Looping, as it pertains to K-12 education, is the practice of moving groups of children up from one grade to the next with the same teacher. My wife is a retired elementary school teacher who was deeply involved in looping with her students, and I’m a retired middle school teacher who participated in this practice for the last four years of my career. Over the years, we've had many discussions comparing our experience, and we’ve come to realize that there are both drawbacks and benefits of looping in education. (Full disclosure: We both enjoyed the experience!)
Looping can take different forms. My wife’s experience in elementary school was a traditional example. She would have a class of third-grade students, and the next year she would have the same students as fourth and then fifth graders—or she would have a class of combined grades over several years. In my middle school experience, I taught students of various ages in each of my four science blocks. The students were grouped according to data that showed their mastery of the discipline and a projection of future success as determined by local and state benchmark tests.
In the school where I taught, every student was also placed in a “family” (or homeroom), which was randomly grouped, and they would remain in the same "family" for all three years. Essentially, my sixth graders had the benefit of seventh and eighth graders as mentors, guides, and helpers. By the time the sixth graders reached the older grades, they knew what was expected of them to become mentors themselves.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Looping in Education
With that, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of looping—what makes it an effective practice in school districts and where it falls short.
Benefits of Looping
1. You can build stronger relationships.
The main benefit of looping in education is that the teacher and the students know each other. Students know the teacher’s expectations and routine. No time is lost in introducing and embedding classroom culture.
The time it takes for a student to learn the classroom culture will be somewhat shorter than the time required for the teacher to learn about each individual student. To be effective, the teacher needs to know how each student learns, what shuts them down, what lights them up, and what baggage they bring to class. Looping with the students saves the teacher the time required to connect to that student every year and provides the teacher with the most precious gift of time.
The current pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives, so how we educate and interact with our students in remote or hybrid settings is new for many of us. This sudden shift has created a world full of anxious, confused, and frustrated students, parents, and teachers. If you start the year with an established relationship and a mutual understanding of the student, and both the parents and teachers have established mutual goals, that stress and tension can be mitigated.
2. You help students grow on their journey.
With looping, you and your students become like a family. And over time, the teacher and the students’ families make deeper connections. This relationship, like all families, can become strained. But looping can give teachers and families the time to recognize what they have in common—that they both love the students and want them to succeed. I once taught a young man who was on the autism spectrum. My first experience with his very involved mom was difficult. Over the next three years, we became a very powerful team, and the young man, now a college graduate and an educator, is one of my heroes.
3. Students can more easily transition to higher grades.
Looping, whether it be Grades K–2, 3–5, or 6–8, requires the teacher to be fully immersed in all three grades' standard course of study. In my wife’s elementary class, students would be grouped by age and would learn that grade’s standards. The advantage of this format is that a teacher has an understanding of what that student brings from last year and can make better connections to the current year’s curriculum.
"You and your students become like a family. And over time, the teacher and the students’ families make deeper connections."
In my middle school teaching experience, students were grouped by mastery, not age. In since disciplines—in my case, science—you teach the same topics each year but at the level of mastery of the class in front of you. A student’s learning is a journey; what they are learning is connected to what they already know and to what they are going to be expected to know. A teacher who has a deeper knowledge of curriculum standards before and after the grade levels they are teaching is better equipped to help students make those connections and seamlessly transition from one grade to the next.
Disadvantages of Looping
1. Implementation can be challenging.
It is often challenging to convince other teachers to commit to a looping format and an administration to support you in implementing looping. If you move each year to a different grade, you need to find another teacher who is willing to move to the grade you vacated. That kind of cooperation and planning and agreement is difficult. You can loop on your own by having students of mixed grades in your classes, which creates problems. For instance, at the middle school level, you would need your administration to commit to looping for the entire school in order for it to operate under this plan, which can take an incredible amount of buy-in.
2. Students experience class with only one.
With looping over a three-year period, a student becomes accustomed to one teacher's classroom culture, idiosyncrasies, and methods. Transitioning to another teacher after years with the same one can be difficult.
3. The curriculum needs to advance with the students.
Looping requires the teacher to be reflective on students’ every success and failure, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. However, it is more time-consuming in the sense that the successful lesson you used during one school year likely cannot just be used again the following year if you are teaching a different grade. Then, three years later, when you are back to teaching the younger grade, you probably won’t want to use a three-year-old lesson plan. With looping, a teacher’s curriculum needs to evolve as the students get older.
Ultimately, my wife and I would recommend you try looping with students if given a chance—the joy of family awaits you.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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