Perspectives from the Outside: The Value of Cross-disciplinary Team Teaching

September 20, 2018

Having team-taught a course in Music and History with an esteemed colleague across campus for over six years, I thought it high time to pause and reflect on the value-added factor of such an endeavor.1  Additionally, I was curious to find out what current pedagogical research had to say about cross-disciplinary instruction and team-teaching. Although I admit I should have researched the scholarship on such pedagogies before launching into our experimental course, I confess to being one of those “fools [who] rush in where angels fear to tread.”

It all happened rather serendipitously. One day at an all-university faculty meeting, I leaned over to one of my History colleagues, and said, “I’m interested in teaching a course that merges music and nationalism. Would any of you be interested?” He smiled and said, “That would be me.”  Long story short, we turned out to be a great team and have run our course three times now.

My goal in this short essay is to make a case for cross-disciplinary and team-taught courses in Music plus non-music disciplines. I will briefly survey one pertinent study on cross-disciplinary teaching, and two on team-teaching, comparing the results with my own in-the-trench experiences.

Cross-disciplinary Immersion

Findings on teaching across disciplines in higher education are admittedly sparse. Outside the field of music, but nevertheless applicable, a study by engineering scholars explores the value of cross-disciplinary learning environments (Penttilä, Kairisto-Mertanen, and Väänänen 2014). Also referred to as a “boundary-crossing approach,” the rationale is to prepare students for the real job world, because critical thinking methodologies from a variety of disciplines are important in finding solutions for today’s market. To accomplish this, not only must the courses be truly cross-disciplinary, but assessment activities must also show evidence that students are learning and applying perspectives from other disciplines. The study recommends group projects composed of students from different disciplines. Their conclusions show that the boundary-crossing approach requires careful planning, but it can be an important step in teaching critical thinking by incorporating both content and outside perspectives.

The idea of grouping students across disciplines in project activities is an area that I had never considered. It is truly new light to me. In Music and Nationalism, we do require a group project in which the content is necessarily cross-disciplinary, but we allow students to group themselves by 2s or 3s in whatever way they preferred. We pay little attention to this minor detail (!), only intervening if there happens to be an odd man out.  In the latest run of our course, my colleague and I were very impressed with the high quality of work and depth of thought in the student presentations. We thought it was the best student work to date. After reading Penttilä’s study, I was curious to discover the group profiles by major. It turned out that every group this time included students from different disciplines, whereas in the past years, there was more homogeneity. I was surprised and pleased that the students had sought out others from disparate disciplines. We do not know the reason; however, in the future we want to guarantee heterogenous grouping and make it a mandatory requirement, since it may have been a factor in the successful student projects.

Socrates Squared

A study on Socratic dialogue in team teaching asserts that team teaching is more than just a sum of its parts, more than just a sharing of different perspectives (Game and Metcalfe 2009). In this model, practiced for many years by the co-authors, both teachers are present and engaged in every class session. By their demonstration of learning from one another, they bring students into a dialogue whereby learning takes place for all. The authors believe that this is what Socrates meant when he stated that teaching is an impossible project, and students can only grow when teachers and students actively learn together. They conclude that this type of delivery is superior to the one-teacher, one-directional method of content delivery.

This is an admirable practice, and one that I have yet to achieve.  Although my colleague and I work very well together, the amount of work that would be required to integrate every class session to the point that the two are presenting the material in tandem, with a level of back and forth dialogue that is able to draw in the entire class just seems daunting to me. Currently we assign ourselves responsibility for an entire class session, although we both attend every class and take the liberty to speak up at any time. Until now, I had thought that was pretty good!  Actually, it is also very generous of us because we are splitting the credit hours for the course. Nevertheless, I am inspired for next time.  Socrates squared, my friend?

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Another study addressed team norms and effectiveness (Mohamed, et. al. 2012). The authors argue that standardizing norms for various components of team-teaching, which they identify in areas such as lesson plans, means of assessment, and personality styles, optimizes both teacher and student performance. The goal of the study was to formulate a team-teaching model for higher education and concluded with a recommendation for an eleven-step standard.

I would put a pause on this one.  In my experience, in spite of attempts to create norms and models, team teaching is a very personal matter. Unless you find a cross-disciplinary soul-mate, the best content and best methods will not work. How can you create a standard for personality styles, really?  There is a certain degree of trust and camaraderie that must happen in order to create a successful course.  Especially if the course is meant to present topics equally through the lenses of both disciplines, the course needs to be truly owned by both team members.  A trivial example is in the titling of our course.  Should it be “Music and Nationalism” or “Nationalism and Music?”  Equal emphasis, but which one gets top billing? So far, Music has been first, but perhaps we should switch it up next time.  I’m game, but I fear it will not sit well with the Registrar!

The Wow Factor

Now equipped with a positive self-critique and some fresh ideas, I am ready to jump back into the trenches and change up some things. The research is a confirmation that this approach is a good one for student learning; however, overall, I don’t need any convincing that it is profitable.

Without doubt, my biggest take-away from cross-disciplinary team teaching is that at the end of every run of this course, there is a lingering glow of Wow! We have learned so much together.  Sure, this is a most subjective observation, but I do know that it is shared with my colleague and my students.  And that is priceless.


1 N.B.: This essay is derived from a paper presented at the Teaching Music History Conference at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, Indiana, June 8-9, 2018. The Conference was sponsored by the Pedagogy Study Group of the American Musicological Society. The paper was read in my absence by Study Group Chair, Paula Bishop, for whom I am very grateful.


Game, Ann, and Andrew Metcalfe. 2009. “Dialogue and Team Teaching.” Higher Education Research and Development 28, No. 1: 45-57.  doi:10.1080/07294360802444354.

Mohamed, Mariam, 2012. “’Team Teaching’ in Higher Education: The Relationship between Team Norms and Effectiveness.” International Journal of Arts and Commerce 1, No. 1: 1-15.

Penttilä, Taru, Liisa Kairisto-Mertanen, and Matti Väänänen. 2014. “Implementing Cross-disciplinary Learning Environment: Benefits and Challenges in Engineering Education.” Joint International Conference on Engineering Education and International Conference on Information Technology. Riga, Latvia Proceedings: 428-433.

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