Amplify small group instruction and strategic student grouping with this interactive approach.
Three years ago, we were quickly shifting our classrooms to online platforms as instruction was going remote for an indefinite amount of time. We tried to keep teaching throughout the pandemic and survived the snafus that happened throughout the day. (Remember that time you thought you were muted, but you weren’t? Bleh!) Our learning curves for online teaching grew exponentially, and many of us have incorporated the most promising practices into our classrooms today, such as using Google Docs for group projects or editing and commenting on a student paper in live time.
Although there is an educational app for just about everything, we suggest resisting the urge to default back to solely online learning (even while in person), and instead consider the unique benefits of being together in time and space. Let’s design opportunities for students to collaborate, and embrace the physical classroom by creating learning opportunities that take students away from the Chromebooks and into a live setting.
Characterized by movement, interaction, and small group learning, station teaching is one of the six established co-teaching models that takes advantage of being together within the four walls of a classroom. As with all models, station teaching comes with its own unique benefits, challenges, and logistics — let's walk through this method in an effort to support you and your co-teacher in planning and facilitating this meaningful approach to learning.
What is station teaching?
Station teaching is when content and instruction are divided into distinct components or strands. Students are divided into equally sized, typically heterogeneous groups.
Each teacher teaches a specific part of the lesson/content to different groups of students as they rotate between teachers. Students also rotate through center(s) where they complete an independent task.
What promises does this model offer?
Station teaching provides an opportunity for smaller group instruction and strategic student grouping.
One of the more obvious benefits of station teaching is that teachers have an opportunity to work with a small group of students, thus allowing for more responsiveness to individual questions, preferences, and needs. Stations also allow us to leverage the benefits of strategic student grouping, where teachers are intentional in the way that students are grouped together in service of the learning goal. Typically, heterogeneous groups, in which students with a variety of learning traits and needs work together, work best for the station teaching model; at the independent stations in particular, students have the opportunity to learn from and teach each other.
Station teaching allows for exploration of a topic or skill through multiple perspectives, entry points, and modes of expression.
In Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a framework designed to ensure that all learners can access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities, one of the guiding principles is that learners differ in the ways that they perceive and comprehend information that is presented to them. Therefore, it is essential that teachers provide students with multiple means of representation of content. Stations easily allow us to provide representation of a topic in multiple ways; each station could focus on a different text, visual, or audio source. Similarly, each station can allow students to express their learning through a different medium or modality; another important principle of UDL.
Station teaching allows the opportunity for natural “brain breaks” and movement.
Research has shown that regular, short breaks in the classroom can help students increase their focus and reduce stress. With shorter “chunks” of academic engagement and clear, natural transitions between tasks, the station teaching model inherently incorporates breaks for students. The time it takes for students to travel to the next station could be leveraged to provide students with the physical or social engagement they might need to sustain focus: perhaps you play a song that students enjoy, or invite them to do a particular stretch.
Station teaching can help strengthen a co-teaching relationship by providing the opportunity for shared ownership of planning and facilitation.
Anyone who has co-taught before knows that it can be difficult to find a groove in which both teachers are easily and equally sharing the workload of lesson planning and facilitation; obstacles like lack of common planning time, unclear goals, and difference in teaching styles and preferences can often get in the way. If you and your co-teacher are finding yourself in a stage of your team development in which roles feel lopsided or undefined, a stations lesson can be a helpful way to help redistribute some responsibility. The ways in which content and instruction are divided in station teaching offer a clear path for delegating planning and teaching duties; each teacher can be responsible for the designing and facilitation of one station (with coordination and communication, of course!).
What are some potential pitfalls?
Noise level and space limitations can create challenges.
With several groups of students working on different tasks simultaneously, some students (and teachers!) might find the level of noise and movement in the room to be an adjustment. Preparing students for this might be helpful; you might say something like, “Today’s class may be a bit louder than our typical class, but there will also be quiet moments at the end of the stations so you can collect your thoughts via writing.”
It’s also helpful to think strategically about where each station is set up in the room; having the two teacher stations as far away from each other as possible is often the way to go, since teachers often have the loudest voices in the room!
Careful attention must be paid to pacing.
In contrast to learning centers, where students are moving between learning engagements at their own pace, station teaching is often characterized by coordinated rotation, where everyone moves on to the next station at the same time. This means that all stations need to take roughly the same amount of time, which can be challenging to anticipate in planning. All stations should have flexible tasks that can be shortened or extended with enrichment options or additional discussion questions, depending on how quickly a particular group engages in them.
Not all content is well-suited for stations.
One of the trickier dynamics of station teaching is that not all students will begin their learning in the same place; some will begin at the independent station, while others will begin at the station led by co-teacher A, while still others will begin at the station by co-teacher B. Because of this, it’s important that the topics or tasks at each station are non sequential — that one station is not a necessary prerequisite to engage with another. Therefore, stations are not ideal for topics or skills that require a specific or strict sequencing of tasks or texts. It’s also not ideal for tasks that require deeper and more sustained investigation or attention, since time spent at each station is relatively brief compared to a full class period. Rather, stations work great for topics that are broad with multiple strands, perspectives, or approaches, or for introductory explorations or final reviews.
How can independent work be structured?
Recent research has highlighted the benefits of letting kids do things on their own, and station teaching offers the opportunity for practicing independence.
We have generally found independent stations should be built on familiar territory: a concept, graphic organizer, or task directions that students have seen before. Be sure to have all of the supplies ready at the independent station, and try not to overcomplicate the directions (this sounds obvious but can be challenging)!
Here are just a few ideas for independent work:
What can this model look like in action?
Given the promises and potential pitfalls of this co-teaching model, we can determine the kinds of lessons and learning objectives that will be best suited for this instructional approach. Here are a few examples:
3rd grade ELA
Students engage in stations that support them with the skills of determining the main idea of a text. At one teacher-led station, students are creating titles for chunks of text. At the second teacher-led station, students are reading a short text and asking: what is this story mostly about? At the two independent stations, students are sorting pictures into categories, or listening to an audio book and answering multiple choice questions.
7th grade Math
To begin a new unit, students are engaging in an opening inquiry around the question: Why are surface area and volume important concepts in everyday life? At one teacher-led station, students make observations about water displacement when an object is dropped in a glass of water, and make predictions on whether the tray will be able to catch the displaced water; at another, students are tasked with wrapping a present; at another, they must choose the best tupperware container for leftover “food.” After visiting all the stations, students reflect on the guiding question and discuss with their peers.
11th grade US History
Historians often teach an era through a variety of lenses, such as the culture, the key events and figures, and the different perspectives of an era; this approach lends itself easily to a station lesson. When studying the Progressive Era, for example, students can investigate: How did the growth in industrialization and urbanization lead to positive and negative changes in American society? At one teacher-led station, students can look at images from the time period (from photojournalists such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine) and notice the subjects and stories these photographers may be trying to tell about urban life in the early twentieth century. At an independent station, students can define key terms, such as “muckraker,” “progressivism,” “industrialization,” “modernization,” and The Gospel of Wealth. Students can look up these terms and record what they learn in the form of Cornell Notes or a Frayer Model. At another teacher-led station, the teacher can facilitate a reading of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or The Story of Ida B. Wells, and ask students to make meaning of the text, and take notes on what the text conveys to the reader. After visiting all three stations, students can compare their notes and discuss the positive and negative impact of industrialization and urbanization during the U.S.’s Progressive Era.
The devil is in the details
The more you and your co-teacher can plan in advance for the logistics of station teaching, the more successful your lesson will likely be. How long will students spend at each station? How long will they be given to transition between stations? Which teacher will be responsible for keeping time and cuing the students? How will students know where to go next? (We suggest a slide or poster indicating the direction of rotation for that one!)
Preparing all the materials in advance and having a clear and brief set of directions at each station is crucial (particularly at the independent station).
Practice pays off
While this article details the logistics of station teaching with an eye on co-teaching, we cannot overemphasize the importance of designing opportunities for students to interact with each other and with the physical space of the classroom in all classrooms. We know that students missed years of face-to-face interactions due to the pandemic; we suggest being proactive and creating moments for students to embrace a shared space and interact with each other in a low-stakes way.
With all these dynamics and logistics, your stations lesson might not go perfectly the first time; don’t give up! We encourage you to reflect on the challenges, tweak it, and try it again. Stations might be a bit of a learning curve for your students as well, but as with any classroom protocol or routine, station rotation and engagement are skills that can be explicitly taught, scaffolded, and practiced. It’s our opinion that the work pays off, as we’ve found this approach to be an interactive and engaging way to punctuate particularly compelling topics in a curriculum.