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How Much “Content” Knowledge Do You Really Need To Be An Effective Teacher?


I was struck by the lead paragraph in a Chicago Tribune story yesterday (Board approves revamp of Ind. teacher licensing). It said:

The state panel overseeing teacher licensing has approved new rules Indiana’s state superintendent says will allow future educators to spend less time learning how to teach and more time focused on subject matter.

Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems to me that this kind of move is going in the opposite direction of where we need to go to help increase student achievement. I’m sure lots of people know a lot more information than me about the areas I teach. I just think the key to effective teaching is not the content information I have in my head, but the ability and skills to help students find the motivation within themselves to want learn about the subject matter. I don’t have to be an expert in that content subject in order to make that happen.

I don’t know much about science and math, but in the semester of teaching when I had a self-contained class of retained seventh-graders, I think I did a fairly effective job of helping engage and learn in those subjects — even though I was generally only a handful of pages ahead of them in the texts.

On the other hand, during my teacher credentialing program we had a person teaching us about ed tech who forgot more about technology than I’ll ever learn teaching us, and most of us were completely lost in that class.

As in most things, I’m not suggesting that it has to be an either/or position. There needs to be a balance. I’m concerned that what is happening in Indiana, and what might be happening in “alternative credentialing” programs, might have that balance out of whack.

The dictionary says the definition of power is “the ability to act.” Some say that information is power. I don’t agree. I think it’s what you do with that information is what determines if you have power — what actions you take. And, in the context of being an educator, it’s not the information I know that determines how much power I have — it’s my ability to share it, to help others want it, and to help them figure out how they can also get it on their own so they can be life-long learners.

What do you think?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. i agree – nice post.

    i think we are becoming more facilitators. kids need to learn to teach/assess themselves.

    via alec couros: work more on connections (to people and knowledge) than on content.

    via david warlick: open sourced as opposed to packaged content.

    thanks…. 🙂

    • I definitely agree with you and Monika. Our goal is not to be know-it-alls but to teach our students to be independent life long learners who are able to think critically, research, create change, be proactive and be problem solvers no matter the context where they are.
      Excellent post! 🙂

  2. Once again, the higher-ups have it all wrong. I completely agree that it’s much more important to know how to reach the students, how to engage them, how to manage a class full of them, how to inspire and motivate them…you have to be able to teach them. If you can’t do that, it’s not going to matter how much content knowledge you have in your head because the students won’t care to learn anything from you at all.

  3. The one question I never see asked in the pedagogy vs. content argument (a hardy perennial in ed debates) is just how much time in ed school is spent on “how to teach.” In my case, there was virtually none. So it’s a lose-lose. New teachers graduate with substandard content knowledge and a lack of practical skills.

    • Robert,

      In my credentialing program, we spent the vast majority of time on practical teaching skills. I wonder what percentage of teachers have had your experience, and what percentage shared mine? Are you aware of any studies on that issue?


      • I’d be interested in studies that look at the amount of time pre-servicers spend in the Classroom vs. in the classroom. Besides my student teaching semester whirlwind, I feel I spent too much time as a student of a professor as opposed to in a classroom being a student of a teacher.

        I think pre-service teachers should have two full-time years of student teaching. I’d settle for one, but let’s get real about the semester most get at this point. Worst case scenario: the pre-servicer gets 2 weeks to him/herself teaching the cooperating teacher’s lessons. Best case scenario: the pre-servicer gets thrown into the fire after a few days of observing and gets 6 weeks to hone his/her craft. Repeat.

  4. I agree that there needs to be a balance. Yes, pedagogical knowledge is extremely important. However, content knowledge is also extremely important because it allows teachers to know how best to facilitate and coach students in the right directions at the right times. It’s the teachers with the best pedagogical content knowledge that can teach most effectively. Thanks for your post!

  5. There has to be balance, but if we can’t engage the students, we are lost. We have to know how they learn and then what they need to learn.

  6. Pingback: content AND pedagogy | Harts on Fire

  7. Pedagogy — like reading comprehension, critical thinking and problem solving — is almost certainly a domain-specific thing. I’m a pretty good 5th grade math teacher. I connect well with kids. I connect well with high school kids too, but couldn’t teach trigonometry or calculus at gunpoint. We do ourselves a disservice when we privilege one or the other exclusively. We’ve all worked with teachers who had great command of their subject and poor command of their class. Or deeply empathetic teachers, who kids love and learn nothing from.

    Having come from journalism to teaching, I see a parallel between writing and teaching. What makes a writer worth reading is command of their subject and a compelling voice. Teaching is exactly the same.

    • It’s the balance you’re suggesting that I feel is important. I think writing is a great analogy for teaching. I tried to read a book a few weeks ago that I had been waiting to read for months. I bought my dad _The Echoing Green_ about a subject I love dearly, baseball. The problem was that the author had no voice (in my opinion, of course). The “content knowledge” was completely unbalanced.

      Great analogy, Robert.

  8. Basically I agree that authorities often over emphasise content, but I also find some teachers over emphasise method.
    To read a more thorough response:
    (I was going to be the first to comment here but then it became too long so I turned it into my own blog post.)

  9. I would argue that content knowledge is absolutely crucial. To throw out two examples, you can’t teach any individual historical event well without knowing the bigger historical picture into which it fits, and you can’t teach a mathematical concept well without understanding the concepts that will build upon that one in future classes. I think we’ve lost sight of the fact that you can’t facilitate deep learning of something you yourself don’t truly understand.

    • Mark,

      I agree that it’s important to have content knowledge. But I wonder how many hours of college classes are really necessary in order to have the understanding that you’re suggesting.


  10. Larry, I agree there needs to be a balance.

    Depth of content knowledge is extremely important when it comes to assessing if students are on the threshold of newer concepts while they engage in their own inquiry.

    I was a fellow in a program where we were given the entire summer to research an area of interest and create a comprehensive unit of study around it for the grade levels we taught (middle school).

    It made a profound difference in the quality of my teaching and yet, how many of us take that time (or HAVE that time) to do comprehensive research around things like justice, democracy, or the impact of new media? These are the big ideas of life, the kind that transfer across all disciplines and you can only get there yourself if you truly do the diving, per se.

    Having done that program three summers in a row, I was much more capable of identifying when my students were coming to those bigger understandings all on their own. They’d start asking all the right questions (the kind without clear answers) and my depth of knowledge helped me to facilitate their quest for their own answers.

    This is a great topic. It definitely gives me something I can try to capture on video in the near future so I can show some concrete examples of how depth of knowledge impacts the quality of instruction (or facilitation of learning).

  11. Although I too agree that there must be balance, content is important, or maybe it’s content and experience. The very best teachers I have had could speak without notes, without graphics flashing behind them, without any techy stuff at all. They spoke and taught from the depths of their experience. They could give you 20 examples off the top of their head for anything you asked. They could lead and inspire. Does this come from content knowledge or from the knowledge of how to reach students? I would argue that the base of the content knowledge must be there first, but the passion to learn and share and the ability to do so is a piece of every good teacher and can be the spark to ignite the flame. I don’t think that passion for learning/teaching is something that can be taught to preservice teachers or veteran teachers. It must be modeled and nutured.

  12. I don’t think anyone can dispute that depth of knowledge is essential to teaching, but it is nearly impossible to possess this depth across all domains of a subject. Our knowledge of the world is increasing and changing at an incredible rate. It would seem to be intuitive that one cannot possibly maintain depth in each domain as this happens. Thus, I support Larry’s view: learning to be a teacher requires understanding of the key areas that are essential to one’s field, but not deeper content knowledge on all domains of the field. Teachers do need to learn how to help students comprehend what they read, use inquiry to seek and evaluate the value of what they discover, and solve problems by reasoning from their newly discovered and evaluated knowledge. Libraries exist to provide assistance in exploring a breadth of content and much of this knowledge can be organized and presented in ways that engage and motivate young people.

    While not central to the interests of most of Larry’s followers, I can use as an example a new type of game that our non-profit is now releasing for evaluation in middle school. The game provides mystery cases from which students take notes (clicking transfers summary notes into a notebook), read books in a provided library rich in relevant content and again take notes, and then link the two types of notes: deciding which linkages support and which refute the library “facts” as supporting their hypothesis. A teacher can use such a tool to cover areas of a subject in which he or she is weak but enrich the experience for students by expertise in related areas of depth. I know that this approach engages and motivates.

    If anyone is interested in the approach, see The game is about science underlying drugs of abuse but portions can be used as supplements to many subjects to teach evidence-based reasoning, the heart of critical thinking. Schools selected to participate in the evaluation will receive $50 for the first classroom, $25 for each additional classroom, and free access to the game for the following year.

  13. From the Fort Wayne Gazette:

    Under the revisions, elementary teachers of kindergarten through sixth grade must earn a bachelor’s degree with either an education major and a content-area minor or a major in the content area with an education minor. For example, someone looking to teach math could major in the subject and minor in education.

    Also, secondary teachers can hold a bachelor’s degree with any applicable content major along with a minor in education. So an art teacher can major in art and minor in education.

    This seems entirely reasonable. What were you doing before? Just for comparison, in NY a secondary teacher must have the equivalent of a bachelors degree in the subject they want to teach. For example, my bachelors was in electrical engineering, and I had to take 12 undergrad math credits for teacher credentialing.

  14. Cool project Rees… I’m going to check that out.

    Great conversation going on here. Balance is certainly key.

    I love how Erica McWilliams writes about this. She says that what teachers needs most now is to be usefully ignorant….knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.

    We obviously can’t go in ignorant about our subject… the change is that we can’t expect to be the know all. Not only is that not possible… with today’s info explosion.. it’s not modeling what kids need to see most….
    Knowing what to do when we don’t know what to do… usefully ignorant.

    her article:

    Thanks guys.

  15. It’s incorrect to suggest that knowledge changes so quickly that it’s a vain effort to keep on top of it. It’s a common canard that educators use to justify teaching skills instead of content. Think of a dictionary. New words enter the language all the time, but a 50-year old dictionary is serviceable for 99% of everyday uses.

    The water cycle does not change. Neither does photosynthesis, the laws of motion, or the effect of gravity. Knowledge of history, geography, art and music and the ideas embedded within them, are timeless.

    Indeed, skills change much more rapidly than knowledge. Over the last thousand years, we have shared what we know via parchment and scrolls, illuminated manuscripts, printed books, telegraph, television, videoconferencing, email, the Web, Facebook and Skype. Our ability to devise new and ever more inventive ways to share knowledge–and the practical need to use these new tools–changes daily. Our desire to do so, and the foundational knowledge upon which we create greater understanding, changes imperceptibly or not at all.

  16. Larry,
    Love the conversations you foster.
    I have to say, I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I know people who are amazingly knowledgeable but completely lose their class. I also had a sub who my kids responded really well to and come to find out she didn’t know the difference between perimeter and area! It took me 3 weeks to undo the damage she did because the kids found her so fun and engaging they couldn’t believe she was wrong!

    I think the bigger question is how pedagogy is actually being taught to pre-service teachers? I’ve had friends come out of “rigorous” programs where all they were taught were scenarios on a discussion board or discussed “what would you do?” with other inexperience pre-service teachers. No practical experience except for student teaching. I was very lucky in my own pre-service experience in that every single education class I took (whether it be content or pedagogy) I was required to be in a classroom, even for just one day a week. By the time, I had student teaching, I had already taught (not observed, but taught) in 7 classrooms across 6 grade levels. In my first few years of teaching, I had a wealth of experiences to pull from.
    Yes, pedagogy is great, but unless they’ve had some hands-on experience to try out the theory, then new teachers will continue to struggle.

  17. I couldn’t agree less. In my teacher credential program there was only a single math class, and not one on phonics instruction. Which is really sad considering whole language and discovery based math programs are far less effective. John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” provides overwhelming evidence to support direct instruction. Students will learn when using inquiry based programs. But achievement is considerably higher when students are explicitly taught by trained and knowledgeable instructors.

  18. This is a good discussion you have sparked.

    I think that trying to find one answer for all teachers is like trying to come up with the magic pill that will reach all students. Some people are just natural teachers. They can reach students, they reflect on what works and what doesn’t and make adjustments. Spending more time with an instructor, who probably hasn’t been in a class room in years, studying pedagogy may not be as useful as a passionate pursuit of the subject that they love and want to share with their students.

    Of course, this can be reversed as well. A person that is a natural at a subject and wants to teach so they can share that passion may need further guidance in the art of instruction.

    Obviously we can all use further development in both areas. Even the very best teachers strive to get better (hence the status of outstanding teacher.)

    So as far as I’m concerned there’s no easy answer here. The best teachers will be those who can reach their students AND be valuable resources to students who can see the teacher’s passion and commitment to the knowledge base of their particular subject.

    Perhaps in seeking the balance, the individual teacher needs to be aware of what their weakness is and pursue the graduate education that best sharpens them into the tools they need to be.

  19. To me, the more content knowledge one possesses the more capable on is to be able to adapt it to the classroom situation.

    I know this may not be popular, but when one knows the content really well one can lecture, create realistic hands-on activities, develop online activities, and design other things better than those who do not know the content well. Those who have only pedagogical technique may do the “differentiation” of things well, but the students may not get the purpose (if the teacher doesn’t know the content). More importantly for me, the better I know my content, the easier it is for me to change my approach on the fly. If I sense students are not understanding the content, it is easier for me to change my methods.

    In short, there must be a healthy dose of both for the students to be learning content and zoned in on the process (engaged).

  20. I love this post. I share a lot of your same thoughts. We live in an age now where it is so easy to be self-thought through things like itunes u, and other college databases. So, it is the teacher’s job now to direct the student’s in the right direction. The education system is being revolutionized, and Indiana needs to get with the program.

  21. I couldn’t disagree more. The worst teachers I have met have always been the ones that lacked content knowledge. They were not confident in their teaching and the students saw that. Those teachers are also a pain to deal with if you are a student that actually wants to learn.

    Shouldn’t teachers have a strong subject matter in place before teaching anyone?

  22. My first year of teaching I was assigned to teach my weakest subject- math to 6th graders—-I was horrified because I barely passed math in college with C- and that was because I begged the profs not to give me a failing grade as I would lose my scholarship—the only way this child of minority 2nd generation immigrants would get a chance to be the first in the family to go to college. On the first day of class I apologized to the kids and told them I was not good at math, struggling with it all through school, not sure why they chose me to teach math. They breathed a collective sight of relief and said, “Finally, a teacher that will understand us…we are the low math group.”

    We all learned together that year- I went at a slow pace and the kids got the concepts of math, as did I. A few years later one of those students came back and said because of my teaching that class the way I did, that he actually learned to understand math and was now in calculus in high school.

  23. Larry,
    I’m currently going through certification in special education. Our program requires us to be highly qualified in teaching and strongly encourages us to be highly qualified in math. I believe the Indiana decision is a misguided attempt to pump more facts into students to ensure higher scores on standardized tests. I’ve had some brilliant teachers during my life, but the ones I learned the most from had even more excitement than content knowledge.

  24. Of course, we see all the politics in this one. That is why it is sad.

  25. I think like you that should not be one or the other. However, a teacher that does not know the content of the subject he/she is teaching, is not going to be able to engage students in effective discussions related to the content they are learning, if his/her knowledge is limited. In addition, now days, to be an effective teacher, he/she should also know about other disciplines, in order to link what is teaching to those different disciplines. On the other hand, a teacher with a vast content knowledge that does not know how to teach it, and cannot motivate students to discover for themselves, and think analytically about the content; that knowledge is useless.

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