Pedagogical Content Knowledge – An attempt to outline it

Chandrika Muralidhar

Kusum, a teacher of math, braces herself to enter her grade 7 class. She is a teacher who has taught for four years in the school. She earlier took classes for students up to grade 5. Her apprehensions are in place. With a worked-out plan and resources she begins her class with informal conversation and gradually and seamlessly poses questions and encourages the learners to respond.
. . .
Shailendra is teacher of science, who has completed his teacher training and has been recruited in a school in his home town. It’s his first month at the school and his first experience of being a teacher. He approaches his colleagues for suggestions in classroom teaching and learning and tries to understand the methods used by them.
. . .
Having taught English for close to a decade, Tamizhselvi is mentoring a couple of new recruits towards appropriate pedagogy of language at the grade 9 level. She shares her resources, experiences of teaching and her approach to understanding the learners and their needs.

When one reads the above three snippets, it would be natural to relate to at least one or maybe even all the three. What one could probably understand is that all of us as teachers are in various stages of evolving as educational professionals. What does it take for one to be a teacher? Maria Montessori said, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist’”. For this to happen in the classroom a teacher would need sound knowledge of the concepts that need to be taught and the relevant way to teach it. So, when we look at this, there is deep connect between the two and their amalgamation is what would lead to effective teaching-learning in the classroom.

A teacher education researcher, Lee Shulman (1986) worked extensively in expanding and improving the understanding of teaching and teacher preparation. In his view, developing general pedagogical skills was insufficient preparation for teaching especially when there was a focus mainly on content knowledge. The key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching has its foundation at the intersection of content and pedagogy. Shulman spoke of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) as teachers’ interpretations and transformations of subject-matter knowledge in the context of facilitating student learning. An understanding of what influences the learning of topics as easy or difficult; the conceptions and preconceptions that students from different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of frequently taught topics and lessons, is another way of defining PCK. Shulman describes it as,

The blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction. (Shulman, 1987)

Let us consider our math teacher Kusum – PCK is the overlapping part of her mathematical content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge of teaching and learning. Having a strong PCK can enable her to choose relevant instructional strategies (e.g., games, manipulatives) included within a structure (e.g., collaborative learning, inquiry, problem-solving) to effectively deliver the mathematics content. However, an experienced teacher like her who has great knowledge in mathematics, does she possess the appropriate PCK? The same question could be posed for Shailendra and Tamizhselvi.

The key elements of PCK are:

  1. Content knowledge – Proficiency in representations of subject matter that students will learn. It includes knowledge of concepts, theories, ideas, organizational framework, evidence and proof, as well as practices and approaches that lead to developing such knowledge.
  2. Pedagogical knowledge – The teacher’s in-depth understanding of the processes and practices or method of teaching-learning. This includes understanding the nature of students, strategies for evaluating their learning and understanding the cognitive, social, and developmental theories of learning and how they apply to the students in the classroom. (Koelhler & Mishra, 2009)

To complete what Shulman termed as the knowledge base for teaching or essential knowledge for teachers, in 1987 he included other elements,

  1. Curriculum knowledge
  2. Knowledge of educational contexts
  3. Knowledge of the purposes of education

Other educational scholars in the 1990s provided valuable insights on the importance and relevance of the linguistic and cultural characteristics of a diverse student population in a classroom. Research has been inconclusive about this even though the promotion and development of PCK among content teachers through pre-service and in-service teacher professional development. However, exponents of PCK opine that it has helped re-focus educators’ attention to the important role of subject matter in teaching-learning, moving away from the generic approach to teacher education that has dominated the field since the 1970s (Gess-Newsome and Lederman 2001).

As teachers we would need to explore its relevance in our classrooms especially in the context of specific subjects. A sincere effort to understand it and its influence on the learning levels of learners would be worthwhile.

I would like to leave the readers with a question – which of the three teachers according to you has demonstrated PCK in their classroom? Which of them would need support to draw the connect between the content and pedagogy?

• Koehler, M. J., and Mishra, P. (2009). “What is Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge?” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 9(1), pp. 60-70.
• Gess-Newsome, J., and N.G. Lederman. “Examining Pedagogical Content Knowledge: The Construct and its Implications for Science Education,” Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education (2001).
• Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
• Shulman, L. S. (1987). “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform”. Harvard Educational Review, 57, pp. 1-22.

The author is an Assistant Professor at the School of Continuing Education – University Resource Centre at the Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. She works in the field of science education, teacher preparation and curricular material development. She can be reached at

This is the first of a three-part series.

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