The benefits of co-teaching at the table

Nicole Pellaton

Co-teaching enhances the Harkness dynamic, say instructors Brownback and Blackwell, and it’s all good. 

March 2, 2018
Kathy Brownback and John Blackwell

The joy these two veteran faculty derive from the creative collaboration of co-teaching shines through in Science Instructor John Blackwell’s vivid chuckles and Religion Instructor Kathy Brownback’s sparkling eyes as they discuss Epistemology, a course that takes on the very meaning of meaning.

Epistemology debuted four years ago with a focus on engaging students with different modes of experience and inquiry, and helping them develop an understanding of how we know what we know. The course has evolved with each term since the hugely successful pilot: New readings are added (Atul Gawande and Jan Chozen Bays made their way onto the syllabus, for example), and assignments change (an awe-inspiring evening visit to Exeter’s Grainger Observatory is a very popular addition). The heart of the class — a 2,000-year retrospective of knowledge, from Plato and the Western philosophical tradition, to the scientific revolution, postmodernism and modern-day authors — remains a constant.

Here are edited excerpts from a tableside conversation in Blackwell’s classroom, just after the two teachers, who share a startling ability to synthesize across disciplines and eras, completed their third term of teaching Epistemology.

Q: How does co-teaching differ from the traditional Exeter classroom setup with one teacher and 12 students?

John Blackwell: Having the second teacher is really about additive framework and voice and perspective — the additional brain power to encompass a topic as large as epistemology. This topic is HUGE and really does benefit from multiple learned sources. We’re there to help the students struggle through this. It’s not easy, and we do it in 10 weeks.

Kathy Brownback: We notice different things, and we respond to things differently.

JB: The students seek that from individual teachers. The concept of a student trying to please the teacher by saying what they think is correct, that fades away. They have to become more genuine. It has to come from their heart.

KB: They have to navigate the fact that if you’re going to look to the teachers as the source of authority, there are two of them. Which in a way reduces any one teacher’s authority.

One of the critical points that comes out of a class taught by multiple teachers and multiple disciplines is relevance." — John Blackwell

Q: Epistemology has proven to be a student favorite. This fall you increased the number of sections to accommodate demand. Why do you think it’s so popular?

JB: Epistemology attracts deep thinkers, collaborative thinkers, people who are willing to take on a broader world view perspective of pretty much everything. So, while it’s high school and they’re adolescents, they’re definitely doing college-level stuff.

KB: They were very sharp kids and diversely smart.

JB: And that, like having two teachers, brings everything up to the next notch.

KB: And is another reason it’s good to have two teachers. [Laughing]

JB: It keeps you on your toes. The direction of the conversation can change very rapidly. And then come right back to an original point earlier on in the discussion and overturn it. It is pretty impressive. I’m remembering some great conversations.

KB: We bring in other teachers, like [Adjunct Music Instructors] Jon Sakata and Jung Mi Lee. They bring in the arts in a really neat way. They’re incredibly well-trained classical musicians, but they also want kids to experience music, hear it almost without filters.

JB: One of the critical points that comes out of a class taught by multiple teachers and multiple disciplines is relevance. Students, particularly adolescents, really do struggle with finding relevance in what they’re learning. And without providing that, it just becomes more stuff I’m learning, right?

KB: They love when something fits together.

JB: A piece in the puzzle. Seeing all the interconnectedness really matters. It helps them become better … everything.

Q: Can you share an anecdote that illustrates the course’s impact?

KB: There’s one moment I wish we had done differently. We had been talking about Plato and Aristotle and the rational mind. One student said something like, ‘How in Plato, and before Plato, did this prejudice against women get started? How old is this?’

I said it had a lot to do with how women are said to be embodied — if you have a body/mind split, it’s going to go: women are about the body and men are about the mind. We talked about that, but I wish we had stopped and said, ‘Can you hear the pain behind that question?’

The way she said it — the #MeToo movement was starting to pop in — it was kind of like, is this ever changeable? I think the students did hear the question, so maybe it wasn’t necessary, but it felt so poignant in that moment. It wasn’t even anger, it was a kind of sadness.

JB: But it was a realization. A lightbulb and then the frustration, the sadness. There’s sorrow, there’s pain.

KB: As is often the case, underneath the anger was pain. What is it going to take to get this changed? It is, of course, ancient.

Another interesting conversation was when we were talking about the objective and the subjective together. A lot of times when kids talk about the subjective, they’ll say, ‘Well, this is just my opinion. The merely subjective.’

JB: They profess it with ‘merely,’ as if it has no value. Of course, it has value!

KB: Right, as if the objective world has all the truth. We talked about the different facets of a person, using John Blackwell as an example. There’s the internal of John — his thoughts and consciousness. The only person who knows that is John. And even he doesn’t know all of it because a lot is subconscious. And there’s his group identity, where he says ‘we’: might be gender, resident of Exeter. Objectively he’s white. Objectively he’s male. But after all, we don’t even see maleness as objective any more.

JB: There’s more to this. More than what kind of body you inhabit.

KB: Which is the real John? Can’t say he’s just a white man. Or she’s just a black woman. She’s a black woman, but she’s also a bunch of other things. The notion of one’s identity being all these things happening at once. The subjective is not devalued because it does matter who you identify with, how you see yourself. But it also matters what your class background is, how others see and perhaps label you, how your race or gender plays out in a larger setting. So, we talk about all the parts of ourselves evolving. Your internal consciousness is always, ideally, evolving.

JB: This is the framework by which we described individuals. But out of this comes the epistemology of the group. Truth comes out of this.

It’s really the ideal Harkness subject. It brings everything together: the personal, the objective, the historic, the present." — Kathy Brownback

KB: That evolving element is why mindfulness is so important. It’s very dislocating to say, ‘Everything’s up for grabs.’ And yet, when you sit with yourself and you’re aware just of your own body and your own breath, there’s a kind of solidity that makes it possible to say ‘all these things are swirling around, all these things are happening, and yet I’m experiencing them through a stable presence.’ The more stable my presence, the more other perspectives I can take in.

JB: We should write a book. It would be fun, actually. "The Harkness Epistemology."

KB: It’s really the ideal Harkness subject. It brings everything together: the personal, the objective, the historic, the present.

Q: What is your next dream course to develop and teach?

JB: Wouldn’t it be special to create a mind/body class? We could include psychology.

KB: Biology.

JB: That would be a really fascinating class.

Kids’ well-being is really important to me. They need to have a real sense of I matter as a person." — Kathy Brownback

KB: I grew up in the late '60s. Everything seemed like it was dissolving then and falling apart.

JB: It was great!

KB: But, there was a sense of revolution and excitement in the air.

JB: We were going to make change.

KB: We were going to make a better world. That sentiment is tough to come by right now. It definitely exists, but we could go either way as a culture and as a race. Kids are really struggling with a surfeit of information and perspectives, and they’re dealing with the web in ways that are toxic a lot of the time.

JB: A lot of information and disinformation, with distraction from the self.

KB: Potential for distraction. By toxic I mean an animosity that’s expressed a lot of times on social media that ...

JB: Tends toward nihilistic attitudes.

KB: Yes! It’s an attack. There’s this relentless tearing down of things that requires you to be really strong in yourself. And clear about who you are. That’s hard for kids. The culture is very happy to tell them who they are, and hopes to get them addicted to certain kinds of food. Sugar or alcohol. Bad media habits. Pornography. All kinds of stuff. And If you don’t have a compass of where, who you are as a person, there are a lot of people out there who are going to make a lot of money by distracting you.

Kids’ well-being is really important to me. They need to have a real sense of I matter as a person. And I matter nonnegotiably because I am a human being. How I’m going to live that is a question — that’s something I need to figure out —but it’s really important that I am who I am. I’m a person of value and I bring value to the whole. The whole needs me and I need the whole. Interconnected. 

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