June 2012

Lee Shulman and the Importance of Content Knowledge

It is hard to find a person who has made a more significant contribution to education than Prof. Emeritus from Stanford – Dr. Lee S. Shulman. I have never had a chance to meet Prof. Shulman in person, yet his name popped up so often in discussions on teaching, that I felt as if I did. In 1986, prof. Shulman introduced an idea of the Pedagogical Content Knowledge that has been used extensively ever since (maybe he introduced it even earlier?). I do not know how often this term has been used since then, but what I do know now (after reading his 1986 paper more carefully), that many of his ideas have been misinterpreted and misused. Recently I have become very concerned  with and troubled by the erosion of our focus on the knowledge of content by teachers (both pre-service and in-service). Attending educational conferences and looking closely how we educate teachers, I get an impression that pedagogy in the eyes of many educators today “trumps” the deep understanding of content we are supposed to teach. Often these people cite Lee Shulman, mentioning that the Pedagogical Content Knowledge means that knowledge of pedagogy (how to teach) and the teachers will do the transfer of this knowledge to the content area they are going to be teaching without a problem. My experience tells me that this transfer DOES NOT happen automatically. Moreover, it makes so much more sense to learn pedagogy in the context of learning the subject matter. I think my concern with the erosion of subject matter focus was also a concern for Lee Shulman. I realize that almost 30 years passed since he wrote this paper and maybe he has changed his views on the problem, yet in my eyes, current policies by the school boards and the ministries of education show that the problem has not been resolved. I think Lee Shulman’s paper is as relevant today (unfortunately), as it was almost 30 years ago. We have to reconsider what we mean by “teaching competence”, what we mean by teacher education, what we mean by a subject matter specialist. This might take us even further into considering if this is reasonable to have elementary teachers be “specialists” in all subjects up to grade 7… We have to think and rethink what is the purpose of our education and how we should educate teachers in order to fulfill this purpose. As I am rereading books now on the field, I realize that the process of rethinking of education is a continuous process. I also realize that every generation has to answer it again and again… This last year showed that there are many unresolved problem in public education in BC and we have to figure them out. This means we have to rethink who goes into teaching, how teaching certification is administered, how teachers get hired and how they are compensated… Meanwhile, I am preparing my summer course on the use of educational technologies in mathematics and science teaching and I will ask each one of my students to read Lee S. Shulman’s 1986 paper. I am sure it will make them think about their teaching differently and it will be a great background for my course, as technology without teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge is just another gadget in the classroom…

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.

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