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Staying With Students

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

I was very intrigued by this article in the New York Times in October. Dr. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, describes a very interesting educational practice that I think merits some attention.

One of the many things I love about tutoring is that I can work with the same student over many years. This allows me to get to know each student very well, which means I get to know the student's strengths and weaknesses well. I also typically get to know the hobbies of the child, which I can incorporate into our sessions. For example, one of my students likes basketball, so I regularly create word problems for him that use basketball:

  • How many points do you score if you make X 3-pointers and Y 2-pointers? Can we find a total point score that would not be possible to make combining 3- and 2-pointers?

  • If the other team is winning by Z points, which combinations of 2- and 3-pointers could our team make to win?

  • What kid of probability of making a shot would you like?

  • What does it mean to make a shot 3 out of 5 times; is that better than 4 out of 6 times? Why?

  • Unit rates: if a player makes 30 points in 21 minutes, what's the player's score per minute?

Teachers staying with students over the years

It is much harder for a teacher in America to get to know students well and give students personalized attention, especially with so many children in a classroom and with getting new students every year.

This article spelled out some commonalities found among students who have achieved significant gains in math and reading performance. "In North Carolina, economists examined data on several million elementary school students. They discovered a common pattern across about 7,000 classrooms... 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."

This practice of moving up with the same students is called "looping."

The article continues and explains that "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 specializing just in their subjects, teachers also get to specialize in their students. Their role evolves from instructor to coach and mentor."

This educational practice makes sense for the students, the teachers, and the parents. A rapport can be built and trusted.

"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."

As our students continue to struggle with standardized tests and the various pressures of school, I wish that more schools would consider thinking outside the box. Looping sounds like an educational practice that doesn't cost additional money and makes sense for students. It would require some organization and willingness of teachers to possibly expand their expertise. In my humble opinion, it may at least be worth trying it for a few grade levels for a few years and measuring results.

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