Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pedagogical content knowledge redux. Content or teaching? Why choose?

"So my question is this: should the focus be on content or on teaching practices?"

This was a question raised by a frustrated teacher who was grappling with Common Core. Lower your verbal guns. Yes, I know it's easy to take aim at Common Core, but this isn't about Common Core. This is about a teacher who finds herself at a crossroads and is actually asking if it's more important for her to focus on content knowledge or teaching practices.

Remember when we talked about "pedagogical content knowledge"? It was Dr. Lee Shulman who first talked about pedagogical content knowledge. In 1986. Shulman wrote that pedagogical content knowledge
. . . embodies the aspects of content most germane to its teachability. Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning (p. 9). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching
Then in 1993, Cochran, DeRuiter, and King offered another view of pedagogical content knowledge
to be more consistent with a constructivist perspective on teaching and learning. They described a model of pedagogical content knowledge that results from an integration of four major components, two of which are subject matter knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. The other two other components of teacher knowledge also differentiate teachers from subject matter experts. One component is teachers' knowledge of students' abilities and learning strategies, ages and developmental levels, attitudes, motivations, and prior knowledge of the concepts to be taught. Students' prior knowledge has been especially visible in the last decade due to literally hundreds of studies on student misconceptions in science and mathematics. The other component of teacher knowledge that contributes to pedagogical content knowledge is teachers' understanding of the social, political, cultural and physical environments in which students are asked to learn. The model in Figure 1 shows that these four components of teachers' knowledge all contribute to the integrated understanding that we call pedagogical content knowledge; and the arrows indicate that pedagogical content knowledge continues to grow with teaching experience. The integrated nature of pedagogical content knowledge is also described by Kennedy (1990).
Oh my that's a lot to take in, so if you've just skimmed past the quote, let me sum up: 1) teachers need to know their content; 2) teachers need to have good ways to present, teach, or make their content accessible to students and need to have a variety of ways to do so; 3) teachers need to know their content well enough to know where there are likely to be challenges for students and misconceptions; and 4) teachers need to be aware of the landscape in which students live and learn.

Sounds easy, huh? It isn't. Imagine a room full of 28 or 35 or 42 different personalities. They have different learning styles, attitudes about school and learning and being, and motivations. Some might love to learn but want to hide it because they don't want to a geek; the educational landscape isn't just about the political and environmental considerations, but the chaos of cultural and social issues that can plague students at school or at home.

Teachers can get lost in all of that, so part of what teachers need to relearn--and what our teacher education programs and professional development need to address--is how to focus on the things that teachers can do best and well. And that too is much easier said than done.

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