Subject knowledge

A simple association between sound subject knowledge and effective teaching may be unproved. However, the teacher has a crucial role in scaffolding children's knowledge and understanding. It might be suggested that this is only possible where teachers' own subject knowledge is secure, supporting the view of Alexander, Rose and Woodhead.


• Alexander, R., Rose, A. and Woodhead, C. (1992) Curriculum Organisation and Classroom Practice in Primary Schools: A Discussion Paper, London : DES


There does, in fact, seem to be something of a consensus that teachers with sound subject knowledge can teach more effectively. This position has been supported by a number of researchers as well as an independent review of primary mathematics teaching which recommended higher levels of knowledge for new teachers and specialists with deep subject knowledge in every primary school.


• Williams, P. (2008). Independent review of mathematics teaching in early years settings and primary schools, Department for Children, Schools and Families (DfCSF).

• Osborne, J. and Simon, S. (1996) Teacher Subject Knowledge: Implications for Teaching and Policy. Proceedings of the BERA annual conference.
• Goulding, M., Rowland, T. and Barber, P. (2002). 'Does it matter? Primary teacher trainees' subject knowledge in mathematics'. British Educational Research Journal 28(5), pp. 689-704.

There may be differences in the type of knowledge needed by teachers of pupils of different ages.  However, the need for deep subject knowledge in teachers of young children has been emphasised by some.


• Aubrey, C. (1997). ‘Re-assessing the role of teachers’ subject knowledge in early years mathematics teaching’.  Education 3-13, 25(1) pp. 55-60.
• Harlen, W. (1996) Primary Teachers' Understanding in Science and its Impact on the Classroom. Proceedings of the BERA annual conference.


The nature of ‘subject knowledge’ needed for effective teaching has been a key concern and the focus of a number of educational researchers and writers since the 1980s.  The most influential of which is Lee Shulman:


• Shulman, L.  S. (1986) ‘Those who understand: knowledge and growth in teaching', Educational Researcher, 15, 4–14.  (Reading 9.7).

• Ma, L. (1999). Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers’ Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States.  London: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Researchers in different subject areas have re-conceptualised and extended Schulman's model.
• Ball, D. L., Thames, M. H. and Phelps, G. (2008). ‘Content knowledge for teaching: What makes it special?’ Journal of Teacher Education, 59(5), pp. 389-407.
• Banks, F. Leach, J. and Moon, B. (1999) ‘New Understandings of Teachers' Pedagogic Knowledge’, in Leach, J. and Banks, F. (eds) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul Chapman.


Shulman’s categorisation of knowledge for teaching was the basis for the work of a team of mathematics educators from the University of Cambridge.  They used empirical research to develop a framework for the identification of where subject knowledge for teaching is revealed through practice. 


• Rowland, T., Turner, F.,  Thwaites, A.  and Huckstep, P. (2008). Developing primary mathematics teaching, London: Sage.


There has always been a desire amongst teachers to develop their subject knowledge - see Harland & Kinder.


• Harland, J. and Kinder, K. (1992) Mathematics and Science Courses for Primary Teachers: Lessons for the Future, Slough: NFER.
• Shallcross, T., Spink, E., Stephenson, P. & Warwick, P., (2002) ‘How Primary Student Teachers Perceive the Development of their own Scientific Knowledge: Links between Confidence, Content and Competence?’ International Journal of Science Education, Vol 24, No12, 1293-1312


This book focuses on the importance of reflective practice for effective teaching and the link between reflection and developing subject knowledge for teaching was the focus of research using the ‘knowledge quartet’ framework:


• Turner, F., (2012) ‘Using the Knowledge Quartet to develop mathematics content knowledge: the role of reflection on professional development, Research in Mathematics Education, Vol 14, (3), 253-271


Professional support through subject associations is now more vital than ever for teachers working in the pressured environment of the primary school - see Web Links on this site.