disciplinary knowledge


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I once visited my brother back when we were both young single professionals. For some reason, we decided to roast a whole duck for dinner. Neither of us knew much about cooking back then, much less roasting a duck, but it was OK because we had a recipe. The ingredient list called for a whole duck, naturally, then a long list of spices and condiments to season it with. The first line of instructions read something like “In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients.’” My brother dutifully got out a small bowl, and then, to my surprise, picked up the duck and put it in the bowl. I asked him what he was doing. “It said to combine the dry ingredients,” he replied. “The duck is a dry ingredient.” He wasn’t wrong, but I knew he wasn’t right. The point of this story is that having a recipe didn’t make us good cooks, no matter how detailed the recipe or how closely we tried to follow it. In the same vein, knowing exactly how to carry out a pedagogical practice doesn’t make us good teachers. A skilled cook has the knowledge and skills to understand the critical features and nuances of a recipe. They know how to modify the recipe based on variations in ingredients or equipment to yield a successful dish. What the cook knows is as important as a recipe, if not more so. A skilled teacher understands the critical features and nuances of various pedagogical practices. Like the skilled cook, they adjust and adapt to their classroom situation to achieve optimal outcomes. A skilled teacher can make the most of any pedagogy across different learning contexts. What the teacher knows is just as important as any particular teaching technique, if not more so.

What knowledge does a teacher need to teach effectively? The answer is that teachers need to have multiple types of knowledge. The most obvious type is subject matter knowledge, or what I’ll call disciplinary knowledge. We have to know our fields of study. Possessing sufficient disciplinary knowledge isn’t a problem for most teachers, as they’ve obtained it through advanced study or professional experience. The problem is that many people believe that it is the only kind of knowledge needed for teaching, that the more disciplinary knowledge one has, the better teacher they are going to be. That was the reasoning behind MOOCs (remember them?). The idea was to have a distinguished expert in a field teach an online course for the masses because greater expertise should translate into better teaching. It didn’t work out that way. The assumption that disciplinary knowledge is all that being an effective teacher requires has no basis in pedagogical research. In a cheeky study, Deslauriers et al. (2011) had a seasoned, highly rated physics faculty member teach one section of a large, introductory physics class and an inexperienced graduate student who had been trained in research-based teaching techniques teach a different section. The graduate student’s class showed significantly better attendance, engagement, and learning. Many graduate programs fail to provide their students with training on how to teach because of this faulty assumption that disciplinary knowledge is all that matters for effective teaching (Chew et al, 2014). Let’s look at two other kinds of knowledge needed for effective teaching.

In a landmark paper, Shulman (1986) outlined other kinds of knowledge needed for effective teaching. In particular, he described the importance of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). PCK refers to knowing how best to teach subject matter for optimal student learning. Shulman states that PCK involves “an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of those most frequently taught topics and lessons” (p. 9). Teachers gain PCK through experience: knowing what misconceptions students commonly hold, identifying the topics students find difficult to grasp, and anticipating areas of confusion and misunderstanding. PCK includes methods of addressing these difficulties. Shulman states that “since there are no single most powerful forms of representation, the teacher must have at hand a veritable armamentarium of alternative forms of representation, some of which derive from research whereas others originate in the wisdom of practice” (p. 9). PCK goes well beyond disciplinary knowledge. Research on PCK has shown how important it is for effective teaching, especially in STEM education (Abell, 2008; Lynch et al., 2019).

A third type of knowledge critical for effective teaching emerged with the publication of the groundbreaking book How People Learn (Bransford et al., 2000). This book established that knowledge about the cognitive processes involved in human learning is essential for effective teaching. Even though psychologists have studied learning for well over a century, the field of learning science, which applies cognitive principles to education, is relatively new. Teachers now know the importance of concepts such as metacognition, working memory, selective attention, effective learning strategies, and cognitive load for student learning (Weinstein et al., 2019). Effective teachers use these concepts both to design their pedagogy and to teach students how to be more effective learners.

Effective teaching requires knowledge well beyond disciplinary knowledge. Faculty and institutions need to recognize teaching as the complex skill that it is (e.g., Richmond et al., 2016). Graduate schools do their students a disservice if they fail to provide training in how to teach. Institutions need to provide faculty with high quality, ongoing professional development.

Effective teaching requires disciplinary knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and knowledge of how people learn. A teacher’s understanding of a field goes well beyond merely knowing the subject matter. As Shulman (1986) states, “Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach” (p. 14).


Abell, S. K. (2008) Twenty Years Later: Does pedagogical content knowledge remain a useful idea? International Journal of Science Education, 30(10), 1405–1416. https://doi.org.10.1080/09500690802187041

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn. National Academy Press.

Chew, S. L., Halonen, J. S., McCarthy, M. A., Gurung, R. A. R., Beers, M. J., McEntarffer, R., & Landrum, R. E. (2018). Practice what we teach: Improving teaching and learning in psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 45(3), 239–245. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628318779264

Deslauriers, L., Schelew, E., & Wieman, C. (2011). Improved learning in a large-enrollment physics class. Science, 332(6031), 862–864. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1201783

Lynch, K., Hill, H. C., Gonzalez, K. E., & Pollard, C. (2019). Strengthening the research base that informs STEM instructional improvement efforts: A meta-analysis. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 41(3), 260–293. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373719849044

Richmond, A. S., Boysen, G. A., & Gurung, R. A. R. (2016). An evidence-based guide to college and university teaching: Developing the model teacher. Routledge.

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2019). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. Routledge.

Stephen L. Chew, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Samford University. Trained as a cognitive psychologist, he endeavors to translate cognitive research into forms that are useful for teachers and students. He is the recipient of multiple awards for his teaching and research. Author contact: slchew@samford.edu.