Just as you get songs stuck in your head, sometimes I get graphs stuck in mine. Like this one:
Now, like any catchy song, this graph runs its risks. The astute and thoughtful Tracy Zager objects to the entire premise of this graph, making three key points:
- Teachers of young, fresh-faced kids need deep content knowledge, too! Try explaining what it means to divide or multiply fractions. It’s shockingly hard! Most high school teachers can’t do it. And yet deep understanding of core concepts like is crucial for elementary teachers.
- Teachers of old, decrepit kids need pedagogical skills, too! It doesn’t matter how expert you are if you only know how to deliver dry-as-chalk-dust lectures and pass out worksheets. You’ve got to meaningfully and creatively engage with your students, whatever their age.
- This zero-sum approach is probably not healthy for teachers!
(For what it’s worth: I totally agree. Check back for a follow-up post soon.)
Still, I hear this graph echoing my experience. It’s not a photorealistic portrait, but it’s a recognizable caricature. The basic ingredients of teaching don’t change, but the recipe does.
The question is: Does this graph show us the world as it should be, or merely the disappointing reality we’ve got now?
For preschool, I think this is a fair model. The content demands are low: you’ve gotta know the colors, the farm animals, and how to say “please” and “thank you.”
But the job demands exquisitely specialized knowledge about human development, which I’m here calling “pedagogy.” (Can you spot how motor development interacts with language acquisition? Are you all read up on your Piaget?)
Elementary school shifts the balance a bit. To teach reading, yes, you need to be a good reader yourself. But even more, you need to unpack and inspect the challenges of early literacy in a way that most adults never have.
Is that “pedagogy” or “content”? It’s hard to say. The binary breaks down a bit.
A crossover happens at middle school, when you go from teaching a single group many subjects to teaching many groups a single subject.
Expertise now really matters, but pedagogy remains vital. It’s no good knowing cool, sophisticated stuff if you can’t make it accessible and appealing, too. Emphasizing one over the other is a losing battle.
High school tips the balance, for the first time, decidedly towards content. It’s damn hard to teach trig if you don’t know it yourself.
But it’s also hard to teach it if you can’t climb inside the minds of your students and design lessons that will inspire deep thinking.
When it comes to teaching undergraduates, I don’t want to undersell pedagogy. Clearly it matters, and many of the best undergraduate educators are keenly aware of new research and fresh methodologies.
But at the same time, good undergrad pedagogy can be as simple as “explaining things well,” “listening sensitively to feedback,” and “offering time and energy to your students.” Tactics like these aren’t the specialized provenance of teachers. They’re just good communication.
And finally, when teaching graduate students, human warmth and social skills still matter, but content expertise is so rare and precious that it necessarily dominates.
For example, I consider myself a caring, thoughtful person and a pretty decent pedagogue. Those are invaluable skills for a PhD advisor in any subject – say, anthropology. But don’t pick me to advise yours, because I only know about 90 seconds’ worth of anthropology.
I think it’s because, Monday mornings this year, I welcome my 6th-grade homeroom then immediately turn around and teach 12th-grade “higher-level” mathematics.
I’m only shuffle-stepping around the middle part of that graph, but already, the differences are stark.
Some days, I prefer teaching the older guys—fully formed scholars, actively specializing, seeking content expertise.
But other days, I prefer working with the little fellows—budding humans, still maturing, just beginning to know themselves.
POSTSCRIPT: Suffice it to say that my thinking is ever evolving on this stuff! (And so is this post; sorry for those who have commented on bits that I’ve now edited out.)
I agree with a lot of what Tracy says in the comments below; but I also think there are good reasons that our educational system is structured the way it is: with primary school taught by generalists, and middle/high school by subject specialists.
Anyway, check back soon for a follow-up!