Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too

by Guest Blogger
September 26th, 2013

By Heidi Cole

Heidi Cole, a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches second grade at Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy—a public charter school in Forest City, North Carolina.

For the past seven years of my 13-year teaching career, I have educated second graders using the Core Knowledge curriculum. With confidence, I can say that I have not only “taught” my students about ancient China, the War of 1812, Westward Expansion, and the Civil War, but my students have truly “learned” something about these topics. Before moving to a Core Knowledge school, I would never have believed that children would be capable of learning about these sophisticated topics at such a young age, much less enjoy doing so. However, through the use of Core Knowledge’s Listening & Learning strand, which is part of the Core Knowledge Language Arts program, my students brighten as history comes to life during our literacy block.

The texts featured in the program are designed to enrich the vocabulary of our students and build their comprehension as they delve into domains typically reserved for middle and high school students. Seven- and eight-year-old children listen attentively to stories about immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, and then respond to questions in which they showcase their knowledge about the push and pull factors which lured these foreigners to a “land of opportunity.”

Each year parents comment on how much they are learning at home from their second grader. Long gone are the days when the children shrug when asked what they learned that day in school. It has been replaced with students begging for trips to see the Statue of Liberty, or asking if the family can travel to Baltimore just so they can witness the site where Francis Scott Key crafted the words to our National Anthem.

My school is in rural western North Carolina, but I have yet to receive any backlash from parents or community members, even when we study difficult issues like slavery. While slavery is certainly a delicate issue for any child to absorb, it is vital in the role of helping young children understand the dynamic of our country during the Civil War era. During our study of this topic, my students embrace the stories of hardship faced by slaves in the South. The result is empathy, followed by a desire to learn more, and the hope of a slavery-free world. Hearing the stories of slavery through the eyes of a child such as Minty (Harriet Tubman) helps children make important connections. We are able to have discussions about the horror of families being torn apart forever, and the dehumanization of African Americans during this time. The Core Knowledge Listening & Learning Civil War domain does an outstanding job of exposing second graders to this sensitive topic, while fostering concern for those impacted throughout history.

After learning about slavery this past school year, my students composed some of their best persuasive writing pieces. As the example below shows, they successfully wrote to a plantation owner from the perspective of a southern abolitionist. Such wonderful writing would not have been possible without true understanding of how this issue impacted the lives of others.

Awareness of slavery also helps prepare students with the necessary background needed to later understand the Civil Rights domain. During our study of Civil Rights, my students conjure up knowledge about the sensitivity of slavery, allowing them to better recognize why inequality had its firmest grasp in the southern states. Because many of my students lack exposure to culturally diverse experiences, this classroom exposure is crucial because it fosters an opportunity to develop connections to our history. Providing such strong background knowledge at a young age will enable these learners to develop a deep level of understanding about our country’s history and its government.

For too long now, educators have underestimated what children are capable of learning and content has been watered down. In a time when many elementary schools are denying students access to geography, history, and science, Core Knowledge provides a refreshing approach to education. How wonderful that during our literacy time, children hear stories about Confucius, rather than a fictional wise man. How great that students learn about the building of the transcontinental railroad, instead of reading a random story about trains.

If children are capable of learning such material, why deny them the opportunity to do so? If we are going to take valuable time in school to teach children how to read, why not also provide an opportunity to better understand their world? By the time my students enter fifth and sixth grades, they may not remember every detail of ancient China’s history, or the battles fought during the Civil War, but they will certainly possess enough background knowledge at that point to take their learning to a whole new level.



  1. While it is true that children are capable of learning about the topics covered by the Core Knowledge sequence, the sequence will not help children build background knowledge unless they actually remember the topics they have been exposed to. As a teacher in a school that used to use the Core Knowledge sequence, I have been disappointed by the “rush through with no review” mentality.

    The curriculum is wildly overstuffed. In order to try to cover everything listed in the sequence, we had to try to teach our second graders about all of Asia, not just China, in less than two weeks. It would be nice to hope that this extremely brief exposure would add to the the students’ background knowledge, but since years pass before topics are reviewed, little to nothing actually makes it into long term memory. The most extreme example of this problem was pointed out by our first grade teachers. Children are taught about Mesopotamia in first grade, and this content is revisited…never. That’s right. Our students would spend a few days in first grade discussing Mesopotamia, and this topic would never again show up in the Core Knowledge sequence.

    Don’t get me wrong, background knowledge is a good idea. But it is far more effective to cover fewer topics and to provide enough review so that students actually remember what they have learned.

    Comment by Ray — September 26, 2013 @ 11:23 am

  2. I am very impressed thus far with the content and growth my 2 children have made with core knowledge. I am a product of traditional education in the county i live due to the fact that was the only option available at the time. My Kids attend Thomas Jefferson Classical Grammar and moving them from the traditional public school system to TJCG was the best decision i have ever made for them. I am impressed with the staff and the quality of content my kids receive. It seems every day is a new adventure for them. Everyday when i ask my children if they “had a good day at school” the answer is always yes! It seems this Heidi Cole is a passionate educator that any parent would be blessed to have her teach their child. God bless all educators and the efforts they put forth for our youth everyday.

    Comment by Phillip — September 26, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

  3. I agree with Ms. Cole’s contention that we owe our children more in education. I also agree that they need not have mastery of everything we teach them to profit from it, or to justify exposing them to it.

    I hope for Ray’s student that Mesopotamia _is_ covered again, though not necessarily as the main topic. If knowledge is integrated, after Mesopotamia is discussed in history, it should be discussed in literature, math, science, art, everywhere!… and even again in history when other cradles of civilization are the subject, in order to compare and contrast. Just because a subject is not the central item of the day, it should not be neglected. It provides a familiar example and framework for other items of discussion. The problem is with teachers who fail to integrate knowledge, who are ready to shelve knowledge as soon as it is presented and move on to the next thing on the agenda.

    My experience is that my students who have had the benefit of the core knowledge sequence may not have mastery of all the material covered in the sequence, at least not enough to show on a bubble test, but they have a memory that can be kick-started by a good teacher who does have mastery of the material. It’s back there, ready to be recalled and put to use when needed.

    Just as an example: I had forgotten everything i learned in high school chemistry, except perhaps the hackneyed “everything is made of atoms”; even the whole periodic table of the elements was forgotten by the time I was in college. But my education was “back there”, vaguely enough that I knew what it was about, and I re-mastered it in little time when a college course required it. I had learned how to learn that stuff, and it was THAT skill that never left me.

    Comment by Peter O — September 26, 2013 @ 2:41 pm

  4. [...] a look at how one 2nd grade teacher is balancing her teaching objectives to curriculum and assessments aligned to the [...]

    Pingback by Are you Heating, Showing or Passing Through the CCSS? - Aazinaago — September 26, 2013 @ 3:14 pm

  5. I agree that Mesopotamia should be covered again in other grades. The point is that the Core Knowledge sequence does not cover Mesopotamia at any time outside of first grade.

    Comment by Ray — September 26, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

  6. Hi Ray,

    You are raising a very legitimate concern regarding how extensively topics need to be revisited. Cognitive science does confirm the effectiveness of distributed practice, and I think we all agree that anything covered in the early grades could be done again with more depth in the later grades. At the same time, instructional time is limited. I will not pretend to have a solution, but I expect the Core Knowledge Foundation will continue to revise the Sequence periodically so your feedback is very helpful.

    As for Mesopotamia, I just searched the PDF of the Sequence online ( and found that while Mesopotamia is only extensively studied in first grade, it is mentioned in two places: (1) sixth grade under History and Geography section II. Lasting Ideas from Ancient Civilizations, and (2) eighth grade under History and Geography section V. The Middle East and Oil Politics.

    I am merely bringing this up for the sake of clarity. Your larger point, it seems to me, is still a concern for everyone in the Core Knowledge community to consider.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — September 26, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

  7. Just a thought here Ray, but wouldn’t Mesopotamia be taught to introduce students to the concept of ancient civilizations…not necessarily to learn everything about its culture. This would set the stage for future learning where students utilize that concept to recognize that civilizations developed around rivers due to the fertile soil, access to water, etc. Later leading them to understand how India and China’s civilizations first began.

    Comment by Gunga Galunga — September 26, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

  8. I have been following the Core Knowledge curriculum for a while hoping for it to be implemented in a charter school here in DC. But what I find interesting is that almost all the schools where I see it implemented, maybe with the exception of the New York school previously profiled in the last several months on this blog, these schools reflect a well off high socio-economic student body. The website for this posting does not seem to indicate that a child of color event attends this school. I think to a certain extent Ray’s criticism is that some children really will struggle just because their early background has not prepared them for the general rigor here. What is the real data for kids of lower economic standing? It is my understanding from reading Mr. Hirsch’s books that he thinks it could close that gap, but I really would urge that some of these posts discuss how the data is demonstrating that outcome. If it is not, then that also needs to be addressed. If it is not being analyzed then we need it.

    Comment by DC Parent — September 27, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

  9. In regards to the comment from DC Parent: Our student body is comprised of white, African-American, Hispanic (also English Language Learners), Indian, and other racial/ethnic groups. In regard to the white students, many of them come from blue-collar, working-class families. Growing up in a small, rural town that has been devastated by the decline of textile manufacturing, many of our children are not exposed to the culture outside this area. Without Core Knowledge, many of these students would grow up with little, or no exposure to history, geography, and science.

    Comment by Heidi Cole — September 27, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

  10. DCParent: This is a subject dear to my heart. Here’s a summary of some studies:

    And you can find the full studies on the CK web site:

    A very telling graph, from this research is the one from Albemarle County, VA where all the regular public schools in the county had their average test scores plotted against free/reduced lunch data. There was just one CK school in the district, and it was way up there by itself on the plot. I wish this little comment box allowed graphics. Then there are some other, longitudinal graphs that are informative which show the how the gap between f/r lunch students and more advantaged ones narrow steadily from grade 3 to grade 6 like a side-wise funnel — very dramatic. Getting such longitudinal data is critical, because of the gradual nature of vocabulary growth. (I wish the research community had been willing to pursue more longitudinal studies. They are all too rare, unfortunately. But they are of course the critical kinds of study for gap-closing information.) In any case, the data we do have — including data from high-poverty urban schools — is dramatic.

    Comment by E D Hirsch — September 27, 2013 @ 5:26 pm

  11. As a liberal arts college professor who regularly teaches a writing-intensive great books course, I can bear witness to the crucial role played by early exposures to lots and lots of people, history and ideas. Indeed, even being exposed regularly to too much to remember has a profound–and very good–effect by the time I see students. If my students do not remember much about Mesopotamia, they have at least heard of it. Soon, one student’s vague memory leads another to recall a little something and eventually you have young people losing their sense of shame over imperfect knowledge while developing a good habit ofmutual inquiry. Add to this the good habit of retaining a few memorable facts that seem most relevant from a rich and demanding lecture or reading assignment and you have the bases of all lifelong learning–listening, noting, meditating, inquiring, conferring. Please keep up this invaluable work in the confidence that it bears the essential fruits years later. Even if “Mesopotamia” only becomes a vaguely familiar sequence of sounds and letters, the ground has been broken.

    Comment by Patricia Bart — September 28, 2013 @ 1:39 am

  12. Hi Core Knowledge community! This comment isn’t relevant to this post, so I hope I am not offending anyone by posting this here. I need a little guidance, and the Core Knowledge Blog is a place where I have learned from a lot of knowledgeable and experienced educators.

    I live in Eugene, Oregon, and my daughter is in the 5th grade. She has a teacher this year who just sent out the following email.

    “Welcome to our 5th grade learning community! It has been an exciting two weeks, as we all get to know each other and dive into the 5th grade world of learning. While we will discuss the curriculum in detail on Tuesday night, October 1st, I wanted to take a moment to share a unit that will be new to your students. I am thrilled to work along side Dr. Art Pearl, professor emeritus, teaching Cultural Linguistics. These are hour-long, weekly classes focus on seven democratic principles of inclusion and equity, that align with the Common Core State Standards for social studies. We begin with the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, using them to frame exploration into the language we employ to discuss inclusion, race, ethnicity, gender, body image, bullying and other issues that students encounter in schools. These courageous conversations are age appropriate and deal with the lived experiences of our elementary school students.”

    Keep in mind that in my daughter’s 5 years at this school she has had not one ounce of civics. No 3 branches of government or anything related. Dr. Art Pearl, who is leading these classes, is a liberal idealogue. I found his blog, which is a series of leftist political rants.

    I am looking for suggestions on how to approach this matter. I disagree with it from so many angles, I don’t know which arguments to make. I am not a conservative protesting on political grounds. I can think of dozens of reasons why this is misguided and even an abuse of the power a teacher has.

    Any help is much appreciated!

    Comment by Jaren — September 28, 2013 @ 1:17 pm

  13. There is the famous K-2 study in New York City. It showed that Core Knowledge was hugely effective in kindergarten but became much less effective with each passing year. I would argue that this may reflect on the problem of memory. In the kindergarten year, the children are able to remember most of what that have learned. With each passing year the students remember less because of the lack of review. If you think that I am anti Core Knowledge, you are mistaken. I do think that it needs to be improved to incorporate more review and to avoid racing through an excessive number of topics.

    Comment by Ray — September 28, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  14. Hi Ray,
    You can see the find the pilot and read articles about it here:

    Please note that I have called it a pilot; there were just 10 CKLA schools and 10 comparison schools. CKLA did better on all measures except one, and on that the two groups were equivalent. To me, the most important measures were the second grade assessments of science and social studies. As we expected, CKLA students were far ahead.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — September 28, 2013 @ 2:10 pm

  15. This is a pertinent and interesting discussion. However, I would like to make a personal comment. Even if CK is not without weaknesses I truly wish I could have been a student in CK schools instead of the anti-knowledge (thank you, Professor Hirsch) schools of my childhood and youth. And if it had been around when my daughter was in school I would not have hesitated a minute to put her there rather than the progressivist schools where we lived.

    Comment by Susan Toth — September 30, 2013 @ 8:55 am

  16. [...] day mentioned I blog I found posted on the web site by guest blogger, Heidi Cole. Children Are Curious and Capable—and Teachers Should Be Too. I apologize Heidi because I should have shouted from the rooftops about what an inspiration you [...]

    Pingback by Curriculum Does Not Teach - Aazinaago — September 30, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  17. Great job, Heidi.

    While reading your post, especially regarding the rigor of the curriculum, I couldn’t help but wonder how some of the cynics might view such an approach. I visit a number of education blogs each day and they’re inundated with brain-washed negativity of the “Opt Out,” “Bad-Ass Teachers,” “Save Our Schools,” etc., crowd that continually tear down the thought of kids actually learning “stuff” while in school.

    It’s refreshing to know the CK Foundation is hard at work every day providing an appropriate and challenging education for all their students.

    Keep up the great work.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — October 2, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

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