential to help students succeed.