Knowing what teachers know about teaching

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division, Directorate for Education and Skills

In modern societies, most professionals become knowledge workers. Their professional practice is increasingly fuelled and inspired by various forms of knowledge. A good example is the medical profession, where the continuously growing body of scientific knowledge finds its way into professional practices. An important dimension of what constitutes an effective doctor today is the ability to incorporate scientific knowledge within one’s own experience and to translate this into a professional encounter with patients through adequate communication, advice and empathy. Is something similar also happening within the teaching profession?

Teachers are also knowledge workers. To effectively stimulate students’ learning, teachers constantly draw on a vast repertoire of knowledge. And of course, teachers work with subject knowledge. Maths teachers must have a good grasp of the mathematical content, and feel confident in using mathematical concepts. But maths teachers’ knowledge goes beyond that of a mathematician.  They must mobilise the subject knowledge, transforming it into an engaging and enriching teaching and learning experience. Going beyond subject-specific knowledge teachers also must have a profound understanding of the learning process, of what students with their different talents and backgrounds can motivate and inspire. This type of knowledge – pedagogical knowledge – is unique to teaching.

The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has launched the Innovative Teaching for Effective Learning (ITEL) project to better understand the pedagogical knowledge of teachers: how it is developed, how teachers acquire it, transform it and put it to use in their teaching practices. The project doesn’t look at pedagogical knowledge as a static characteristic of individual teachers, but as a dynamic, ever changing aspect of the profession. The project delves into questions regarding the knowledge dynamics of the teaching profession to which there are no simple answers. Is pedagogical knowledge up-to-date and well-adapted to the needs of 21st century teaching practices? Through which channels can teachers acquire pedagogical knowledge? Is knowledge continuously updated and improved by new research findings? How do teachers and teacher educators share their pedagogical knowledge? And can we assess the quality of the pedagogical knowledge base in the teaching profession across countries?

CERI’s most recent publication, Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession, looks into these questions, presenting research and ideas from multiple perspectives on pedagogical knowledge as a fundamental component of the teaching profession. It also looks at knowledge dynamics within the teaching profession alongside the changing demands on teachers and investigates how teachers’ pedagogical knowledge can be measured.

Most important, the report lays the conceptual groundwork for an empirical study on teachers’ pedagogical knowledge that will be published this summer. Over the past two years, the ITEL project has developed a pilot study assessing the pedagogical knowledge among teachers, student-teachers and teacher educators in five OECD countries. The findings from this pilot study will provide a very important starting point for a more ambitious and bigger ITEL Main Study.

Some people define teaching as an art. If this means that teaching takes ingenuity, creativity and artisan-like skillfulness, they’re certainly right. But acting as a creative craftsman is not enough to be an effective teacher, one who leaves a mark on students’ minds and lives. This requires a sophisticated body of knowledge that teachers can employ in everyday practice. Good teachers do not teach from a book, ‘applying’ textbook knowledge. They do something far more challenging: integrating a body of knowledge into their teaching behaviour and constantly mobilising those bits and pieces of knowledge that can steer their professional practice towards the best possible learning experiences for their students. Only by understanding and valuing how this process happens, we will truly understand what it means to be a ‘good teacher’.

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

photo credit: Katalin Vilimi, Pedagogical Knowledge and the Changing Nature of the Teaching Profession


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