Persisting Groups: An Overlooked Force for Learning
Phi Delta Kappa – March 1994Research has consistently demonstrated that small groups have a powerful emotional influence on their members.
We recommend that American educators likewise give greater emphasis to the principle of group persistence.
The most powerful force on student learning – as measured by inumerable studies – is the nuclear family. Families are small, intimate, persisting groups of adults and children. It is in their nuclear families that children learn the attitudes and values that will make them good or poor students. Other studies have demonstrated that another powerful learning influence is the student peer group, a small, intimate, persisting band of children or adolescents. Finally, a variety of analyses of the research and the literature have emphasized that stability, persistence, and intimacy are the characteristics of influential groups. Presumably, one reason that schools generally have less influence than families and peer groups is the low level of intimacy and persistence that often prevails in school groups.
Similar principles apply in education. Students should work hard at learning, respect their teachers, and help and encourage one another. Teachers should know their students well and shape class values to form pro-learning environments. However, healthy cohesion and adult/student engagement cannot be easily developed without group persistence.
In light of what is now known about groups in schools, we recommend that American schools adopt certain operating principles.
– Schools should try to keep discrete groups of students and teachers together over long periods of time. The size of the groups is not as important as their continuity.
Taking Responsibility for Providing an Education of Value
One Staff’s Response
“The Continuous Learning Program”
The Continuous Learning Program was initiated by two teachers who proposed that students be assigned to their classes for two consecutive years, rather than for one year, which is standard practice. The Program was aimed initially at providing more instructional time; it was hypothesized that students would benefit both academically and socially if they continued to stay tegether for this period of time. Youngsters would gain additional weeks of learning.
After visiting a few alternative schools and reading some research papers, the teachers decided to form their class lists using “friendship clusters,” whereby students were selected for classes using the criterion of established social groupings. With the help of kindergarten teacher colleagues, the two first-grade teachers observed kindergartners in the classrooms and on the playground in order to identify friendship clusters. The idea behind this was to further cultivate established social groupings by giving them the opportunity to stay together for a period of two years, rather than subject them to the annual harvest mix which divided them up.
Other program merits as documented by teachers’ logs, parent conferences, and test scores included the following:
* Students developed strong peer relationships resulting in less alienation and fewer behavior problems;
* Teachers found they had taught the children more because of the increased instructional time;
* Teachers took more risks by experimenting with different kinds of instructional activities, attributed to better familiarity of teachers with students’ needs;
* Teachers experienced teaching a new grade level under the best conditions in that they already were acquainted with the students and parents and needed only to understand a new curriculum;
* Parents expressed increased confidence in their children’s teachers and made fewer complaints;
* Test scores showed an all-time high (note that this was an unexpected windfall and that we do not see any correlation between our program and our scores).
At the end of the two years, the experiment was considered a success.
Parent confidence as indicated in parent conferences had never been higher.
Learning That Grows With the Learner
Educational Leadership – October 1991
Class teachers continue with a class from one year to the next – ideally, right through elementary school. With rare exceptions these teachers lead the main lesson at the beginning of the day. Other teachers handle special subjects, but the class teachers provide the continuity so often lacking in our disjointed world today. The class teacher and the children get to know each other very well and it is this teacher who becomes the school `s closest link with the parents of that class. When problems arise, the strong child/teacher/parent bond helps all involved work things through instead of handing the problem on to someone else.
This experience of class community is both challenging and deeply rewarding to teachers. Having to prepare new subject matter as their students get older from year to year is a guarantee against going stale. Children begin to see that a human being can strive for a unity of knowledge and experience.
Lessons from Reggio Emilia, Principal – May 1994
In addition to math and language opportunities, visits to familiar locations boost children’s confidence.
We need to reconsider the structure of our schools. In my district the school day for children begins at 8:45 am and ends at 3:15 pm. Like most American schools, we have become victims of tradition and teacher contracts.
Instead, because teachers work with the same students and parents for three years, there is a family atmosphere in which cooperation and group work are emphasized. We need to follow their example and create schools that are like families, not factories.
Teachers plan and work in teams that also include parents. In this way they can share skills, learn from each other, and provide more diversity in instruction.
We need to focus on teaching on children, not subjects. In Reggio Emilia, schools do not have written curricula with unit and lesson plans. There are no ditto, and teachers don’t assume that their teaching automatically results in learning. The emphasis is on particiapation, and learning is viewed as the result of children’s own involvement.
The Free Press, 1980
* Children use trusted and important people in their environment as models for developing their own skills and to build strategies for learning and living.
* A bond of trust and mutual respect could develop between them, the ability of the teacher to motivate and help a child learn strange, new things and withstand the anxiety of possible failure is greatly increased.
* Difficult adjestment period at the beginning of the year did not take place at the beginning of the second year. Lessening of spring fever.
* Withdrawal symptoms, fears about separation and readjustment were absent. No cause for anxiety. Students and teachers were actively planning together.
* Teachers, more patient, relaxed, easier to experiment with teaching methods.
* Significant gains by children who were retained but remained with the same teacher.
* Variable scheduling.
* Improved knowledge of the children helped her to plan a more interest oriented curriculum.
* Children’s increased independence, emotional security, and inner or self control developed over the two years.
* Students appeared to be less provocative of one another, less anxious about receiving attention, less likely to “tattle-tale” and better able to concentrate on work.
* Teachers comfortable with their parents. Parents accustomed to working with them, some made regular visits to the school; parents were not threatened by such queries and could be helpful to the children and the teachers.
* More rapport with parents, more trusting, less anxious, more communicative, and more involved.
* Parents felt that spending two years with the same teacher was a fairly good to a good idea.
* Children also appeared to like the program.
* One child mentioned his previous confusion about being promoted while keeping the same teacher. Did not like being with all the same children for two years.
* Live with the most difficult children for twice as long. Detaching oneself emotionally from a class after two years. New class and teacher to adjust to one another after the children had had another teacher for the previous two years. children had longer to incorporate the style of their previous teacher. With a new teacher, they first expected him or her to do things th way the previous teacher had. Harmful to children who had serious conflicts with the teacher. Personality clashes. By the middle of the school year the best stuents had menefitte all they could from the extended period. Missed the advantage of exposure to another adult personality and style. Student teachers, volunteers, and team teaching.
* Three years. Advised against this arangement. Familiarity of expectations to the point of boredom. Another teacher migh have more success with a peerticular child, teacher, and stuent attachment beyond an easily manageable point.
* Allows maximum poortunity for adminsitrators, teacher, mental health and other support staff, and parents to think together and to examine objectives and methods. Prevents the school from being overwhelmed by every idea, person, and research project designed to “save the children”.
We believe that you can maintain emphasis on the basic academic skills, develop innovation to significantly improve the bahavior and academic performance of most children not doing well, and maintain order with relative freedom for school staff, parents, and children.
Looping, the Two-Grade Cycle: A Good Starting Place
by Jim Grant and Bob Johnson
“In this novel approach to teaching, primary graders move ahead by staying right where they areA two-year span provides a child with greater continuity in experience, both socially and academicallyWe’ve had numerous students come out of their shell in the second year because they feel confident about themselves and secure within the group.” – Diana Mazzuchi and Nancy Brooks. “The Teaching of Time,” Teaching K-8, February 1992.
What Looping Is
Looping is sometimes called multiyear teaching or multiyear placement. It is a two-year placement for the teacher as well as the children. The children have the same teacher to two successive years. Looping involves a partnership of at least two teachers, who teach two different grade levels, but in alternate years.
For example, in the initial year, Teacher A teaches kindergarten and Teacher B teaches first grade. At the end of the year both Teacher A and the kindergarten children are “promoted” to first grade. Teacher A and her children are together for the second year, but this time as first grade.
At the end of the second year, Teacher A’s children move on to second grade, and the following fall, Teacher A will begin the cycle again with a new crop of kindergarteners.
Meanwhile, at the end of the first year, Teacher B’s first graders move on to second grade, and at the beginning of the second year she welcomes a new class of kindergarteners. At the end of the second year Teacher B is “promoted” with her class to first grade and continues as their teacher for the next year.
In schools where kindergarten is half-day, only half of the kindergarteners will continue with the same teacher. The other half will have another first grade teacher. The half that stay in the loop could be either the morning group or the afternoon group. Or, they can be chosen by lot from among those whose parents indicated they would like them to stay with the same teacher.
Although our example is of kindergarten and first grade, looping will work with any two contiguous grades: first and second grade, second and third, third and fourth. It can be started with any two grades where two teachers are willing to get together and give it a try.
What Looping Is Not
Looping is not a multiage configuration. It does, however, open up an appealing window of opportunity for creating a continuous progress program. Over the two-year span, the teacher can see and take advantage of a child’s development in a less fragmented, more natural way. In moving toward implementing a full multiage continous progress program, looping offers teachers, parents, and administrators the chance to see, experience and appreciate what can happen when a teacher and a child work together for more than one year.
What Makes Looping Possible
“My teacher” is an important person in a young child’s life. For a lot of children today, their teacher is often the most stable, predictable adult in their lives. If “my teacher” waves goodbye at the end of 180 days, come September a whole new relationship with a brand new teacher has to be slowly established. Moving into a new grade can be a scary transition for children.
When “my teacher” is the same person for two years, there is stability that the child can build on. By the middle of the first year, the child knows what the teacher expects of him or her, knows what the rules are, knows what pleases and what annoys the teacher. Teacher and child have established a working relationship that the child can count on. As the child becomes comfortable in the relationship and begins to count on its stability, s/he can release the tension and energy that have gone into trying to understand the teacher.
It is a jump start from the teacher’s point of view as well. It takes time to find out the interests, abilities, and learning styles of eache student in the classroom. All aspects of classroom planning are affected by this knowledge. At the beginning of the second year the teacher already has in depth information and can build on it. S/he knows who is shy, who is aggressive, who is an emergent reader, and who finds reading easy. Af few reminders, some review, and both teacher and children are ready to pick up where they left off at the end of the last grade and move ahead.
Looping is effective and efficient. Teachers like being able to spread certain themes over a longer period of time. They report that, in the second year, children frequently mention activities and experiences from the previous year that relate to present activities. Teachers can help children carry over information and build on these connections. The two year curriculum becomes woven together.
Looping’s Effect on High-Stake Decisions
In the spring every teacher has to make high-state decisions based on evaluation of what each child has accomplished during the year. Some children in the class are clearly ready for the next grade. One or two may have learning disabilities and been referred for special evaluation. But what of the others? Are they “late bloomers”? Do they just need a little more time – “cheddar cheese kids” who simply need to age to be at their best? What about the borderline children? What should happen with a very verbal girl, for instance, who has mastered words but seems quite young developmentally in other ways? Looping reduces the stakes in decisions made at the end of the first year. There is the chance to keep watching and evaluating these children.
At the end of the two-year loop, a child who is developmentally young and needs an extra year of time may be accommodated by moving laterally. S/he could remain in the same grade but with a different teacher in a different classroom.
Where there is the goal of including differently-abled children in the classroom, the stability and continuity of looping is very helpful. A two year program can be somewhat more flexible than a rigid single grade where the curriculum tends to be very unforgiving to children who are differently-abled.