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Policy Forum
Teacher Professional Development Focusing on
Pedagogical Content Knowledge
Jan H.Van Driel1 and Amanda Berry2
Because pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) includes teachers’
understanding of how students learn, or fail to learn, specific subject
matter, the development of PCK is an important goal to focus on in
professional development programs. The research literature clearly
indicates the complex nature of PCK as a form of teachers’ professional knowledge that is highly topic, person, and situation specific.This
implies that professional development programs aimed at the development of teachers’ PCK cannot be limited to supplying teachers with
input, such as examples of expert teaching of subject matter. Instead,
such programs should be closely aligned to teachers’ professional practice and, in addition to providing teachers with specific input, should
include opportunities to enact certain instructional strategies and to
reflect, individually and collectively, on their experiences.
Keywords: policy analysis; professional development; teacher
education/development; teacher knowledge
evidence on the effects of such forms of professional development
(Vescio, Ross, & Adams, 2008). In particular, Hargreaves (2010)
argued that teacher communities often suffered from weak leadership and that “mandated coaching and collaboration often
turned genuine teacher inquiry into rituals of contrived or
enforced collegiality that actually made teachers inclined to collaborate less” (p. 290). In other words, there are reasons to be
skeptical about the effects of PLCs, and it is important to focus
on approaches that, at least potentially, may enhance their effectiveness. In this respect, we share the concern of Bausmith and
Barry (2011) that teacher communities tend to ignore issues
related to teaching and learning subject matter even though the
research literature has demonstrated the importance of a focus
on subject matter learning in programs of teacher professional
development (e.g., Fishman, Marx, Best, & Tal, 2003; Kennedy,
1998). Because PCK includes teachers’ understanding of
how students learn, or fail to learn, specific subject matter, the
development of PCK is an important goal to focus on in such
Teachers’ Pedagogical Content Knowledge
n their 2011 article in Educational Researcher, Jennifer
Merriman Bausmith and Carol Barry draw attention to the
importance of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) as a
focus of teacher professional learning communities (PLCs). In
particular, the authors propose to compile an (online) library of
video lessons, based on the research literature and taught by
expert teachers, to be studied and discussed within PLCs as a way
to enhance teachers’ PCK. They call on researchers and practitioners to suggest other “potential levers for change” (p. 176). As
teacher educators and researchers of teacher knowledge and
development, we feel compelled to respond to the ideas of
Bausmith and Barry in order to problematize some of the issues
raised in their article.
To begin with, we agree with the authors on the importance
of forms of professional development for teachers that are built
on collaboration, collegial interactions, and the fostering of relationships. There seems to be consensus in the literature that “the
opportunity for teachers to participate actively and collaboratively in professional communities is an essential component
of high-quality [professional development]” (Borko, Jacobs,
& Koellner, 2010, p. 550; see also Hawley & Valli, 1999; Little,
2006). At the same time, however, there is limited research
educational Researcher
By mentioning only studies that were reported up until 1997,
Bausmith and Barry (2011) give a rather limited account of
research on PCK. More important, stating that this research
“yielded great insight into what expert teaching across disciplines
looks like” (p. 176) seems to us to completely miss the essence of
empirical studies on PCK. Not only is PCK specifically related to
topics within certain disciplines (e.g., “force” within the domain
of physics), but also research on PCK typically does not result in
a description of “expert teaching” as if there would be one ideal
or optimal way to teach certain subject matter (cf. Shulman,
1987). On the contrary, this research has demonstrated the complex nature of PCK as a form of teachers’ professional knowledge
that is highly topic, person, and situation specific (for overviews
see, e.g., Abell, 2007; Kind, 2009; Van Driel & Berry, 2010). For
instance, Hashweh (2005) proposed to consider PCK as a repertoire of pedagogical constructions that teachers acquire when
repeatedly teaching a certain topic. Even within one school, the
same teacher may experience that an effective way to teach “force”
on Monday morning in Grade 9 may not be half as effective on
ICLON Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching, Leiden, The
Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton, Australia
Educational Researcher,Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 26–28
DOI: 10.3102/0013189X11431010
© 2012 AERA. http://er.aera.net
Wednesday afternoon in another Grade 9 class. An expert teacher,
in our view, is sensitive to such differences and is flexible enough
to adapt his or her approach, on the spot, to how students
respond. Thus, PCK includes knowledge of enhancing student
learning in a variety of ways.
Implications for the Professional Development
of Teachers
By focusing on “online videos of lessons taught by expert teachers that are indexed to the Common Core State Standards”
(p. 176), it seems to us that Bausmith and Barry (2011) view
PCK as the enactment of a set of specific guidelines to teach
certain subject matter, which can be captured on videos of
“expert teachers” and subsequently used as input in large-scale
professional development programs. Although the creation of an
online library of such video lessons may serve certain purposes,
we think this resource will be of limited value when it comes to
fostering the development of teachers’ PCK. Apart from the discussion about who will qualify as “expert teachers,” we know
from research that this approach does not do justice to how
teachers actually develop their PCK. Such research has shown
that the development of PCK is never a linear process (e.g.,
teacher knowledge development precedes changes in teacher
behavior, which is then implemented in practice, and finally
leads to certain student outcomes; cf. Guskey, 1986). First, this
development is rooted in teachers’ specific professional contexts
and influenced by factors such as characteristics of the school
culture and its population, available time, and local support for
professional development (see, e.g., Little, 2006). Moreover,
individual teachers perceive these factors differently, even when
they work in the same school (Kennedy, 2010). Finally, teachers
usually hold strong personal beliefs about issues such as what
they view as good teaching, how they think students learn, and
which standards they wish to stress in a curriculum (Van Driel,
Bulte, & Verloop, 2007; cf. the notion of “orientations towards
teaching” in Magnusson, Krajcik, & Borko, 1999). In short, we
think that programs aiming at the development of PCK, like
other recent forms of professional development, should be based
on constructivist and situative theories rather than on behavioral
approaches (cf. Borko et al., 2010). Of course, we agree that
teachers should be focused on student learning, and in countries
where a national curriculum or set of standards (such as the
Common Core State Standards in the United States) is implemented, student learning needs to be geared toward such standards. To state, however, that this can be achieved by professional
development providers who “might help schools translate such
lessons and work to align local instructional efforts to the college
and career readiness standards” (Bausmith & Barry, 2011, p.
177) is ignoring the complexity of PCK development and the
fact that there are many ways in which teachers can develop their
PCK, adapted to their local contexts and the needs of their students, to contribute to these goals.
To conclude this commentary, we assert that the development of
PCK goes beyond the acquisition of instructional strategies and
techniques, per se, to include an understanding of how students
develop insights in specific subject matter. The research literature
clearly demonstrates that PCK development is a complex process
that is highly specific to the context, situation, and person. This
implies that professional development programs aimed at the
development of teachers’ PCK should be organized in ways that
closely align to teachers’ professional practice, including opportunities to enact certain (innovative) instructional strategies and
materials and to reflect, individually and collectively, on their
experiences. The research also shows that providing teachers with
specific input can contribute to the development of their PCK.
Examples of instructional practices, either “good” or flawed, can
serve as input, as can evidence from the research literature and
other resources. In this context, PLCs can have a very useful role
in helping teachers to explicate and discuss key notions of teaching and learning a specific topic, thus contributing to the identification of a collective PCK, that is, a shared or common form of
teachers’ professional practical knowledge about teaching certain
subject matter. At the same time, there should be, of course,
room for individual teachers to adapt this shared knowledge to
and complement it with their own situations.
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January/February 2012
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Van Driel, J. H., & Berry, A. (2010). The teacher education knowledge
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Van Driel, J. H., Bulte, A., & Verloop, N. (2007). The relationships
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their domain specific curricular beliefs. Learning and Instruction, 17,
Vescio, V., Ross, D., & Adams, A. (2008). A review of research on the
impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and
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JAN H. VAN DRIEL is a professor of science education at ICLON
Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching, Wassenaarseweg 62A,
educational Researcher
2333 AL, Leiden, The Netherlands; [email protected] His
research focuses on the development of teacher knowledge and beliefs in
the context of teacher education and educational reform and on the use
of models and modeling in science teaching.
AMANDA BERRY is an associate professor of teacher education in the
Faculty of Education at Monash University, Wellington Road, Building
6, Clayton, Victoria 3800, Australia; [email protected] Her
research is primarily concerned with the professional learning of teachers
and teacher educators, the development of science teachers’ pedagogical
content knowledge, and self-study methodology.
Manuscript received August 26, 2011
Revision received October 29, 2011
Accepted November 2, 2011
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