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How do we develop teacher educator domain knowledge?

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Date published 21 February 2024

Research tells us that the quality of teaching makes the biggest difference to what a child achieves. It has three times more impact than any other factor within a school’s control (RAND, 2019).

For schools and trusts, the provision of professional development – to ensure this quality of teaching amongst other things – involves everyone who plays a role in the education of children and young people.

Teacher educators have a significant role in that picture, as they are responsible for supporting teachers, school leaders and support staff to develop their expertise.

Our focus at Ambition Institute is providing the highest quality professional development, based on rigorous evidence of what works. Part of my role here is to develop our team of teacher educators. Together, we have grown our understanding of what makes an effective teacher educator and are collaborating with our research team to expand the evidence base for teacher education.

We’re putting the concept of teacher education under the spotlight. In sharing what our own teacher educators do and why, we hope you can use this insight to further develop your own teacher education practice.

So far, we’ve explored:

  1. What is teacher education? | Ambition Institute
  2. What makes an effective teacher educator? | Ambition Institute

In this post, we will be taking a deeper look at the concept of domain knowledge.

What is domain knowledge?

When schools or trusts recruit and train a new teacher, they’re interested in developing their domain knowledge (their knowledge relating to teaching) in at least three important ways. The terms I’m using here are taken from Shulman (1987).

New teachers need strong content knowledge in what they’re teaching. For example, maths teachers need to know how to use maths and the principles that underpin the subject. If a school thinks its new teacher might lack this knowledge (perhaps because they don’t have a degree in the subject) then they send them on a subject knowledge enhancement programme.

New teachers also need general pedagogical knowledge. This is the ‘how’ of teaching: how to build a positive classroom climate, explain a tricky idea and check for pupil understanding. A lot of this is often similar across teachers of different subjects and phases and is therefore covered in initial teacher training (ITT).

A third type of knowledge is pedagogical content knowledge. This links the previous two types of knowledge — teachers need to know how to explain their subject clearly and identify and tackle common misconceptions across a range of topics. Teachers normally gain this knowledge through trial and error when pupils misunderstand ideas in their lessons.

Taken together, these types of knowledge are important components of teachers’ mental models — they guide teachers’ actions inside the classroom.

What we’ve come to realise is that the domain knowledge required by teacher educators falls into the same categories as that needed by teachers, but their learning content is often quite different.

Selecting content knowledge

When we at Ambition appoint new teacher educators, they have a lot of practical experience of schools. However, there is some specific content knowledge that helps our teacher educators apply their experience from school in their new role. Content knowledge in this case refers to the ‘stuff’ that they deliver as part of our programmes. This might include knowledge of cognitive science relating to learning and motivation; assessment theory; implementation theory; and knowledge of a range of pedagogies.

Our goal when sharing content knowledge is to support our teacher educators to transform their practical experience into a format that makes it useable in their new role, for example, they can use their knowledge:

  • Directly as content knowledge: When our team understand the content in more depth, they can explain it better to the people on our programmes. For example, by deeply understanding factors affecting pupil motivation, our team can help teachers to analyse the challenges they face in their classroom and suggest ways forward. By understanding implementation theory, they can explain its importance and help to plan an implementation process alongside school leaders.
  • To support their general pedagogical knowledge: By understanding more about how people learn, our team can facilitate more effective sessions with teachers and leaders. By deeply understanding motivation theory, they can support teachers and leaders to engage more productively in their sessions.
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Building expertise

Just as important as what they know is how the knowledge of our teacher educators is organised. This needs to be aligned with our goal of building teachers’ and leaders’ expertise. Our goal as an organisation is not to tell teachers and school leaders how they should be doing their jobs. We want to instead build their expertise to apply their learning in contextually appropriate ways. This means that we need to understand some features of expertise development.

Persky and Robinson argue that one feature of expertise is to see beyond the surface of a situation to the problem that underpins it. This helps to craft an appropriate response (2017). Salomon and Perkins state that knowledge of abstract principles can help people to see beyond surface features and transfer their knowledge (1989).

Our teacher educators need similar knowledge – they need to go beyond describing the strategies that they have seen used in schools to focus on their potential purposes.

This means that their content knowledge needs to be organised around underlying principles. For example, the content knowledge that we share with our team doesn’t just focus on strategies to enhance pupil motivation. Instead it explores underlying theories of motivation such as self-determination theory (Deci and Ryan, 2008) to support our team to understand why a particular approach might work and what its specific purpose is.

This helps them to offer clearer and more nuanced explanations of key ideas and give guidance to teachers and school leaders that can be flexibly tailored to their context.

Other important types of knowledge

Pedagogical content knowledge: Just as with teachers, teacher educators need pedagogical content knowledge – knowledge about how people understand and misunderstand the specific content they are teaching. With experience we learn how best to explain key ideas to make them understandable and avoid misconceptions. Sharing these explanations, representations and misconceptions is an important part of our development.

Equality, diversity and inclusion: We have come to realise that we can’t address equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) as a separate issue during our team development. It needs to be incorporated into our general reading. For example, we can consider systematic bias in assessment or representation in curriculum. Practical and relevant knowledge of these issues helps our team to support participants on our programmes with their thinking in these areas.

How do we develop our team’s understanding of this key content?

The first step in developing our team is identifying the specific knowledge that we want to focus on – this combines content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge.

Selecting content: at the beginning of each academic year, we outline the main domains that we want to focus on that year such as: motivation, curriculum, special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), instruction, teacher education, assessment and cognitive science. These are selected based on their relevance to the team’s upcoming work and how recently we’ve covered them.

For example, if a lot of the team are about to work with middle leaders who are reviewing their curriculum, then this might be a focus of our development.

Content is mapped out so it can be revisited across the year to deepen understanding. We also leave some flexibility in our schedule to allow us to respond to emerging needs across the year. This is done via line managers who share areas where their teams would like more input.

Reading and sensemaking: we believe that our team should engage directly with peer-reviewed papers published in academic journals. This means we can consider the nuances, strengths and limitations of individual studies.

However, interpreting academic literature isn’t always straightforward so we use a sensemaking process to support this. Colleagues are given reading two weeks in advance of our sessions together with some focus questions. We then pick out three significant quotes from the text to centre our discussions on which help to focus debate.

Applying in practice: to support colleagues to apply the insights from the reading, we build on them by considering how they might influence our practice. This involves embedding the insights into a practice activity. For example, explaining a tricky concept to a participant, or responding to a realistic dilemma experienced by teachers or school leaders.


We hope that outlining our approach to the challenge of building domain knowledge has provided some inspiration for you in developing yourself or others as teacher educators.

Building our team’s knowledge of what they teach and how they teach it is an important first step in their development. We hope that outlining our approach to this challenge has provided some inspiration for you in developing yourself or others as teacher educators. However, once we have begun to develop our teacher educators’ knowledge, it’s then important to support them to put this into practice in a way that builds their confidence and effectiveness.

We do this by focusing on our two main means of delivery: facilitation and coaching, which we’ll explore soon.

Develop as a teacher educator

The National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in Leading Teacher Development brings together the knowledge and skills to help current and aspiring teacher educators make classroom teaching in their school be the best it can be.

Ambition Institute’s Transforming Teaching programme supports a whole school setting to build its capacity to design and deliver effective professional development, tailored to its particular needs and context.

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Steve Farndon
Associate Director, Internal Faculty

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