Science and its PCK

Chandrika Muralidhar

Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centred, discussion-based, flexible, and, of course, enjoyable. (NEP 2020)

Three and a half decades ago, as a novice teacher, I gingerly entered a grade 8 science classroom, armed with the textbook, my notes, and a detailed lesson plan. Thirty-five pairs of eyes looked at me and it made me wonder if this was how a point of congruence might feel! Was I nervous? Of course, I was, but also confident as my preparation for the class was thorough. The tremor in my voice subsided as responses from the students came in steadily and it turned out to be a satisfactory beginning. Looking back now after years of teaching I am not sure what it might have been like if that first class had turned out differently from what was planned. However, it is only fair to say that I have struggled many times to teach concepts like resonance, chemical kinetics and colligative properties, not with regard to my understanding of them, but making them comprehensible to the learners. So, I knew what I had to teach and the methods to do so, but what was probably missing was the connection between them which would contribute to the students learning the concepts. This leads us to explore the aspect of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) in a science classroom.

Good science teaching needs PCK – Lee Shulman

PCK for science teaching would first need an orientation towards it. This could mean a deep understanding of the nature of science, its process skills and indicators, scientific attitude and its indicators (UNESCO Sourcebook for primary science), and appropriate classroom resources. With these in place, PCK for science teaching could be about knowledge and belief about:
• Science curriculum.
• Students’ understanding of specific science topics – how they think, how they reason, talk to other learners.
• What needs to be done – give them evidence, help them reason.
• Assessment in science.
• Instructional strategies for teaching science.

I am sure like me, many novice teachers begin their careers and face the challenges of teaching various topics in science. Unknown to them, they develop a PCK which enables them to create the appropriate classroom/lab environment, encourage student thinking and come up with tactics that include student understanding of the topic being taught.

An inquiry approach can serve as the hook by which teachers can capture student attention and promote conceptual change. The specific ways in which a teacher sets up and co-ordinates inquiry-based lessons for specific topics forms part of her PCK.

PCK of novice and experienced teachers
In several studies of the science teachers’ PCK, teaching practice was found to be a function of familiarity with a specific domain. These studies concluded that teachers, when teaching unfamiliar topics, have little knowledge of potential student problems and specific preconceptions, and have difficulties selecting appropriate representations of subject matter. As a teacher at the senior secondary level, I faced a similar challenge when I had to teach the chapter on coordination chemistry. As a student I recalled my fascination for the topic, especially the isomerism exhibited by the complexes, yet as a teacher it took me a while to navigate the pedagogy for comprehension to happen. Moreover, when teaching unfamiliar topics, teachers express more misconceptions (Hashweh, 1987) and are known to talk longer and more often, and pose questions of low cognitive level (Carlsen, 1993). Researchers also noticed that experienced teachers quickly learn the new content as well as adequate content specific instructional strategies, while relying on their knowledge of general pedagogy. The latter helps them maintain the flow in their classes. The authors concluded that pedagogical knowledge provides a framework for teaching that is “filled in by content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge … when teachers taught within and outside their science area” (Sanders et al., 1993, p. 733).

Two separate studies were conducted by Clermont, Krajcik, and Borko (1993, 1994). In the first study, the effects on PCK of an in-service workshop for novice demonstrators were investigated. As growth of novices’ PCK toward that of experienced demonstrators was observed, the authors concluded that PCK “can be enhanced through intensive, short-term, skills-oriented workshops” (Clermont et al., 1993, p. 41). The second study investigated the PCK of chemistry teachers with respect to chemical demonstrations as an instructional strategy. The PCK of experienced and novice demonstrators was compared, concluding that experienced teachers possess a greater repertoire of representations and strategies when demonstrating a particular topic. It was found that they could use certain demonstrations more flexibly for various purposes and relate them more effectively to student learning than novices.

PCK in a chemistry classroom – the importance of questions
Let us look at an example of a chemistry classroom where the teacher was looking at various concepts – reversible, irreversible reactions, burning and combustion. Using one activity and urging the learners to question what they observed, the teacher set the tone for discussion of these concepts.

The teacher lit a candle and asked learners to observe the following and record their observations: Shape of the flame, height of the candle, the evaporation of wax, could this wax be collected, does the wax become something else.

Learners recorded their observations and asked some pertinent questions:
• Where does the flame go when we put out the candle?
• Will there be no flame when there is no vapour?
• Did the flame vanish because the reaction stopped?
• Why did the reaction stop?
• What is the flame made of?
• What is happening when the candle is lit? We feel the heat and see the light, so what kind of reaction is it?

With this single activity the teacher can discuss the four concepts mentioned earlier. She is devising a PCK in her classroom through an activity, some guided instructions and providing the opportunity for the learners to place their questions which will in turn support her to further explore the concepts.

In conclusion, it’s the teacher’s autonomy to create her/his PCK in the classroom by being mindful of her/his knowledge base which will enable her/him to teach specific topics effectively and flexibly in different contexts.


  1. Clermont, C.P., Borko, H., &Krajcik, J.S. (1994). Comparative study of the pedagogical content knowledge of experienced and novice chemical demonstrators. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 31, 419-441.
  2. Clermont, C.P., Krajcik, J.S., & Borko, H. (1993). The influence of an intensive in-service workshop on pedagogical content knowledge growth among novice chemical demonstrators. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30, 21-43.
  3. Hashweh, M.Z. (1987). Effects of subject-matter knowledge in the teaching of biology and physics. Teaching & Teacher Education, 3, 109-120.
  4. Sanders, L.R., Borko, H., & Lockard, J.D. (1993). Secondary science teachers’ knowledge base when teaching science courses in and out of their area of certification. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 3, 723-736.
  5. Van Driel, Jan H, Nico Verloop, Wobbe de Vos (1998). Developing Science Teachers’ Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(6), 673-695.
  6. Vijaysimha, Indira (2022). Role of PCK in Science Teaching: An illustrative representation from Chemistry. Centre for Excellence in Teacher Education, TISS, Vartalap (Session 6).

The author is a faculty member at the School of Continuing Education and University Resource Centre, Azim Premji University. She teaches and contributes to professional development programmes. She has been working in the space of science education, teacher capacity enhancement, curricular material development, textbook writing and as an editorial member of the university publications. She can be reached at

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