Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students.
If one cardinal principle of teaching is a commitment to the welfare and education of young people, another is a commitment to subject matter. Accomplished teachers are dedicated to acquainting students with the social, cultural, ethical, and physical worlds in which we live, and they use the subjects they teach as an introduction to those realms. A comprehensive understanding of subject matter entails more than the recitation of dates, multiplication tables, or grammatical rules within a single content domain. Rather, it requires the pursuit of substantive knowledge by exploring domains and making connections to become fully engaged in the learning process.
Teachers Appreciate How Knowledge in Their Subjects is Created, Organized, and Linked to Other Disciplines
Teachers who possess a firm command of their subject areas understand factual information as well as major themes and concepts. They also comprehend the process of creative investigation and inquiry, whereby discoveries are made and new knowledge is formed, as demonstrated in the work of scholars and artists. For instance, physics teachers know the role of hypothesis generation and experimentation in scientific inquiry; geometry teachers know the modes of justification for substantiating mathematical claims; fine arts teachers understand how creative ideas are developed and meaning is conveyed through performance; social studies teachers know how historians use evidence to interpret past events; and English language arts teachers understand the relationship between reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Literacy, a foundational component of learning across content domains, is instrumental to comprehending subject matter and connecting one discipline to another.
Accomplished teachers value the relationships among subject areas, using those relationships to forge multiple paths to knowledge. Thus, early and middle childhood generalists know about geography and its relationship to economics and history, and world language teachers know how political history and human migration inform an appreciation of language and culture. As those examples illustrate, accomplished teachers understand not only how content areas relate but also how they influence student learning.
Recognizing how knowledge is established within and across subject areas is crucial to the instruction of logical reasoning. Critical thinking does not occur in the abstract, for thinkers always evaluate something.
Accomplished teachers realize the fundamental role that disciplinary study plays in the development of critical analysis and conceptual understanding. Knowing that multiple perspectives and interpretations of each content area exist, educators expose students to different modes of critical thinking and show them how to reason analytically about subject matter. While maintaining the integrity of disciplinary methods, content, and structures of organization, accomplished teachers encourage students to question prevailing norms and assumptions so they can think for themselves.
Whether they are specialists or generalists, accomplished teachers use rich, complex subject matter to promote student learning across developmental levels. By engaging children and young adults in a broad array of disciplines, educators provide students with appropriate points of entry to appreciate the content. For example, early childhood generalists may not delve as deeply into cellular structure as high school biology teachers do, but they present foundational knowledge that introduces students to the joys of discovery, while inspiring a desire to explore the natural world in which they live. Similarly, physical education teachers may focus on locomotor movement—such as walking, hopping, or skipping—to help students with moderate and profound physical limitations develop gross motor skills and achieve maximum independence. Teachers must possess a thorough understanding of subject matter to help their students develop critical skills and pursue lifelong learning—the hallmark of accomplished teaching at every developmental level.
Whether they are specialists or generalists, accomplished teachers use rich, complex subject matter to promote student learning across developmental levels.
Teachers Command Specialized Knowledge of How to Convey a Subject to Students
Teachers require pedagogical insight to communicate their subject knowledge effectively and impact students significantly. Accomplished educators use a specialized set of technical skills and abilities to convey instructional content and facilitate learning so students can develop bodies of knowledge and advance their systems of thinking. Pedagogical expertise incorporates wisdom related to the teaching and learning processes, as well as the dynamic between student needs and content demands. Accomplished teachers use their knowledge of the most appropriate ways to present subject matter through strategies and techniques such as demonstrations, experiments, analogies and metaphors, interactive learning, and appropriate uses of technology.
Pedagogical experience yields a repertoire of instructional techniques that allow teachers to share their subject matter knowledge with students. Teachers draw on pedagogical and subject matter understandings to respond to common misconceptions within content areas; address challenging aspects of learning acquisition; and accommodate prior knowledge, experience, and skills that students at different developmental levels typically bring to the classroom. For example, science teachers anticipate that some students may have misunderstandings about gravity that can influence their learning, whereas fine arts and physical education teachers are prepared for young children to enter school at various stages of maturity with respect to hand–eye coordination. Balancing the insights of pedagogical and subject matter expertise helps teachers evaluate and resolve daily issues—decisions that include which aspects of subject matter to emphasize and how to pace instruction. Accomplished educators use a comprehensive awareness of their students, their subjects, and their practice to structure teaching that promotes learning in their schools.
To remain as effective as possible in the classroom, accomplished educators also demonstrate a strong commitment to learning about new curricular resources, such as textbook series, primary texts, classroom manipulatives, or research materials available through professional organizations. Educators keep abreast of technological developments that have implications for their subject areas and their teaching, utilizing digital tools employed within their disciplines. Teachers understand that maintaining familiarity with the technology used by practitioners helps them remain current in their fields. In addition, they explore the influence that technology has on their subject areas because they know that it frequently affects the structure and process of thinking within disciplines. Importantly, accomplished teachers position themselves as critical users of technology, ensuring that it is employed to enhance student understanding. By modeling that stance, teachers help their students navigate the relationship between technology and learning, empowering them to use digital tools in authentic ways that advance their knowledge. Educators continually evaluate the usefulness of all curricular materials and pedagogical methods they adopt in the classroom, basing that evaluation on their professional judgment.
Accomplished educators use a comprehensive awareness of their students, their subjects, and their practice to structure teaching that promotes learning in their schools.
Teachers Generate Multiple Paths to Knowledge
Accomplished teachers wisely use the educational resources, pedagogical skills, and content knowledge they possess, varying their approach in the classroom to meet learning goals and accommodate student dispositions as needed. Educators are thus aware of the value that lies in both structured and inductive learning. They understand that teaching students the concepts and principles that scholars within each discipline have generated is useful, but accomplished teachers also know that helping students develop a critical mindset is important. Through inquiry, students search for problems, patterns, and solutions, making discoveries and advancing their own learning. Accomplished educators model those processes for students, showing them how to pose problems and work through alternative solutions, as well as how to examine the answers that others have found to similar problems.
Posing and solving problems is central to the development of true understanding. That process moves students far beyond a rote memorization of facts, an easy manipulation of formulas, or the facile repetition of a musical scale. Teaching for understanding requires students to integrate discrete components of knowledge within their habits of thinking, instead of storing fragmented pieces of information without further consideration. It challenges students to think in nonlinear ways, to approach issues from multiple vantage points, to weigh competing sets of criteria, and to evaluate the merits of multiple solutions. Thus, in the eyes of accomplished teachers, the acquisition of knowledge does not signify a lower form of understanding. Rather, it represents a distinctly intellectual undertaking—a rich, demanding, creative process calling on the strategic coordination of skills, abilities, and dispositions to develop a deeper, more discerning matrix of understanding. That mode of thinking encourages students to apply their knowledge to new and unfamiliar problems so they can continue exploring and advancing their understanding. As they share their knowledge in all its forms with students in the classroom, accomplished teachers appreciate that this way of thinking and understanding will develop over time to support meaningful, substantial learning for a lifetime.