Do Primary School Students Learn Better with One Generalist Teacher or Many Specialist Teachers?
I’m a “looper”. Fortunately, not the Blunderbuss wielding kind.
“Looping” is a term used when kids keep the same teacher for two years in a row. They don’t switch teachers for each subject and don’t switch each year. “Platooning” refers to having teachers specialize in a particular subject, such as math or English, and young students switch teachers for each class. — Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report.
I’ve written in the past about my frustration at not having the level of subject knowledge or expertise I would like when delivering several of the eight subjects I teach. I follow some fantastic educators on the Twitter. They inspire and inform my teaching, but also highlight the significant gap between what specialist and generalist teachers can offer. In “A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing” I questioned whether primary aged middle-school students would benefit more from learning with subject-specific teachers in a high school type model. But recently, I’ve been wondering if perhaps I have it backwards.
What if forging a strong relationship with a single teacher who can help students connect and deeply explore subjects is more beneficial for learning than moving hour-to-hour between many disconnected lessons led by multiple teachers with subject-specific expertise?
So, classic movie discussions aside, which is better for students: Platooning or Looping?
Over the past decade, many primary schools have shifted to a timetable model that asks teachers to specialise in specific subjects and pushes students lock-step through numerous discrete lessons each day. The theory is that teachers with greater subject expertise, particularly in maths & science, can impact more students which helps everyone learn more. But according to one recent study by Roland Fryer called The “Pupil” Factory, platooning is harmful to elementary-aged children compared to their looping peers. The experiment, designed to test the potential productivity benefits of teacher specialisation, concluded that:
“Teacher specialization, if anything, decreases student achievement, decreases student attendance, and increases student behavioral problems.”
Platooning schools experienced more suspensions and absences. Test scores for reading and maths were worse than those who’d been taught by a single teacher. Vulnerable and at-risk students fared worst of all, performing three times worse on high-stakes tests and two times worse in low-stakes testing. Teachers noted that they were less able to tailor to individual learning needs and reported a lower job satisfaction compared to teachers who spent all day with students.
“Teaching must be more than a transaction of delivering content to kids”. — Monte Syrie.
Does platooning reduce teaching and learning to a content transaction? I’ve often wondered whether teachers working in platoon timetabled schools, whose student enter and leave via strictly timed revolving doors, are able to form the same kinds of meaningful relationships with students and families that primary teachers can? Is there a correlation between time spent with students and the quality of relationships formed? If so, what’s the magic number? How much time is enough to build meaningful relationships?
The social interactions among adults and students are not simply a means to some other end; rather “they are education itself”. The essence of looping is the promotion of strong, extended, meaningful, positive interpersonal relationships between teachers and students that foster increased student motivation and, in turn, stimulate improved learning outcomes for students. — Daniel Burke, Looping: Adding Time, Strengthening Relationships.
Looping has long been a feature of the Montessori system which believes that interest and engagement come from being able to make connections across disciplines. Conventional Montessori classrooms have at least three-year age groupings, with one person teaching all subjects across multiple years. Looping is also credited with giving learners “an extra month” of learning in years where students repeat with a teacher. Waldorf educators use up to an eight-year cycle which has been referred to as “giant looping.” Proponents of this system suggest that, beyond the benefits already mentioned, it’s a way to make a big school small. Both systems believe that looping leads to better social, emotional and academic outcomes.
A recently published study from the Economics of Education Review investigated what happened when students and teachers spent two continuous years together. The researchers found that familiarity between pupils and instructors resulted in (marginally) higher test scores for learners and that minority students, in particular, benefited from consecutive years with the same teacher. The authors of this study argue that looping is a practical and low-cost strategy for improving learning outcomes for students.
“These studies are important because they tell us that teacher-student relationships matter, I think schools in many ways have put the cart before the horse. What they’ve done is they want to jump right into academics and really dismiss or minimize the importance of relationships. You can’t get to the content if the relationship and the social-emotional well-being piece is not being attended to first.”
From this research, it would seem that time, meaningful relationships, and a teacher’s pedagogical capabilities are more important than their subject-specific knowledge. My own experience with looping mirrors these findings. In my composite Year 6/7 class, I’ve noticed that students really begin to shine and thrive in their second year. Getting to spend more than 350 days, or about 1800 hours, over back-to-back years with students results in a level of relationship and trust that would be difficult to replicate in any other conditions. It has also helped with the introduction of some of our more innovative practices which require students to develop greater skills in self-regulation, self-management, collaboration etc.
There’s no question in my mind that looping teachers are able to gain greater insight into a child’s intellectual, social and emotional strengths and weaknesses. But, like any practice, there are potential downsides, particularly with the “giant loop” model. These issues can revolve around teacher quality, potential tension or conflict between students and teachers, and deficits in subject expertise that aren’t necessarily improved later by different teachers. What is the cost of damage done to students who are a bad fit with a particular teacher they are compelled to work with over multiple years?
Eventually, the subjects that students need to learn become more complex, and it’s no longer practical for one teacher to manage that load. But where is this point? When does looping begin to lose its effectiveness? Middle school? High school? At what point does platooning and subject-specific knowledge become more important for academic success?
Do platooning teachers have it easier than their looping counterparts when it comes to lesson design and delivery? While I’m sure there are certainly pros and cons, sometimes I’m envious of teaching colleagues who can often plan one or two lessons for the day and then have the opportunity to improve their delivery through repeated attempts. I work on a two-year content cycle which makes it impossible to “perfect” a lesson through repetition.
If given a choice, would you choose to “loop” or “platoon” with your students? What would the impact of this be on learners and educators in your context?
Of course, regardless of whether they are loopers or platooners, the very best educators will find ways to value relationships and know learners above all else. I leave you with this viral thread from Monte Syrie, which if you haven’t yet read, you should do yourself a favour…
Meg fell asleep in class yesterday. I let her. I didn’t take it personally. She has zero-hour math, farm-girl chores, state-qualifying 4X400 fatigue, adolescent angst, and various other things to deal with. My class is only a part of her life, not her life. No, she did not use
— Monte Syrie (@MonteSyrie) May 16, 2018
She is not the first kid to fall asleep in my class. And she likely won’t be the last, but she is the most recent, and…www.letschangeeducation.com