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  • Writer's pictureThings Education

Content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge…

a crucial distinction.

Hello and welcome to the 60th edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

The best way to understand something is to teach it to someone – is how the saying goes. But it is only a saying. There are experts who are not good at teaching or even explaining from their area of expertise. This discussion was triggered among readers of this newsletter in response to one of our earlier editions, in which we spoke about the interaction between the expertise a teacher has in a given subject/topic and the motivation to teach the subject/topic. One of the important points which came out in the discussion was that the expertise of a teacher (or any person) in a subject (content knowledge) is not the same as their expertise in teaching the subject (pedagogical knowledge). 

Content knowledge refers to a teacher's mastery of the subject matter they are teaching. It encompasses the depth and breadth of knowledge about a particular discipline or content area. Say you are a science teacher teaching a lesson on photosynthesis to middle school students. Your content knowledge would include a deep understanding of photosynthesis itself – the chemical reactions involved, the role of sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, and the products produced.

Pedagogical knowledge, on the other hand, focuses on the knowledge about teaching methods, instructional strategies, classroom management techniques, assessment practices, and understanding how students learn. Your pedagogical knowledge would involve knowing how to structure the lesson effectively, what teaching methods to use (e.g., demonstrations, group discussions, hands-on activities), how to ask probing questions to check for understanding, and how to differentiate instruction to meet the diverse needs of your students and so on.

So how does content knowledge interact with pedagogical knowledge? Let us assume that content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are completely independent of each other and that each knowledge base can be built up separately. This assumption is not universally applicable, but for most cases it works. You can build your content knowledge in Forensic Science completely independent of building any pedagogical knowledge. Similarly, you can build an understanding of how inquiry-based learning can be used in class without thinking about any specific content topic.

So what does this mean for teachers or school leaders? To answer this question, let’s bring out our now familiar 2x2 grid. The horizontal axis represents content knowledge and the vertical axis represents pedagogical knowledge. A teacher may lie in any of the four zones labelled A to D. A teacher in zone A has high pedagogical knowledge and low content knowledge, while a teacher in zone D has low content and pedagogical knowledge.

It is easy to see that the most effective teachers are the ones that are in zone B – they have high content knowledge and high pedagogical knowledge. They know their subject matter very well and they have multiple options which they can use to teach. So if a school leader sees a zone B teacher, hiring them is a no-brainer. Schools should also work toward moving teachers from all the other zones into zone B.

What happens when a school hires a teacher from zone C? The teacher has high content knowledge but limited pedagogical knowledge. They know their subject well, but do not have the tools on how to teach. This means that transfer of content knowledge/skill will not happen effectively between the teacher and the students. 

For example, say a school hires an English teacher for Grades 5 to 7. The new teacher holds a postgraduate degree in English literature – she has a deep understanding of English literature, including literary works, themes, and literary analysis; is proficient in literary criticism and interpretation; and is able to articulate complex ideas and concepts related to literature. Due to her high content knowledge, her lessons primarily focus on discussing literary texts, analysing themes, and exploring literary devices. However, due to her limited pedagogical knowledge, she is unable to scaffold the learning for students by planning reading comprehension strategies into her lessons, such as visualising settings and events, drawing inferences about character emotions, or making real-life connections with the story.

For teachers in zone C to move up into zone B, they need support from the school to build their pedagogical knowledge. In-service professional development sessions, online support, and using tools like TEPS would be useful for these teachers.

What happens when a school hires a teacher from zone D? The most likely scenario is that the school is desperate to fill an opening and without this teacher, students may be left stranded. A school hires an English teacher for Grades 4, 5 and 6. Out of all the applicants the school interviewed, he was the only one who could speak English with some fluency. What the school did not take into consideration is that basic fluency in speaking a language is not the same as content knowledge. The teacher also lacks pedagogical knowledge. Due to this, the teacher struggles the most during grammar lessons, as he does not know the rules of grammar. While teaching the conversion of sentences from indirect speech to direct speech, for example, he reads out the rules given in the grammar workbook and does not explain any further. He then does a couple of examples on the board but does not explain his thinking. Students are then expected to complete their worksheets in silence.

Once the school has consciously made this choice, it is important that the school supports the teacher in further development. A teacher in zone D needs to move toward zone B, but the route is via zone A or zone C. Practically, they may have to prioritise either content knowledge building or pedagogical knowledge building.

What happens when a school hires a teacher from zone A? The question was framed this way to maintain symmetry through the article, but it is highly unlikely that a teacher who has high pedagogical knowledge does not have a decent level of content knowledge in at least one subject. However, such a teacher may be asked to teach a subject other than the one they are an expert in. For example, if there is a Physics teacher who is in zone B – both content and pedagogical knowledge are high. But the school has a shortage of Mathematics teachers and moves the Physics teacher to teach Mathematics. In this scenario, their pedagogical knowledge is unchanged. However, the teacher will move from zone B (high Physics content knowledge) to zone A (low Mathematics content knowledge). This teacher will need to build their content knowledge in Mathematics, which is a relatively easy thing to do. It will be easier because there are direct links between Mathematics and Physics as subjects. However, it won’t be easy for an English language teacher to start teaching Chemistry.

So far we have written about pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge as two completely separate buckets that teachers can draw from. How much there is to draw depends on the amount of knowledge in each bucket. Apart from having stuff in each of these buckets, teachers should also know which pedagogical approach will work best for which topic. This specialised form of knowledge that combines content and pedagogical knowledge is known as pedagogical content knowledge. For instance, deciding to use a hands-on activity with plants to demonstrate photosynthesis, asking probing questions to encourage critical thinking about the process, and using visual aids or diagrams to help students visualise complex concepts.

As a teacher, we hope that this helps as an exercise in self-reflection to understand where you stand and what your strengths are. As a school leader, we hope this helps you build an accurate rubric for teacher hiring, teacher development and support.


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Edition: 3.8

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