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Transforming the subject: A case study of subject matter preparation in teacher education

Cheryl Sim
While we know that it is important to preservice secondary school teachers that they acquire competence and confidence in their teaching subjects, we know very little about the nature of subject matter preparation in teacher education programs. In what ways can future secondary school teachers be prepared in their 'subject matter' to address the gap between knowing the discipline and pedagogy? In this paper I examine how a transformative approach to tertiary practice applying the concepts of active experience, communicative learning and reflection might provide one means of integrating discipline knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. The approach is illustrated throughout by reference to the writer's action research study.

Dewey (Archambault, 1974) believed that good teachers were those who could recognise and create 'genuine intellectual activity' in students. His conception of the ability to achieve this activity was closely connected to the teachers' subject matter knowledge (Ball, 2000). The research of Shulman (1986a) and his colleagues at Stanford University into teachers' knowledge raised a basic but complex question: 'How do different types of undergraduate subject matter learning experiences result in different organisations of understanding subsequent teaching?'(p. 26). As a teacher educator focussing on the preparation of secondary school teachers of History, this question led me to investigate my own practice in a subject that had as its main purpose, the delivery of History content to future secondary school teachers.

Over a period of two years, I conducted an action research study of the design and teaching of one History subject (or 'course') to preservice secondary school teachers (Sim, 1999). These students would become secondary school teachers in school subjects that fall within the current Queensland curriculum area termed 'Studies of Society and the Environment' (QSCC, 2000). As I designed the subject for the first action cycle, I sought to integrate pedagogical factors with the learning of particular discipline knowledge. I came to use the term 'subject matter knowledge' rather than 'content' or 'discipline' knowledge to describe the purpose of the subject. My use of this term reflects the knowledge that Shulman (1986a) termed 'pedagogical content knowledge': a special amalgam of knowledge that links content and pedagogy. With reference to this same knowledge, Ball (2000) argues that teacher education programs do not effectively provide what she terms 'useable content knowledge'. In the following section I examine three interrelated dimensions of the knowledge that contributes to teaching the school subject of History.


McDiarmid et al. (1989) suggest that one of the aims of teaching future teachers should be to develop 'flexible' understandings of their subject matter. This suggestion is supported by Wineburg and Wilson (1991) when they use the phrase 'new understandings' to explain that the goals of the History teacher differ from those of the historian. Successfully achieving these goals is influenced by the teacher's understandings of the professional purpose and context and of the nature of the discipline.

Professional purpose and context

Knowing subject matter is specific to the professional purpose and context of the secondary school classroom. Here the teachers' knowledge of content is integrated with knowledge of adolescents and knowledge of the secondary school as a social institution. McNamara (1991), writing about the reform of teacher education in the United Kingdom, states that the promotion of subject matter knowledge of student teachers is a key element. He emphasises that tertiary educators who are responsible for the main subject study of student teachers need to ensure that knowledge of the subject is combined with an understanding of the learner. Abbot-Chapman et al. (1993), as part of the Australian National Project on the Quality of Teaching and Learning (NPQTL), conducted a study to develop ten broad over-arching areas of competence for the beginning teacher. Their study showed that the basis for all types of teaching competence is: 'knowing the subject to be taught and knowing the student as learner'(p. 46).

Knowing the discipline of History

A second factor dominant in discussions about the delivery of subjects in schools is the nature of the informing discipline(s). McDiarmid et al. (1989) emphasise that the instructional representations of disciplinary knowledge play a critical role in teaching subject matter knowledge. This is strengthened by the research of Wineburg and Wilson (1991) who argue that teachers always risk 'misrepresenting content by simplifying it' (p 333). The discipline of History is about understanding and applying the process of inquiry as well as the substantive knowledge that has been investigated and written by others. One important aspect of discipline knowledge is what constitutes 'established knowledge'. There are traditional conceptions of History representing the discipline as unproblematic and factual. On the other hand, Young (1995) argues that there are new conceptions of History, which focus on the experiences of individuals. Jenkins (1995, p. 13) also writes about this 'personal' way in which History is written:
...Today we know of no such things as neutral/objective 'interpretation', as 'innocent' surveys or 'unpositioned' positions ... that the best we can do is to alert and keep on alerting 'readers' to the position we are interpreting from.
The changing view of the discipline of History has particular implications for the school teacher. If History teaching should be about developing and changing historical understandings in the minds of learners, then we must help future teachers to manage the controversies and debates that many historical events are now immersed in. It is important that they do so because in this way they provide a teaching and learning experience that can present 'knowing' history as discovering and creating new knowledge as well as revising understandings. In this sense, a critical approach becomes integral to the discipline knowledge.

Integrating discipline knowledge and pedagogy

A critical and probing approach to the study of the past is often argued as a means to encourage a visionary and expansive sense of the future (Brookfield, 1987; Hoepper, 1993). Metzger (1985, p. 116) addresses one issue of the complex knowledge used by teachers to teach subject matter:
Ideally Social Studies (tied so closely to citizenship education, which in turn is inextricably tied to democracy) require both a solid content base and the skills necessary for participation and decision-making.
Australian syllabus documents for teaching History identify outcomes that clearly are about critical analysis and interpretation in order to form judgments - for example, see Queensland Senior Syllabus documents (QBSSSS, 1995). These types of outcomes are also explicit in the recent Queensland Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE) for Years 1-10 Syllabus (QSCC, 2000). In this document, the outcomes for learners are stated as 'directed towards assisting students to become lifelong learners'. In describing a lifelong learner, one attribute is 'a complex thinker' in which the students use 'critical and creative reasoning to recognise the tentative nature of conclusions and to challenge conventional practice' (QSCC, 2000, p. 5).

If these factors inform the preparation of teachers to teach the school subject History, then how might a teacher education subject to provide for 'subject matter knowledge' be designed? It is this question that directed the research conducted by the writer. In the next section I consider the nature of some of the programs through which secondary school teachers are prepared, both overseas and in Australia. I then introduce the appropriateness of a transformative learning approach to teacher preparation for subject matter knowledge.


Generally, most teacher education programs are structured into subjects identified as either about content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, specific professional issues and the practical experience. For example, the discipline knowledge - often referred to by both novice and experienced teachers as 'the content' - may be provided in either of two ways. One is through the completion of an undergraduate degree whose majors reflect discipline knowledge needed to teach two school subject areas (e.g. History and English). The other is within a four-year education degree program, where two years are focussed on the development of discipline knowledge that again reflects knowledge needed to teach in two secondary subject areas. In the third and fourth years, education students will move into subjects that address the pedagogical and professional issues. This may also be provided through a two-year professional program (the graduate entry Bachelor of Education). As a result of this structure, the complex knowledge needed to teach students their subject matter effectively is fragmented. As Ball (2000, p. 242) explains, 'the gap between theory and practice fragments teacher education by fragmenting teaching'.

In the USA graduates of specialised degrees may directly apply for teaching positions without completing any formal education studies. However, in some States there are opportunities to complete formal education subjects prior to entering teaching. Studies by McDiarmid et al. (1989) have shown that those teachers who had some education studies before entering teaching were better able to transform their discipline knowledge for the professional purpose of teaching particular school subjects. In the studies conducted by Shulman and his colleagues (Shulman, 1986a, 1986b; Wilson, Shulman & Richert, 1987), 'pedagogical content knowledge' was seen to develop over time as teachers became more experienced.

While these studies have been influential in the redesigning of teacher education programs, the fragmentation of most teacher education programs continues. Research by Foss and Kleinsasser (1996) investigated the role of a Mathematics teaching method subject in emphasising to students their significant roles in representing mathematical knowledge to school students. Their study concluded that methods subjects alone were not successful in developing adequate knowledge and understanding of the specific subject matter needed for teaching secondary school Mathematics. They argue that discipline knowledge, communication of that knowledge to future teachers and the personal beliefs of the student teachers and the teacher educator needed to be connected explicitly for a considerable time during the preparation of teachers to provide for this development. Thus, there is support for teacher education programs to develop subjects that integrate these factors, rather than to separate the knowledge into separate content and pedagogical subjects. My use of the term 'subject matter knowledge' refers to this integrated knowledge.

The main question I wanted to address through my research was: how to develop in student teachers an awareness of the essential contribution of these elements to the specific subject matter needed to effectively teach a school subject? The focus of the study was development of History subject matter through one teacher education subject. In my development of the subject I acknowledged the findings of researchers into teachers' learning styles - that for most preservice teachers, the beliefs, attitudes and understandings which they bring to their teacher preparation programs have been formed by their own personal school experiences. For school History subjects, the student teachers in my study indicated that transmission of content by the teacher was the dominant experience. Their experiences in this subject would challenge this established view. My aim was to develop in the student teachers a 'subject matter knowledge' consisting of new understandings not only of the content but also of themselves as future teachers of that subject. To do this, I first examined the research conducted in the area of transformative teaching and learning.


Barnes (1989) suggests three common features that should influence the design of initial teacher education courses. The first is to encourage prospective teachers to question the assumptions and beliefs that they have developed about teaching; secondly to enable student teachers to move towards developing frameworks for thinking about the demands of teaching; and finally to contribute to an integrated and coherent conception of teaching. Barnes (1989) uses the concept of 'principled action' to explain the outcome of incorporating these features within teacher education subjects, that is, for students to have the ability to connect knowledge to action.

Throughout the professional preparation of student teachers, it is common practice to design teaching and learning situations that incorporate opportunities for the communication of their understandings. How might this be linked to this notion of 'principled action'? There are two elements here. One is that future teachers have been students in secondary schools and have certain understandings because of that prior experience. As Ball and McDiarmid (1990, p. 438) emphasise: 'teachers' conceptions of knowledge shape their practice - the kinds of questions they ask, the ideas they reinforce, the sorts of tasks they assign'. The second element is making explicit these prior learnings. Mezirow (1991, p. 7) describes this through his definition of adult development: 'an adult's progressively enhanced capacity to validate prior learning through reflective discourse, and to act upon the resulting insights'.

How can we provide opportunities for student teachers to critically examine their frames of reference and expectations (about teaching, subjects, schooling) that have been built from past experiences? Mezirow (1991) focuses particularly on perspective transformation. It is when adults are willing to consider that their perspectives might require examination that they become open to change and personal development. A transformative teaching and learning approach requires a learning experience that confronts the adult learner with an unfamiliar experience.

There are three key factors in the approach - active experience, communicative learning and reflection. Letiche (1988) argues that when we support learning by experience we are exploring a form of interactive knowledge - cognitive activity coupled to appropriate contextual action. This emphasis on the link between context and action is particularly important to the development of subject matter knowledge, for it acknowledges that adults need to be involved in examining professional purposes for their learning. These have clear links to subject matter knowledge.

The second factor - communicative learning - draws on the work of Habermas (1987). Habermas explains that when learners are placed in new situations they will seek mutual understandings. They come to these through the particular elements of culture, society and person. Habermas explains that these elements affect an individual's actions of communication when in a learning environment. They are at the same time taking part in interactions through which they develop, confirm or reform their memberships in social groups and their own identities. As a result, participants will develop more than a mutual understanding of that experience.

Reflection is the third factor. Mezirow (1991) identified that reflection in the social context of learning can operate on three levels. These are content reflection, process reflection, and premise reflection. Our continued learning becomes dependent on a reflective review of what we have learned (the content), how we have learned (the process), and whether our presuppositions are supported (our original premises). The influence of past experiences is the filter through which the learner in a new experience makes meaning. For further understandings to develop, these past understandings need to be considered within the problematic situation in which the learners are now engaged. Through reflection and discussion with others about their interpretations of the experience - that is, communicative learning - the meanings of learners can be transformed.

In the next section I provide detail of the action research study. The three elements of active experience, communicative learning and reflection are examined over two cycles. The discussion highlights how teaching for transformation will affect not only the learners but also the teacher.


The study

During 1991 and 1992 I taught a subject to second year student teachers (as part of a four-year education degree) to develop their historical knowledge of the 'modern' world. It was designated in the program as a 'content' subject. In an action research study over those two years, I investigated the impact of my application of the development of subject matter knowledge on the student teachers. The three factors of transformative learning that I have identified - active experience, communicative learning, and reflection - provided a framework for the design and implementation of the subject. Through these factors I sought to provide opportunities for the students to communicate and reflect on their assumptions and beliefs about The subject was entitled The Modern World. There were thirty students in the first cycle (1991) and forty students in the second cycle (1992). The purpose of the subject was the historical study of issues in the contemporary Western world.

Active experience

The active experience I planned in my subject was to focus the teaching and learning on discussion in an environment that emphasised student interaction for the analysis of ideas. For the majority of students their personal experiences of learning History as a school subject had never involved this as a dominant approach. Further, negotiation of their leadership and direction was used as the basis for the content brought to the subject - another factor that for most was totally unfamiliar to them.

The major changes to the delivery of the subject challenged the students' established expectations of tertiary subjects as consisting of a weekly lecture and tutorial and a set text with research essay questions provided by the lecturer. None of this happened for them.

The teaching and learning over fourteen weeks (one hour one day, followed later in the week by a block of two hours) was designed around what I termed 'workshops' in which students, in small and sometimes large groups, interacted with written and audio-visual materials to discuss and analyse particular historical issues. It was intended that the students and I would provide materials as discussion identified the issues for analysis. The workshops provided students with experiences of historical knowledge as tenuous and as demanding a critical approach. By the second cycle (1992), evidence from the action research of the first cycle (1991) led to only one change - the provision of readings. I compiled an initial set of readings for the students, but the workshop structure based on group interaction was maintained. So too was the development by students of individual research papers.

A significant purpose in learning history is about developing understandings about cultures and societies of other times and places. The learner's own culture, society and personal identity will influence the meaning that they gain from such a learning experience. When learning to teach about historical events, this meaning has particular importance. It is for this reason that a transformative approach to learning about historical subject matter was valuable to the professional development of both the student teachers and myself as teacher educator.

Communicative learning

Through communicative learning, I sought to raise the student teachers' awareness that they should be seeking new understandings about History and the way it might be taught. Thus most of the workshops were planned as group discussions - some structured by me, some not. The structured groups were formed early in the semester to develop continuing support groups. Each week a focus for the following week's workshop would be identified by the groups. Individuals would nominate to lead the discussion. Each group member was expected to prepare ideas for the discussion by seeking resources on the topic. To gauge how students' feelings about their learning experiences changed as the subject progressed, I asked them at the end of the semester to describe these by responding in writing to key emotive words. Figure 1 provides a sample of six responses from students in the first cycle.

(a) In my first four weeks I was confused, overwhelmed and worried as I have never been in an environment similar to this. The feelings above were mainly directed at classroom participation, as I am a quiet person. By the final week I believe I was motivated, pleased and self directed. I had no concerns with class participation in small groups. I found it reassuring in that you knew our names from a very early stage.

(b) Because I am a geography student I didn't really want to do a history subject... Yet in the end I learnt a lot and learned how to discipline myself to do something I thought I didn't really want to do. Overall I guess I have enjoyed it and learnt a lot from it.

(c) Very appealing content; gave clear motivation; self direction in reading analysis, not just a regurgitation; worried because unclear on own capabilities; learning process untraditional and unfamiliar.

(d) I was excited and challenged and motivated because I have never done modern history before, but I knew I would enjoy it anyway. I felt I have achieved my own personal goals I had set myself within the subject.

(e) At the beginning of the semester I felt that I didn't know where the subject was heading and found it hard to make links. Plus having limited knowledge of modern history I felt even more confused. By the end of the subject I feel I have broadened my knowledge of the Modern World and understand this area better.

(f) Little experience with this style of learning made me feel decidedly uncomfortable with the subject. I could not see where it was all leading and that troubled me. By the end of the subject however I was able to appreciate what I had learned, how I had communicated with others and how this style of teaching/learning works.

Figure 1: Evaluative comments after the first cycle

Analysis of all the written comments, together with evidence from focus group interviews during each of the two years of the study, revealed that for all students in both groups, learning history in an interactive, student directed environment rather than a teacher-directed and textbook dominated approach was an unfamiliar experience. Therefore, uncertainty and anxiety characterized discussions in the first few weeks of each cycle. My awareness of transformative learning theory prepared me for this. I knew I would need to have in place strategies to move them forward from these anxieties. An important strategy was to enable students to make their feelings explicit in order that they could then interact in analysing these within the framework of developing as professionals responsible for the education of young people.

Discussion is integral to transformative learning theory. When a perceived reality is threatened and contradictions occur, interacting with others can assist individuals to analyse the arguments and the evidence that they have in front of them. Such an approach facilitated the articulation of the student teachers' beliefs and attitudes not only about the historical issues, but also about the way in which we were learning, and its relevance to their professional development as teachers. In this way I sought to raise the awareness of these student teachers to the complex nature of subject matter knowledge. Mezirow's (1991) theory of transformation encompassed also Dewey's emphasis on the value of reflection on experience.


The teaching and learning of historical knowledge are focused on the process of inquiry. To analyse historical evidence on a particular event or issue, a reflective position is required (Husbands, 1995; Young, 1995). Many of the students in my study had not experienced learning history in this way. For most, their experiences were described as taking notes from the teacher, summarising textbook chapters and rote learning essays for examination purposes. Few had ever developed their own historical question or problem for investigation. I built the experiences of critical analysis and personal decision making for historical research purposes into the teaching, learning and assessment for this subject. Therefore, in each workshop it was important that students 'reflected' on both the historical learning and the unfamiliar experiences of interaction and self-direction. To do this 'reflection' the groups were encouraged to consider not only the content but the process of explaining to each other their understandings of that content. The evidence I collected from these student teachers supports the positive effects of such experiences. As figure 1 demonstrates, these students moved from the anxiety of early weeks to confident articulation of their developing perceptions of the purpose of teaching and learning history in secondary schools.

While evidence was collected from the students, I also kept a journal of my own reflections. Further to this, I held two interviews with students at the end of each cycle. The interviews were in the style of focus groups - focus group A consisted of volunteers from the first cycle, and focus group B from the second cycle. As a teacher educator, teaching transformatively did not leave me unaffected. I too developed professionally from applying such an approach. I was faced with my own anxieties to reflect and act upon. Evidence from my personal journals and from the interviews I held with the focus groups from both cycles attests to these effects. Teaching transformatively meant that I had to confront the student teachers' critical analysis and resulting interpretations of my decisions to teach the subject the way I did. In particular, facing the anxiety they expressed in the initial part of the subject was uncomfortable. As the subject progressed, and particularly in the second cycle, the evidence indicated that these experiences were valuable to most of the participating student teachers.

As an example of this evidence, the following extracts relate to part of an interview with focus group A. This group met as the next semester began, and their reflections began to include experiences with other subjects. They demonstrated efforts to explain their understandings of experiences of other tertiary practice. Peter's comment below relates to this when he responds to my interest in the role played by personality in effectively developing a 'communicative learning' environment.

Peter: It is happening more now. Individual groups of students are gradually identifying that cooperating and working on difficult content is increasing.

Katie: I still think it's personality. Some students don't want to share that information. You have to be willing...

Peter: I think the majority of people are not to that extreme of competitiveness

Katie: If they see the success they can gain from it, then I suppose it does

Annette: I think practising in the classroom as a teacher the same principles will make some change. Having confidence to be part of the inquiry and therefore to indicate you are not sure. Being able to admit that you don't know all the facts. Also that the kids can't jump into all of this straight away. We have to gain their confidence, the selection of assignments, the use of role-play cannot just occur. (Sim, 1999, p. 229)

Each member of this focus group did hold a positive disposition towards their experiences of learning history as presented in the subject The Modern World. From their comments, there was general support for tertiary teaching similar to their experiences in The Modern World. Their detailed responses provided me with much to reflect on, particularly the types of assumptions I had worked on before and during the subject.

One aspect of Mezirow's (1991) explanation of transformative learning theory remained with me following this focus group discussion: 'a transformed consciousness does not automatically lead to a predictable form of action in a specific situation' (p. 88). Thus, I was interested in the future actions, as teachers of History, that some of these student teachers might take. I invited any of the members from the two focus groups to volunteer to work with me again when they became full-time novice teachers. As a result, my study developed and included five 'developmental studies' (which will be the focus of future writing).


As a result of the need to respond to the changing emphasis in the discipline of History to the critical analysis of alternative perspectives on events in history, I needed to identify a teaching and learning approach that would support such a change for future teachers. Transformative learning theory asserts that educators are committed to a practice that challenges students' uncritical acceptance of knowledge as fixed and true. This requires a fundamental re-thinking about the development of professional knowledge for teaching subjects in secondary schools.

In this paper, figure 1 and the brief extract from one of the interviews provide examples of the contribution of active experience, communicative learning and reflection to the development of subject matter knowledge. Through my study it became evident that opportunities for preservice students to discuss and clarify points of understanding about the disciplines that inform their professional knowledge enable their understandings about the very nature of the profession to be articulated and debated.

My prior experiences both as a secondary school teacher of History and as a tertiary educator affected my design of the subject. In particular, I held assumptions for the tertiary students. Based on my experiences and knowledge of the context in which I would be working with these future teachers, I believed that my approach was appropriate for them and that they would accept that I knew what was 'best for them'. What I found was that this responsibility held by teacher educators of determining and acting upon, a sense of knowing 'what is best', must be approached cautiously - and should indeed always be open to critical reflection. Groundwater-Smith (1992, p. 119) explains that 'the orientations and values of all those involved in educating teachers will influence the ways in which the preservice teacher perceives particular content areas'.

Originally I had intended that through a transformative approach I would lead my students to developing the 'same' understandings that I held about the best approach to teaching and learning about history. Fortunately, this did not occur. What did occur was much more valuable. Teaching transformatively led the student teachers to thinking as professionals by valuing the importance of continually seeking to articulate, clarify and justify their own personal purpose for knowing their subject and how this might influence their teaching it in particular ways. My own development as a teacher educator was also affected by my efforts to apply a transformative approach to learning subject matter. The important outcome of transformative learning is that each of us should come to develop a personally held and justified position on what constitutes the knowledge needed for teaching and learning History.

There is little research available on tertiary educators' understandings of what informs their practice. In our campus classrooms where preparation of future professionals is occurring daily, that practice should be about change and growth. In my tertiary classrooms I found that the student teachers each interpreted their experiences of the subject differently. This was because each of them had different past experiences of schooling (as demonstrated in some of the comments in figure 1) and different personal intentions for becoming secondary school teachers. It was also because of our different perceptions of studying in a tertiary institution. Through transformation theory, I suggest that a pedagogy can be developed to take account of the complex context that these three factors - past experiences, future intentions and personal perceptions of institutional purpose - create to move learners towards developing as professionals willing to examine and change established practice.

To investigate the interpretations of experiences and circumstances of other educators involved in the development of subject matter knowledge and to document these would be useful for the professional development of both secondary school teachers and tertiary educators. Studies of tertiary practice for the development of other professionals - such as in medicine and law - would contribute further to our understandings of specific tertiary practice that transforms the disciplines for professionally specific knowledge.


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Author details: Dr Cheryl Sim is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Griffith University, Brisbane, Queensland. She is also currently the Deputy Director of the Centre for Leadership and Management in Education. She teaches within the secondary teacher education programs, particularly social science curriculum. Her research interests include teachers' subject matter knowledge, curriculum leadership and school-based teacher education.

Please cite as: Sim, C. (2001). Transforming the subject: A case study of subject matter preparation in teacher education. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 17(1), 29-47. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer17/sim.html

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