Pedagogical Content Knowledge

 In Classroom Practice

Have you ever noticed it’s better to use a visual representation for introductions and conclusions when teaching 5-paragraph essays, but it’s better to use an audio file to introduce rhyme and meter in your poetry unit?

Or, have you seen better test scores when you teach electricity before fluid mechanics in Physics? Or, the circulatory system before the digestive system in Biology?

While you might call these “tricks of the trade”, or “experience”, these are examples of what is called pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

When you combine your knowledge of the content with your knowledge of how to teach it, you are transforming the content through pedagogy.
The term pedagogical content knowledge was coined by Lee Shulman in the mid-80s. He stated that teacher-training programs were separating the what (content) from the how (pedagogy) when preparing teachers for the field. Good teachers, according to Shulman, move beyond simply knowing their subject matter, and knowing how to teach; they transform the subject matter through teaching. More concretely, he says good teachers find “ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others”.

PCK is (1) knowing how to organize and present the curriculum for students, (2) being aware of misconceptions, prior knowledge, and particular problems students may have when learning new subject matter, and (3) having specific methods or strategies for the classroom situation or environment.2

How do you achieve PCK without waiting 20 years? Shulman proposed a framework of six steps: comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension. Obviously, to obtain PCK, self-reflective teaching is needed. Refer to this paper for a more complete explanation of Shulman’s process.

If you’re not already using a teaching journal, or are unsure about how to begin using PCK, a great way to start would be to use this table of content representation (CoRe). It was developed by the Teaching & Learning Research Initiative in New Zealand. Dr. Christopher Eames led a group to create a tool for developing PCK. This tool was then given to young teachers to see how it helped their preparation and delivery of lessons. You might want to give it a try as you prepare your lessons and units for next fall.

PCK has been called craft knowledge, but you may call it good teaching. Being aware of PCK, and your growing understanding of the art of teaching can help you progress from a good to a great teacher more quickly and easily. Shulman said it best when he took an old cliche and made it new again:

“Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach.”

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