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Learning To Teach, Methods For StudyingKNOWLEDGE BASES OF

Ralph T. Putnam

Sharon Feiman-Nemser

James Calderhead


Researchers and other scholars seeking to understand and define the knowledge and thinking underlying teaching have focused on numerous issues and bring multiple perspectives to bear on this complex domain. Much of this work has addressed some combination of three sets of interrelated questions:

  1. What do (or should) teachers know? What domains or categories of knowledge are important for teaching?
  2. How do teachers know? What is the nature or form of various kinds of knowledge needed for teaching?
  3. How do teachers think? What thought processes underlie teaching?

Efforts to address these questions are motivated, in part, by the connection between how teachers teach and what teachers think, know, and believe.

Historical Overview

During the first half of the twentieth century the substance and nature of teachers' knowledge was relatively unproblematic. Judging from various assessments for teacher certification of the period, teachers needed to know the content that they would teach students and have some knowledge of pedagogical practice. As systematic programs of research on teaching began to emerge in the 1960s, attention shifted to various teacher characteristics and behaviors associated with increased student achievement. Although this research did not directly examine the knowledge or thinking of teachers, it was grounded in an assumption that knowledge of relationships established through systematic research could provide a "scientific basis for the art of teaching," as the title of the 1978 book by Nathaniel L. Gage suggested.

As psychology shifted from behavioral to cognitive perspectives, scholars of teaching followed suit and began to focus on the mental life of teachers. By the 1980s, cognitive psychologists had established that the accumulation of rich bodies of knowledge is critical to expert performance in various domains, ranging from chess playing to medical diagnosis. Scholars of teaching began trying to characterize the expert knowledge that is needed for good teaching. In 1986 Lee S. Shulman catalyzed interest in the systematic study of the knowledge underlying teaching, arguing especially for the importance of understanding the role of teachers' knowledge of the content they teach.

Domains of Knowledge for Teaching

Teaching is a complex act, requiring many kinds of knowledge. Some of this knowledge is general and fairly enduring–such as knowledge of subject matter content or of general pedagogical principles; some is more specific and transient–such as knowledge of the particular students being taught and what has taken place in a particular class. Various systems for describing the knowledge needed for teaching have been developed with varying emphases and purposes. With any set of categories or domains of knowledge, it is important to keep in mind that these systems are used to bring conceptual order to knowledge that is in reality complex and interrelated. The various categories of knowledge are not discrete entities, and the boundaries between domains are fuzzy at best. With these caveats in mind, the following set of categories of teacher knowledge is loosely based on a 1987 article by Shulman:

  • Knowledge of subject matter content
  • Knowledge of general pedagogical principles and strategies
  • Knowledge of learners, their characteristics, and how they learn
  • Knowledge of educational contexts
  • Knowledge of educational goals, purposes, and values

Because they are central to the daily work of teachers, general pedagogical knowledge, knowledge about learners, and knowledge of subject matter have been the focus of considerable research and scholarly discourse.

General pedagogical knowledge/knowledge about learners. These closely related categories of teacher knowledge include knowledge about teaching, learning, and learners that is not specific to the teaching of particular subject matter content. One large component of this domain is knowledge of classroom management–knowledge of how to keep groups of students engaged with various classroom tasks. Teachers must have repertoires of routines and strategies for establishing classroom procedures, organizing classroom events, keeping activities on track, and reacting to student misbehavior. Teachers also draw upon knowledge of instructional strategies for arranging classroom environments and conducting lessons to promote student learning. Experienced teachers have repertoires of strategies and routines for conducting lessons, keeping them running smoothly, and promoting student engagement.

Teachers' knowledge about managing classrooms and conducting lessons is intertwined with knowledge and beliefs about learners, learning, and teaching. Theories about how students learn guide teachers' instructional decisions and interactions with students, often in an implicit way. For example, a teacher who conceives of the learner's role as a passive recipient of knowledge teaches differently than one who conceives of the learner's role as an active participant in the learning process. The former typically presents information that students are expected to attend to, followed by rehearsal and practice of the presented information. The latter is apt to present problem-solving situations designed to stimulate students' thinking and knowledge-building.

Content knowledge. Obviously, teachers must know something about the content they teach. In drawing attention to the need for more attention to the role of content knowledge in teaching, Shulman in 1986 distinguished three kinds of content knowledge: subject matter content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and curricular knowledge. Subject matter content knowledge is what a content specialist knows, for example what a mathematician knows about mathematics. Pedagogical content knowledge is specialized knowledge needed for teaching the subject, such as understanding how key ideas in mathematics are likely to be misunderstood by learners, and multiple ways of representing important ideas in the domain. Curricular knowledge is knowledge of materials and resources for teaching particular content, including how subject matter content is structured and sequenced in different materials.

Early research sought but failed to establish a clear relationship between teachers' subject-matter knowledge–as measured by the amount of course-work, grades, and tests–and teaching effectiveness; taking more university mathematics courses did not necessarily make one a better teacher of mathematics. Nevertheless, when researchers examined what was learned and hence known by teachers, they were able to establish a connection between the degree of disciplinary knowledge and teaching effectiveness. In general, teachers with rich subject matter knowledge tend to emphasize conceptual, problem solving, and inquiry aspects of their subjects; less knowledgeable teachers tend to emphasize facts, rules, and procedures. Less knowledgeable teachers may stick closely to detailed plans or the textbook, sometimes missing opportunities to focus on important ideas and connections to other ideas. When the goal is fostering student understanding and meaningful learning, as promoted by many U.S. educational reform efforts of the 1980s and 1990s, the demands on a teacher's content knowledge intensify. Helping students understand important ideas in a discipline and how these ideas can be use in varied contexts requires that a teacher know more than the facts, concepts, and procedures they are teaching. They must also know how these ideas connect with one another and to other domains.

Often, when one thinks of understanding a discipline–such as mathematics, biology, or history–one means knowing important concepts and principles in the field, how they are related to one another, and how they connect to ideas in other domains. Additionally, to be truly knowledgeable, or "literate," in a particular field involves knowing how experts in that field think. Knowing science, for example, entails knowing something about rules for evidence and how scientific knowledge is established. Knowing literature involves knowing what makes a good critique or argument about a literary point. To teach particular disciplines well, a teacher must be aware of these aspects of disciplinary knowledge and be able to make them explicit in ways that are accessible to learners.

Nature and Form of Teacher Knowledge

A potential danger in describing various categories of knowledge for teaching is coming to think of teachers' knowledge itself as organized into abstract, discrete categories. In fact, what teachers know is complexly intertwined with other knowledge and beliefs and with the specific contexts in which teachers work. Numerous scholars have posed constructs to try to capture the complex contextualized nature of teachers' knowledge. Some researchers have argued that teachers' personalities and life experiences play a major role in shaping the kind of knowledge they develop about teaching, calling this knowledge "personal practical knowledge." In 1987 Kathy Carter and Walter Doyle argued that much of what experienced teachers know is "event-structured knowledge"–knowledge organized around the activities and events they have experienced in classrooms. Others have argued for the importance of articulating the "craft knowledge" of teaching–the implicit theories, skills, and ways of perceiving that teachers develop through their work.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, such efforts to understand knowledge for teaching have intersected and been informed by a more general movement in psychology and education to view knowledge and cognition as situated. Situative theorists posit that how and where a person learns a particular set of knowledge and skills become a fundamental part of what is learned. An individual's knowledge is intertwined with the physical and social contexts in which it was acquired. All of these efforts to characterize the ways in which knowledge for teaching is intertwined with contexts, other people, and personal histories help one appreciate the rich and complex nature of what teachers need to know. A number of important implications arise from this work.

What teachers know and how they know it are tied to particular contexts. Developing expertise in teaching entails working and learning in the contexts of teaching. Much of what teachers know is connected to particular tools–such as textbooks and instructional materials. Much of what teachers know is routinized and automatic. Just as a person driving a car with a manual transmission is not conscious of the coordination of movements of feet and hands as they drive–unless a problem arises–much of how teachers interact with students is similarly guided by routine. It is having much of what they know embedded in these routines that enables teachers and students to manage in a highly complex social environment. A downside of much of teachers' knowledge being routinized and automatic is that it can be difficult to examine and change when desired.

Teacher Thinking

As psychological perspectives shifted from behavioral to cognitive in the 1970s, a number of researchers began to focus on the thinking processes entailed in teaching. Much of this research focused on teachers' planning and decision-making. Research on planning suggests that it occurs at different levels (e.g., across a year, across a unit, across a day), that it is mostly informal (i.e., formal written plans play less of a role than does informal thinking about what to do), and that planning requires a broad knowledge base (i.e., of the various categories discussed above). Research that focused on the decisions made during interactive teaching itself found that teachers made few decisions as they taught and that those decisions dealt primarily with keeping planned activities on track. Other research suggests, however, that the well-established routines that teachers and students have developed do much to determine the nature of instruction and minimize conscious on-the-spot decision-making.


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