Encyclopedia of Teacher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Preservice Teacher Education

  • Jan van DrielEmail author
  • Amanda Berry
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-1179-6_176-1



Pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) refers to a specific form of knowledge for teaching related to the transformation of particular content in the context of enhancing student learning. It is the form of knowledge that distinguishes teachers from other kinds of subject matter experts. Teachers need this kind of knowledge to structure the content of their lessons, to choose or develop specific instructional strategies, and to understand and to anticipate how their students might learn, or fail to learn, particular content. Since the term pedagogical content knowledge was introduced to the education research community in 1986 by Lee Shulman in his presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, the term has become widely accepted as a means of describing the unique nature of teachers’ knowledge. Over the last 30 years, research investigating PCK and its integration into teacher education has proliferated. In the context of preservice teacher education, across the globe studies have been conducted on ways of developing PCK in different types of teacher education program, at different levels of schooling (elementary, secondary), and in different subject areas, in particular science and mathematics. However, while there is much support for the notion of PCK from the educational research community and researchers have begun to explore different ways of investigating what teachers know, there are few concrete examples of PCK in specific subject domains, especially outside of science and mathematics. Explanations to account for this paucity of concrete examples include the tacit nature of teachers’ knowledge and the lack of a shared structure or language to adequately capture and discuss that knowledge. In addition, teachers are often unaware of the knowledge they possess, due to its highly contextualized nature, associated with particular students, classroom situations, and events.

This chapter summarizes research on PCK in the context of preservice teacher education. The chapter begins with a brief review of the ways in which PCK has been conceptualized in the research literature, followed by an overview of teacher education program features and factors that, according to research, impact on the PCK of preservice teachers, approaches to studying PCK, and concludes with some remarks on the design of teacher education programs in relation to PCK.

Nature of PCK and How It Has Been Conceptualized

Pedagogical content knowledge was originally proposed by Shulman (1987) as one of the seven categories comprising the knowledge base for teaching. Three of the categories were content related (content knowledge, PCK and curriculum knowledge) with the other four referring to general pedagogy, learners and their characteristics, educational contexts, and educational purposes. In subsequent years, scholars have drawn upon this knowledge base for teaching as a starting point and have conceptualized PCK in a variety of ways; however, almost all scholars have included two key elements of PCK as knowledge of comprehensible representations of subject matter and understanding of subject-related learning difficulties. While the construct of PCK has become broadly accepted and well-embedded into educational research on teaching and teacher education, Shulman’s original conception has been critiqued on various grounds including lack of empirical evidence for the importance of PCK as a component of teachers’ knowledge, fuzzy boundaries with other categories of teacher knowledge, a narrow conceptualization of PCK in terms of teachers’ knowledge of instructional strategies and representations and knowledge of student conceptions and learning difficulties, and the implication that PCK is a kind of static, factual knowledge that teachers acquire and can apply independently from one classroom context to another.

These criticisms have inspired several modifications of the PCK construct. Drawing on the initial ideas of Shulman, modifications have included adding other categories of knowledge in PCK from the knowledge base for teaching, such as knowledge of curriculum, or adding new categories such as assessment. As an example, Magnusson et al. (1999) conceptualized PCK as consisting of five components: (a) orientations toward science teaching, (b) knowledge of the curriculum, (c) knowledge of science assessment, (d) knowledge of science learners, and (e) knowledge of instructional strategies. This model of PCK has been particularly influential in research on science teacher knowledge, and further adaptations of this model have been used by various scholars. In the domain of mathematics, the complex relationship between teachers’ content knowledge and their PCK has inspired researchers to develop the construct, Mathematical Knowledge for Teaching (MKT; Ball et al. 2008). This construct is presented as a reorganization of Shulman’s notion, in particular focusing on the role of content knowledge in the context of teaching and learning mathematics. More recently, scholars have proposed to distinguish between PCK as a collective body of (explicated) knowledge, personal PCK that each teacher develops through education and experience, and the PCK that teachers draw upon and enact in particular classroom situations (Hume et al. 2019).

Different views exist about whether PCK is considered knowledge for teachers or knowledge of teachers. In a knowledge for teachers view, PCK is seen as expert teacher knowledge that in a normative or prescriptive way can or should be passed on to preservice and beginning teachers. Taking this view also implies that PCK can be measured or assessed to distinguish between teachers with strong and weak PCK. On the other hand, a knowledge of teachers view sees PCK as the professional knowledge developed by individual teachers on the basis of their experiences during teacher education and practice that is inseparably connected with the context in which it is developed and used and hence cannot be assessed in any kind of comparative or normative way. The latter view seems more consistent with Shulman’s original definition of PCK as a form of specialized knowledge and professional understanding that is unique to individual teachers.

PCK in Preservice Teacher Education Programs

The large majority of empirical studies on PCK in preservice teacher education have been carried out in the subject domains of science and mathematics, with a relatively smaller number of studies in physical education, language, drama, geography, and history (Berry et al. 2016). In terms of the broad design of teacher education, research to date indicates the importance of formal teacher education in developing the PCK of preservice teachers (PSTs). However, studies that aimed to compare subject matter knowledge (SMK) and PCK of PSTs across programs and countries have shown mixed and sometimes contradictory results to date. Partly, this is related to the different ways in which teacher education programs are structured. A distinction needs to be made between undergraduate programs, which offer subject matter and methods courses in a parallel fashion, and postgraduate programs that consider SMK as an entry requirement. In the former type, students are acquiring SMK and PCK simultaneously throughout the program, whereas in the latter type, students are supposed to have acquired the relevant SMK and develop their PCK on this basis. Depending on the level of subject matter knowledge of preservice teachers at the start of their program, the development of PCK may proceed differently. Also, the contradictory results mentioned above highlight the need for valid, standardized instruments and procedures that are sensitive to the particular contextual aspects of programs and countries.

Program Organization

Studies on ways of structuring and organizing preservice teacher education programs to promote the development of PCK have reported varying impact. Findings suggest that PSTs experience difficulty bringing together subject-matter courses and education courses where there is no explicit integration of the teacher education program for this purpose. In programs that are not explicitly structured to help promote the integration of different kinds of knowledge, PSTs seem to maintain a view of subject matter and pedagogy as separate, as opposed to the integrated knowledge base promoted by PCK. Also, in non-integrated programs, PST knowledge development tends to be influenced most strongly by personal and contextual factors, resulting in preservice teachers often adopting conventional instructional strategies with a focus on learning procedures rather than student understanding. In contrast, the development of PCK may benefit from a design that integrates institute-based activities with opportunities in authentic classrooms for teaching of subject matter. Field work or internships can provide such opportunities and appear to contribute to the development of PCK; however, there is no straightforward relationship between the amount of field work and PCK development. In some programs, the development of PCK is combined with the development of beliefs about teaching and learning and PSTs’ sense of self-efficacy. Research in such settings demonstrates that the development of PCK goes together with PSTs’ increased confidence to teach specific subject matter.

Studies on the development of SMK and PCK in the context of institution-based coursework in teacher education programs (i.e., method courses) generally indicate that specific approaches and interventions in such courses can be successful. Specifically, significant gains in the development of preservice teachers’ PCK have been reported from short-term, intensive skill-oriented workshops and targeted activities, for example, designing and teaching a series of lessons on a particular topic and conducting action research to analyze and reflect on the salient outcomes of these lessons. In some programs, a structured framework is implemented to represent the teaching and learning of specific content (“big ideas”) and thus foster the development of PCK, in combination with reflective tasks (such as writing reports and/or sharing experiences in collaborative meetings). Designs like this have been applied in programs for both preservice and in-service teachers. Findings from studies on such approaches indicate that PCK is developed through regular opportunities for reflection and sense making experiences about classroom practice (individual and shared) and particular kinds of activities that scaffold preservice teacher thinking about connections between learner ideas and particular instructional approaches. However, studies also highlight that the growth of PCK cannot always be explained as resulting from particular interventions. Instead, such studies show PCK development is a complex, nonlinear process connected with deepening subject matter knowledge and improved awareness of pedagogical issues. Importantly, the development of PCK and SMK appears to be a reciprocal process rather than PCK following or building on SMK.

Factors Influencing PCK Development

Overall, outcomes from research investigating PCK development over time highlight the complex pattern of interactions between different knowledge bases comprising PCK that grow in different ways, shaped by classroom experiences and teacher personal characteristics (such as beliefs about students, learning and teaching). Specifically, PSTs’ limited subject matter knowledge has been identified as a major issue restricting the development of their PCK during initial teacher education. When PSTs’ content knowledge is limited and contains misconceptions, they hardly develop their PCK. This is particularly the situation in undergraduate and elementary teacher education programs where students enter the program with little, if any, disciplinary knowledge in their backgrounds. Especially, PCK research in the domains of mathematics and science teaching reports persistent problems related to weaknesses in the SMK of preservice teachers. Research on elementary PSTs has demonstrated that providing them with curriculum materials to engage elementary students’ interest around particular science content can support PSTs to begin to teach science with some success that consequently initiates the development of their PCK.

Next to SMK, teaching experience has been identified as a major influence on PCK development. Preservice teachers’ lack of teaching experience therefore obviously limits the development of their PCK in the context of an initial teacher education program. Added to this, PSTs’ concerns about their confidence and competence to teach, and their lack of classroom routines, also serve to hinder PCK development. Until a teacher has gained sufficient classroom confidence and has developed some basic skills, the development of their PCK as a readily useable and useful translation of subject-matter knowledge into their classroom practice may be delayed. However, teaching experience alone is not sufficient for the successful development of PCK. Research has shown that accumulating teaching experience in the absence of an organized program does not necessarily lead to the development of PCK. It appears to be crucial to provide PSTs with structured experiences for reflection on the connections between subject matter knowledge and classroom practices, focusing on student learning of that subject matter, to facilitate PCK development.

A further factor influencing PSTs’ PCK development is their emerging knowledge of how students learn specific subject matter. Central to the notion of PCK is that instruction can only be effective if it is attuned to the ways in which school students learn specific subject matter. Given PSTs’ limited knowledge of student learning, their ability to plan effective instruction or anticipate student misconceptions or learning difficulties is minimal. Studies of elementary teacher education programs provide some evidence that offering PSTs opportunities to observe student learning in practice and to study research literature related to student conceptions about particular topics can help build their knowledge of student learning and thus contribute to the development of their PCK. Studies on secondary preservice teacher education in the domain of science report that designing and teaching a series of lessons focusing on an important science curriculum topic helped to promote PSTs’ awareness of instructional strategies related to student thinking about the topic, and hence their PCK development.

Some studies across different subject domains have focused on the role of school-based mentors or supervisors to support PCK development of preservice teachers. These studies provide some evidence that the role of teacher educators, both institution- and school-based, is important in PCK development of preservice teachers. Specifically, it has been shown that the school-based mentor plays a key role in the development of preservice teachers’ PCK. Particular actions such as focused, in-depth discussions around specific elements of classroom practice, encouragement to experiment with different instructional practices, and guided questioning seem to enhance PSTs’ reflection on the teaching and learning of subject matter and, consequently, contribute to their PCK development.

Methods of Studying PCK

Different methods for studying PCK can be linked to different “ways of seeing” PCK as a specific kind of knowledge that individuals acquire and possess, which is untied to time and space, versus a more situated kind of knowledge that is constantly evolving, achieved through participation in authentic situations. In the latter view, which is consistent with the notion that PCK is knowledge of teachers, PCK tends to be explored in situ, focusing on how PSTs, or teachers in general, actually teach specific content in classroom settings. In situ studies may collect data over a period of time rather than capturing PCK at a particular instant. Typically, these approaches are characterized by the use of multiple data collection instruments, such as interviews and observation protocols, and combine the collected data in a triangulation procedure. Typically, studies in this strand are small scale and tend to focus on the PCK of PSTs or beginning teachers and its development. If PCK is seen as knowledge for teachers, that is, less context and person dependent, “prompts” are often used as elicitation tasks to investigate PCK. Prompts may confront PSTs with students’ answers to questions in a standardized student achievement test or vignettes of typical classroom situations. Several authors have developed paper-and-pencil tasks consisting of items based around such prompts to assess the PCK of preservice or in-service teachers in particular domains.


Based on the available research, it can be concluded that particular interventions in teacher education programs can contribute to enhancing the PCK of preservice teachers. These interventions include building deliberate program connections between learning of subject matter and pedagogy, that is, teaching the same subject matter and sharing and reflecting on teaching experiences. While PCK is considered an important construct that teachers require to support effective learning of particular subject matter, questions still remain about how PCK can be best implemented in initial teacher education programs. While PCK development is an explicit goal of many teacher education programs around the world, it remains a challenge to achieve the aspirational outcomes due to several reasons. These include the way in which teacher education programs are structured, e.g., in terms of sequencing institute-based courses and field work and different emphases on various knowledge components and their integration and the relatively short time period of preservice teacher preparation (thereby limiting opportunities for PCK development). Added to these challenges are the different definitions and models of PCK that researchers have been using, within and across different disciplines.

PCK should be considered as dynamic, that is, it continues to develop over time based on teachers’ experiences of regularly teaching specific topics. It is important to recognize that an individual teacher’s PCK needs to develop flexibly in response to differences between individual learners, different classroom contexts, and situations. While the complex and personal nature of PCK should be emphasized, it does seem both possible and worthwhile to capture and share preservice teachers’ PCK in such a way that key ideas about teaching and learning of specific subject matter can be made explicit and become part of a collective professional knowledge base. Also, making ideas explicit among preservice teachers in this way contributes to the establishment of a collective understanding of preservice teachers’ personal professional knowledge about teaching specific subject matter. This understanding can serve to inform more purposeful design of teacher education programs.



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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Melbourne Graduate School of EducationThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.Faculty of EducationMonash UniversityClaytonAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jukka Husu
    • 1
  1. 1.University of TurkuTurkuFinland