Know Your Stuff: Why Content Knowledge Matters for Teachers

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Anyone in education has probably heard this quip: “Elementary teachers teach students. High school teachers teach subjects.”  I heard it in my first education course.

The intention is to remind high school teachers, who are supposedly living in their ivory towers surrounded by their dreams of writing novels or solving mathematical hypotheses that they must remember to build relationships with students.

Or how about this gem: “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

While false dilemmas and oversimplifications can make cute posters, memes, or signs painted subway-style on reclaimed wood, they make terrible philosophies of teaching.

The truth is that of course relationship building is important; of course caring about students rather than showing off our intelligence is important.

But another truth is that a significant part of relationship building, especially  at the secondary level, is the teacher’s knowledge of the content.  Yes, we should be humble about what we know and open to students’ often difficult questions, but relationship-building will stall if the teacher is clearly not making an effort to become more informed about what he or she is teaching.

When I think of the teachers I have most admired or the teachers my students most admire, everyone on that list is someone who knows what she is talking about when it comes to her subject area.  These are teachers who regularly learn, read, attend conferences, watch videos, read articles, do whatever it takes to learn more about history, biology, physics, music, or any other subject they happen to teach.

In addition, a deep knowledge of content allows a teacher to properly scaffold instruction. Sometimes in education we believe that smart, highly educated teachers won’t be able to break down the information enough for struggling students, a belief that is more a product of American anti-intellectualism than a statement of truth. Albert Einstein once told a colleague that  “all physical theories. . . ought to lend themselves to so simple a description ‘that even a child could understand them'” (Clark 418). We should all strive to understand the difficult concepts of our subject matter so deeply that our explanations are intuitive, clear, and accessible to as many students as possible.

In fact, I would contend that only teachers who have taken the time to study and master their content will have the depth of knowledge needed to distinguish the very important from the less important, to effectively sequence instruction, to diagnose misunderstandings, and then to divide the material into digestible parts.

In other words, teachers who care about their students will never stop trying to master their content.

Teachers will have varying levels of content knowledge, to be sure.  I often think of my early years of teaching with chagrin at how little I understood about my subject then. I’m sure I will have the same feeling several years from now when I think about my current level of understanding.  The key, I think, is to remain curious and open and voracious for knowledge.  Continue to be a student, a learner. Find knowledgeable mentors and take classes when possible.

We should never assume that we have arrived at some pinnacle of required knowledge or put any type of downpayment on that tower. But we should also refuse to be lulled by that other easy out–the one promised by unquestioned educational adages that present caring as something done in isolation, as an emotive state rather than the more difficult concept of love.

Love demands that I try to give my students my best, and my best includes deeper content knowledge every year.   

That probably won’t work on a poster.

 

Clark, Ronald William. Einstein: The Life and times. New York: Wings, 1995. Print.

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3 responses to “Know Your Stuff: Why Content Knowledge Matters for Teachers

  1. Thank you for this post. This message could not have come at a better time. Starting with a beginning PD where administrators proclaimed that the teachers in the room no longer need to be the experts in the room (and wasn’t that fabulous???!!!) to an insistence that teachers are no longer teachers but merely facilitators who guide learners rather than students, the year has proved frustrating and insulting. I needed this reminder that others recognize and value the importance of teachers and being knowledgable about content at this time when the “powers that be” in my world strive to devalue what my high school colleagues and I do in our classrooms every day.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. In order to be “guides,” we have to have strong content knowledge and we have to be learners ourselves. This helps us to select (and scaffold) texts to support students/challenge ideas/extend thinking, know when students are making genuinely interesting insights, etc.. My Masters work in English helped me just as much as work in education.

  3. “There are three things to remember when teaching: know your stuff; know whom you are stuffing; and then stuff them elegantly.” ~ Lola May

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