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Content Knowledge: Building a Foundation for Teaching and Teachers’ Knowledge Base

This is the second post in a continuing series about TPACK.

When using TPACK, (please click here to access an overview of TPACK), I like to start with the Content Knowledge (CK) component. In their seminal article, Koehler and Mishra (2009) explained CK as “Teachers’ knowledge about the subject matter to be learned or taught” (para. 10), and I agree. CK does start with teachers’ knowledge of the subject area; however, CK should be extended to include more.

When I discuss TPACK with my students and colleagues, we often start our chat with CK and talk about how teachers’ having a deep understanding of their content area is a prerequisite for teaching it. We also discuss the “teacher tests” that must be passed in order for individuals to obtain their professional teaching licenses, which are needed to be a state-certified teacher. However, understanding content is not where CK ends. Rather, I believe strongly that CK has to include knowledge of both students and the field of education, as shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Considering TPACK’s CK

In order for teachers to plan effective instruction, they must have a deep knowledge base about their students. Just knowing the content to be taught is not enough, they must know who they are teaching. There are many times in my career where I taught a lesson in one manner for a class and taught it another way to my next class. (Yes, being able to use different teaching methods is part of Pedagogical Knowledge, but knowing when to use those different methods is Content Knowledge.) For example, Shulman (1987) explains that there “are ways of talking, showing, enacting, or otherwise representing ideas that the unknowing can come to know” (p. 7). These “ways” Shulman refers to are teaching methods, which should be classified in the Pedagogical Knowledge component. However, knowing when to use those “ways” – that is, understanding who the students are and how they learn best – I argue falls into the CK component. Additionally, I feel strongly that understanding the field of education falls into CK knowledge as well.

Education is a fascinating, politicized field. There are fads and movements that come and go, some quickly and some for a bit longer. Right now, we are still experiencing a shift in academic standards – from those used by NCLB to the Common Core State Standards and, for some states, alternatives to the Common Core State Standards. These changing standards directly impact the knowledge and skills (e.g., CK) being taught in the classroom. The knowledge and skills students needed to pass NCLB-era high stakes tests are different from the knowledge and skills needed to pass this new generation of high stakes tests. This change in academic standards impacts the “content” being taught to students, which then changes the CK teachers must possess. Another great example of this change is technology.

We’ve all likely had teachers who began teaching decades before we arrived in their classrooms. Those teachers came of age during a different time and generation. Therefore, as the phrase “College- and Career-Ready” continues to be used, the content those veteran teachers had and how they went about developing the knowledge and skills in students at the start of their career is different from what is needed in current day. For example, the technology used in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and early 2000s is vastly different from today’s technologies, which students use daily for both their academic and personal lives. As such, those teachers must keep up with the times, trends, and demands placed on them by the changes in education.

In close, when using TPACK, we must be understand that the CK is not only talk about having a deep understanding of the content-area. Rather, it also includes understanding who we are teaching and the field of education. In this way, these understandings together comprise CK, and by understanding them, they build a foundation for the Pedagogical Knowledge component, which will be the subject for the next post in this series.


Koehler, M. J., & Mishra, P. (2009). What is technological pedagogical content knowledge?Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education9(1). Retrieved from http://www.citejournal.org/vol9/iss1/general/article1.cfm

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review57(1), 1-23.