I go back and forward on the idea that someone who can teach can teach any content, as long as s/he can stay ahead of the kids in learning it. On one hand I think it should be so – both the prior experience of teaching (including all the knowledge of people and development and so on that involves) and just the extra maturity and understanding that a teacher has should allow him or her to help others learn new content.
On the other hand, I know in my own area, science education, that there are important things about the nature of scientific knowledge that teachers really need to understand in order to be able to teach science well. Someone who doesn’t really have that kind of deep understanding of science (and I’d even argue that that includes many practicing scientists) will still be able to help students learn facts, and even concepts, but is unlikely to be able to instill a really scientific way of thinking, or build scientific literacy.
I’ve been thinking about this issue again because of two things that are going on here. The first is that Sue has started teaching at Challenge Learning Institute in Ipswich. She’s teaching a number of things she already knews and has experience with. She’s also been asked to teach an ‘introduction to retail’ course – and she’s never worked in retail herself. She has a textbook and some notes, and her own smarts and observations about retail, but she’s really teaching a topic where she doesn’t have the necessary background knowledge. We’ve sat down together and just kind of brainstormed and developed a plan for what topics go where and the kinds of activities she’ll do with the students, but it’ll be interesting to see how the course plays out.
The second is that I’m teaching middle school teachers who don’t have strong science backgrounds now, when I always used to teach high school teachers who usually had science degrees before they came into my class. So whatever I think privately, I have to assume for these teachers that if I can help them learn about teaching science, they can learn about the science ‘content’ knowledge they need themselves, and teach the kids.
Lee Shulman (that’s me with him – sorry ’bout the blurry photo) has talked about this issue in a way that’s really useful. He talks about ‘content knowledge’ – the knowledge relating to the particular discipline that’s being taught, ‘pedagogical knowledge’ – the general knowledge that all teachers have about motivation, development, management and so on and ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ – knowledge that is specific to teaching a particular subject.
So for my students, they don’t have a lot of content knowledge in science (some of them, others do have science degrees), but they can look that stuff up. They have the general pedagogical knowledge from their other education courses, and from their practice teaching sessions, and they’ll keep developing that knowledge. So my job is to focus on the pedagogical content knowledge – what special things do they need to know in order to be able to teach science? Working on that as hard as we can… but I’m still not sure that it wouldn’t be better if they had more content knowledge… and if Sue had spent some time working in a shop.