If I Were The King Of A School

🎶And if I were the king of a public primary school
Tell you what I’d do
I’d throw away the lies and the busywork and the poor pedagogy
And give sweet knowledge to you
Sing it now, joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me🎶

What follows might not always be possible due to staffing limitations. However, if I am going to pretend to be the king of a public primary school, I might as well pretend to be king of a good one.

If I were the king of a school, here is what I’d do…

First, I would name it Normal Elementary School for several reasons. The first and most important being that I am trying to set a “new” norm (teaching knowledge systemically). The second, it is a shout out to two things, historical teacher’s colleges and my hometown. Three, I like wordplay.

School Culture/Environment

At Normal Elementary School, our staff would also be knowledgeable of their students’ cultures and backgrounds. This will reduce misunderstandings and hopefully help create a schoolwide environment that is more tolerant of differences and deals wisely with disagreements (even ones that cannot be resolved). An added benefit of knowing student cultures and backgrounds is that it helps create a safe, welcoming environment.

Another way we will create a safe environment is to have a “warm/strict” discipline policy. Essentially, every student will both know the school rules and expectations and trust that they will be fairly enforced, while, at the same time students will know that they are deeply cared for and valued, i.e., the school discipline policy will involve teachers being warm and strict at the same time.

The combination of high academic expectations with high behavioral expectations is paramount. Over time, with careful crafting they can become somewhat self-reinforcing. Students can internalize expectations and I want their internalized expectations to be good ones.

All elementary students would have the following classes every single day from kindergarten through grade 5. If I were king of a middle school, students would have some choices, followed by still more options in high school. But let’s focus on elementary school, because it’s the most important!

The Classes

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • Math
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Art/Music
  • Foreign Language
  • Physical Education

Each class would be 45 minutes long followed by a 4 minute passing period. Lunch and recess would be 30 minutes each and would, of course, add a passing period to the schedule. So the total time my students would be in school is 360 minutes for classes, 40 minutes for ten passing periods, 30 minutes for lunch, and 30 minutes for recess. Giving us a grand total of 460 minutes or 7.7 hrs.

For those of you who may be concerned about how long students are in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average American student spends 402 minutes in school or 6.7 hrs. So my students would be in school for 58 more minutes per day than average.

The Science of Learning

I would establish a school ethos that explicitly values knowledge. By choosing to explicitly value knowledge, we are not, and will not be dismissive of skills, critical thinking, or creativity in any way.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that skills are built from knowledge.
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge makes critical thinking possible (p3 & p8).
At Normal Elementary we acknowledge that knowledge unlocks creativity.

My staff would all have a pedagogy informed by cognitive science. In practice, this means we would integrate spaced practice and retrieval practice into everything we do while also combining them with other research-based teaching/learning strategies where appropriate. Our students’ learning would be research informed as well because we will explicitly teach and model effective study strategies and would encourage their application with various tools/assignments. I consider having sky-high expectations for all students to fit into this approach seamlessly.

This does not mean that I expect all students who walk into my school’s doors to be academic rockstars. It means that every teacher will expect consistent effort and progress from every pupil. Every teacher’s default approach will be to push and challenge students to learn more and grow their curiosity. This will be done with a kind and encouraging spirit.

The Curriculum

The curriculum itself would generally be delivered in a spiraling format, allowing students to revisit content over the years, building their schema. An example of this could be in 3rd grade, students are introduced to basic physics, in 6th grade students learn several common physics equations and apply them to varying contexts, and then in 9th grade students may take variables such as friction/air resistance into account when calculating their equations. Each time the students are exposed to a topic, they go deeper into the content, intentionally building upon what they previously learned.

As we go through this curriculum-building process we would determine what is Core vs Hinterland. The core content would be what we want students to know for forever and would be referenced throughout a student’s time at our school. The hinterland content is used to set up the core content with a grand narrative. This creates a story and makes all of the content more memorable.

An example of core content would be the three branches of government. The hinterland content could be the story of how a bill becomes a law. Another example of core content might be the Revolutionary War. Songs from the play Hamilton could be used as the hinterland in this case because it shows the relational and emotional dynamics leading to the Revolutionary War.

The overarching goal of developing our curriculum in this manner is to build student knowledge and skills in all subjects. We want our students to know lots of things and to be able to do lots of things. As knowledge is the limiting factor to both knowing and doing, we will emphasize it.

All of this leads to questions of primary concern.

What schemas do we want students to have? What specifically will we call core knowledge? What knowledge and whose knowledge will be taught?
I would seek to answer these questions in an open manner, to build trust with the community and to make open, healthy discussion and debate possible.

One goal of the discussion would be to communicate the importance of educating students of every ethnicity and socioeconomic background in such a way that they become culturally literate and therefore prepared for success in “mainstream” America.

Cultural literacy entails teaching knowledge that speakers and writers (think NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, The Atlantic, National Review, etc) assume their audience has such as, understanding the Bible and classic works of literature, America’s founding, along with basic math and science skills. In no way is this approach assuming that the mainstream, or empowered culture’s knowledge is better than other knowledge, but it acknowledges that access to opportunity is often limited, intentionally or otherwise, by the culture of the “elites.”
At Normal Elementary, we want to give our students access to the same opportunities the privileged few have, and are convinced that the best way to do this that we can control is by teaching students information that has been deemed culturally important. This is a norm we are trying to set.

For a further point of clarification, this does not mean my school would only teach students history/literature from mainstream or white culture. Doing so would be fundamentally wrong, even in a monocultural society. I do not have an exact ratio or plan on how to include the histories, literatures, or arts of other cultures beyond saying that we will do it in an intentional and meaningful way. This is a norm we are trying to set.

The world is too big, varied, and interesting; and time is much too limited to teach all that is worth teaching. So we will reach a compromise with the open, honest, good faith debates I wrote about above and make painful cuts and thoughtful inclusions in our curriculum. This likely means that our curriculum, particularly in history, literature, and the arts will change and shift over time, while having a relatively stable core. This is a good thing. This is a norm we are trying to set.

As far as our curriculum’s specificity goes, we would generally use the nominally “national” standards as our absolute basement. This would give us a decent framework to build around, as we seek to enrich and fill out those standards with specific content that fit our context.

Normal Elementary’s Norms

  1. Staff that are knowledgeable of their students’ cultures.
  2. Staff that have high behavioral and educational expectations for all and maintain this by concurrently being warm and strict.
  3. Staff know and apply the findings of cognitive science to their teaching.
  4. Students are explicitly taught effective study skills.
  5. A curriculum that builds on itself and expects students to remember what they have learned.
  6. A curriculum that helps ensure students can find success in “mainstream” America by becoming culturally literate.
  7. A curriculum that is culturally responsive to the school’s student body.

At Normal Elementary, these are the norms we are trying to set. These are norms every school should have, norms every child should have the privilege of being educated under.

If I were the king of a school that is what I’d do.

Teaching and Truth

  1. Teachers must love their students.
  2. Teaching can be a good career and even a calling, but it is a primarily a JOB.
  3. Every student learns in roughly the same manner.
  4. Teachers should show their students the truth as far as possible while building their students’ knowledge of the world.
  5. Knowledge truly is power.

Finally, something that is not controversial. Students should learn the truth in school, as far as is possible. As far as is possible is the key phrase because not all subjects are concerned with truth per-say. English class would be the most obvious example. Students will read books of fiction and write opinion pieces. In history and science, moral dilemmas come up.

In these cases, the teacher’s role is to build their students knowledge of the world through the subject. You cannot prove Shakespeare’s work to be more true or accurate than Brontë’s. However, you can analyze the strategies each author uses, the genre of writing, along with the history and culture surrounding the author. When a moral dilemma comes up in history or science you can educate your students on the actors’ thought processes, the stakes, their level of knowledge, and worldview. You are also able to take advantage of hindsight (Even with hindsight, the right decisions are often not obvious).

This process of showing students the truth enables students to get the bigger picture and puts the content into a meaningful context. This gives students a more accurate view of the world and provides them with the fundamental tools of critical thinking: background knowledge and various procedures.