A focus on PCK for teacher education

By Heather King - March 2011


Kind, V. (2009). Pedagogical content knowledge in science education: Perspectives and potential for progress. Studies in Science Education45(2), 169–204.


This review paper summarizes research findings relating to the nature of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) and its usefulness as a construct for teacher education.

PCK was originally proposed by Lee Shulman (1987) as one of seven categories of "content knowledge" for teachers. He described PCK as the capacity of a teacher to transform their subject matter knowledge into content that may be understood by students. He argued that while other professionals may have content knowledge, knowledge of educational contexts, and even knowledge of the curriculum, PCK is unique to teachers.

Following Shulman's original proposals, researchers have interpreted and developed his ideas in a number of different ways. But herein lies the rub. Due to debate surrounding the definition of PCK—does it include subject matter knowledge or is this entirely separate?—its explicit use in guiding teacher practice has been limited. For teachers and other educators, PCK remains a "hidden knowledge," a tool that they may apply, but that they do not consciously recognise. The author argues understanding and identifying their PCK could contribute positively to the professional development of novice teachers.

The paper offers detailed analyses of the various models of PCK and explains the arguments for including and excluding subject matter knowledge (SMK) within PCK. Good SMK confers a sense of security; without it, teachers tend to resort to more passive, textbook-based approaches. However, a teacher with good PCK is able to approach unfamiliar topics with confidence and implement effective instructional strategies.

The author notes that the idea that teachers require good SMK with PCK is often preferred in educational circles because it paints a wide-ranging picture of a teacher's skills. However, by focusing on skills required for PCK (regardless of subject proficiency) novice teachers will be helped to internalize expert teachers' explanations, and create their own analogies and instructional strategies. A variety of rubrics for eliciting PCK from expert teachers (e.g., CoRes, and PaP-eRs; see Loughran et al., 2004) are useful here.

In short, it is argued that by placing PCK at the center of teacher education and professional development programs, the precise skills needed by teachers will be acknowledged, developed, and improved.

While the skills of PCK are essential, this focus can detract from the emotional aspects of becoming and being a teacher. Thus, work around teacher self confidence and efficacy in combination with PCK is required. Indeed, more work in this area would help to dispel the notion that anyone with good content knowledge can teach.

For further reading, see Loughran, J. J., Mulhall, P., & Berry, A. (2004). In search of pedagogical content knowledge in science: Developing ways of articulating and documenting professional practice.Journal of Research in Science Teaching41, 370–391.