Teacher knowledge matters

In my experience, most people think they know the cause of the seasons, but a lot of them are wrong. Some think the Earth is closer to the Sun in summer, but this cannot be true because otherwise we could not have summer on one point of the Earth at the same time as winter on a different point. Some think that particular parts of the Earth are closer to the Sun in summer, making them warmer, but this again is incorrect. The distance between the Earth and the Sun is far larger than any small variations in how the Earth is aligned.

The actual cause of the seasons involves abstract thinking. In the winter, the tilt of the Earth is such that the Sun’s energy is shared over a much larger area of the Earth’s surface than in the summer.

Why does this matter? Because highly intelligent adults often have misconceptions such as these ones about the seasons and the only way to get past them is by gaining specific knowledge.

Similarly, the same adults could have misconceptions or lack knowledge about reading instruction or mathematics instruction, despite being otherwise highly intelligent. It therefore seems clear that secondary teachers need a good grasp of the subject they teach and primary teachers, who are often generalists, need a good grounding in all foundational areas.

Yet, when you look at the research, it is possible to conclude that teacher knowledge does not matter. Typically, such research uses the proxy of additional qualifications and compares the effectiveness of teachers with, say, a masters degree with those who do not have one.

One such study is instructive. Conducted in North Carolina, it makes uses of that state’s extensive data collection and does indeed show that teachers with masters degrees are no more effective and, in some cases, are even less effective than those without.

But wait a second, this argument was about specific knowledge and we may have fallen in to the trap of assuming the existence of general skills and abilities that don’t actually exist. Why should writing essays about neoliberalism or Freire stop you from holding a misconception about the seasons?

And if we look at the North Carolina study in more detail, we can see that the researchers examined a number of factors other than masters degrees. North Carolina also requires teachers to sit licensure tests that assess their knowledge of the curriculum. Higher scores on these tests do correlate with more effective teaching.

So yes, teacher knowledge matters, but only if it is relevant to what they need to teach.


11 thoughts on “Teacher knowledge matters

  1. Given the choice, I would much rather my child’s high school teachers had a masters in their subject area rather than a masters in education (especially the variety now on offer at USyd).

  2. David F says:

    Looking at that North Carolina study, they only look ANY advanced degree (pg. 33)–it does not differentiate between masters in the subject field of the teacher or masters in education. Give me teachers with degrees in their subjects over the generic ed degrees any day, esp. for secondary ed…

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    Although being knowledgeable doesn’t necessarily make one into a good teacher, the mere fact that the EBTN can make such a statement betrays the anti-knowledge bias of the profession. It also reveals the extent to which the profession has isolated itself from the outside world, where the great majority of people would regard it as self-evidently absurd. And then we ask why pleas for more funding fall on deaf ears.

  4. Typically educational researchers are not knowledgeable on matters of specific curricular knowledge. Where they are, they typically are teachers doing a research project or two, for example math teachers filling the pages of journals on math education. The upshot being that more than a century of ‘educational research’ has left many white spots on the educational map. No wonder then that there is a strong belief, across the board, in ‘general skills’, and no sense of urgency where the endangered position of specific knowledge in education is concerned.
    My favorite on this long term development and its pernicious effects is Lee S. Shulman (1986) Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Building on Shulman’s ideas: Deborah Loewenberg Ball, Mark Hoover Thames, Geoffrey Phelps (2008). Content Knowledge for Teaching; What Makes It Special?

  5. “The actual cause of the seasons involves abstract thinking. In the winter, the tilt of the Earth is such that the Sun’s energy is shared over a much larger area of the Earth’s surface than in the summer.”

    This is an oversimplification. The angles matter.

    • Stan says:

      tilt = angle. Not sure what your point is.

      The odd thing about this statement from Greg who has lived in both north and south hemispheres is the statement that it is a much larger are of the Earth’s surface. I think he should say a hemisphere’s surface.

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