World Studies: An Academic Major for Elementary Teacher Prep

by Lisa Hansel
October 30th, 2013

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.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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?



  1. Thank you! I believe elementary teachers need to specialize in first grade at least for reading and math (two specialties) and add the rest in third grade. Fourth grade is too late for many kids. Just my two cents worth. Teachers can rotate classes in k-2 and kids can start rotating in 3rd grade.

    Comment by Tim-10-ber — October 30, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

  2. How great to talk about elementary education in terms of introducing children to the world (that is, the world beyond their limited physical world)and in terms of breadth of knowledge and vocabulary. After all these decades of “beginning where the child is” (what I got in elementary school in the 1940s, and the philosophy of the high school principle where I taught around 1990) to be able to talk about the possibility of real instruction is breathtaking. If Hung-Hsi Wu, a professor of mathematics at Berkeley, has constructive thoughts about elementary math education, then probably specialists in other content areas could also offer thoughts.

    Comment by Susan Toth — October 30, 2013 @ 3:02 pm

  3. Years ago on the Core Knowledge site, there was a proposed teacher curriculum for elementary Core Knowledge teachers – as I remember it included courses in teaching reading, children’s literature, history, geography, science, and more. Is that still available in the archives somewhere? I think that would be a good place to start the discussion.

    Comment by Mia Munn — October 31, 2013 @ 9:47 am

  4. Agreed!

    This suggest a series of books titled:

    “What Your (Kindergarden) Teacher Needs to know’

    Comment by Sujata krishna — October 31, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  5. Hi Mia,

    The course syllabi you mentioned are still online:

    While those are a wonderful resource—they are courses I’d love to take—I think they are better suited to a master’s degree in World Studies than a bachelor’s. For initial teacher preparation, we need time for courses in cognitive and developmental psychology, classroom management, pedagogy, and assessment, as well as a couple of electives. We also need time to enhance the practicum. In thinking about initial preparation for K-5, I’m interested in trying to determine what academic content knowledge is most essential for new teachers to be prepared to teach.

    But, as I wrote, this is an idea I’m just starting to explore. I’d love to hear more about what you think of those courses—and about the World Studies idea and how to go about it.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — October 31, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  6. I couldn’t agree more Lisa! If elementary teachers are responsible for building the foundation of knowledge, we must be educated in all areas! Yes, learning the basics of reading and math instruction is primary, but other disciplines should not be shortchanged as a result. Giving elementary education majors a more well-rounded knowledge base would not only benefit students in the way you described, but I believe it would also help quality teachers gain the respect deserved. So much of the general public still think that those who “can’t”, teach. We know this to be far from the truth, but unfortunately some undergraduate programs promote this belief by graduating teachers who lack vital knowledge and understanding of science, history, and the arts. I was fortunate to receive my degree from the University of NC – Asheville, a liberal arts institution. Graduates were required at that time to take four years of Humanities, regardless of the major. As a teacher of the CK curriculum I am incredibly appreciative of the background knowledge I gained in my undergraduate studies. More teacher education programs should follow such a lead!

    Comment by Heidi Cole — November 1, 2013 @ 8:07 am

  7. [...] via World Studies: An Academic Major for Elementary Teacher Prep « The Core Knowledge Blog. [...]

    Pingback by World Studies: An Academic Major for Elementary Teacher Prep « The Core Knowledge Blog | The Echo Chamber — November 1, 2013 @ 8:45 am

  8. The elementary teacher course syllabus includes 18 courses. They should fulfill any college’s general education requirements, still leaves more than 4 semesters for “courses in cognitive and developmental psychology, classroom management, pedagogy, and assessment,” and a semester of student teaching, as well as 2 semesters worth of electives (or other ed courses like dealing with EC students).

    I was a History major with secondary education certification. If a major like this had existed when I was in college, I think I would chosen it. (I had a hard time deciding between being an English, Math, or History teacher – this might have induced me to teach upper elementary.)

    Comment by Mia Munn — November 1, 2013 @ 10:32 am

  9. Hi Mia,

    It’s interesting that you thought of these Core Knowledge Sequence-based courses as a way to fulfill the general education requirements. That never occurred to me. I do see some aspects of these courses that could be used that way, but shouldn’t future teachers have a couple of years in college studying more advanced content? Should all four years of college be aimed at becoming career ready? For personal development in those first two years of college, I’d like to see future teachers in the same general education courses that everyone else takes–they should read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and find the limit of a function. Then, in their major, they can focus on becoming experts in the content they will teach. But perhaps I am not well grounded in the content of general education requirements at most colleges. Perhaps these Sequence-based courses would be more rigorous than what is typically offered.

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — November 1, 2013 @ 11:06 am

  10. Many of these courses could be those available to all students, not just for this major (American History and World History 1 and 2, for example). Looking at the UNC-CH requirements, I think students would need probably 4 or 5 additional courses – foreign language, philosophy, and possibly some “connections” courses. Assuming 5 courses per semester (and 1 semester of full-time student teaching), that still leaves about 7 electives, about what my double major son had after taking all of the general ed requirements and major requirements (some of which overlap).

    My concern about World Studies as a major for elementary teachers is that it doesn’t include math and science, which are typically the subjects elementary teachers have the least background in.

    Comment by Mia Munn — November 1, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  11. As K-5 teachers are generalists teaching almost all subjects, they, more even than many high school teachers, need a solid, well-rounded liberal arts education, especially in the humanities subjects. As someone who loves to read serious history, for me the most impressive part of the CK curriculum is 4th grade U.S. History. Anyone who masters the factual knowledge in 4th grade CK history already knows more than most college graduates do about early American history and civics (this basic knowledge, of course, should be enhanced by more factual knowledge and conceptual understanding in later grades).

    It’s important for elementary teachers to have more than just a barebones grasp of American history (and other liberal arts topics) for at least two reasons: (1) If questions/discussion go beyond the basic CK course outline,the teacher will be prepared to indulge the kids’ curiosity and flesh out the topic as is developmentally appropriate (sorry for using that phrase), and (2) Without broader contextual knowledge of the facts being presented, some teachers might be tempted to skip over key facts as just “mere facts” that aren’t important. Of course, to be informed voting citizens, teachers and everyone else need a reasonable knowledge of history and other elements of a good liberal arts education.

    This is just another way of saying, as a parent, that I’d like to see a lot more teachers who have a passion for learning in their own lives, a passion that would spill over into their roles as teachers. Al Shanker reportedly once said that “teachers don’t read.” I don’t know the context for that quote, but I’m guessing Shanker was expressing his dismay over how few teachers had a personal passion for lifelong learning. Shanker was an avid reader of first-rate books, which was probably the main reason he was strongly drawn to E.D. Hirsch’s ideas. From his own voluminous reading, Shanker no doubt realized that reading comprehension depends heavily on background knowledge, even before cognitive science empirically proved that concept.

    Political conservatives who think seriously – not ideologically – about education agree with these thoughts. If only they were more willing to make teaching a financially attractive enough occupation to raise the overall quality of the teacher corps…..

    Comment by John Webster — November 1, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

  12. The name World Studies might be misleading, but I am imagining (in this rather half-baked idea) that it would include literature, history, geography, science, mathematics, and the arts (mainly to infuse theater into ELA as well as period music and art into history).

    This discussion is extremely helpful in thinking this through. Please keep it up and thank you!

    Comment by Lisa Hansel — November 1, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  13. I have been a fan and user of Core Knowledge materials ever since Dr. Hirsch came out with his first What Your … Should Know books. I used them as guidelines for homschooling my own children in the 1980′s and 90′s. I was amazed then at just how much each level covered. I learned a great many things as I taught them, in spite of having a BS in elementary education from a well-respected state university. I realized just how much I was not taught in college as so much of the curriculum in elementary ed was pedagogy, child development and psychology, classroom management, and other thing that I did not find as helpful as I did the content in Core Knowledge. When I returned to the classroom a few years ago after graduating all b\n\my children, I was amazed to see how little of the cultural materlal from CK was included in the curriculum — particularly in the areas covered in this blog. I would love to see this type of courses implemented. The children ,and the world they will shape will surely be the winners.

    Comment by Lynda Coats — November 15, 2013 @ 10:37 am

  14. As an elementary ed major, I absolutely agree with the implications of this article. Students would benefit from being taught by teachers who focus on teaching one specific subject in elementary school. These highly certified teachers would be able to provide students with education that goes beyond the knowledge that our current system provides. Teaching through this broader lens will create a smarter and well-rounded generation.

    Comment by ALogbo — November 16, 2013 @ 12:41 pm

  15. Elementary is a crucial time for students.Many students will not be exposed to the otherside world if is were not for the classroom. If all subject can be properly integrate, then student would become more well rounded students and knowledgeable of the world around them. I think field trips are very significant to exposing students to the world around them. In the district in which I word, fields have been minimized. If it were not for such trips and exposure many students will not become knowledgable about the world around them.

    Comment by Dominique — November 17, 2013 @ 5:36 pm

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