Yale University

Knowledge of Subject Matter

Every recent national report about the future of teaching has emphasized the vital importance of teachers who have an understanding of their discipline (National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, 1996). Less clear is the nature and form of that content knowledge and how that might vary across subject areas. For example in mathematics Beagle (1979) found that advanced mathematics content beyond calculus only produced a 10% positive effect and an 80% negative effect. As a university that expects all of its students to study at the advanced level, even as undergraduates, it was important for our program to have clarity about the nature of content knowledge we sought and its particular relationship to what Shulman calls "pedagogical knowledge."

Our conceptualization of content knowledge follows the work of Grossman, Schoenfield, and Lee (2005). They outline six critical questions that underline content-specific pedagogy, the first of which is directly related to the nature of content knowledge:

  1. How do we define the subject matter?
  2. What are the central concepts and processes in knowing the subject matter?
  3. According to whom?
  4. Are there competing definitions of the subject matter?
  5. What are the consequences of multiple definitions of subject matter?
  6. How do national and state standards or frameworks define both the content and what it means to know the content?

For the undergraduate program of study a number of courses challenge them to understand the fundamental elements of their content, from reading Bruner (1966) to inquiring about their discipline in their methods class. For graduate candidates, additional coursework in their discipline is not offered as a part of the program of study. They do, however, enter into an analysis of their content and begin to build a pedagogical repertoire for that content. Candidates are challenged to understand more extensively the architecture and conceptual terrain of their disciplines. This differs for each subject area. For English, this may involve the power of understanding literature as genre. For history, this may delve into the elements of historical thinking. For mathematics, this may combine both a fundamental understanding of mathematics with a deeper sense of how solving for an unknown can be formatted in a variety of ways.