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Expert ‘teacher moves’ that impact student learning

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In this comparative case study, I examine how two expert American high school teachers design, organise and teach their classes to identify teacher pedagogical ‘content moves’ that are either subject-specific or cross-subject. This project provides a potential starting point for devising a tangible teaching-learning framework for training pre-service and novice teachers.


Pedagogical content knowledge encompasses teachers’ knowledge and understanding of subject-specific content and how to effectively teach it. Since 1986, when Lee Shulman first introduced teachers needing to extend beyond the ‘what’ of content to the ‘why’, a wealth of research has explored how teachers develop their knowledge of content and how to teach it in ways that build and strengthen student understanding.

Empirical research sheds light on teachers’ difficulty in developing PCK (Ball et al., 2008). Despite this challenge, however, research suggests that it is possible for pre-service and early career teachers to build PCK, particularly when teachers actively partake in discerning, gauging and increasing their content area knowledge (Nilsson and Loughran, 2011).

As a way to address this PCK complexity, Loughran et al. (2004) devised a collaborative interview protocol, with the aim of extracting teachers’ content knowledge, and specific strategies for teaching content to impact student learning. This protocol comprises eight interview questions aimed at accessing teachers’ collective understanding of subject-specific content and how they teach it, as well as individual input, including teaching procedures, classroom observation descriptions, curriculum challenges and student understanding.

Although Loughran et al.’s protocol has been extensively used in science education research, use of their model for other subject areas remains largely unreported in the literature. Additionally, with perhaps the exception of science education, frameworks aimed at building pre-service and novice teacher PCK seem to be lacking. This research project, therefore, begins to address these gaps by considering how we might examine, describe and compare PCK across subjects (for this project, biology and English language arts).


This research project employed a comparative case study approach, undertaken with two expert American secondary-level teachers who work at the same urban high school in San Francisco, California. Specifically, I adopted Dul and Hak’s (2007) comparative case study approach of a small number of cases in a real-life context, analysed qualitatively.

Research questions and data-collection

  1. How do expert English language arts and biology teachers design their instruction?
  2. What pedagogical content moves do they make that are subject-specific?
  3. What pedagogical content moves are generalisable across subjects?

Data was gathered in three stages. First, teachers from both classes provided me with their unit and lesson plans, handouts and other materials pertinent to their multi-week instructional units on ‘Translation and Cystic Fibrosis’ and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The second stage entailed audio and video-recording both teachers’ daily lessons for a period of several weeks as they taught the above instructional units. The third stage included structured weekly interviews with both teachers of approximately 30–45 minutes per interview, which were audio recorded. Interview questions consisted of Loughran et al.’s (2004) eight interview protocol questions:

  1. What do you intend the students to learn about this topic?
  2. Why is it important for students to know this?
  3. What else do you know about this topic (that you do not intend students to know yet)?
  4. What are the difficulties/limitations connected with teaching this topic/idea?
  5. What is your knowledge about students’ thinking that influences your teaching of this topic/idea?
  6. What other factors might influence your teaching of this topic/these ideas?
  7. What are your teaching procedures (and particular reasons for using these to engage with this topic/idea)?
  8. What are your specific ways of ascertaining students’ understanding or confusion around this idea (include a likely range of responses)? 

Data analysis

In summary, I reviewed each teacher’s unit plan, individual lesson plans and class handouts, and then analysed the interviews to discern what approaches and strategies each used to structure and teach the content. Next, I compared both lists to determine which approaches and strategies seemed subject-specific and which might be generalisable across both biology and English language arts (ELA). Finally, I viewed the video-recorded observations to pinpoint the approaches from the two lists and examine how both teachers set up, introduced and moved through each approach. In this phase of the data analysis, I also observed students as they were introduced to and engaged in each teaching approach.

Preliminary findings

Instructional design

Both teachers devised curricular maps and designed their instruction around big ideas. The biology teacher’s map comprised overarching unit themes, with specific science labs for each theme, big ideas and desired knowledge and skill (for each unit and individual lab). Similarly, the ELA teacher designed her Frankenstein novel unit (and all of her units for the year) using a grade-level curriculum map consisting of theme, enduring understandings, essential questions, how students will demonstrate their understanding, standards-based essential student skills and concepts, and texts and resources.

Pedagogical content moves

Both teachers primarily employed subject-specific pedagogical content moves. Each move was enacted as a purposeful approach to developing students’ discipline-specific knowledge and skill. In Socratic Seminar, for example, the ELA teacher employed discussion-framing suggestions, peer post critique, and clarifying questions to help students to make concrete observations about the text, deepen their textual understanding and support opinions and observations with specific evidence. Meanwhile, the biology teacher had students hold up physical objects as a way to teach subject-specific vocabulary, such ascharged’, ‘uncharged’ and ‘tRNA’. However, both teachers provided real-time feedback by circulating around groups and individual students to answer clarifying questions and correct student misconceptions. This finding suggests that certain teaching moves may be used across a variety of learning subjects.


Preliminary findings suggest that expert teachers employ specific instructional moves to impact on students’ subject-specific knowledge and skills development, and these moves comprise an essential part of a curriculum blueprint where both students and teachers work towards a common learning end in view (Wiggins and McTighe, 2007). Pre-service and novice teachers, who often exist in day-to-day survival mode, might build deeper PCK faster through a purposeful framework of subject-specific and cross-subject teaching and learning approaches.

Future research that examines expert teacher moves and how they impact on student learning could be a valuable step in helping pre-service and novice teachers systemically internalise purposeful ways of thinking about curriculum and approaches that best advise students in terms of effectively growing their knowledge and skills. Moreover, certain content moves may be more appropriate, though not necessarily exclusive, to an individual subject area. For example, a Socratic Seminar approach provides a systematic structure for collaboratively examining a text through questioning, answering and reflecting (Delić and Bećirović, 2016), while in biology, procedural instructions provide simplified steps for students to focus primarily on understanding the content. Therefore, identifying what these moves are and conveying them to pre-service teachers in their initial teacher training is essential. Finally, these findings suggest that certain pedagogical content moves may be generalisable across subjects.

Possible questions for future research consideration include:

  • To what extent are the pedagogical content moves identified in this article also employed by teachers in other secondary schools?
  • Which might be subjects-specific?
  • Which might be applicable to a variety of learning subjects?


The scope of this project was quite limited, as it only involved two teachers and one school site. Additionally, the use of Loughran et al.’s (2004) eight interview protocol questions was designed to gather collective, rather than individual, input from teachers within a discipline. However, this project is a starting point for further examining and tangibly portraying expert teachers’ PCK. Translating what expert teachers do into visible pedagogical content moves can contribute to building an essential foundational framework for training pre-service and novice teachers.


Ball DL, Thames MH and Phelps G (2008) Content knowledge for teaching: What makes it special? Journal of Teacher Education 59(5): 389–407.

Delić H and Bećirović B (2016) Socratic method as an approach to teaching. European Researcher 111(10): 511–517.

Dul J and Hak T (2007) Case Study Methodology in Business Research. Abingdon: Routledge.

Loughran J, Mulhall P and Berry A (2004) In search of pedagogical content knowledge in science: Developing ways of articulating and documenting professional practice. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 41(4): 370–391.

Nilsson P and Loughran J (2011) Exploring the development of pre-service science elementary teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge. Journal of Science Education 23: 699–721. DOI: 10.1007/s10972-011-9239-y.

Shulman L (1986) Those who understand: A conception of teacher knowledge. Educational Researcher 15(2): 4–14.

Wiggins G and McTighe J (2007) Schooling by Design. Alexandria: ASCD.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas