Researchers have found that teacher looping is a key component in student success in school and beyond, as highlighted by a recent New York Times article. This practice involves students having one teacher for multiple years, which allows time for teachers to get to know each student personally, to understand their learning style, their strengths and challenges, and how to encourage them to do their best work. Waldorf Education has practiced teacher looping for over 100 years because we know that it provides the strongest foundation for each child’s future in both school and life.
This article was originally published by Adam Grant in the New York Times opinion section https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/22/opinion/education-us-teachers-looping.html
Which country has the best education system? Since 2000, every three years, 15-year-olds in dozens of countries have taken the Program for International Student Assessment — a standardized test of math, reading and science skills. On the inaugural test, which focused on reading, the top country came as a big surprise: tiny Finland. Finnish students claimed victory again in 2003 (when the focus was on math) and 2006 (when it was on science), all while spending about the same time on homework per week as the typical teenager in Shanghai does in a single day.
Just over a decade later, Europe had a new champion. Here, too, it wasn’t one of the usual suspects — not a big, wealthy country like Germany or Britain but the small underdog nation of Estonia. Since that time, experts have been searching for the secrets behind these countries’ educational excellence. They recently found one right here in the United States.
In North Carolina, economists examined data on several million elementary school students. They discovered a common pattern across about 7,000 classrooms that achieved significant gains in math and reading performance.
Those students didn’t have better teachers. They just happened to have the same teacher at least twice in different grades. A separate team of economists replicated the study with nearly a million elementary and middle schoolers in Indiana — and found the same results.
Every child has hidden potential. It’s easy to spot the ones who are already sparkling, but many students are uncut gems. When teachers stay with their students longer, they can see beyond the surface and recognize the brilliance beneath.
Instead of teaching a new cohort of students each year, teachers who practice “looping” move up a grade or more with their students. It can be a powerful tool. And unlike many other educational reforms, looping doesn’t cost a dime.
With more time to get to know each student personally, teachers gain a deeper grasp of the kids’ strengths and challenges. The teachers have more opportunities to tailor their instructional and emotional support to help all the students in the class reach their potential. They’re able to identify growth not only in peaks reached, but also in obstacles overcome. The nuanced knowledge they acquire about each student isn’t lost in the handoff to the next year’s teacher.
Finland and Estonia go even further. In both countries, it’s common for elementary schoolers to have the same teacher not just two years in a row but sometimes for up to six straight years. Instead of just specializing in their subjects, teachers also get to specialize in their students. Their role evolves from instructor to coach and mentor.
It didn’t occur to me until I read the research, but I was lucky to benefit from looping. My middle school piloted a program to keep students with the same two core teachers for all three years. When I struggled with spatial visualization in math, Mrs. Bohland didn’t question my aptitude. Having seen me ace a year of algebra, she knew I was an abstract thinker and taught me to use equations to identify the dimensions of shapes before drawing them in 3D. And after a few years of observing what fired me up in social studies and the humanities, Mrs. Minninger knew my interests well. She saw a common theme in my passions for analyzing character development in Greek mythology and anticipating counterarguments in mock trial — and suggested doing my year-end project on psychology. Thank you, Mama Minnie.
Most parents see the benefit of keeping their kids with the same coaches in sports and music for more than a year. Yet the American education system fails to do this with teachers, the most important coaches of all. Critics have long worried that following their students through a range of grades will prevent teachers from developing specialized skills appropriate to specific grade levels. Parents fret about rolling the dice on the same teacher more than once. What if my kid gets stuck with Mr. Snape or Miss Viola Swamp? But in the data, looping actually had the greatest upsides for less effective teachers — and lower-achieving students. Building an extended relationship gave them the opportunity to grow together.
The Finnish and Estonian education systems are far from perfect, and Finland’s PISA scores have dipped a bit in recent years. But both countries have done more than just achieve high rates of high performers — they’ve achieved some of the world’s lowest rates of low performers, with remarkably small performance gaps between schools and between richer and poorer students. Being disadvantaged is less of a disadvantage in Finland and Estonia than almost anywhere else.
Looping isn’t the only practice that makes a difference. Both Finland and Estonia have professionalized education systems — they often require master’s degrees for teachers, training them in evidence-based education practices and methods for interpreting ongoing research in the field. And teachers are entrusted with a great deal of autonomy. Whereas American kindergarten has become more like first grade, with more emphasis on spelling, writing and math, Finland and Estonia make learning fun with a play-based curriculum. Elementary schoolers typically get 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of instruction. Teachers don’t have to waste time teaching to the test. And over the years, if students start to struggle, instead of labeling them as remedial or forcing them to repeat grades, schools in both countries offer early interventions focused on individual tutoring and extra support. That helps students get up to speed without being pulled off track.
Over the years, American students have consistently lagged behind two to three dozen countries on the PISA. A major factor in our lackluster results is the huge gap between our highest- and lowest-performing students. The U.S. education system is built around a culture of winner take all. Students who win the wealth lottery get to attend the best schools with the best teachers. Those who win the intelligence lottery may get to enroll in gifted-and-talented programs.
Great education systems create cultures of opportunity for all. They don’t settle for no child left behind; they strive to help every child get ahead. As the education expert Pasi Sahlberg writes, success is when “all students perform beyond expectations.” Finnish and Estonian schools don’t just invest in students who show early signs of high ability — they invest in every student regardless of apparent ability. And there are few better ways to do that than to keep students with teachers who have the time to get to know their abilities.
Children learn in many different ways. That’s why it is so important for teachers to bring concepts through multiple senses. In Waldorf schools we teach science through stories as well as outdoors in nature and in the lab. We move, build, and even bake and eat our math. We teach literature through theater. We sing our history and languages. We teach this way so that our curriculum reaches more children, more deeply, in a way that they love and remember.
This article is an example of the ways the techniques and skills that have always been integral in Waldorf education are being recognized and incorporated into mainstream education.
How Multisensory Activities Enhance Reading Skills
Reading lessons can involve more than just our eyes and ears. Here’s how you can promote reading skills using all five senses.
This article was written by Laura DePriest and originally published on edutopia.org
As educators, we know what it is like to work with children who catch on quickly. The light bulb moments happen fairly easily for them, and they will likely progress despite what we do. We teach them their letter sounds and review flash cards a few times, and from then on those students know and apply them as they learn how to put those sounds together and read.
What can be done for children who are taught those same letter sounds, have seen those same flash cards countless times, and still can’t remember which letter makes which sound? Sometimes those children eventually catch on, but what if they don’t? Often, we assume those children aren’t as smart as the other children. But what if the issue is that their brains are wired in a particular way, and how they are taught needs to be adjusted instead of just repeating the same methods over and over again in the same way?
Recent research has shown that the brain can adapt and make new connections even into old age. Our brains are ever-changing as we take in new information and new experiences. When we discover that a child doesn’t respond to and recall information in the traditional ways, it is important to consider how the brain receives information. The brain is exposed to a stimulus (hearing a phone ring or tasting spaghetti), at which point it analyzes and evaluates the information. Our five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste) send information to our brain, which is designed to recognize sensations, initiate behaviors, and store memories.
MULTISENSORY ACTIVITIES REINFORCE STRENGTHS AND IMPROVE WEAKNESSES
So, what does knowing how amazing our brains are mean for us as preschool and early elementary teachers? Well, we can consider very practical ways to incorporate multisensory activities into our literacy instruction. Multisensory activities benefit all students and can be implemented daily in our classrooms. However, the key is to use more than one sense at a time in order to cement the concept. A sight-based activity alone isn’t enough; pair visual learning activities with another type. When a lesson uses multiple senses at once, it reinforces students’ strengths and strengthens their weaknesses.
Sight: Students see stimuli with their eyes. In class, this includes labels on classroom furniture and other items, word walls, anchor charts, or big books. For individual students, it could be flash cards or graphic organizers like Read It, Build It, Write It. With this tool, teachers would dictate or display a word, and students would build the word using letter tiles, and then students would write the word.
Hearing: Students hear stimuli with their ears. This can include hearing letters and letter sounds as you say them, singing rhyming songs, and participating in read-alouds. Shared reading is also a powerful tool for developing literacy. As you read or your students listen to an audiobook, they can interact with the text by underlining sight words or circling the long or short vowels that they hear.
Touch: Students touch stimuli with their hands. This is perhaps the biggest missing piece in our classrooms, but this hands-on approach is crucial for young learners. Students can manipulate letter tiles as they spell words and blend sounds. They can form letters or words with kinetic sand or play-dough, or they can simply trace sandpaper letters with their fingers as they say and hear letter names and sounds.
Air-writing and arm tapping both activate gross motor skills. When air-writing, have your students stand and air-write a word with their dominant arm, moving from their shoulder to promote large muscle movement. When arm-tapping, students tap their arm using their dominant hand from left to right, starting at their shoulder. Saying each sound of the word as they tap reinforces the sounds. Then, have students make a sweeping motion across their arm as they say the whole word, as if underlining it.
The three previously mentioned senses blend seamlessly into the concept of literacy. Smell and taste, however, are much harder to incorporate because they don’t return the same response as knowing letters by sight, sound, and touch/writing. In order for students to best learn the intended literacy skill, the following sensory activities are most effective when they are used with at least one other activity from the previous group.
Smell: Students smell stimuli with their noses. For example, students can form their letters in scented shaving cream or use smelly markers when tracing or writing—perhaps making the letter S with a marker that smells like sweet strawberries. Younger children can read a scratch-and-sniff book, or even make their own book using smelly stickers.
Taste: Students taste stimuli with their mouths. This is the most popular type of activity. You can give students their own portion of letter-shaped crackers, cookies, cereal, or pudding to spell words—they can write letters with their fingers or spell words on crackers using Cheez Whiz. And then, of course, they get to eat their creation.
The best part about multisensory activities is that they usually feel like play to children. But because of what we know about how the brain makes connections and stores memories, these strategies are powerful in helping our children learn how to read. Multisensory literacy activities provide necessary intervention for the students who need it, while making learning more fun for all of our students.