Program Goal I: Subject Matter

According to Zumwalt (1989), Passe (1999) and others, subject-matter, or curricular knowledge, has often been given a role of lesser importance in the knowledge base for beginning teachers than that assigned to pedagogical knowledge. Perhaps a major reason for the traditionally low status of subject knowledge is the fact that teachers have often taught a prescribed curriculum over which they had little control. This changed to some extent in the 1990s as the trend toward decentralization of educational decision-making gave teachers expanded roles in curricular planning (Passe, 1999). Currently, however, with the "standards" movement of the Twenty-First Century, content is again more centrally controlled and prescribed. Growing emphasis on preparing students to passing state-mandated tests to assure school and district "annual yearly progress" further limits teachers' opportunities to determine how and what they might teach. Still, even in situations where the overall curriculum is based on specific sets of standards, it is often the teachers' responsibility to determine what content should be taught to meet those standards (Scherer, 2001, p. 17). Therefore, it remains vitally important for teachers to have in-depth knowledge of the disciplines they teach, including not only factual knowledge, but also organizing principles, central concepts, and the "ways in which new knowledge is brought into the field" (Grossman, Wilson, and Shulman, 1989, p. 29).

Our summary of subject-matter (curricular knowledge) begins by describing approaches that seek to structure (or organize) knowledge. Summaries of subject-matter based on the Minnesota Academic Standards and selected national standards are then presented, followed by information about approaches to interdisciplinary instruction. Though this chapter of the knowledge base focuses only on instructional content, it is important to note that content and pedagogy are strongly connected. As Passe (1999) wrote, what is taught (content or subject matter) has an important influence on decisions regarding instruction. However, since approaches to instruction are described elsewhere within the knowledge base, that information will not be duplicated here.

Structure of Knowledge: In order to effectively communicate subject matter, teachers must understand how knowledge is structured or organized in the disciplines they teach. A simple but useful approach to structuring knowledge described by Kindsvatter, Wilen, and Ishler (1997) places knowledge into a pyramid consisting of facts (verifiable, specific information about people, events, or objects) at the lowest level, followed by concepts (ideas or abstractions based on grouping or categorizing facts) at the next level, and generalizations (broad statements or organizing principles that integrate multiple concepts) at the top. A similar, though more elaborate, approach is described by Gagne (1965). This approach divides knowledge into five categories based on the intellectual skills necessary for learning that knowledge. These levels include simple types of learning (signal learning and responses learned through conditioning), discriminations (differentiations between similar stimuli), concepts (categories or ideas that reflect the commonalities of related objects or events), rules (combining concepts into predictable patterns), and higher order rules (combining rules for use in problem solving).

A third approach to the structure of knowledge, though developed by Benjamin Bloom (1956) more than 50 years ago, is still widely used in instructional planning. Commonly referred to as Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, this system divides the cognitive domain into the following six levels: knowledge (factual information), comprehension (understanding or attributing meaning to factual information), application (using that which is known and comprehended), analysis (breaking down a task or information into its component parts), synthesis (combining separate elements to form a whole and achieve understanding), and evaluation (using criteria to judge the quality or value of objects, events, or ideas). Taxonomies for the affective and psychophysical domains, though available, are not as widely accepted and, therefore, are not included in this brief summary.
Anderson and Krathwohl (2001) offer modified versions of taxonomies for all three domains. Their taxonomy of the cognitive domain changes nouns to verbs (for instance analysis to analyzing), substitutes the terms remembering and understanding for knowledge and comprehension, places creating, their term for synthesizing, at the highest level of the taxonomy, and moves evaluating down to the second-highest level.

Minnesota and National Academic Standards: As noted in the first paragraph of this document, teachers do have choices regarding the content they teach. However, these choices are often limited by local, state, and national standards. The Minnesota Academic Standards define a core of five academic content area standards: language arts, mathematics, science, social studies and the arts. Standards for Mathematics, Language Arts, and Arts were adopted in a 2003 while the Minnesota Legislature stipulated science and social studies standards in 2004. Recently revised social studies standards were approval by the state's Commissioner of Education in the summer of 2011. Each set of state academic standards will be supplemented by grade-level benchmarks specifying the academic knowledge and skills that students must achieve to affirm attainment of a standard.

 In addition to the core academic standards areas, there are several elective subject areas. School districts must create local elective standards and must offer elective courses covering health and physical education, vocational and technical education, and world languages. The law requires students to complete a specified number of course credits covering both core and elective subject areas in order to receive a high school diploma (Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, 2003). The Minnesota Academic Standards as well as selected national standards, organized by subject, are summarized below.

Arts: The Minnesota Academic Standards in the Arts were revised in 2008 and "set the expectations for achievement in the arts for K-12 students in Minnesota" (Minnesota Academic Standards in the Arts, 2011). They are organized into four strands: Artistic Foundations; Artistic Processes: Create or Make; Artistic Processes: Perform and Present; and Artistic Processes: Respond and Critique.  "Each strand has one or more standards that can be implemented in the arts areas of dance, media arts, music, theater and/or visual arts" (Minnesota Academic Standards in the Arts (2011).

The National Standards for Arts Education (Consortium of Arts Education Organizations, 1994) provide integrated standards for dance, music, theater, and the visual arts. The standards emphasize the importance of the arts to life and learning; incorporate cultural diversity; and stress a comprehensive, hands-on, interdisciplinary orientation. Though specific standards are provided for each discipline at the primary, middle, and high school levels, the standards all emphasize the following knowledge and skills: basic communication in the four arts disciplines, proficient communication in at least one art form, the ability to develop and present basic analyses of works of art, acquaintance with exemplary works of art from a variety of cultures and historical periods, and the ability to relate various types of arts knowledge and skills within and across the arts disciplines. The overall goal of the standards is to develop capabilities that allow students to "arrive at their own knowledge, beliefs, and values for making personal artistic decisions" (Music Educators National Conference, 1994).

English Language Arts: English Language Arts: The Department's work in the Language Arts is informed by the Standards for the English Language Arts (NCTE/IRA, 1996), a joint project of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), and the International Reading Association (IRA). Extending and adding specificity to these broad standards, candidates are guided by the Minnesota requirements for teacher licensure, the 2010 Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards - English Language Arts, and the Minnesota adoption of the Common Core State Standards in the English language arts. Minnesota's adoption of the Common Core National Standards in 2011, modified to include greater emphasis on media arts, provides a third guiding document to shape the preparation of those seeking to be licensed as teachers of language arts and literature (  

Collectively, these documents outline the knowledge, skills, and abilities pre-service teachers must possess to effectively teach English Language Arts and the knowledge, skills, and abilities that K-12 students must demonstrate prior to graduation. The standards delineate an extensive body of content knowledge across all areas of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and media literacy.

With an understanding of how print and digital literacy abilities impact every facet of a person's life, the standards encompass essential message production and consumption processes in literature, mathematics, science, the social sciences, and the arts. In this context the English Language Arts encourage teachers to support the college and career readiness of their students. As noted in the Minnesota standards document, the K-12 English Language Arts Standards suggest that readiness will be found in students who demonstrate independence, possess strong content knowledge, understand how to reach various audiences, comprehend and critique, use technology, and understand multiple perspectives.

We have integrated the aforementioned standards documents to focus our candidates' preparation in the following areas of special emphasis.

Reading: Text complexity and the growth of comprehension. The reading standards place equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read. Included is a grade-by-grade "staircase" of increasing text complexity that rises from beginning reading to the college and career readiness level. The standards require that all students are prepared for the analysis of both literary texts and informational non-fiction texts. Whatever they are reading, students must also show a steadily growing ability to discern more from and make fuller use of text, including making connections among ideas and between texts, considering a wider range of textual evidence, and becoming more sensitive to inconsistencies and ambiguities in texts. As such, future teachers in all grade levels and in all subject disciplines should have extensive coursework and practical experience in the teaching of reading. This includes instruction for all teaching candidates in the foundations of reading, including phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and scaffolded comprehension. Additionally, candidates in elementary and secondary English Language Arts (ELA) should participate in clinical experiences that are focused on assessing, diagnosing, and planning instruction to meet the literacy development needs of all students.

Writing: Text types, responding to reading, and research. The standards acknowledge the fact that whereas some writing skills, such as the ability to plan, revise, edit, and publish, are applicable to many types of writing; other skills are more properly defined in terms of specific writing types: arguments, informative/explanatory texts, and narratives. The writing strand stresses the importance of the writing-reading connection by requiring students to draw upon and write about evidence from literary and informational texts. Because of the centrality of writing to most forms of inquiry, research standards are prominently included in this strand, though skills important to research are infused throughout the document. As such, teaching candidates in ELA should have a working knowledge of the writing process, workshop approaches to writing instruction, as well as teaching strategies which are specific to the variety of writing genres. Candidates in ELA must be prepared for the demands of differentiated writing assessment, as well as the varying philosophical approaches regarding response to student writing including writer's workshop and Six Traits approaches.

Speaking and Listening: Flexible communication and collaboration. Including but not limited to skills necessary for formal presentations, the Speaking and Listening standards require students to develop a range of broadly useful oral communication and interpersonal skills. Students must learn to work together, express and listen carefully to ideas, integrate information from oral, visual, quantitative, and media sources, evaluate what they hear, use media and visual displays strategically to help achieve communicative purposes, and adapt speech to context and task. Candidates must have knowledge of the methods for supporting students' development in these key areas, including the steps needed for creating effective formal and informal speeches, as well as skills needed for diverse types of listening tasks. In Minnesota, this strand is known as "Speaking, Viewing, Listening, and Media Literacy."

Media Literacy: Critical analysis and media production. Students in the twenty-first century must become competent consumers and producers of media. Thus, the standards in media literacy articulate two primary outcomes. First, students must have the skills to critically analyze information found in electronic, print, and mass media for the sake of using these types of sources. Second, students must be able to communicate using traditional or digital multimedia formats, digital writing and publishing. Teacher candidates must have the knowledge, skills, and ability to teach media literacy including the multiple purposes of media communication, and the effects of various types of media on the communication process.

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary. The language standards include the essential "rules" of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives. The vocabulary standards focus on understanding words and phrases, their relationships, and their nuances and on acquiring new vocabulary, particularly general academic and domain-specific words and phrases. Candidates must have a clear knowledge regarding the functions of language, how language conventions influence the perception of effective written and oral communication, and how to support students' development of such linguistic awareness.

Social Studies: The social studies comprise a broad curriculum formed from eight disciplines including anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, and sociology. In 2010, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) identified the following ten themes in the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

I Culture;
II Time, Continuity, and Change
III People, Places, and Environments;
IV Individual Development and Identity;
V Individuals, Groups, and Institutions;
VI Power, Authority, and Governance;
VII Production, Distribution, and Consumption;
VIII Science, Technology, and Society;
IX Global Connections; and
X Civic Ideals and Practice (NCSS, 2010).

These standards are organized to incorporate learning experiences from many disciplines because, by their very nature, the social studies require multidisciplinary education. Teachers of history and social studies receive additional content-area guidance from voluntary national standards in economics (Council for Economic Education, 2010), geography (Geography Education Standards Project, 1994), civics (Center for Civic Education, 1994), history (National Center for History in the Schools, 1996), and psychology (American Psychological Association, 2005).

Foreign (World) Languages: The Standards for Foreign Language Learning (The National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project, 1996) were originally a joint project of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, The American Association of Teachers of French, The American Association of Teachers of German, and The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. To date, National Standards exist in languages commonly taught in U.S. schools, including Spanish, French, German and Chinese, as well as less commonly taught languages, such as Arabic, Italian and Swedish. While maintaining the importance of learning vocabulary and grammar, the Standards emphasize the necessity of learning to "communicate in meaningful and appropriate ways with users of other languages" (The National Standards for Foreign Language Education Project, 1996, P. 3). These content standards are articulated for grades K-16, reflecting the ongoing nature of second language acquisition over the course of a learner's life. Specific standards and sub-standards are provided in five areas: communication in languages other than English, understanding other cultures, connecting with other academic disciplines, comparisons to other languages and cultures, and participation in multilingual communities.

Math: The Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards in Mathematics set the expectations for achievement in mathematics for K-12 students. The standards are grounded in the belief that all students can and should be mathematically proficient, and all students should learn and understand important mathematical concepts, skills, and relationships. The standards and benchmarks describe a connected body of mathematical knowledge that is acquired through the processes of problem solving, reasoning and proof, communication, connections, and representation. The four mathematics content strands are 1) Number and Operation, 2) Algebra, 3) Geometry and Measurement, and 4) Data Analysis and Probability (Minnesota Department of Education, 2011).

Building on the Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics developed in 1989, the NCTM Standards 2000 Project has resulted in the recent release of the Principles and Standards for School Mathematics (NCTM, 2011). The new standards "describe a connected body of knowledge of mathematical understandings and competencies - a comprehensive foundation for all students, rather than a menu from which to make curricular choices" (NCTM, 2000, p. 29). Following the Principles, the Standards for school mathematics describe a set of goals for mathematics instruction. The first five Standards present goals in the mathematical content areas of number and operations, algebra, geometry, measurement, and data analysis and probability. The second five describe goals for the processes of problem solving, reasoning and proof, connections, communication, and representation. Together, the Standards describe the basic skills and understandings that students will need to function effectively in the 21st Century (NCTM, 2000).

Physical Education and Health Standards: "As of May 26, 2010, the Minnesota State Legislature directed the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to adopt standards called the National Standards for Physical Education developed by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education" (Minnesota Department of Education, 2011). Every Minnesota school district is required to adopt the National Standards for Physical Education, and students need to satisfactorily complete these new standards beginning in the 2012-13 school year.  "Additionally, every school district must have locally developed standards in health education. The requirement for locally developed health education standards has been in place since the 2005-06 school year. There are National Health Education Standards, which are not an official state model, to use as a resource to do this" (Minnesota Department of Education, 2011).

Reading: As noted, Minnesota's standards for reading are currently included within the 2010 English Language Arts Standards (Minnesota Department of Education, 2011). An updated "Model Plan for Adolescent Reading Intervention and Development" serves "as an exemplar for districts and schools as they develop reading intervention plans and curricula to meet the needs of struggling readers in grades 4-12" (Minnesota Department of Education, 2011). The model plan can be accessed from the Minnesota Education Department's Reading Standards page.

Science: The National Science Education Standards were developed by the National Academy of Sciences (1996). They are divided into three levels (K-4, 5-8, and 9-12) and eight categories: Unifying Concepts and Processes, Science as Inquiry, Physical Science, Life Science, Earth and Space Science, Science and Technology, Science in Social and Personal Perspectives, and History and Nature of Science (National Academy of Sciences, 1996). As Passe (1999) noted, these standards attempt to change the emphasis in science education from knowing scientific facts to understanding scientific concepts. Other emphases include integrating science content; learning fewer, fundamental science concepts; teaching through inquiry; and analyzing science questions.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, "Science is the active study of nature, its structures and its processes. Science students use their senses and tools to observe, record, and analyze data about the natural world. Scientifically literate young people can understand phenomena, solve problems and produce new technologies for the world today."

The K-12 Academic Standards for Science were updated in 2009 and approved for adoption in 2010. As in the document published before it in 2003, the Minnesota Academic Standards in Science are organized by grade level into four content strands: 1) The Nature of Science and Engineering, 2) Physical Science, 3) Earth and Space Science, and 4) Life Science. The first content strand is intended to run throughout the other three strands. In addition, the new version addressed legislated issues including college and work readiness, technology and information literacy, contributions made to academics by the Minnesota American Indian tribes and communities, and environmental literacy (

As noted above, the Minnesota Department of Education also addressed literacy for science in Minnesota's newly revised (2010) English Language Arts (ELA) standards, which set K-12 requirements not only for ELA but also for literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects.

The Common Core State Standards initiative "is a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce" (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2011). As of August 8, 2011, 46 states had adopted the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts and mathematics. Although Minnesota is not among the states listed on the initiative's web site, Minnesota has adopted the Common Core Standards for the English language arts. However, at this time, Minnesota is not adopting the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. The Minnesota Commissioner of Education revises the academic standards according to a timetable specified in state law (Minn. Stat. § 120B.023, subd. 2). The Minnesota mathematics standards were revised in 2007 and are not scheduled to be revised again until 2015. Since the commissioner does not have authority to revise mathematics standards until that time, legislative action would be needed for the state to adopt the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. The Minnesota Department of Education will continue to analyze the Common Core State Standards and Minnesota Mathematics Standards in order to provide information to the state legislature

The Integrated Curriculum: As noted above, the national standards in some academic areas (particularly the arts and social studies) are purposefully interdisciplinary. This current emphasis on interdisciplinary instruction is consistent with our departmental preference for integrated learning and reflects the belief of subject-area leaders "that no subject is sufficient by itself; (rather) each is a part of the whole" (Passe, 1999, p. 222). Often called thematic teaching or integrated curriculum, Richard Kellough (1997) defines this approach as "both a way of teaching and a way of planning and organizing the instructional program so the discrete disciplines of subject matter are related to each other in a design that (1) matches the developmental needs of the learners, and (2) helps to connect their learning in ways that are meaningful to their current and past experiences" (p. 251). Passe (1999) listed benefits of the integrated curriculum including providing an opportunity to expand instruction for "de-emphasized" subjects such as art and physical education, diminishing the overemphasis on textbooks, and increasing opportunities for the integration of problem solving and the application of subjects to everyday life. Drawbacks of thematic teaching listed by Passe include a lack of appropriate teacher preparation for using this approach, incompatible classroom organization, and the possibility of resistance from those who favor a more traditional curriculum.

~ ~ ~

As we conclude this section on subject-matter knowledge, the findings of Grossman, Wilson, and Schulman (1989) seem quite pertinent. Recounting their explorations into the practice of novice secondary teachers, these writers found that beginning teachers experience the subject matter they share with their students in at least three ways. The initial foundation young teachers construct for a developing understanding of a body of knowledge might be brought to light by facts and concepts that form the "content" of introductory study. Further work at an intermediate level could suggest explanatory frameworks used to organize their growing collection of facts and concepts into a "substantive" family of related principles or generalizations. Those prospective teachers who persist in their study of a discipline through completion of advanced coursework may acquire "syntactic" knowledge of a discipline's epistemology revealing how its content and explanatory frameworks are discovered and validated.

In addition to these three levels of knowledge about what they would teach, Grossman and her colleagues found that prospective teachers' "beliefs" about subject matter can influence how they share that knowledge with their students (p. 31). They urged teacher educators to work with their disciplinary colleagues to "provide opportunities for prospective teachers to identify and examine the beliefs they have about the content they teach" (p.32). Those who prepare teachers might thereby counter unintended perspectives on a body of knowledge that could otherwise color the experiences these new teachers would offer their students. Such beliefs appear more salient in the absence of opportunities to explore the "substantive" and "syntactic" knowledge forming a discipline. Those who teach outside of their discipline or college major appear to be at greater risk of drawing upon their own inaccurate representations of a field of study as they share it with their students.


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Updated August 2011 by E. Sass
Revised July 2012 by D. Leitzman