Subject Leader

6. Pedagogical Content Knowledge

Key Concept: Pedagogical Content Knowledge

An introduction to Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK)

  • The concept of Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) was developed by Lee Shulman in the mid-1980s. He argued that, on top of subject knowledge and general pedagogical skills, teachers must know how to teach topics in ways that learners can understand. So they need to know what makes learning specific topics easy or difficult. This includes appreciating what preconceptions students might have and knowing the best strategies to address any misconceptions. 
  • In their literature review, Coe et al. (2014) identify strong evidence that PCK is a key element in effective teaching. Empirical studies show that teachers’ content knowledge must blend with knowledge of how learners respond to content (ie PCK). And PCK isn’t static – teachers reason about why learners respond as they do to work out why they make certain errors. 
  • It is claimed that PCK is what distinguishes teachers from non-teaching specialists: an engineering teacher from an engineer, for example. Shulman says teachers’ expertise lies “in  the capacity of  the  teacher  to transform  the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and  yet  adaptive  to  the  variations  in  ability  and backgrounds presented by the students” (1987, p.15). 
  • Some people worry that Shulman’s definition of PCK values knowledge that can be expressed over that which is acquired through experience, that is, explicit over tacit knowledge. And some think PCK good practice may not be very transferable across vocational settings because they are highly context-dependent.
  • Recent definitions of PCK have become broader, covering for instance teachers’ orientations towards teaching (knowledge of and beliefs about their subject and how to teach it); knowledge of curriculum (what to teach when); knowledge of assessment (why, what and how to assess); knowledge of students’ understanding; and knowledge of instructional strategies.
  • Although there is no universally-agreed definition of PCK, we believe it is a valuable concept for understanding and developing teachers’ practice.