What is CKT?

Content knowledge for teaching, or what is commonly referred to as CKT, focuses on the content knowledge used by teachers to recognize, understand, and respond to the content challenges encountered in teaching (Ball, Thames, & Phelps, 2008; National Academies, 2015; National Research Council, 2013; Shulman, 1986). CKT is a specialized form of knowledge that teachers use as they engage directly in the work of teaching and, as such, it is a form of applied knowledge. CKT goes beyond merely knowing the subject matter and includes professional knowledge that teachers draw upon as they engage in the work of teaching within a specific discipline.

Why is CKT important?

Elementary science teachers draw upon their CKT as they engage in a wide range of content tasks (Phelps et al., 2014). These content tasks can occur both inside and outside the classroom to support their students’ learning. For example, they use their CKT when figuring out how to best interpret students’ thinking and probe for understanding about specific science ideas and misconceptions (Coffey et al., 2011; Forbes, Sabel, & Biggers, 2015; Levin, 2013); when using curriculum materials to determine which instructional strategies would be most beneficial to address specific science instructional goals (Davis, 2006; Davis & Smithey, 2009); and when evaluating the affordances and limitations of various science instructional activities for creating coherent content storylines (Roth et al., 2011).

CKT is one of the important factors that supports elementary science teachers in being able to engage successfully in critical teaching practices, such as interpreting students’ scientific ideas, constructing explanations of scientific phenomena for elementary students, and selecting and modifying resources (e.g., curriculum materials; science investigations; scientific models and representations; etc.) for instructional use within elementary science classrooms.    

How do elementary teachers use CKT?

Earlier efforts detailed a set of science-specific teaching practices that are most critical for beginning elementary teachers, which resulted in the development of the ‘Work of Teaching Science’ framework (Mikeska et al., 2018). This framework focuses on the content challenges that novice elementary science teachers face and is organized by the instructional tools (e.g., scientific models and explanations) and practices that elementary science teachers use This framework defines the ‘knowledge in action’ that is leveraged by science teachers in their daily work and can be used to guide the development of CKT assessment instruments and tasks.

Instructional Tools Examples of Instructional Practices
1. Scientific Instructional Goals, Big Ideas, and Topics Choosing which science ideas or instructional activities are most closely related to a particular instructional goal
2. Scientific Resources (texts, curriculum materials, etc.) Evaluating instructional materials for their ability to address scientific concepts; engage students with relevant phenomena; promote students’ scientific thinking; and assess student progress
3. Scientific Models and Representations Evaluating or selecting scientific models and representations that predict or explain scientific phenomena or address instructional goals
4. Student Ideas Analyzing student ideas in relation to intended scientific learning
5. Scientific Language, Discourse, and Vocabulary Anticipating scientific language, discourse and vocabulary that may be difficult for students
6. Scientific Explanations Critiquing student-generated explanations or descriptions for their accuracy, precision, or consistency with scientific evidence
7. Scientific Investigations and Demonstrations
Selecting investigations or demonstrations that facilitate understanding of disciplinary core ideas, scientific practice, or cross-cutting concepts

How can we define CKT for matter?

By identifying core concepts related to a topic, we can begin to articulate specific elements of teachers CKT. For example, elementary students learn about matter —its structures and properties, the physical and chemical changes that can occur to it, and the particles that make it up. Investigations can be carried out to observe, measure, and identify various materials according to their properties, such as reflectiveness, color, and hardness. This topic area targets reversible and irreversible changes that happen to materials from heating, cooling, and mixing of substances. Evidence can be used to categorize changes such as those observed when (a) heating butter or an egg, or (b) freezing water or a leaf. Investigations address whether substances that interact in a chemical reaction become new substances with different properties. Evidence from these investigations can support an argument that the overall weight of the materials is conserved regardless of what change occurs, including the apparent disappearance of materials. Learning about matter also includes the idea that objects are made of small pieces that can be taken apart and recombined to form a new object and the idea that all matter consists of particles that are so small as to be invisible. Students are expected to develop a particle model that could explain why adding an invisible gas to a balloon increases its volume, or sugar added to a glass of water seems to disappear.

If we map each of these content ideas onto the various instructional tools in the Work of Teaching Science framework, we can identify specific elements of teachers’ CKT related to the teaching of matter.

Intersections between content ideas and the Work of Teaching Science


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Coffey, J. E., Hammer, D., Levin, D. M., & Grant, T. (2011). The missing disciplinary substance of formative assessment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(10), 1109-1136.

Davis, E. A. (2006). Preservice elementary teachers’ critique of instructional materials for science. Science Education, 90(2), 348-375.

Davis, E. A., & Smithey, J. (2009). Beginning teachers moving toward effective elementary science teaching. Science Education, 93(4), 745-770.

Forbes, C. T., Sabel, J. L., & Biggers, M. (2015). Elementary teachers’ use of formative assessment to support students’ learning about interactions between the hydrosphere and geosphere. Journal of Geoscience Education, 63(3), 210-221.

Levin, D. T. (2013). Becoming a responsive science teacher: Focusing on student thinking in secondary science. Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Mikeska, J.N., Kurzum, C., Steinberg, J., & Xu, J. (2018). Assessing elementary science teachers’ content knowledge for teaching science for the ETS Educator Series: Pilot results. (Research Report No. RR-18-20). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2015). Science teachers learning: Enhancing opportunities, creating supportive contexts. Committee on Strengthening Science Education through a Teacher Learning Continuum. Board on Science Education and Teacher Advisory Council, Division of Behavioral and Social Science and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2013). Monitoring progress toward successful K-12 STEM education: A nation advancing? Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Phelps, G., Weren, B., Croft, A., & Gitomer, D. (2014). Developing content knowledge for teaching assessments for the Measures of Effective Teaching study (ETS Research Report No. RR-14-33). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Roth, K. J., Garnier, H. E., Chen, C., Lemmens, M., Schwille, K., & Wickler, N. I. (2011). Videobased lesson analysis: Effective science PD for teacher and student learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(2), 117-148.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.