Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching

Author: Lee S. Shulman

Year: 1986

Paper Description

The provided extract discusses the distinction between content knowledge and pedagogical methods in teaching. It starts by referencing George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches,” and how it has impacted the perception of teaching. The paper delves into the historical context of teaching, exploring medieval universities where content and pedagogy were closely intertwined. It contrasts this historical approach with the modern tendency to emphasize teaching methods over content knowledge.

The author argues that modern research on teaching often focuses heavily on classroom management, organization, and process-related aspects, while neglecting the importance of subject matter expertise. The “missing paradigm” refers to the lack of attention to the role of content knowledge in teaching. The paper highlights the need to bridge the gap between subject expertise and pedagogical skills.

The paper describes the research program “Knowledge Growth in Teaching” that aims to investigate how teachers transition from subject matter experts to effective instructors. The program studies secondary teachers in various subjects, examining their intellectual development and how they handle teaching topics they may not be familiar with. The extract concludes by mentioning other researchers who are also exploring these questions and the importance of understanding how knowledge grows in teaching.

Key Takeaway 1

The key takeaway from this extract is the importance of different categories of content knowledge for teachers and the need for a comprehensive understanding of subject matter, pedagogy, and curriculum. The author discusses three main categories of content knowledge that teachers should possess:

Subject Matter Content Knowledge: This refers to a teacher’s deep understanding of the subject matter they are teaching. It goes beyond basic facts and concepts and includes grasping the structures and nuances of the discipline. The teacher needs to comprehend how various concepts are interconnected and how the discipline’s theories and principles are organized. This category of knowledge is fundamental for teachers to explain the subject matter to students convincingly, justify claims, and understand controversies within the field.

Pedagogical Content Knowledge: This is the ability to transform subject matter knowledge into content that is accessible and comprehensible to students. It involves knowing how to present ideas, select appropriate examples, use analogies, and choose effective teaching strategies. Additionally, teachers should be aware of common misconceptions that students might have and understand strategies to address and correct those misconceptions. This knowledge enhances a teacher’s ability to facilitate effective learning experiences for students.

Curricular Knowledge: This involves understanding the curriculum, including the programs, instructional materials, and approaches designed for teaching specific subjects and topics. Teachers should be familiar with various teaching resources, alternative texts, software, laboratory demonstrations, and other materials that can support instruction. Moreover, they should understand how to connect their course’s content with what students are learning in other subjects or grade levels, creating a cohesive educational experience.

The author emphasizes that a well-prepared teacher should possess all three types of content knowledge. This holistic understanding goes beyond a mere mastery of subject matter and delves into the practical aspects of teaching, making education more effective and meaningful. The author suggests that teacher education programs should focus on cultivating these different dimensions of content knowledge, as they contribute to a teacher’s professionalism and effectiveness in the classroom. Furthermore, the author proposes that assessments of teacher competence should evaluate these diverse dimensions of content knowledge to better reflect a teacher’s readiness and abilities.

Key Takeaway 2

“Forms of Knowledge” is the author’s exploration of three distinct forms of teacher knowledge: propositional knowledge, case knowledge, and strategic knowledge. Each of these forms represents a different way of understanding and applying knowledge in the context of teaching.

Propositional Knowledge: This refers to knowledge that is presented as propositions or general principles derived from empirical research or philosophical inquiry. It includes research-based guidelines, principles, and maxims that provide teachers with a framework for effective teaching practices. Propositional knowledge is the foundation of evidence-based teaching and often guides teachers’ decisions and actions.

Case Knowledge: Case knowledge involves the use of specific, well-documented instances or examples of teaching events. These cases can serve as prototypes (exemplifying theoretical principles), precedents (illustrating principles of practice or maxims), or parables (conveying normative values). Case knowledge helps teachers understand the complexities of real-world teaching situations, providing them with a broader perspective beyond general principles.

Strategic Knowledge: Strategic knowledge comes into play when teachers are faced with specific situations or problems where principles collide or no simple solution exists. It involves the ability to navigate conflicting principles and cases, making informed decisions based on a deep understanding of context, principles, and cases. Strategic knowledge enables teachers to exercise professional judgment and adapt their practices to specific circumstances.

The author emphasizes that a comprehensive understanding of teaching involves all three forms of knowledge. While propositional knowledge provides a foundation, case knowledge adds depth and context, and strategic knowledge enables teachers to apply their understanding flexibly and thoughtfully. The author suggests that an effective teacher education program should integrate these forms of knowledge, using case studies and strategic analysis to develop teachers’ ability to reason and make decisions in complex teaching situations.

Standout Quote

“Knowledge guarantees only grounded unpredictability, the exercise of reasoned judgment rather than the display of correct behavior.”


education, teaching, teacher knowledge, pedagogy, curriculum, teacher training, case knowledge, strategic knowledge, principles of teaching, professional development, teacher education, classroom management, reflective practice, qualitative research, educational philosophy