Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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10. Organizing What We Know - The Structure of the Disciplines

Session Content Outline

Key Questions

  • How does the way knowledge is organized influence learning?
  • How can teachers use the structure of a discipline to organize their teaching and enhance student learning?

Learning Objectives
  • Structure of the disciplines – Teachers will understand that disciplines have structures representing interrelated core ideas and particular modes of inquiry. They will think about how to use these core ideas and inquiry tools to help students understand disciplinary ideas more deeply.
  • Pedagogical content knowledge – Teachers will consider the kinds of knowledge of content and students they need in order to represent disciplinary ideas so that they are more likely to be understood.

Session Outline

There are two ways to think about the principles of learning: One is to ask, "What are the principles that are so general and universal that in some ways they apply regardless of what you are teaching and to whom?" But there are also principles of learning that are particular to the domain under study and to the kinds of understanding that the learner brings to the table. Expert teaching in a subject matter rests on an understanding of how particular students are likely to come to this knowledge – what can be done to bridge the distance between what students understand and what counts as expert knowledge in the field. This is the essence of "pedagogical content knowledge," which is the special expertise that teachers have about subject matter and how to teach it.

At the core of pedagogical content knowledge is a deep understanding of the structure of the discipline – how knowledge is organized and pursued in a particular subject area – connected to a deep understanding of the particular students being taught. This disciplinary structure can be reflected in the curriculum and in teachers' pedagogical strategies. The structure of the discipline affects two things:

  • how knowledge and ideas are related and interconnected
  • how inquiries are carried out

Structure of the Disciplines
  • All subject areas have structures that reveal the ways their core ideas are connected with one another.
  • Each discipline has a different structure. Subject matters differ not only in terms of their core ideas, but also in terms of how inquiries are carried out.
  • The structures of the disciplines are the building blocks for organizing the curriculum to engage students in activities and experiences around these core ideas.

Organization of Core Ideas
  • Joseph Schwab explained the notion of the "structure" of a discipline by focusing first on the way the core ideas of a discipline are organized: What are the building blocks that reflect the central concepts in a discipline, and how do they connect with one another?
  • Jerome Bruner approaches the structure of the disciplines by considering the psychology of learning and development, memory, and transfer. Bruner describes how students' interest and enjoyment of learning can be heightened through the "sense of excitement of discovery" they experience as the structure of a discipline becomes clear to them.
  • Both Bruner and Schwab assert that students can understand the basic concepts of subject matter at an early age when they are taught in an intellectually honest way. In fact, Bruner suggests that students be taught in a spiral curriculum that introduces central concepts in the disciplines early in a child's education and revisits these concepts again and again in the later grades in more sophisticated ways.
  • Teachers can help students understand the structure of a topic by providing an overarching conceptualization of the big ideas and then locating specific facts or information that relate to the big ideas.

Central Modes of Inquiry

Schwab also considered the central modes of inquiry and knowledge-finding tools of the disciplines:

  • How does each discipline construct, critique, and revise knowledge?
  • How do you know something is true?
  • What counts as evidence?

Structure and Curriculum

key ideas and differing ways of posing and answering questions – should inform the overall curriculum. Making decisions about what ought to be taught involves asking –

  • "What are the properties of an activity, task, or project that will lead to the greatest teaching and learning?
  • What is the organization of ideas that would make it most coherent, understandable, learnable, and transferable by a student?
  • How does one match the activity with students' interests and abilities?" (Shulman, 2001)

Pedagogical Content Knowledge
  • "Pedagogical content knowledge" is an understanding of what kinds of experiences, what kinds of objects, and what kind of examples can be used to help students acquire an understanding of complex ideas.
  • Pedagogical content knowledge "represents the blending of content and pedagogy into an understanding of how particular topics, problems, or issues are organized, represented, and adapted to the diverse interests and abilities of learners, and presented for instruction" (Shulman, 1987, p. 8).
  • Pedagogical content knowledge is shaped not only by how teachers think about why they are teaching their subject, but also by their understanding of what they are teaching, how they are creating curriculum, and when students are ready for learning.
  • The goal of teaching is not only to encourage particular understandings, but also to develop dispositions, values, commitments, and attitudes particular to a content area.
  • One of the misconceptions about pedagogical content knowledge is that it is a memorized set of analogies, diagrams, or tricks for each of the main concepts. Rather, this approach requires ascertaining what the students already understand, or misunderstand, and applying a set of strategies to build bridges between students and content.

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