Why instructors should learn from each other

Instructors who teach the same content have something valuable to offer that few others have: pedagogical content knowledge.

Content knowledge

Instructors who are experienced professionals in their field have a thorough understanding of the subject matter they teach. This is called their content knowledge. To upgrade or update their content knowledge, instructors can take industry training, go to work in their industry again for a period of time, attend a manufacturer demonstration or take a professional development course.

Pedagogical knowledge

Experienced instructors also have practical knowledge of how to teach. This is called their pedagogical knowledge. To upgrade or update their pedagogical knowledge, instructors can take workshops, courses and education in teaching.

Pedagogical content knowledge

Both content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge are important for teaching excellence. However, to truly teach a certain topic well, an instructor needs knowledge of how to teach a specific topic. This is why Lee Shulman introduced the term: pedagogical content knowledge. Shulman wrote:

Within the category of pedagogical content knowledge I include, for the most regularly taught topics in one’s subject area, the most useful forms of representation of those ideas, the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and demonstrations- in a word, the ways of representing and formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others. Since there are no single most powerful forms of representation, the teacher must have at hand a veritable armamentarium of alternative forms of representation, some of which derive from research whereas others originate in the wisdom of practice.

Pedagogical content knowledge also includes an understanding of what makes the learning of specific topics easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning of those most frequently taught topics and lessons. If those preconceptions are misconceptions, which they so often are, teachers need knowledge of the strategies most likely to be fruitful in reorganizing the understanding of learners, because those learners are unlikely to appear before them as blank slates.

(Shulman 1986 Shulman, L.S., 1986. Those who understand: knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 15, 4–14. 10.3102/0013189X015002004[Crossref][Google Scholar], p. 9)

An example of pedagogical content knowledge, is the knowledge required to teach students how to put an electrical circuit box together. Students should not only be able to connect certain colored wires with the right colors. They also need to know what happens when the wrong wires are connected, and why. Only instructors who have taught circuit boxes before know what the common mistakes are that students make, and how to guide students to a better understanding. This is why instructors who are bound to teach a course they have not taught before can best learn from fellow instructors who have taught this content before, by:

  • asking for teaching materials and advice
  • observing a colleague teach the course they will be teaching themselves
  • requesting peer feedback on self-developed assignments for the course
  • informal conversations on how to address common student questions and illustrate concepts

While most instructors will do this peer learning naturally, administrators can help by:

  • scheduling teaching in a way that allows instructors who are new to the course to observe colleagues with more experience with that course
  • provide a shared digital space for instructors to upload and download each others’ teaching materials
  • allow for and recognize the importance of informal conversations and positive work relations in the instructional team

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