Part 3: Developing and Deploying Subject Knowledge

Parts 1 and 2 of this series discussed the knowledge teachers need – knowledge of the curriculum and ‘teacher knowledge’, or PCK – and the importance of a knowledge rich curriculum. Here, we consider how to develop this knowledge and apply it in planning and teaching.

What is subject knowledge? Subject knowledge is often broken down into two parts, Subject Content Knowledge and Pedagogical Content Knowledge. Before we discuss how you might develop these, it’s helpful to know what they are. I have given a brief summary below and Peter Foster has elaborated on these in his blog series, What do teachers need to know? These are can be read here (SCK and PCK).

Subject content knowledge

This is the knowledge which sits between a university level understanding of a subject and the student who is encountering the curriculum in our classrooms. It is the understanding of the concepts, principles, facts and structure of any given subject. (Shulman, 1986).  As school teachers, we rarely need the university level knowledge that we have studied, but rather some of the knowledge which sits behind, or builds towards this. A teacher will need to be conversant with the subset of knowledge which relates to the curriculum, not necessarily the knowledge of a subject expert. 

Research also suggests that time spent developing SCK is likely to be more necessary and useful in some subjects than others. Teachers are more likely to have secure subject knowledge in hierarchical subjects (Maths, Science)  than in those with a cumulative knowledge structure (History, English) where teachers are more likely to have specific knowledge gaps, for example, of a particular period of history. (Baumert and Kunter, 2006)

Essentially, SCK the knowledge set out in the curriculum. It is what we want students to know, understand and be able to do. It is the legacy.

Pedagogical content knowledge
“The knowledge teachers have of how to teach, explain, model, correct, feedback to and support students specifically in their subject.” (Shulman, 1986)

The Great Teaching Toolkit (2020) describes this as ‘knowing and being able to explain the dependencies and connections among different parts of the curriculum and hence the requirements for sequencing’. This knowledge is unique to each subject and will involve knowledge of specific misconceptions, examples, non-examples, models, and ways to narrate and make thought processes explicit.

PCK is the knowledge beyond the specified curriculum that a teacher needs in order to effectively teach that curriculum. 

Examples of questions which I find it helpful to ask to make PCK more explicit when considering a concept are:

  • What knowledge is this building on/laying foundations for? What are the important links to other knowledge?
  • How do the knowledge elements fit together?
  • What sequence should they be introduced in?
  • What are the common misconceptions/preconceptions?
  • Vocabulary – especially when it is specialist and/or differs from the ‘everyday’ use.
  • Are there models or examples which will support students in understanding? 
  • Can the knowledge be framed in a narrative? – We know that humans privilege stories in terms of what we remember.

In science, I find it helpful to map out the knowledge (see example below), highlighting some of these points and making my understanding of the schema I’m aiming to build in the minds of my students and the pitfalls I may encounter more concrete.

I can only speak as a science teacher because I have no experience of teaching other subjects, and it may be that these questions, or this approach to mapping knowledge, are not the most helpful in other disciplines. 

How can you develop subject knowledge?

Drawing on my own experience, there are five (related) activities which have supported me in developing PCK.

  1. Dialogue: Talking to others. You are likely to be working with teachers more experienced than you and they have a lot of knowledge which you don’t have (and which they may not realise they have). Talk to them. Ask questions. If you observe lessons, ask questions afterwards (this is something I wish I’d done and I might blog more about it separately) ask why they used that example, or explained an idea in the way they did. Ask how they knew students had understood X and were ready to move onto Y. Ask what the class had been doing in previous lessons which helped them in this lesson and what they will be learning in the next lesson. Talk to experts about why they do what they do in the classroom. You’ll learn a lot from watching, but even more if you can understand what has gone on behind the scenes.

    Don’t only ask questions about lessons you’ve seen. Ask them when you’re planning, as you prepare to teach a topic for the first time. Ask about the pitfalls, the explanations, the examples. Ask about the best ways for students to practice. Don’t limit the dialogue to your own department or school. Although it took some courage at first, I have found dialogue with people online to be really valuable. Ask a question about how to teach a particular thing on Twitter and you’ll probably spark a healthy discussion in a matter of seconds.
  1. Reading: Books, blogs, journals. There’s so much out there and reading has been a huge influence in developing my PCK. I can’t point you to subject specific reading. But guess what? If you ask on Twitter, people there will do so!
  2. Engaging with subject communities:  For me this has been the CogSciSci network (through Twitter, conferences and blog posts), the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Institute of Physics, who produce lots of really helpful resources about science teaching. Many subjects have associations who publish magazines or host blogs which will support your PCK development. I am no expert in these (although I’m reliably informed that The Historical Association’s Teaching History journal is top notch) but Ruth Ashbee has compiled a directory of weblinks and people to follow, which brings me onto …
  3. Twitter: Did I mention Twitter?! I keep mentioning it because as a reluctant joiner (I signed up and left several times before I stayed) engaging with people and the debates and communities on EduTwitter have had such a profound influence on me as a teacher. My thinking has been challenged, I’ve learned so much about education in general (a lot of what I’ve written about in these posts) and science teaching in particular, and it has truly broadened my horizons within the profession. That’s not to say it’s all positive, EduTwitter has its moments, and I sometimes take a break for a day, or a week, or a month. But I’ve gained so much and I recommend that you give it a try.
  4. Subject specific CPD: I debated whether to include this or not because, in my experience, it can be very variable in quality. I’ve been on some brilliant courses, and some awful ones. See who the provider is. Generally I’ve found courses from subject specific organisations are better than those run by generic training consultancies. And you can guess how I’m going to finish. If something catches your eye, ask Twitter for advice! Someone there has probably been before.

How does PCK feed into lesson planning?

This series of posts has covered a lot of big picture, and theoretical stuff so far. But you’re going to need to plan lessons to teach so I’ll finish with some advice linking what’s gone before to the practical task of planning a lesson.

Never start with a lesson plan!

If there’s one thing I wish I’d been told differently when I started teaching, I think it’s this. Don’t plan lesson by lesson, it’s like standing at a crossroads trying to orient your map whilst looking at your shoes. You’re almost bound to get it wrong. You need to look up and look around you. What are the landmarks? Where have you come from? Where are you going? What’s the best route on the map? What does that correspond to on the ground? 

In order to make effective use of your hard-won PCK you need to have a bigger view of what you’re teaching than the lesson plan. Develop your understanding of the context of the knowledge. Where does it sit in the curriculum? What knowledge does it build on? What are you laying the foundations for (both within and beyond the sequence of lessons)? Think about the overview of the topic and have the knowledge elements, links between them and a sequence for building them in your mind. It’s likely that lots of the thinking about sequencing will have been done at a department level, but be sure to look at the topic as a whole before you start teaching a lesson.

I suggest asking questions before you start planning:

  1. What prior knowledge should students have? How will you know?
  2. What misconceptions/preconceptions are students likely to bring with them?
    How will you identify and overcome these?
  3. What knowledge do you want students to have at the end of the topic/lesson?
  4. Is there any foundational knowledge students will need to be secure in before they can acquire the new knowledge?
  5. In the future what knowledge will build upon what you are teaching them?
    Are you teaching in a way which will lay a firm foundation for acquiring this new knowledge?

For a more detailed explanation and modelling of this sort of thinking I recommend watching Pritesh Raichura’s Seneca Science Conference Talk (from 02:19:56) where he uses the following sequence to plan out an explanation. This is a science-specific example, but I think the principles would apply more widely.


In these posts I’ve tried to give an introductory overview to curricular thinking and teacher subject knowledge and how these tie together and feed into the process of planning and teaching. There’s lots of other things to think about when planning lessons – getting as many students thinking deeply about what they’re learning for as much time as possible, checking the understanding of the maximum number of students in the minimum amount of time, to name a couple – but until you’ve got the bigger picture of the journey students take through your curriculum, and the nitty-gritty of what they’re going to find difficult and how you might be able to break the knowledge down into steps and crystal clear explanations which will overcome these barriers, there’s nothing for them to practice and no understanding for you to check. So I would argue that it’s never too early, and never too late to start thinking deeply about the curriculum you teach and your own knowledge of it and how to pass it on to your students.

Links and References for Part 3

A couple of really useful blogs from Peter Foster on this distinction and its implications for teachers:

Shulman, L (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Research. 15(2). Pp4-14

Baumert, J and Kunter, M. (2006). The COACTIV Model of Teachers’ Professional Competence. In M, Kunter (ed) Cognitive Activation in the Mathematics Classroom and Professional Competence of Teachers.  New York: Springer Science and Business Media.

Evidence Based Education’s ‘Great Teaching Toolkit – Evidence Review’.

Ruth Ashbee’s directory of subject specific links:

Full list of links and references from Parts 1, 2 and 3 and some other useful resources

Efrat Furst’s site which explores the ‘levels of knowledge’ and how they relate to cognitive science in much more depth.

Reading on Powerful Knowledge from Michael Young:

Young, M. (2008). From constructivism to realism in the sociology of the curriculum. Review of Research in Education, 32, 1–32.

Young, M. (2013). Powerful knowledge: an analytically useful concept or just a “sexy sounding term”? A response to John Beck’s “Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge”. Cambridge Journal of Education, 43, pp. 195–198.

Tom Sherrington’s summary of what is meant by a Knowledge-Rich Curriculum:

Clare Sealy’s blog ‘Memory not Memories’:

Ruth Walker’s work on the structure of knowledge in different subjects:

And her website:

And book: http://And book:

Shulman’s work on the distinction between subject content and pedagogical content knowledge: 

Shulman, L (1986). Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching. Educational Research. 15(2). Pp4-14

A couple of really useful blogs from Peter Foster on this distinction and its implications for teachers:

Evidence Based Education’s ‘Great Teaching Toolkit – Evidence Review’.

Teach Like a Champion – Doug Lemov

Why Don’t Students Like School – Daniel Willingham

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