Virtuosity versus Variety

In reading Schulman (and reviewing Mishra) I was caught by the complete untenability of our current system for assigning teachers. To simply meet the goals of PCK, we require teachers to have significant subject matter competence, pedagogical skills, combine these into specific tools and approaches for each concept within curriculum, and then adapt it all to a body of students that changes by the year or even by the term.

Consider from here that a teacher may be placed in a science 4 classroom one year and a science 8 classroom the next. Not only have the students changed, but the subject matter may be vastly different. Even this is nowhere near the common situation in primary grades where a teacher with Math training may be responsible for 4 or more subjects.

Successful education at the PCK level seems to require a certain degree of thoughtful assignment and consistency of teacher placement that does not seem to exist in reality. While flexibility in placement may be of benefit to a teacher’s career, it is not in the best interest of students. I like to consider myself a pretty well versed generalist but I am a music teacher by training. I could probably teach most of my hardest concepts with little more than a stick (conducting baton) while the easiest concepts in my course might leave non-music teachers jibbering with terror. Conversely, I am assigned 1 grade 6 science class. I like science. I get science. I am not a trained science specialist. I’ve lost track of the number of hours spent consulting my google oracle for things that a true science teacher could explain after 3 days of sleep deprivation. Things that I thought I understood I clearly did not to the extent necessary to teach with the fluency I have in my area of specialty.

When we add the desire to teach with the most appropriate technologies to a discipline or topic, the whole thing becomes ridiculous given the current system. It seems that educational institutions will have some hard decisions to make regarding how to balance administrative conveniences and necessities against the educational benefits of specialist teachers able to instruct using all facet of the TPACK and PCK models


One example of PCK teaching in my own practice is a technique borrowed from an former English teacher of mine. The goal is to get students to write specific and clear instructions, something very useful in the procedure section of lab reports. We use the analogy to a recipe and have the students write out the steps to make an ice cream sunday. The English teacher actually made them but I just acted out the instructions. The job of the teacher is to take the instructions absolutely literally and look for any possible way to misunderstand them. “Put the sprinkles on”, guess I’m wearing sprinkles in my hair. “Peel the banana and add the ice cream”, little Johnny gets a banana peel ice cream sandwich. The whole thing is acted out in the most dramatic way possible. The humour of the lesson really helps to embed just how specific you have to need to be to make sure your directions are perfectly clear.


  1. Hi Daniel,

    I enjoyed reading your response and agree with your points on PCK in our current education system. When I began teaching, I had a degree in secondary English and was hired to do Learner Support (which meant supporting grades 8-12 students in whatever courses they needed support with)/IEP coordination and to teach Essentials Math 10/11 (which used to be the adapted math program in B.C.). From there, I continued with learner support with some math courses (adapted Math 9 the next year, etc.) and then finally some English courses after about five years at the school. After eight years in secondary, I was hired to elementary four years ago and have taught grades 4/5 for the past four years. For next year, my admin has asked my thoughts on teaching grade 6/7. I love teaching in elementary and I plan to stay in elementary indefinitely at this point; however, it has been a huge learning curve in all content areas (including transitions and class management)! There have only been two years in my now 14 years of teaching that I have actually taught (in a full-time position) what I was trained for. I find your comments around specialist teachers especially interesting as programs are cut and specialist teachers are often replaced by administration or classroom teachers. when I was young, we had separate teachers for PE, music, and library. Today, we do have a music teacher, but we teach our own PE and our librarian is our vice principal (I happen to teach in the same school I attended as a child). Our vice principal is wonderful and does a great job with the kids, but the job is no longer a specialist position, and it was many years ago that we lost our PE specialists. I wonder how the loss of specialist teachers has affected student engagement and achievement? Perhaps not a significant amount, but I do believe that there are areas that really benefit from having a specialist teacher – music and PE being prime examples. The more we can get students truly interested in subjects like music and exercise at an early age, the more chance they have of continuing with those talents/hobbies/habits as they grow and into adulthood (both excellent anxiety/stress-reducers in an anxiety/stress-filled world). I can hold my own in PE (especially with the help of my sister who is a secondary PE teacher) and I have decent lessons, but a specialist PE teacher would have GREAT lessons that could make all the difference for a few kids per class each year.

    As far as your teaching example goes – I thought it was terrific! Your students must love this assignment. I would imagine that the added humour ensures that it is a lesson that they remember! What an engaging way to teach the importance of specific, clear instructions in a lab report!

    1. I think you have put your finger on one of the major, underdiscussed, aspects of specialist teachers. They love their content area! Why else would they spend all that time specializing in something? To steal another music quote “Virtuosity impresses, Passion inspires”. Its hard for me to convey passion for teaching and learning in grade to health… Grade 8 band, you just can’t get em to stop gushing about it 🙂

  2. Hi Daniel,
    I really enjoyed your post on the realities of teaching. While PCK requires both content and pedagogical knowledge, the realities of teacher placement and policies at the district level don’t always allow for both those requirements to be fulfilled. Personally, I have been teaching various subjects at the secondary level outside my area of specific ‘expertise’. Unfortunately, to maintain my position at the school these are the subjects that I teach. By no means would I say that I am an expert in these other subject areas but through collaboration with my colleagues and review of the material prior to teaching the material, I feel I can do an adequate job.

    I am thus curious from your comments and the readings what sort of balance needs to exist between content and pedagogical knowledge. The readings suggest that content knowledge has historically been more valued and while ideal, this will not always be the case in a typical classroom and with the realities of teaching. As such, given a base level of content knowledge, I wonder if pedagogical knowledge is enough to counter some knowledge that may otherwise be lacking.

    Thanks for the post,

    1. Hi Darren,

      I certainly am not trying to imply that non-specialist are not compotent, only that specialist may come with more developed PCK. This is certainly something that can be learned from mentor teachers and experience but often specialist have some training that non-specialists can’t go back and get. I think of PE teachers who have competed and trained at the national level or music specialists who have had private instruction and performance opportunities since pre-school. With in core disciplines, science specialists have lab experience with tools and techniques I will never get my hands on.

      In terms of balance, both content, pedagogy, and PCK need to be given weight. PCK is certainly a move towards specialization and TPACK even more so. I guess it depends on your goals. If you are looking for the best possible instructor for a subject you need significant levels of all three. If you want a certain standard to be met then that will will determine the levels of each. If you want optimal flexibility, pedagogy needs to be emphasized combined with adequate content knowledge and limited PCK. It all depends on what the priorities of a given system are (Specialized programs, general basic level, best possible for everyone, streamed leanring, etc.)

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