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Subject Matter Knowledge Versus Pedagogy?


I’ve posted previously about my concerns that that some trends toward teacher preparation have been placing too much emphasize on content knowledge over teaching skills (see How Much “Content” Knowledge Do You Really Need To Be An Effective Teacher? and Very Interesting NY Times Magazine Article On Teaching).

This morning, Walt Gardner wrote a post in Education Week on the the same topic — Preparing Doctors and Teachers.

Here’s how it begins:

The preparation of doctors and teachers is moving in opposite directions, even though both professions have the same goal of serving their patients and students according to the highest standards.

This paradox is evident in the new Medical College Admission Test, which places less emphasis on basic science and more emphasis on humanistic skills (“Pre-Med’s New Priorities: Heart and Soul and Social Science,” The New York Times, Apr. 13), and in the new teacher licensing exams, which downplay pedagogy and stress subject matter.

What do you think? Obviously, content knowledge is important, but do some reformers minimize the importance of teaching skills?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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


  1. It comes back to the debate between teaching as an art or a science. People want it to be a science because then it is easier to evaluate; it’s nothing but data. But the act of teaching, leading a class of students to learn the content, is, was, and always will be an art form; unable to be data-mined. Teaching can be a gift (some people do seem more natural at it than others), but it can also be an acquired skill (pedagogical training). To reduce teaching to a science is foolhardy.

    It is obvious, and common sense, that one must know the content they teach. That should not even enter a debate (unfortunately, due to teacher shortages it does, as teachers present content that is out of their field of expertise). However, just because one knows their content does not in any stretch of the imagination equal good teaching. How many of us have sat through college lectures and learned nothing from the highly educated and content-rich professor?

  2. I graduated this past May with my B.S.Ed. in middle grades education. My education did place much emphasis on content knowledge, and I felt that my three or four methods classes were not useful. Things I would have found useful: less emphasis on lesson plan format and more emphasis on determining student needs; how and where to find resources and ideas that engage students and build background knowledge; more practical instruction on how to evaluate and organize the materials and resources accumulated; practical application of pedagogical concepts; more practice with developing valid assessments; methods for communicating well with parents and colleagues; and finally, more time in the classroom with actual students and truly qualified cooperating teachers.

    I left college with a broad base of content knowledge and learning theories, but little confidence in how to use that knowledge to ensure the success of my future students. I realize that effective teachers are not college-bred, but more practical experiences in the classroom with assignments that required me to put pedagogy into action would have made a huge difference.

  3. Larry, thanks for posting this interesting question.

    I’d like to suggest though, that the binary positions suggested by your questions is a false dichotomy.

    I have taught at high schools where there was a requirement that everyone obtain a California Teaching Credential (more than a full-time year of coursework in pedagogy), in schools that paid for teachers to get Masters degrees in education, and in schools where training in pedagogy is not valued and where nearly every teacher has an advanced degree in their field. From my 20 years experience, I think both are important, not one or the other. Both kinds of knowledge and ability are essential. Bear with me…

    Using a modern pedagogical approach like Project-Based Learning (I know it’s a zillion years old, and just recently more popular, but you get my reason for suggesting it), I need to understand the principles of pedagogy, have good teaching skills, as you call them, be well-read on recent conclusions about how adolescents learn, understand education technology, etc. But I also need to really, and I mean REALLY know my content. And not just a passing knowledge of the French Revolution, but enough to really coach students in the content and how to continue research. I need to have a very strong grasp of and constantly model disciplinary thinking. This is the kind of ability in the field that usually comes from having a Masters degree, but not always (repeat, not always).

    So I propose the radical perspective that what we need are teachers who have been very well educated in a discipline (or more than one discipline) who have also achieved a deep understanding of teaching and learning through training and practice. This would be my definition of a “highly qualified” teacher.



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