Sunday, March 6, 2011

Thoughts about knowing how to teach

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There are good teachers who distinguish themselves by their methods of teaching.  I have also met a number of good teachers who stand out due to their level of content knowledge.  But, the truly outstanding teachers are those who typically have a sound grasp of both methods and content.


By methods, I am referring to the way of actually delivering the instructional experience – outside of any specific content knowledge needed.  Methods includes teaching philosophy, beliefs, approach to communication, ability to empathize with students, creativity, etc.  Methods include pedagogy, but goes further than the style or strategies of instruction to include the emphasis and ability of the teacher to develop a professional and positive relationship with students and families.  These methods are also used to create meaningful connections with other teachers.  In short, good methods are related to the talents and skills of a true teacher-leader. 


Content is easier to recognize and define.  It is simply the level of content area knowledge the teacher possesses.  Strong content knowledge is usually associated with having formally studied the content in question at the undergraduate and/or graduate level.  If the course being taught was not the teachers field of study, strong content knowledge can also be achieved through practical experience and/or post-degree programs.

Below is a matrix I created to describe teachers in various states of methods and content ability.  This matrix is not designed to describe every teacher, but to simply provide a basis for further conversation concerning these two areas.

Teacher Methods/Content Matrix (Roddy, 2011)


Strong Content

Weak Content

Strong Methods
  • teacher incorporates a diverse collection of resources and activities in class
  • teacher has a full “toolbox” from which to seamlessly pull from to adjust to the “flow” of the class
  • students and parents are fully aware of the course objectives and are engaged partners – each with a specific role to play in the success of the course
  • classroom environment is respectful and collegial, often with an active and engaged dialogue going on
  • professional development goals should include leading peer coaching and mentoring of other teachers
  • teacher creates and nurtures a positive environment that fosters positive student-teacher interactions
  • students generally approve of the teacher’s treatment of them as individuals, but are left feeling as if the course was not necessarily the stimulating experience they were expecting
  • parents express concern over perceived lack of academic focus, but admit their children enjoy the class
  • teacher uses limited resources and uses little creativity in lesson design – will not generally take instructional risks
  • professional development MUST address content area competency – possible areas of focus include professional organizations, additional coursework, and peer coaching
Weak Methods
  • teacher often comes across as distant or unaware of students’ needs
  • teacher’s communication may be poor or unclear
  • classroom environment is less interactive and more traditional (non-constructivist)
  • lectures and note taking are the primary activities
  • students are rigorously challenged academically, but often feel a lack of support
  • professional development should include reflective practices including vision philosophy
  • observations of peers and feedback loops from administration can be powerful tools for helping improve methods without sacrificing content focus

  • teacher likely relies heavily on textbook or other pre-packages resources to deliver content
  • teacher struggles when faced with having to go “off-script” when lesson plan does not work
  • students are likely confused about what the course is trying to accomplish and typically feel that the teacher does not listen to them
  • classroom environment may exist at the extremes of complete disengagement to utterly uncooperative
  • professional development plan MUST address both content mastery and pedagogical development
  • clear and tangible professional development goals must be met or teacher faces reassignment or a non-renewed contract

As one who has engaged in significant formal training in education, it may be somewhat odd to point out that many of the best known “stars” of teaching had little or no formal training (Socrates for example).  This does not imply that we do not have much to learn from the study of teaching.  It does, however, imply that much can also be gained from an appreciation of what Dewey called a “spirit of inquiry” and good old common sense.

This post was inspired by:

Jackson, Philip W. (1986). The Practice of Teaching (Chapter 1, On Knowing How to Teach).  Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

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