What Matters Most in the Professional Learning of Content Teachers in Classrooms with Diverse Student Populations
Adela Solís, Ph.D.
The professional learning of teachers is an ongoing process of knowledge building and skill development in effective teaching practice (NPEAT, 2003). In the context of a diverse society, it is the process through which teachers in high minority schools master both content and diverse student pedagogy.
In its pursuit of equity in education, the Intercultural Development Research Association continually provides many professional learning opportunities to teachers of diverse student populations. These represent an important part of IDRA efforts to increase teaching quality and equity inside today’s classrooms. IDRA president Dr. María "Cuca" Robledo Montecel describes this major reform in a framework for quality education, the Quality Schools Action Framework (2005).
Through several of IDRA’s professional development models, like Math Smart!, Science Smart! and Coaching and Mentoring of Novice Teachers, coaching and mentoring are provided to beginning teachers and to other teachers who strive to provide rigorous and relevant content instruction to English language learners and other culturally diverse students. Teachers of mathematics, science and language are particularly looking for support as these are content areas where many students perform poorly on academic tests often due to content teachers’ lack of rigorous and accurate preparation. Dr. Abelardo Villarreal cites teaching quality as a major principle for an evidence-based secondary education plan for English language learners (2009).
Professional development and teacher preparation research also support the importance of teaching quality and further identify content specific pedagogy as a key ingredient in teaching quality. This is the first of two related articles. It provides insight from research pertinent to professional learning, theory of diverse pedagogy, content learning, and how these can be integrated into a professional development program for teachers in a multicultural, equity-conscious society.
Focus on Teacher Professional Learning in Content Areas
Many government-initiated school reform programs in the United States focus substantially on the professional learning of teachers (see Hassel, 1999; NPEAT, 2003). Content area teaching experts similarly seek the best knowledge on how to prepare teachers of adolescents to meet the demands unique to their specialization (Borko, 2004; Shanahan and Shanahan, 2008). The paucity of research on content teaching in a diverse classroom as a pressing issue in teacher education has received special focus in the United States as well as in other countries, like the Netherlands, Britain and Australia.
Not surprisingly, this issue has emerged with even greater import as a result of low student achievement and the prevailing student achievement gaps in the critical subject areas of reading, writing, mathematics and science. The answers to the critical question of how to most effectively reach students clearly tell us this: teaching matters, as does the learning of teachers. Furthermore, fast demographic changes require that content teaching reflect diverse pedagogy-specific teaching and learning practices.
Importance of Professional Learning through an Equity Lens
If all content teachers are formally trained, why is professional learning still necessary? Both research and first-hand observations of teaching and learning dynamics have discovered that what a teacher knows and what he or she does and believes have a major influence on how students learn. Most importantly, we know that these are dynamic behaviors and dispositions that evolve over time and include the right types of content-specific skills often referred to as pedagogical content knowledge, or PCK (Gess-Newsome and Lederman, 2001).
What is Pedagogical Content Knowledge?
The concept of pedagogical content knowledge is not new. The term gained renewed emphasis with Lee Shulman (1986), a teacher education researcher who was interested in expanding and improving knowledge on teaching and teacher preparation that, in his view, ignored questions dealing with the content of the lessons taught. He argued that developing general pedagogical skills was insufficient for preparing content teachers as was education that stressed only content knowledge. In his view, the key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching rested at the intersection of content and pedagogy (Shulman, 1986).
Shulman defined pedagogical content knowledge as teachers’ interpretations and transformations of subject-matter knowledge in the context of facilitating student learning. He further proposed several key elements of pedagogical content knowledge: (1) knowledge of representations of subject matter (content knowledge); (2) understanding of students’ conceptions of the subject and the learning and teaching implications that were associated with the specific subject matter; and (3) general pedagogical knowledge (or teaching strategies). To complete what he called the knowledge base for teaching, he included other elements: (4) curriculum knowledge; (5) knowledge of educational contexts; and (6) knowledge of the purposes of education (Shulman, 1987). To this conception of pedagogical content knowledge, others have contributed valuable insights on the importance and relevance of the linguistic and cultural characteristics of a diverse student population.
While other education scholars since the 1990s have expanded and promoted the development of PCK among content teachers through both teacher preparation (pre-service) and professional development (inservice), "valid" research failed to address the issue of linguistically and culturally different students as a mediating variable that should be factored into any study of effective teaching practices. However, proponents of the PCK concept say that there is special value in their work in that it has served to re-focus educators’ attention on the important role of subject matter in educational practice and away from the more generic approach to teacher education that dominated the field since the 1970s (Gess-Newsome and Lederman, 2001). While the specific term, PCK, is just gaining momentum in U.S. literature, we see it addressed in published content standards by professional teaching associations as reviewed in In Time Project (2001) and in a number of content area textbooks, such as Schartz’s Elementary Mathematics Pedagogical Content Knowledge (2008).
Nevertheless, professional development is required in most states and certainly through national legislation, such as the No Child Left Behind Act and its various school-based programs. Certainly, dismal math and science test results have led to intensive scheduling of training for math and science teachers. In-depth planning about the specific type of knowledge and skills these teachers needed is not always evident. Below are a some key findings and implications of pedagogical content knowledge in the teaching literature that can contribute to awareness of the importance of PCK, as contributed by van Driel, Verloop and Vos (1998); Goldston (2004); Loughranm, Mulhall and Berry (2004), and others.
Highlights of Key Findings and Principles of Pedagogical Content Knowledge
Pedagogical content knowledge is a special combination of content and pedagogy that is uniquely constructed by teachers and thus is the "special" form of an educator’s professional knowing and understanding.
Pedagogical content knowledge also is known as craft knowledge. It comprises integrated knowledge representing teachers’ accumulated wisdom with respect to their teaching practice: pedagogy, students, subject matter, and the curriculum.
Pedagogical content knowledge must be addressed within the context of a diverse pedagogy.
How PCK is Developed
Pedagogical content knowledge is deeply rooted in a teacher’s everyday work. However, it is not opposite to theoretical knowledge. It encompasses both theory learned during teacher preparation as well as experiences gained from ongoing schooling activities.
The development of pedagogical content knowledge is influenced by factors related to the teacher’s personal background and by the context in which he or she works.
Pedagogical content knowledge is deeply rooted in the experiences and assets of students, their families and communities.
Impact of PCK
When teaching subject matter, teachers’ actions will be determined to a large extent by the depth of their pedagogical content knowledge, making this an essential component of their ongoing learning.
Pedagogical content knowledge research links knowledge on teaching with knowledge about learning, a powerful knowledge base on which to build teaching expertise.
Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Core Content Areas
As noted above, PCK illustrates how the subject matter of a particular discipline is transformed for communication with learners. It includes recognition of what makes specific topics difficult to learn, the conceptions students bring to the learning of these concepts, and teaching strategies tailored to this specific teaching situation. To teach all students according to today’s standards, teachers indeed need to understand subject matter deeply and flexibly so they can help students map their own ideas, relate one idea to another, and re-direct their thinking to create powerful learning. Teachers also need to see how ideas connect across fields and to everyday life. These are the building blocks of pedagogical content knowledge.
It is critical, however, that pedagogical content knowledge be subject-specific. What are some examples PCK in the core subject areas of language, science, mathematics and social studies? And how does this knowledge compare with other knowledge that teachers traditionally master? The box on the next page shows a comparative view of teaching standards that demonstrate differences in teaching expectations pertinent to content knowledge, knowledge of general pedagogy, and pedagogical content knowledge (NBPTS, 1998). Standards organized in this manner are a ready-made guide for practitioners to use in directing the specialized learning of their content teachers. Further, this distinction in knowledge bases can serve to assess the overall planning and delivery of content teacher professional development.
Professional Development that Supports Development of PCK
It is not uncommon for professional development leaders to work with schools that have concentrated all of their professional development efforts in only one area, such as subject matter knowledge or with schools that have designed professional development plans around only pedagogical concerns, such as effective instructional techniques. Yet, they have not netted the hoped-for results in student learning as evidenced in poor performance on achievement tests.
PCK theory questions the value of knowing everything about a subject if one does not understand how students learn it or the value of being the very best at instructional strategies if those strategies cannot deliver high quality subject matter knowledge. What is needed instead is to orchestrate teacher learning opportunities that are centered on the specific ways of knowing and doing within a given subject or, on pedagogical content knowledge.
Fortunately, current professional development principles do guide the process of teacher learning in ways that support PCK. We have best practices research that delineates the best overall approach, context, strategies, and content of professional development (NPEAT, 2003; von Frank, 2008). Below are eight of several professional development principles that foster actions (or practices) that, when well orchestrated, can result in the solid PCK in all content teachers.
Professional Development Practices Best to Avoid
By implication of the above premises, certain teacher training practices common in some schools would not be useful, and even counterproductive, to efforts to build teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. Below are three examples of such practices.
Workshops that review generic reading skills (the main idea is…), demonstrate only the "fun" aspect of games (great scavenger hunts), or lead teachers to recipe-style learning (following the textbook or instructional guide).
Training on differentiated instruction that addresses developmental level (age and grade) but without reference to specific disciplines.
Sessions focusing on content learning left to content experts whose focus and interest is mere subject matter.
At the heart of effective content teaching is the teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. If we are to improve the quality of teaching and learning in critical core content areas, we need to resist some old traditions in professional learning. Instead, we should acknowledge and expand the insights of experts who develop competence in subject matter teaching. We should additionally commit to high quality professional development targeted to develop this expertise. When we do this, we support the growth of the teacher as a person and a professional who can expertly lead a student to academic success. Concurrently, we will contribute to the realization of the goals and priorities of the classroom and the school system as a whole.
A follow-up article in a future issue of the IDRA Newsletter will address how generic knowledge about PCK juxtaposed with knowledge of diverse pedagogy is applied in a mentor training program that addresses the needs of teachers in classrooms with diverse student populations.
Borko, H. “Professional Development and Teacher Learning: Mapping the Terrain,” Educational Researcher (2004). Vol. 33, No. 8, 3-15.
Gess-Newsome, J., and N.G. Lederman. “Examining Pedagogical Content Knowledge: The Construct and its Implications for Science Education,” Contemporary Trends and Issues in Science Education (2001).
Goldston, M. “The Highly Qualified Teacher and Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” 2004 Focus Group Background Papers (
: The National Congress on Science Education, 2004).
Hassel, E. Professional Development: Learning from the Best: A Toolkit for Schools and Districts Based on the National Awards Program for Model Professional Development (Oakbrook, Ill.: North Central Regional Education Laboratory, 1999).
Hernández Sheets, R. Diversity Pedagogy – Examining the Role of Culture in the Teaching-Learning Process (
: Pearson Education, Inc., 2005).
InTime (Integrating New Teaching into the Methods of Education) Project. Teachers’ In-depth Content Knowledge (Component of Technology as Facilitator of Quality Education Model) (
Loughran, J., and P. Mulhall, A. Berry. “In Search of Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Science: Developing Ways of Articulating and Documenting Professional Practice,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching (
, 2004). Vol. 41, No. 4, pp. 370-391.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Early Childhood/Generalist Standards (Arlington, Va.: NBPTS, 1998).
National Partnership for Excellence and Accountability in Teaching (NPEAT). “Principles of Effective Professional Development,” Research Brief (
: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003). Vol. 1, No. 15.
Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio
: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).
Schartz, J.E. Elementary Mathematics Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Powerful Ideas for Teachers (
Upper Saddle River
: Allyn & Bacon, 2008).
Shanahan, C., and T. Shanahan. “Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Re-thinking Content Literacy,” Harvard Educational Review (2008).
Shulman, L.S. “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching,” Educational Researcher (1986). 15 (2), 4-14.
Shulman, L.S. “Knowledge and Teaching: Foundations of the New Reform,” Harvard Educational Review (1987). 57, 1-22.
Van Driel, J.H., and N. Verloop, W. de Vos. “Developing Science Teachers’ Pedagogical Content Knowledge,” Journal of Research in Science Teaching (1998). 35(6), 673-695.
Villarreal, A. “Ten Principles that Guide the Development of an Effective Educational Plan for English Language Learners at the Secondary Level – Part II,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio
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Von Frank, V. Professional Learning for School Leaders (Oxford
: National Staff Development Council, 2008).
Adela Solís, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at
[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2009 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]