The term content knowledge refers to the body of knowledge and information that teachers teach and that students are expected to learn in a given subject or content area, such as English language arts, mathematics, science, or social studies. Content knowledge generally refers to the facts, concepts, theories, and principles that are taught and learned in specific academic courses, rather than to related skills—such as reading, writing, or researching—that students also learn in school.
While the term may be considered unnecessary jargon by some, the use of “content knowledge” has grown significantly in recent decades, in large part because educators now commonly use the term as a shorthand way to articulate a useful technical distinction between “knowledge” and “skills” (see Debate below for further discussion).
In recent decades, public-school teachers have been required, in most cases, to attain certification in the subject area they teach, which can require education and training beyond a four-year college degree. Many teachers earn a master’s degree in education or in a specific academic field, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, for example.
In general, the push to increase certification or educational requirements for teachers is based, in part, on research and other evidence suggesting that teachers who are highly knowledgeable in a specific field tend to be more effective teachers. For example, a teacher with a master’s degree in biology may, on average, be less effective teaching a chemistry course than a teacher with an advanced degree in chemistry. Such findings have prompted discussion about whether it is more important for teachers to be highly educated in a specific content area, such as physics, rather than in general science education or educational theory, for example. In addition, some educators, researchers, and reformers argue that teachers also need to develop strong “pedagogical content knowledge”—i.e., mastery of both subject-area knowledge and the most effective ways to teach students that specific subject.
In elementary schools, teachers have traditionally taught multiple content areas to a class of students, and most elementary schools continue to use this model. Some schools, however, are assigning teachers to subject-specific courses or lessons based on their particular expertise and training, and students are moved from class to class or teacher to teacher throughout the day. When used with younger students, this approach can be controversial, since some educators and parents believe that moving students from teacher to teacher can inhibit the development of strong relationships with adults and adversely affect learning.
One ongoing debate related to content knowledge centers on the distinction between “knowledge” and “skills,” and whether it is more important for schools to emphasize the teaching of knowledge or the teaching of skills. Some educators argue that it’s not possible to teach academic and intellectual skills—e.g., reading, writing, critical thinking, problem solving, researching—separate from content knowledge and conceptual understanding, given that students can’t learn to write well, for example, if they don’t have ideas, facts, principles, and philosophies to write about. While some educators contend that academic and intellectual skills can’t be separated out from subject-area knowledge and instruction, others may argue that “cross-disciplinary skills” have historically been ignored or underprioritized in schools, and the push to give more attention to these skills is simply a commonsense response to a changing world. Still others may argue that the “knowledge vs. skill” debate is not only a distraction, given that students need to be taught both knowledge and skills, but that it’s a false dichotomy because it’s impossible to learn skills without content or learn content without skills (i.e., the distinction only exists in the abstract; in the real world, the two are inextricably connected and interdependent). For a related discussion, see 21st century skills.
The Glossary of Education Reform by Great Schools Partnership is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.