Content ?Versus? Pedagogy

Posted on April 25, 2010. Filed under: classroom related, Pedagogical Content Knowledge, thinking aloud | Tags: , , |

I am struggling with  a teacher’s need to know the content.  Does it get in the way of good teaching?  Does it help make teaching better?  Seems an obvious” yes,” content knowledge is important.  On the other hand, when we begin to deal with issues of inquiry and constructivism, should teacher content knowledge matter?  I was having a recent twit-talk with a couple of ed regulars: tomwhitby and jerridkruse, and they (or one of them) had proposed that teachers should be experts in learning, not content.  They should learn beside the kids.  Here a few thought-provoking tweets from them:

tomwhitby Wouldn’t it be reasoned if we thoroughly understand learning and teaching methods,we could aquire content as needed?

jerridkruse sometimes when I’m unsure of content my teaching more authentically models real learning cause kids & i in it together

And I was going to answer the following: Pedagogy, content, and learning are tied together, as each progresses, so go the others.

Then I deleted my comment and decided to examine whether I really mean that. Here is where my thoughts took me:

Pedagogical Content Knowledge or Content Pedagogical Knowledge (depending on how you want to prioritize) is a solid concept being examined by leading researchers.*1 and *2 My own dissertation process was tied to this idea of content and pedagogy being linked into a new type of teacher knowledge, PCK.  It is a type of knowledge that develops as a teacher develops.  It allows a good math teacher to recognize misconceptions as students fall into them; it allows a social studies teacher to know the perfect graphic organizer that will lead students to a deeper understanding of a particular historical perspective;  it helps a science teacher to hone student questions to a place where they have the materials and tools to pursue true answers. PCK says content knowledge does matter for pedagogy to be at its best, and PCK says that pedagogy does matter for content to be at its best.

I have seen this PCK in action when I see a teacher versed in history, extremely well read, but not versed in pedagogy–the result being a lecture that seldom engages the students.  Or the teacher versed in pedagogy who loves to do cooperative grouping, organizes her students beautifully, brings out the math manipulatives, but has no idea how to engage the students in productive math talk because her content knowledge is weak and she does not know where to begin or the right questions that might provoke student inquiry.

Ironically, concurrent with the twit-talk, one of my listservs on math was having a similar discussion about whether the text or the teacher should be in control of the math content provoking Michael Goldenberg to write a blog here and say:

“And that’s why ultimately it must be the combination of the PCK of the author [textbook author] tempered by that of the teacher that rules.”

And so I am back, in a way, to my original idea that “Yes, content knowledge matters.”  But I still get what jerridkruse and tomwhitby are saying about how learning about learning is the key to inquiry. Where teachers fail in inquiry is often at the point where we choose not to re-learn what we think we know–right beside the students.  I also believe we cannot use inquiry to have students entirely relearn all knowledge that exists in each discipline.  I know students do not need to know everything in a given discipline, but must not a core be solidified for students to make discoveries that move ahead of the discoveries that have already been made?  It is a delicate balance, the inquiry versus knowledge-giving role of educators.  It is why I think good teaching is much, much harder than most people (many teachers included) believe.

🙂 Bonita DeAmicis

** thinking here of Deborah Ball http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dball/ and Shulman http://www.intime.uni.edu/model/teacher/teac2summary.html

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11 Responses to “Content ?Versus? Pedagogy”

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I feel like you’ve nailed it with the power of the word ‘and.’ The PCK concept seems focused on the importance of ‘and’ vs ‘or.’

In a related topic, a question I’ve been asking myself when I have a conversational disconnect related to the role of teacher: “Does this person see the teacher’s role as primarily a deliverer of knowledge or a facilitator of learning?” The answer to that question usually tells me all I need to know in regard to why we may not be ‘speaking the same language’ in regard to teaching and learning.

Yes. PCK is about Pedagogy AND Content. It is also about something new when the two so closely intertwine that you cannot separate one from the other. Reflective teaching is the way to develop PCK.

I’m not sure if having the conversation around “content” and “knowledge” is the most useful way to do it. My problem is that until we are all working from a precise definition of both content and knowledge it’s very hard to get from here to a path of constant sustainable improvement.

What we know for pretty sure is that it would be good for kids to learn empathy and be able to think logically.

I think it’s important that they also integrate the cultural knowledge that will allow them to be good productive citizens. That means to me being able to read a newspaper critically, evaluate evidence, make an independent judgment of what make sense.

The way I see it teaching is a highly skilled craft. There are techniques that can be learned, practiced and improved. My bet is that a true crafts person who has clear goals might be the most useful way to clarify the issues of “content” and “knowledge.”

I agree with addressing ed-programs that focus on developing good, productive citizens. Character development, citizenship, evaluation of evidence are mega-skills we would hope to develop across disciplines and that might not (though I might need to think more on this) pertain to areas of content and knowledge so much as practices to engage in with our learners.

In that context, I can see why content/knowledge seems an inappropriate focus. But what about disciplines like math, science, history, geography? These subjects have both content and meta-cognitive skill development. A teacher versed in the content of each discipline who is reflective/working hard on pedagogy will develop a deep understanding of teaching practices, child development, and how both combine best with the given content. The pedagogy and content become so intertwined they cannot be separated (and thus the term PCK).

Although maybe I am missing the point and you are suggesting we need to rethink school content curriculum entirely? Throw out the traditional disciplines?

I wonder if going forward it makes sense to organize time around geography, history, math?

Maybe a more sustainable approach is to combine all these domains in a focus on solving problems.

For example, what if a program of study had a well defined body of knowledge that had to be understood at different levels of complexity depending on the students development.

I’m more focused on middle school so my thought is what if the flow of education revolved around public issues. A critical reading of any public issue will necessarily bring in all the disciplines. In the old days it might be have be called “social studies.”

Going forward our citizens must be literate in words,math, art and music. They must be able to think critically, evaluate evidence and communicate their conclusions both to themselves and to others.

So what happens if we frame education as preparation for citizenship?

I apologize for two in a row, but wanted to get this on the table:

The fact is that no one citizen can be expected to be an expert in all domains of knowledge. But one can reasonably expect that all citizens understand the law and how power works in their society.

It highlights I think the primary value of the teaching craft as a place that nurtures the frame of mind that can access the expertise needed, when needed and apply it logically.

It also creates the situation where a “teacher” is by necessity a learner that can model precisely the behavior that is to be engendered in the students.

Yes. I can get into that (school as prep for citizenship) although it flies in the face of popular opinion which seems to read school as a place for employment preparation. I think what you propose is an especially promising approach at the middle school level.

Math and Science may need a more discipline based approach, however, especially at the elementary, junior high level. Even though problems could be proposed that allow the use of math and science, many times the ability to carry out math or science work requires a development of content as well as skill knowledge that is not yet there in earlier edu years and would be difficult to develop to a full extent through community problem-solving alone.

I have been imagining an evolving curriculum that allows students to move from a discipline-based curriculum into a problem-based approach as they become developmentally and cognitively ready.

I think we are on the same page. I bet that given the huge number of experiments that are now rippling through the States because of the stress of no more easy money + the education policy coming from Washington there are already signs of this evolution out there.

They haven’t gotten on my radar just yet, but the most likely places, I think, are in the art and journalism schools.

I agree that math, most especially as symbolic logic and statistics are well defined separate cases. To me they are akin to learning a foreign language and are powerful tools to uncover previously invisible relationships.

This post started a train of thought that I wanted to share.

The idea is that teaching algebra and statistics and the precise use of words is central to what public education is about. The argument is that the goal is to create a pool of good citizens which means thinkers. Thinking can be framed as the ability to manipulate symbols in precise ways to capture and make critical judgments about reality and most especially to make plausible guesses about the future.

The opportunity is that there is much data to suggest that on line teaching programs for well defined skill acqusition works very well.

So, re curriculum. The suggestion is use online methods to teach math and vocabulary (a surrogate for Rhetoric) and use Face time for project Based learning, and making Art and Music.

If one took this approach it would mean real time feedback on skill, without any time needed from the teacher. And enough time to do what cannot be done on line.

The School of One in NYC, seems to be moving in this direction. It was recently announced that after a beta period it will be scaled to more schools in September.

Interesting. I will have to look up the school of one and read more. I do believe technology can replace the teacher in the area of “practice of skills” but the research (at least 5 years ago) suggested that the teacher’s understanding of the tech and how to implement it was a critical component for elementary instruction. Otherwise students misunderstood the context and application of the skill so often, the practice was not effective. It was particularly detrimental, in the research that I read, to the students who were low performing (high performers did okay). The low performers had more problems learning and practicing skills on computers. In schools where the teachers used such software in carefully orchestrated and precise ways, there was much greater success with all students. I have noticed that our schools have been dropping many software programs that were designed to take students through rote learning–those programs were not working here. Perhaps better programming is out there now, and the problems can be breached sans teacher, I am not sure. I do believe technology has the capacity to bridge some of that “school” work and leave teachers in the position of working on the deeper stuff with students. But will our teachers be able to do that? We have been training the “deep-thought” out of our teachers with our migration toward textbook driven instruction, followed by multiple choice tests.

Points well taken. From what I’ve seen the trick is to get the software good enuff to get the teachers out of the loop. Students interact directly with online. Teachers walk around help with a particular issue and move on.

But the really salient issue is “But will our teachers be able to do that?” My sense is that many teachers will have to find new careers. The question is only will they be separated out in a brutal top down way, or in a more helpful bottom up way.

I think it’s fair to say that almost every teacher in every building knows who the really good teachers are. Probably the most humane way to get from here to there is for the Unions or teacher associations to identify the low performing teachers and support them in shifting to new careers. Given that usually the worst teachers are desperate to find new paths and given that learning has to happen in many Non formal education contexts, it shouldn’t create all that much disruption.


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