From teacher surveys to policy papers to major research projects, it’s clear that most traditional elementary teacher preparation programs aren’t cutting it. Scrapping them in favor of short alternative programs is tempting, but a menu of prep options seems to me to be the wisest route—at least until we’ve done enough experimenting to identify best practices.
Among those looking to improve traditional preparation programs, some of the best work I’ve seen has come from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). Yes, it’s hard hitting—but it’s also finding programs worthy of praise and making constructive suggestions. Last spring NCTQ’s president, Kate Walsh, published a terrific article with several important recommendations regarding what elementary teachers must know before they enter the classroom: research on early reading, the Common Core for mathematics and English language arts, classroom management, cognitive psychology (especially how memory works), and assessment.
I can’t argue with any of these recommendations—but I can add to them. Terrific elementary school teachers introduce children to the world through literary, scientific, historical, and artistic lenses. They field questions that even very well-educated adults have a hard time answering—and they do so in engaging ways that make accurate answers accessible to children.
Why is the sky blue? Who was Shakespeare? Where does rainwater go? How were the pyramids built? What did Martin Luther King Jr. do? What happens to fish when a pond freezes? Who invented writing? Can astronauts land on Jupiter? How does a violin work?
Many prep programs either assume that elementary academics are simple or are unaware of the importance of building broad knowledge and academic vocabulary in the elementary grades. Thus, they devote the vast majority of their course time to educational philosophies, child development theories, pedagogical techniques, and the like. (Some prep programs offer subject specializations, such as in science or language arts, but that doesn’t help much since elementary teachers usually teach all subjects.) This shortchanging of elementary academics has terrible consequences: expectations for what children can and should learn tend to be too low, teachers’ knowledge is often insufficient to answer children’s many questions, and children’s eagerness to learn slowly dulls.
Let’s stop shortchanging elementary academics. Let’s create an academic major for elementary teacher prep: World Studies.
To be well prepared to learn by reading in the later grades, children need to complete elementary school with some basic knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, literature, history, geography, and the arts. They need to know a good bit about our world. So do their teachers.
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Getting from Here to World Studies
This is the hard part. First, we have to decide what knowledge is most essential for all elementary students—and thus all elementary teacher candidates—to learn. It’s tempting to simply use the Core Knowledge Sequence for K-5 as is. But everything Kate Walsh outlined is extremely important as well, so time allocation will be tricky. It is more realistic to carve out some subset of the K-5 Sequence as essential for teacher preparation, and then to support teachers in continuously deepening their knowledge in all areas—from assessment to behavior management to early world civilizations—throughout their careers.
Second, we have to use the essential student knowledge to develop a parallel, though somewhat deeper and broader, essential body of knowledge to be learned in teacher prep.
Third, we have to identify related pedagogical content knowledge. This is a relatively new focus of educational research that (over the next couple of decades) promises to make teaching more effective. Say, for instance, that understanding the phases of the moon is included in the essential elementary knowledge. World Studies majors would learn about the moon’s phases and the ways children often misunderstand them—such as thinking that they are caused by the earth’s shadow.
Fourth, we have to consider if these subject matter demands on our elementary teachers are unrealistic. The more I think about the breadth of knowledge and vocabulary that elementary teachers need to teach, the more I wonder if elementary schools—and thus teacher prep programs—should consider departmentalizing instruction in fourth and/or fifth grades. For example, Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor of mathematics at Berkeley, has argued that teaching elementary mathematics is quite complex; he calls for having dedicated math teachers starting no later than fourth grade.
Fifth…. Okay, I give up. This is as far as I’ve gotten. What do you think? Teachers, professors, parents—do you think a World Studies major would enhance elementary teaching? If not, why? If so, how would you refine the idea and go about doing it?