Unfolding content knowledge for teaching

Joyita Banerjee

Does proficiency in a subject at the college level and a penchant to teach suffice for entry into the practice of teaching? It seems to be so as today we can see many organizations/institutes recruiting teaching volunteers with an outstanding performance at the college level. The notion of ‘anybody can teach’ is further exemplified through a pool of passionate professionals from different fields entering into teaching to fix the impending issues in our education system. In this current scenario, it becomes pertinent to dig deeper to understand if there is any other component of a teacher’s content knowledge that separates a subject graduate from a qualified teacher. The larger questions that need to be answered are what constitutes this knowledge and how can this be developed through teacher professional development.

My recent interaction with an IT professional-turned-teacher throws some light on the questions raised above. A brief account of the interaction followed by an analysis of the same is provided below.

A teacher’s perspective on content knowledge of teaching
Shruti, a post-graduate in computer applications, unable to cope with the pressures of the IT industry, gave up her career to become a full-fledged teacher. Having graduated in pure science, she was confident that her sound understanding of mathematics and science would be an enabler to begin this second innings of her career. Shruti was right as she gained entry easily as a mathematics and science teacher in the primary section of a renowned CBSE school in Bangalore.

TTA-1 However, teaching was not as simple as Shruti had imagined it to be. In her words, “Children used to come up with a variety of questions, I used the same pedagogical approaches used by my teachers. However, these worked for some children while they failed for the rest.” As she had learnt math through rigorous drill and practice, deep down, she too believed the same and hence applied the same approach for the learners. However, many of them continued to make simple mistakes. She highlights a particular error in response to the question ‘344+25=____’. Many of her grade 2 students filled the blank with 594. When similar problems were given in a column format, the responses were better. It took her a while to realize that children’s understanding of place value needed to be strengthened and providing practice was not the only remedy. She then modelled addition and subtraction with manipulatives, used base ten blocks to make them understand the number structure and showed how addition happens by grouping and regrouping. She also used pictorial representations. Despite all these efforts, she reiterates that one particular child still made similar errors. She spontaneously asked the child, if it is possible to get a number as big as 594 by adding just 25 to 344. To her utter surprise, this child after thinking for a while, exclaimed, “Oh no, this is not even 400!” Shruti realized that the child used estimation to identify the mistake. Shruti says that it was a lesson for her to make children reflect on their answers. These strategies did not occur to her in a day and it came from deep engagement with the children trying to understand their ways of learning over a period of time.

By then, Shruti had realized that the sound knowledge of a subject, though necessary, was not sufficient for teaching and hence decided to pursue her B.Ed. The degree had certainly helped her get a theoretical understanding of teaching as a profession, but today, being a veteran with eight years of teaching experience, she concludes that teaching is no less than a craft that gets refined with practice.

I am sure many of our teachers can relate to Shruti’s experience. Her experience reveals that while strong subject matter knowledge is the quintessential aspect of content knowledge for teaching, for a teacher to be able to help learners understand the same content, it is equally important to have an understanding of what explanations to give, the reasons for such explanations, what examples, and counter examples to provide to make learners with varied learning needs and styles understand a concept.

Demystifying content knowledge for teaching
In addition to the facts and concepts of the domain, a teacher must be aware of the different ways in which the concepts and principles of a subject matter are organized (Shulman 2006) along with an understanding of the nature, aims and objectives of teaching the subject. He/she should be able to connect different concepts, must know how concepts relate with each other, which concepts are core and which are peripheral. Shruti had an intuitive idea of the cumulative nature of mathematics and hence was able to emphasize the underlying concept of place value in teaching addition algorithm thereby linking conceptual knowledge (place value) with procedural knowledge (addition algorithm). Her awareness of the abstract nature of mathematics guided her to connect the concrete base ten blocks and pictorial representations with the compact and abstract addition algorithm. If Shruti was lacking in her subject matter knowledge, she would have continued with the traditional drill and practice.

Hence, in-depth conceptual knowledge of subject matter provides the basis of development of “Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK)” which includes the most important and powerful illustrations, analogies, examples and explanations to make various concepts comprehensible to the learners. A teacher needs to have multiple approaches to satisfy diverse learners’ needs. This knowledge also entails understanding of learners’ pre-conceptions, misconceptions and approaches to address such misconceptions. In the case of Shruti, her effort to get to the root of the misconception in addition was quite evident. Thus knowledge of subject matter coupled with a teacher’s tacit knowledge that develops through experience facilitates development of PCK.

Another aspect of teacher’s content knowledge for teaching is the curricular knowledge which includes the range of curricular materials and alternatives available for teaching learners (Shulman, 2006). Curricular knowledge not only entails the use of materials or resources but also the familiarity with the topic that was taught before and will be taught after, often referred to as vertical curricular knowledge. I remember one of the mathematics teachers mentioning during a workshop that while planning for a semester, she often consults with the science and social science/EVS teachers about the lesson plan and the overlaps that may exist in the content areas of different subjects. Together they ensure that overlapping topics such as ‘measurement’ is taught at the same time. While teaching data handling, she consults Social Science/EVS teachers about the concepts which are taught so that data related to those concepts can be used for analysis and interpretation in a mathematics class. This ability to relate the content of a given course simultaneously being discussed in other classes falls under lateral curricular knowledge (Shulman, 1986).

Various studies show that teachers’ pedagogic content knowledge develops through experience and reflection in practice setting. However the point of caution here is that this reflection needs to be done in the light of a theoretical framework, although the teacher need not be restricted by the general theories and principles.

Another important aspect that influences teachers’ knowledge is their own deep seated beliefs about learners’ or the subjects they teach. This is often strengthened by observing their own teachers in practice that gives intuitive ideas of teaching (Lortie, 1977). This was even evident in Shruti’s case when initially she tried giving more drill and practice because that is exactly how she had been taught.

Having established the importance of content knowledge for teaching, it is important to understand how it can be developed through professional development.

Role of teacher education in developing content knowledge for teaching
Often teachers’ own misconceptions and fragmented knowledge are passed on to the learners. During my interactions with teacher educators, concerns regarding inadequate knowledge of subject matter among the student teachers have often been raised. Although student teachers enter into pre-service education with a formal degree in the subject in case of B.Ed and with knowledge of the subject till class 12 in case of D.El.Ed, there is a need to emphasize the subject matter knowledge during pre-service education for its further refinement for teaching.

TTA-2 Practice teaching plays a critical role in pre-service teacher education. It helps the student teachers to develop new forms of understanding to deal with situations where familiar thinking fails. Teaching can be seen as a craft only when student teachers have deeper engagement in real classroom settings where they are confronted with unfamiliar situations. Shruti’s reflective nature made her realize that her subject matter knowledge, though necessary, was not enough to handle everyday classroom situations and this necessitated a professional course. However, inculcating reflective practices right at the pre-service level is essential. This is possible only if there are opportunities to spend as much time as possible in real classroom settings. The benefits of practice teaching can be reaped only when student teachers are allowed to question their own beliefs or assumptions and reflect on the same. This can be done by documenting their experiences, writing anecdotes and analyzing the same in light of theoretical frameworks with the help of peers and mentors. This could be regarding a common misconception or an unusual question asked by a child in the class. In addition to these, writing an account of their own practice such as what went well and what could have been better; whether an issue identified by them will still remain an issue if certain strategies were changed will help them emerge as reflective practitioners and generate a body of knowledge for the benefit of the larger community of teachers.

In-service professional development can build on the pre-service education, only when a robust system of pre-service education is in place. If we assume it to be so, it is important that as part of continued professional development, teachers get opportunities to share their experiences in common platforms where they can identify various issues pertaining to their subjects for discussion. This could be a re-visit to a difficult topic, an alternative approach to a concept or ways to address common student misconceptions.

However in case we have a pool of teachers who have been through a weak pre-service education which mainly focuses on rules and procedures, the task of teacher educators becomes all the more challenging. It then becomes extremely critical to ensure that gaps in subject matter knowledge are minimized through in-service professional development so that the chances of passing on the superficial knowledge of teachers to learners are minimized.

It would be incorrect to assume that the student teachers can emerge completely out of their deep seated beliefs at the end of pre-service education. However robust the pre-service education is, there is a possibility of carrying these beliefs as teachers advance into the profession of teaching. Hence opportunities to confront one’s beliefs during in-service teacher education programs are equally essential through critical dialogue and guided discussions to arrive at a refined understanding of the content knowledge of teaching. These programs should also enable teachers to stay abreast with the latest research and development in their own domains.

Lastly, teachers should be viewed as researchers and encouraged to identify issues during their course of teaching and pursue action research on the same.

I would like to conclude by saying that all three dimensions of content knowledge for teaching: subject matter knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and curricular knowledge need to be emphasized in teacher education, which may otherwise render this important aspect of teacher knowledge incomplete. The knowledge base of teachers is enriched through their experiences which should not be bound by the four walls of the classrooms. Instead, these should be well documented, reflected upon and analyzed to inform further practice.

Acknowledgement: I express my heartfelt gratitude to Ms. Shruti (name changed for sake of anonymity) for providing useful insights for this article.


  • Lortie, D (1977). The School Teacher, Ch. 3, Limits of socialisation. pp. 55-81.
  • Shulman, L. S (1986). ‘Those Who Understand Knowledge Growth in Teaching’. Educational Research, Volume. 15: pp. 4-14.

The author is currently associated with the Azim Premji University. She is interested in the areas of mathematics teaching, sociology of mathematics education, classroom based assessment and teacher professional development. She can be reached at joyita_b_2007@yahoo.co.in.

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