Teaching is about who you know (not just what you know)

If you don’t know who you are teaching, it’s easy to teach badly. You can misjudge what your students already know and so your explanations are too complex or too simplistic. You can employ methods of teaching that your students resist or misunderstand. You can ask your students to do things that are beyond their ability, or which baby them. What this means is that teaching requires you to know who you are teaching so you can pitch what you teach, and how you teach, for your particular group of students.

I sometimes work with lecturers who seem to disregard this need for knowing their students. Some of them have moved from a different country where they were successful teachers, but when they try to use their interesting and innovative methods with the new students, in a new country, or at a different level, then their teaching fails. They might complain about the students lack of knowledge or laziness, or the poor standards of education, without realising that their job is to teach these particular students in this particular country, and without realising that, despite their general knowledge of teaching, they do not yet know how to teach these students.

The point is that you never just teach, you always teach particular people, and so you have to modify what and how you teach for them (just as you modify what and how you write for different audiences – what works for one audience will alienate a different audience). You are teaching the particular students in your class, not the ones you used to teach, and you can’t expect the same explanations and methods to work for every group of students. This is why you need to know your students, so you can tailor your teaching to the particular folk you are teaching.

To make this clearer I am going to draw on Shulman’s (1987) very useful analysis of the seven different kinds of knowledge that teachers need.

  1. Teachers need to know their subject matter. Shulman calls this content knowledge. In other words you can’t teach mathematics unless you know mathematics and you can’t teach history unless you know history.

Some might think that this is all a teacher needs, but it isn’t even close. Teachers also need to know how to teach in general, and how to teach their particular students, and there are several different kinds of know-how involved.

  1. Teachers need to know general principles and broad strategies of teaching that can apply to pretty much any kind of teaching. Shulman calls this general pedagogical knowledge. Teachers need to know these principles and these strategies so they know how to teach their content. For example, if they are to teach at tertiary level they need to know that learners need complex material explained to them in multiple ways – if students don’t understand from one explanation, we need to try a different explanation. If a teacher did not have this knowledge, they couldn’t assist their students to learn.
  2. Teachers also need what Shulman calls Curriculum knowledge – knowledge of how the subject matter (mathematics or history for example) is organised and ordered in the particular context of that paper, subject or course. A teacher needs to know what is taught in first year, in second year and so on, and what learning and assessment tasks a student will encounter, and in what order. If they don’t know this, then teachers will be unable to organise what they teach in a way that makes sense to their students.
  3. More broadly, a teacher also needs to know about the educational contexts they work in. They have to understand how educational institutions work, and the particular character of the institution they work in, as well as how classrooms, lectures and small groups operate. If you don’t know how a tutorial functions within the structure of getting a degree, then you can’t teach a tutorial at a University. Shulman calls this Knowledge of educational contexts.
  4. And, teachers need to have knowledge of the objectives of education – what are we aiming for? Shulman calls this knowledge of educational ends and purposes. If you don’t understand what you are trying to achieve, how can you tell what to do next to achieve the educational aims, and how can you tell if you are doing well or poorly?
  5. They also need to know how to teach their subject matter to their particular students. For example, what is the best way to explain a particular accounting principle in an introductory course in first year business studies? Shulman calls this pedagogical content knowledge. This knowledge is developed by combining content knowledge with general pedagogical knowledge, and the final kind of knowledge, knowledge of learners.
  6. Finally, teachers need to know who they are teaching. They need to know how people learn in general, and know the characteristics of the particular learners they are facing. This is knowledge of learners. For example, how do people come to understand complex concepts? Is merely memorising enough? And more specifically, how do the 18 year olds in this class tend to learn complex concepts so that they can apply them in practice? And what are the things that are likely to block their learning? If a teacher does not understand how learning happens, and does not understand how their particular students learn, they will not be able to teach successfully.

This is not an exhaustive list of the knowledge needed for teaching, but it is a good place to start. It provides a useful way to identify strengths in your teaching, as well as gaps that could be addressed. “I know my subject well (content knowledge) and I have developed some good techniques for fostering classroom discussion (general pedagogical knowledge), but I can’t say I really understand my students or how they learn (knowledge of learners).”

What knowledge is your strength? What knowledge could be strengthened?

Where do you get the knowledge you are missing? Some of it is developed through experience (and reflection on the experience), some of it through observing and chatting with colleagues, some of it directly from feedback from students, and some from reading the literature on teaching and learning, or from doing your own research.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.


About Clinton Golding

Clinton Golding is Associate Professor at the University of Otago Higher Education Development Centre. His previous positions include Philosopher in Residence at Rangitoto College in Auckland, and Thinking Coordinator at Queen Margaret College in Wellington and St. Cuthbert’s College in Auckland, where he worked to develop the thinking of staff and students. He was also a senior lecturer at The University of Melbourne where he received 5 local and national teaching awards.
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