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Teacher's In-Depth Content Knowledge





To teach all students according to today’s standards, teachers need to understand subject matter deeply and flexibly so they can help students create useful cognitive maps, relate one idea to another, and address misconceptions. Teachers need to see how ideas connect across fields and to everyday life. This kind of understanding provides a foundation for pedagogical content knowledge that enables teachers to make ideas accessible to others (Shulman, 1987).

Shulman (1986) introduced the phrase pedagogical content knowledge and sparked a whole new wave of scholarly articles on teachers' knowledge of their subject matter and the importance of this knowledge for successful teaching. In Shulman's theoretical framework, teachers need to master two types of knowledge: (a) content, also known as "deep" knowledge of the subject itself, and (b) knowledge of the curricular development. Content knowledge encompasses what Bruner (as cited in Shulman, 1992)  called the "structure of knowledge"–the theories, principles, and concepts of a particular discipline.  Especially important is content knowledge that deals with the teaching process, including the most useful forms of representing and communicating content and how students best learn the specific concepts and topics of a subject. "If  beginning teachers are to be successful, they must wrestle simultaneously with issues of pedagogical content (or knowledge) as well as general pedagogy (or generic teaching principles)" (Grossman, as cited in Ornstein, Thomas, & Lasley, 2000, p. 508). 

Shulman (1986, 1987, 1992) created a Model of Pedagogical Reasoning, which comprises a cycle of several activities that a teacher should complete for good teaching: comprehension, transformation, instruction, evaluation, reflection, and new comprehension.

Comprehension. To teach is to first understand purposes, subject matter structures, and ideas within and outside the discipline. Teachers need to understand what they teach and, when possible, to understand it in several ways. Comprehension of purpose is very important. We engage in teaching to achieve the following educational purposes:

  •  To help students gain literacy

  •  To enable students to use and enjoy their learning experiences

  •  To enhance students’ responsibility to become caring people

  •  To teach students to believe and respect others, to contribute to the well-being of their community

  •  To give students the opportunity to learn how to inquire and discover new information

  •  To help students develop broader understandings of new information

  •  To help students develop the skills and values they will need to function in a free and just society (Shulman, 1992)

Transformation. The key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy in the teacher’s capacity to transform content knowledge  into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variety of student abilities and backgrounds. Comprehended ideas must be transformed in some manner if they are to be taught. Transformations require some combination or ordering of the following processes:

  1. Preparation (of the given text material), which includes the process of critical interpretation

  2. Representation of the ideas in the form of new analogies and metaphors  (Teachers'  knowledge, including the way they speak about teaching, not only includes references to what teachers “should” do, it also includes presenting the material by using figurative language and metaphors  [Glatthorn, 1990].)
  3. Instructional selections  from among an array of teaching methods and models
  4. Adaptation of student materials and activities to reflect the characteristics of student learning styles
  5. Tailoring the adaptations to the specific students in the classroom

Glatthorn (1990)  described this as the process of fitting the represented material to the characteristics of the students. The teacher must consider the relevant aspects of students’ ability, gender, language, culture, motivations, or prior knowledge and skills that will affect their responses to different forms of presentations and representations.

Instruction. Comprising the variety of teaching acts, instruction includes many of the most crucial aspects of pedagogy: management, presentations, interactions, group work, discipline, humor, questioning, and discovery and inquiry instruction.

Evaluation. Teachers need to think about testing and evaluation as an extension of instruction, not as separate from the instructional process. The evaluation process includes checking for understanding and misunderstanding during interactive teaching as well as testing students’ understanding at the end of lessons or units. It also involves evaluating one’s own performance and adjusting for different circumstances.

Reflection. This process includes reviewing, reconstructing, reenacting, and critically analyzing one’s own teaching abilities and then grouping these reflected explanations into evidence of changes that need to be made to become a better teacher. This is what a teacher does when he or she looks back at the teaching and learning that has occurred–reconstructs, reenacts, and recaptures the events, the emotions, and the accomplishments.  Lucas (as cited in Ornstein et al.,  2000) argued that reflection is an important part of professional development.  All teachers must learn to observe outcomes and determine the reasons for success or failure. Through reflection, teachers focus on their concerns, come to better understand their own teaching behavior, and help themselves or colleagues improve as teachers. Through reflective practices in a group setting, teachers learn to listen carefully to each other, which also gives them insight into their own work (Ornstein et al., 2000).

New Comprehension.  Through acts of teaching that are "reasoned" and "reasonable," the teacher achieves new comprehension of the educational purposes, the subjects taught, the students, and the processes of pedagogy themselves (Brodkey, 1986).

Students (the teacher’s audience) are another important element for the teacher to consider while using a pedagogical model.  A skillful teacher figures out what students know and believe about a topic and how learners are likely to “hook into” new ideas. Teaching in ways that connect with students also requires an understanding of differences that may arise from culture, family experiences, developed intelligences, and approaches to learning. Teachers need to build a foundation of pedagogical learner knowledge (Grimmet & Mackinnon, 1992).

To help all students learn, teachers need several kinds of knowledge about learning. They need to think about what it means to learn different kinds of material for different purposes and how to decide which kinds of learning are most necessary in different contexts. Teachers must be able to identify the strengths and weaknesses of different learners and must have the knowledge to work with students who have specific learning disabilities or needs. Teachers need to know about curriculum resources and technologies to connect their students with sources of information and knowledge that allow them to explore ideas, acquire and synthesize information, and frame and solve problems. And teachers need to know about collaboration–how to structure interactions among students so that more powerful shared learning can occur; how to collaborate with other teachers; and how to work with parents to learn more about their children and to shape supportive experiences at school and home (Shulman, 1992).

Acquiring this sophisticated knowledge and developing a practice that is different from what teachers themselves experienced as students, requires learning opportunities for teachers that are more powerful than simply reading and talking about new pedagogical ideas (Ball & Cohen, 1996). Teachers learn best by studying, by doing and reflecting, by collaborating with other teachers, by looking closely at students and their work, and by sharing what they see.

This kind of learning cannot occur in college classrooms divorced from practice or in school classrooms divorced from knowledge about how to interpret practice. Good settings for teacher learning–in both colleges and schools–provide lots of opportunities for research and inquiry, for trying and testing, for talking about and evaluating the results of learning and teaching. The combination of theory and practice (Miller & Silvernail, 1994) occurs most productively when questions arise in the context of real students and work in progress and where research and disciplined inquiry are also at hand. 

Darling-Hammond (1994) noted the following:

Better settings for such learning are appearing. More than 300 schools of education in the United States have created programs that extend beyond the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program, providing both education and subject-matter course work that is integrated with clinical training in schools. Some are one or two year graduate programs for recent graduates or midcareer recruits.  (p. 6)  

Others are five-year models for prospective teachers who enter teacher education as undergraduates.  In either case, the fifth year allows students to focus exclusively on the task of preparing to teach, with year-long, school-based internships linked to course work on learning and teaching. Studies have found that graduates of these extended programs are more satisfied with their preparation, and their colleagues, principals, and cooperating teachers view them as better prepared. 

Both university and school faculty plan and teach in these programs. Beginning teachers get a more coherent learning experience when they are organized in teams with these faculty and with one another. Senior teachers deepen their knowledge by serving as mentors, adjunct faculty, co-researchers and teacher leaders. Thus, these schools can help create the rub between theory and practice, while creating more professional roles for teachers and constructing knowledge that is more useful for both practice and ongoing theory building(Darling-Hammond, 1994).

If teachers investigate the effects of their teaching on students’ learning and if they read about what others have learned, they become sensitive to variation and more aware of what works for what purposes and in what situations. Training in inquiry also helps teachers learn how to look at the world from multiple perspectives and to use this knowledge to reach diverse learners.


            Ball,  D. L.,  &  Cohen,  D. K. (1996).  Reform by the book: What is--or might be--the role of curriculum materials in teacher learning and instructional reform?  Educational Researcher, 25(9),  6-8.

           Brodkey,  J.  J.  (1986).  Learning while teaching. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.

           Darling-Hammond, L.  (1994, September).  Will 21st-century schools really be different? The Education Digest, 60,4-8.

            Glatthorn, A.  A.  (1990).  Supervisory leadership.  New York: Harper Collins.

            Grimmet,  P., &  MacKinnon,  A.  (1992).  Craft knowledge and the education of teachers.  In G. Grant (Ed.),Review of research in education 18, pp. 59-74  Washington, DC:  AERA.

            Miller,  L.,  &  Silvernail,  D.  L.  (1994).  Wells Junior High School: Evolution of a professional development school.  In L.  Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Professional development schools: Schools for developing a profession(pp.56-80).  New York: Teachers College Press.

            Ornstein,  A.  C., Thomas,  J.,  &  Lasley,  I.  (2000). Strategies for effective teaching.   New York:  McGraw-Hill.

            Shulman,  L.  (1986).  Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher15(2), 4-14.

            Shulman,  L.  (1987).  Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform.  Harvard Educational Review,   57 (1),  1-22.


            Shulman, L. (1992, September-October). Ways of seeing, ways of knowing, ways of teaching, ways of learning about teaching.  Journal of Curriculum Studies, 28,  393-396