Dewey and Pedagogical content knowledge

Lee Schulman’s concept of a teacher’s work and knowledge, which is dominating the research interests in the present time, categorizes it as something which is closer to the notion of techne in Aristotle. This type of characterization of PCK or teacher’s work as techne stands in sharp contrast with the understanding of teacher’s work which is closer to the notion of phronesis or practical wisdom.
Lee Schulman has identified PCK as a special blending of content and pedagogical knowledge, while keeping in view the specific needs of learners, to be utilized in a classroom. He has actually presumed the distinction between the content and method to postulate that it is through a long experience and trial and error that a teacher comes to develop an effective blend of content and method. This formulation presumes that there is a content, which a teacher has to give a form, while utilizing the pedagogical strategies that he or she has learned from different sources.
Moreover, the activity of blending the content and method cannot possibly be an end in itself as far as teaching is concerned. Whatever maybe the place where this blending takes place, whether it takes place during a teacher’s interaction with his her students or while a teacher is reflecting on the experiences, it is true that it is the product of this blending that is important. The process of blending is not in itself a source of complete satisfaction for the teacher.
Aristotle while describing the nature of techne describes it as an activity that comprises in producing something out of nothing through blending a particular form with a content, through an activity guided by true reason. Techne does not have its goal within its activity; its goal is the product that is the end result of an activity.
This concept of techne closely resembles Schulman’s notion of PCK. In both cases there is an agent who is involved in giving a certain content a certain form through a chain of activities guided by reason. Both have an end product that is different from the initial stuff , that is content and form, and to both the activity in itself is not the final aim. The final aim is the product , that is to be utilized in a certain situation.

Although Schulman has acknowledged that he has followed the footsteps of Dewey among others in developing his ideas, his formulation of teachers work stands in a stark contrast with that of Dewey. Dewey’s notion of teacher’s work is closely associated with the Aristotelian notion of phronesis.
Phronesis, according to Aristotle, is different from techne in it that it is first of all concerned with doing , and secondly , it has no aim beyond the action itself. The aim and means in phronesis remain so close to each other that the performance of activity itself becomes the aim. One who exercises phronesis aims at the general good which is happiness or eudaimonia , and which is achieved by a morally good person as he or she performs the chosen activity. Phronesis involves in acting according to one’s dispositions and  the activity thus performed always results in satisfaction. A virtuous action is an end in itself, and does not aim at anything beyond it.

Dewey’s understanding of a teacher’s work is closely related to this formulation of phronesis. Since Phronesis is different from techne, there is no question of blending a form and a content, to produce an end result. Similarly in Dewey’s concept of education the dichotomy between the form and the content is overcome. This renders education a form closer to phronesis.

The accounts of teachers’ experiences reported by various prominent researchers have suggested that the course of reaching success in teaching closely resembles the practice of practical wisdom. Let us see how the concepts used by Aristotle in the depiction of phronesis can be applied to the experiences of the teacher to develop a better understanding of the process of the development of PCK.
Saint Thomas Aquinas has described teaching as a combination of contemplative and active pursuits. One’s knowledge of the subject that one teaches, his knowledge of the various truths related to the learners and the issues of learning and one’s knowledge of the various methods of teaching corresponds to the contemplative side of the activity of teaching. Whereas, when a teacher enters a particular situation in which he or she has to teach a certain subject to the learners, to this or that particular learner, a teacher enters the domain of the active side of the teaching. And it is here that the understanding of practical wisdom helps us.
A successful teacher is in fact a practically wise person, who possess and practices phronesis. Thus, the teacher as a practically wise person has to satisfy certain condition of being practically wise. And there are two such conditions. Since practical wisdom enables a man to desire a correct end and a correct way of reaching that aim, therefore, a practically wise teacher should be able to desire correctly and should be able to select a proper means to do so.
What does a teacher desire? The desire of a teacher is to teach a piece of knowledge to his students. And his choice of the course of action to achieve this end is his method. And this choice of the means and end should be guided by the virtue or the disposition of the mind that a teacher has.
So what is the virtue of a teacher? What bent of mind should a teacher possess? The answer lies in the rising value that the educationist now a days place on democratic model of education, in which a learner is active and educational process is based on the true motivation of the learner to learn. The aspiration of a teacher towards the democratic and interactive model of education of Dewey is the right bent of mind for a teacher. So the virtue that the teacher of our times has to practice, and the value that a teacher is taught in the modern day teachers’ training program is that of democratic interactive model proposed by Dewey.
Teachers of our time are disposed towards the democratic mode. Their teachers teach them to value the modern educational ideals. This valuation of the democratic and interactive model develops a conscience in teachers that feels bad whenever a teacher fails to act in its direction. And that’s what John Loughran et al have described in their research titled Learning through experiencing. They equated the instant when a teacher realizes that something is wrong with his her teaching as a moment of awakening, and usually this moment of awakening lies in realizing that they have to replace the transmissive learning mode with an interactive one. They write:

Attempting to meet such aims obviously confronts the notion of teaching as transmission of information. However, in attempting to address these concerns, Mandi and Philippa found it to be demanding work. There was little real support available to them...Therefore , they were left to work through their issues alone and to construct their teaching in new and different ways...”

The further write:
“Just as Garry Hoban experienced an awakening in relation to his views of and subsequent approaches to teaching, for many teachers there are ongoing and subtle reminders of the mismatch between their
intentions for teaching and the practice that evolves as a consequence of the dailiness of teaching
(Loughran & Northfield, 1996).”

This clearly shows that it is an inner sense of dissatisfaction from the traditional way of teaching that changes the practice of a teacher. This type of awakening is in fact the awakening of a new virtue and new value system in education.
This is further enhanced by the excerpt:

PEEL (Baird & Mitchell, 1986; Baird & Northfield, 1992; Loughran, 1999) is an example of a
movement in education that directly responds to teachers’ concerns about students’ passive learning;
which itself is partly a consequence of “traditional” teaching. PEEL teachers view teaching as
problematic and have become expert at developing teaching procedures that are the antithesis of
transmissive teaching. The accumulated wisdom of practice evident in their work (shared and
disseminated through a diverse range of meetings, conferences, and publications) is driven by their desire to challenge students’ passive learning habits in order to develop their metacognitve skills, and to
therefore become more active, purposeful learners. As a consequence, PEEL teachers’ knowledge of
teaching is such that it demonstrates how thinking about teaching as something more than the delivery of information, is a foundation to strong, ongoing professional learning.

However the practice of this new virtue in one’s professional life is not easy. One finds oneself at odds with the whole system of education, with the routines one has to follow. The opposition is strong but not invincible.

Researches on PCK  have also revealed that teachers sometimes find what they have learnt from their teachers’ training courses in part irrelevant to the practical situation.

“What Mandi and Philippa then came to recognize was that the changes in their teaching comprised a
journey, not an event. They did not teach one way at the start of their adventure and then suddenly
transform their teaching overnight to become new and different teachers. They came to develop their
teaching as they experimented with their practice and built new understandings of teacher and student
learning. Their journey involved many false starts, much frustration, considerably more work and time
and the development of new scripts that challenged their previous routines in teaching science. Their
professional learning, while being personally rewarding, was not something able to be garnered from a
book on curriculum reform, or developed as a result of an in-service or professional development activity. “

The statement above that says that the professional learning has nothing to with the in-service professional development activity does not seem apt. For if teaching is the exercise of practical wisdom or phronesis, it should know both universal and the particular. Like a doctor who knows that this or that medicine cures this or that disease from his learning at the school, but knows how to use the medicine to cure a particular person only from experience. Similarly, the universal concepts of education should be known for their knowledge can be very effective in dealing with the particular situation.

Lee Schulman described pedagogical content knowledge as a special blend of content knowledge and pedagogical strategies that a teacher uses in the teaching of a particular content area.
Researches on the nature of pedagogical content knowledge have described it as a highly content, context and person specific knowledge. It is a knowledge that results from years of practice and reflection on practice and it involves taking a right pedagogical decision at a right time and for the right purpose.
Thus pedagogical content knowledge does not only involve the in depth knowledge of the content area but it also involves a correct use of reasoning as to the selection of a proper strategy to teach that content to the student while keeping in view the specific students requirements in terms of their learning needs .
This way of describing pedagogical content knowledge makes it so specific that it is believed that it cannot be delivered to the teachers through instruction alone. Some of the researches suggested that owing to its specific nature, PCK can only develop through practice.
Although this way of characterizing PCK identifies it as a strictly specific type of knowledge, yet to be a type of knowledge there must be some kind of universal element in it. For the knowledge of a specific situation in which there is no element of generality cannot be called knowledge proper. Knowledge basically is an interaction between subject and object and hence bears the characteristics of both.
An in-service or pre-service teachers’ training program can contribute towards the development of PCK through teaching the general ideas related to the blend of content and method.


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