Why Teachers Need Content Pedagogical Knowledge to Teach Effectively

Updated: Apr 5, 2021

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of teachers' content pedagogical knowledge.


Besides having solid content knowledge and general pedagogical knowledge, educational psychologist Lee Shulman (1986) postulates that content pedagogical knowledge, or CPK, is the third major component of teaching expertise. CPK is the intersection of what teachers know about their subjects and students and their general understanding of teaching. It is specialized knowledge unique to teachers that makes them effective at teaching. For example, science teachers are different than scientists, not because they lack subject matter knowledge. But science teachers organize their knowledge from a teaching perspective, and it is used to help students learn specific concepts. On the other hand, scientists organize their knowledge from a research perspective that is used to conduct research to develop knowledge in the field. As Aristotle famously put it "those that know do, those that understand teach." Research indicates that teachers who possess high levels of CPK have higher levels of curriculum and developmental outcomes (Gudmundsdottir, 1987a, b). Additionally, high levels of CPK has been linked to students’ enjoyment and engagement in learning, and better student feedback (Creasy, Whipp, & Jackson, 2012). According to Shulman (1986) CPK


. . . embodies the aspects of content most germane to its teachability. Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one's subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations - in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others . . . [It] also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning (p. 9).


Sometimes CPK is referred to as craft knowledge. This is because CPK takes time to develop and hone through a period of trial and error and deep reflection. Through this process, teachers arrive at works and what doesn't based on experience. They understand how essential concepts, skills, and knowledge are organized and can be taught to students to elicit academic achievement for all learners. They know that students can best understand the complexities of specific topics by using various pedagogical approaches.

For example, in a U.S. history course, teachers demonstrate CPK when they teach students what “doing” history involves and how we “know” what happened in the past. In other words, teaching the discipline’s epistemology or studying the origin, nature, limits, and methods of knowledge. According to research, teachers must recognize students’ understanding of the subject, then determine teaching materials, organization of content, and learning activities that provide representations of the discipline. Representations in history include knowledge of the past and how historians conduct their professional work to include their historical thinking. Teachers with strong CPK use their students’ disciplinary and subject knowledge to advances their understanding of history beyond memorizing names, dates, and places (Monte-Sano, & Budano, 2013).


An excellent way to teach students the historian's habits of mind is to utilize the document-based question or DBQ. A DBQ is a type of essay in which students think like historians by employing the historian’s skills of identifying causation, patterns of continuity and change, argumentation based upon their knowledge of history, and appropriate use of relevant evidence. Students must be able to interpret and synthesize various primary and secondary source evidence pertaining to the historical event in question. The source material usually consists of differing or conflicting points of view. For example, in a unit about the American Revolution, a writing prompt may ask students to compare and contrast the arguments for and against the colonists declaring their independence from England. Documents could include a speech from a member of Parliament, a letter written by George Washington, Felix’s Petition, the Stamp Act, and the Declaration of Independence. DBQs go beyond simple factual recall and require students to:

  • Write a strong thesis that can be proven true using the documents and the student’s knowledge of history.

  • Determine the strengths and weaknesses of source evidence by analyzing the author's point of view, purpose, audience, and context of the evidence.

  • Demonstrate the ability to make connections between the documents. To identify corroboration of evidence and when evidence conflicts with one another.

Highly effective teachers use their CPK to push their students to become independent critical thinkers. They see the big picture and possess the flexibility to choose the teaching method that does justice to the topic. Other approaches may include engaging students in debates concerning an enduring historical problem, such as the pros and cons of representative government, the perennial issue of growing wealth inequality, or mass incarceration. Or teachers could conduct a Socratic seminar to investigate the role of social media in civic life. In other words, the teachers’ effective use of CPK is instrumental to effective teaching for the 21st century.


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