Drive Student Success by Building Your Pedagogical Content Knowledge

March 08, 2023
Rachel Fuhrman

As teachers, you know how much time and effort goes into every lesson you teach. All of the work you put in prepping for each class allows you to effectively present content to students and support them when they need help. But, what exactly determines how well you will be able to teach any given lesson to your students? At Fishtank, we believe that Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) plays a critical role in lesson planning and allows teachers to drive student learning more effectively–and we’re here to help you build it.


Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Where Content Knowledge Meets Pedagogical Knowledge

When it comes to planning your instruction, there are two main things to consider: what you will teach and how you will teach it. Content knowledge makes up your understanding of what you will teach. This is built around your curriculum, the standards and specific skills that students will build over the course of the school year. For a 6th grade math teacher, this would include your knowledge of topics like ratios, fractions, and basic algebraic expressions. 

The other component of effective instruction is pedagogical knowledge. This knowledge includes the teacher moves, understanding of how students learn, and age-appropriate strategies to increase engagement. You can expect the pedagogical knowledge of a 6th grade math teacher to be very similar to that of a 6th grade science teacher because there are certain instructional practices best suited for middle school students. However, the pedagogical knowledge of a 1st grade ELA teacher and an 11th grade ELA teacher would be vastly different because the needs, interests, and learning styles of those groups of students are so different–you probably wouldn’t have much success, or fun, trying to teach a class of 1st graders using 11th grade strategies . 

With all of that in mind, you might be wondering how these two types of knowledge come together. In a 1986 article for the Harvard Education Review, Lee Shulman defined Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) as the special domain of teacher knowledge that includes a deep understanding of the topics taught and of what “what makes the learning of specific concepts easy or difficult: the conceptions and preconceptions that students of different ages and backgrounds bring with them to the learning” (Shulman, 1986).  

PCK represents the place where subject-specific content knowledge and generalized pedagogical knowledge come together to allow for highly effective, thoughtful classroom instruction.


Pedagogical Content Knowledge Allows for Effective Instruction

Now, let’s think about what a class might be like if a teacher has all the content knowledge, but none of the pedagogical knowledge. You might have had a teacher like this yourself! Lessons have no opportunities for you to engage, no checks for understanding, and the content is just being thrown in your direction. This teacher may be an absolute expert in their field, but if they don’t have the pedagogical knowledge to effectively teach their content, you probably won’t learn too much. 

It isn’t enough to know the material; you have to understand how to effectively communicate it to students in a way that allows them to build their own understanding. Similarly, knowing how to explain things to students and understanding how students learn is not enough. If you don’t know the content well enough to anticipate and address misconceptions, you won’t be able to effectively help your students. I spent 5 years teaching middle school math. Even if I had all the pedagogical knowledge in the world, there is no way I would feel prepared to teach a calculus class. I simply don’t have the content knowledge to lead any type of lesson effectively. 

With strong PCK, a teacher understands the best way to teach their specific content and can  “create more supportive learning environments as they can better respond to students in the moment and more effectively present content, leading to improved student outcomes” (Miller, 2022).


Build Pedagogical Content Knowledge with Fishtank

With all of this in mind, you might be wondering what you can do to build your own PCK. Luckily, Fishtank has the resources you need to deeply understand content, reflect on student needs, and plan how to most effectively deliver lessons. Many Fishtank resources can help both ELA and Math teachers, but we want to focus on Fishtank Math because it is often more difficult for math teachers to develop their PCK as the content is so variable across units and grades. 

With a Fishtank Plus account, you can access the entire library of Math Teacher Tools designed to build your pedagogical knowledge with highly effective teaching strategies and guidance on implementing Fishtank in the classroom. Additionally, you have access to Sample Student Responses to all Anchor Tasks that help build your content knowledge by illustrating a worked example. Not only can you see what the correct solution looks like, but you can see the steps a student might take in order to arrive at that solution and plan how to intervene if a student is getting stuck.

Anchor Problem and guiding questions

Additionally, lessons include Teacher Notes and Guiding Questions for each Anchor Task that help you unpack the content and strategically plan for instruction. This guidance can include notes on how to modify the problem to add or remove scaffolding, strategies to ensure precision of language and notation in student responses, and a jumping off point for asking productive questions during the Anchor Task. This lesson-level support ensures that you feel confident in not only how you present the content, but also how you engage students in critical thinking and exploration of new information. 

These features are helpful as you are working through content on a daily basis, but the most comprehensive PCK development support comes from Fishtank’s Unit Launches

For each unit, Plus users have access to a Unit Launch that allows you to dive into the unit’s Standards, Big Ideas, and Content Connections. Each section is designed to build your PCK as you intellectually prepare to teach the unit’s content in the most effective way possible

First, in the Standards Review section, you analyze the language of each standard, watch short videos of aligned problems, and identify the foundational standards upon which new learning will build. You are able to think about what the standard says and what it asks students to be able to do. With this understanding, you can anticipate what you’ll need to look for in student work that demonstrates knowledge of the given standards.

Standards Review: Grade 4 Unit 2

Next, the Big Ideas section presents an overview of the concepts students will explore within the unit and investigates how selected lessons work to develop those conceptual understandings. You see how certain problems in the unit work together to create a story that activates prior knowledge and extends upon new ideas. Additionally, you analyze Anchor Tasks from different perspectives to anticipate the variety of possible solving approaches and solutions, which gives you the opportunity to consider how you will respond to students in the moment.

Big Idea 1: Grade 4 Unit 2

Finally, in the Content Connections section, you have the opportunity to identify how this unit’s skills are an extension of previous learning and will set the stage for future learning. As you action plan around what your students may already know about the topic, what supports they may need, and the specific teacher moves you will use, you set yourself up to ensure all students can access the material.

Unit Launch showing unit introduction

The Unit Launches are embedded within the curriculum so you are engaging with the content when it is most relevant–before you start the unit–and are able to return to the material whenever you need. By completing each Unit Launch, you ensure that you have the content and pedagogical knowledge needed to be your most effective in the classroom. The PCK you build allows you to communicate content clearly, anticipate student needs, and answer questions thoughtfully. 

Want to see what building your pedagogical content knowledge can do for your teaching? Upgrade to Fishtank Plus for access to comprehensive content and instructional guidance in Fishtank’s Unit Launches. Your Plus account will also unlock additional Teacher Tools to help you be your most effective and efficient in the classroom.



Miller, D. I, Pinerua, I. Margolin J, Gerdean, D. “Teachers' Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Mathematics and Science.” American Institutes for Research, Apr. 2022, 

Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57, 1-22.



Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.

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