Monday, June 5, 2017


I was not the only person to see this tweet and have the following thought...

One of my college education professors drilled this into me, and my last thirty-some years of teaching have only confirmed it-- half the secret of classroom management is to know what the hell you're talking about. The best leverage for classroom management is neither love nor fear-- it's respect. And the best way to garner respect is to be competent, to display expertise in the content area, to know what the hell you're talking about.

Yes, teaching is both a skill and an art and to do a good job, you have to know the skill and the art of teaching. But just as you can't have waves without water or air, you cannot have "teaching skills" without content knowledge-- and all the teaching skills in the world will not make up for lacking knowledge. You cannot make an awesome lesson about adding two plus two if you do not know that the result is four. You cannot lead your students through an illuminating and inspiring study of Hamlet if you have never read the play yourself. And just as students can smell fear, they can smell uncertainty and lack of knowledge. I don't mean that you must be infallible in the classroom-- but if you don't know your content well, your students will smell it, and they will wonder why it's important for them to learn something if the teacher doesn't even know it.

Can you be an expert in your field and still fail as a teacher because you don't know how to communicate your knowledge to your students? Sure-- most of us have had that teacher. Can you go too far-- way too far-- in trying to impress upon your students how terribly smart you are? Absolutely-- I once spent a very long semester with a student teacher who did not want to be a teacher so much as he wanted to be the smartest student in the room. But content knowledge is still teh foundation for everything else.

This notion of free-floating skills is a plague on our society. Management types believe that they can manage any company with raw management skills, even if they are completely ignorant of what the company does and the specifics of the industry in which they now work. I have watched the major industries in my neck of the woods brought down by people who didn't know anything about the companies they were managing-- but, hey, that's okay because anyone can manage any company as long as he's a super-duper manager.

It infects our government-- you don't need to know anything about an agency or sector of the economy to head a bureau or even hold a cabinet-level position. And education is an "industry" that shouldn't be run by educators, but by business types who have the kind of management experience necessary.

But you cannot develop skills playing a musical instrument without playing something. You can't learn how to "sport" without putting your hands on the specific object used in that specific sport.

And you can't teach without teaching something. And you can't teach something without knowing about that something. And the more you know, the better you will teach.

"Oh, no-- I just pull something out and the students and I just, you know, explore and discover together," you say. "And it works great." Respectfully, I think you're probably wrong on several counts.

First of all, unless you are a sensory deprived bat just emerging from a cave, you can't pull out anything "blind." You may have never tried that physics inquiry before, but you know about physics. You may never have read that Emerson essay before, but you know who he is and what he believed. And those management problems you have in your classes? Those happen because some of your students don't think you know your material.

Whether you believe that learning is about following a carefully proscribed path, or wandering pathlessly through a vast territory hoping to find a teachable moment or a unique insight, you cannot take your students on that journey unless you know the territory like the back of your hand. That leadership skill is important, but you cannot learn the "how" of teaching without it being attached to the "what" of content. You can't just teach-- you have to teach something, and you can't teach that something unless you know about it.

Content knowledge is the foundation of everything else. You cannot be an expert at teaching without being an expert at subject matter. Yes, even teachers of the littles, who in particular need the security of knowing they are in the hands of a grownup who Knows Things.

So the question is bizarre, like asking "Do you need to cook food really well for a good meal, or is it enough just to have a pretty plate on the table." You cannot be a great cook without food. You cannot be a great musician if you don't play a note. And you cannot be a great teacher without knowledge of your content.


  1. AMEN brother Greene!

    Might I add, the importance of knowledge goes beyond subject area content:

    Knowledge of pedagogy and methodologies
    knowledge of child and adolescent psychology
    knowledge of mob psychology (Ha!)
    knowledge of cognitive learning theory
    and brain development (and damage)
    knowledge of local community and families
    knowledge of school community and happenings,
    knowledge of your students - as people
    knowledge of your limitations
    knowledge of classroom management techniques and policies

    And that's just the knowledge side of of being a good teacher.
    Work ethic, professionalism, judgement, personality and many more come into play. Maybe the clueless tweeter and all the other know-nothing reformers that came very late to this 150 year old party will begin to understand just how complex and nuanced the skill set required to a "good" teacher. It's no wonder they don't grow on trees.

  2. Drives me nuts to see the question posed, as it so often is, as an "either-or" dichotomy.

    Yes, you need subject matter expertise, but it's helpful as hell to know how to impart it to students, too.

  3. "The Death of Expertise" by Tom Nichols provides some great insight into why someone would even ask that question. A great read if you have the time.

  4. The question posed in the tweet is absurd because it only offer either/or but the question of how much content expertise is needed to expertly lead learning is valid and worth exploring. Unfortunately these are the type of statements that get attention and draw ire, however misplaced it might be.

    Of course content expertise is necessary but being an absolute content area expert isn't. Generally more content understanding is better but I think your statement "And the more you know, the better you will teach." is flawed.

    It would seem the threshold is somewhat fluid depending upon the content and grade level but teachers need to know their content well enough to be able to know what questions to ask and how to best contextualize said content for discovery.

    I also think this statement is flawed, "And those management problems you have in your classes? Those happen because some of your students don't think you know your material." I would agree that lack of content competence can lead to management issues, I'm working with a school right now where a teacher lacks deep content understanding (and pedagogy skills) but manages his class and their behavior quite well.

    I get the defensiveness, teaching as a profession has been marginalized in so many ways, but being reactive to a statement like the one in the tweet doesn't seem productive. How might we actually have professional dialogue around the balance of pedagogy and content understanding?

    1. I disagree. Even being an expert on how to teach, you're always going to be a better teacher the more you know about the subject matter you're teaching. The more all-encompassing your knowledge of your field is, the more you're going to have clear what the basic principles are and how everything else connects with them. I don't see how anyone can argue with the statement, "The more you know, the better you'll teach" unless they're content with just being "adequate".

    2. I would agree assuming the pedagogy is strong. However, if one is simply not a strong teacher or doesn't really know how to teach, the statement falls short. No amount of content knowledge or understanding will make you a better teacher if you don't understand or have the skills of good teaching. I recall professors who knew their content inside and out but couldn't teach a lick. More content wasn't going to help them be a better teacher. I would say though that, to Peter's point, the absence of content knowledge and understanding makes it far less likely, if not nearly impossible, someone would be an effective teacher.

    3. 35 years of teaching, supervising teachers and teaching teachers has left me with a much deeper appreciation for finding a balance in all things. Content knowledge is essential - and my ability to draw on that knowledge to address student questions in in multiple ways grew the better I understood my content. In parallel, as my skill in pedagogy and knowledge of how students learn improved, so did my ability to engage the students in what I was trying to teach. It requires both - neither is sufficient without skill in the other.

      Two quick examples: As a Principal students would come to me to complain about the Physics teacher who came to us through TFA after a successful career in the Navy as a Nuclear Engineer. Their complaint was that when they would ask a question he would simply respond with the same explanation, only slower and louder. He didn't have the repertoire of skills to see he needed to come at it the other way. Knowledge but no pedagogy. Then there was the Middle school math teacher moved into a Biology class because we all know those math wonks must know science. The kids smelled the lack of confidence and made the teacher pay for it. It was only made worse because the teacher was a wonderful math teacher and had never faced a situation where the students had so little respect.

    4. Well, of course knowledge of content isn't enough to make you a good teacher. That's also obvious. But it's not a question of "how much content expertise is needed". The adage "The more you know, the better you'll teach" applies to knowing how people learn as well as to content matter.