Tuesday, April 19, 2011

RTOP: Solid grasp of subject matter?

Here is another item from the RTOP:

The teacher had a solid grasp of the subject matter content inherent in the lesson.

At first glance this seems pretty silly for a classroom observation. But digging deeper, and reading the clarifying paragraphs gives this statement new and wonderful meaning:
"This indicates that a teacher could sense the potential significance of ideas as they occurred in the lesson, even when articulated vaguely by students. A solid grasp would be indicated by an eagerness to pursue student’s thoughts even if seemingly unrelated at the moment. The grade-level at which the lesson was directed should be taken into consideration when evaluating this item."

This isn't about having subject knowledge. It's about knowing a subject matter well enough that a teacher can see fragments of disciplinary knowledge in all the things that students say and do in the classroom. A scientist could easily score low on this, despite having mastered the content, if that content mastery didn't allow them to listen and "see" the beginnings of knowledge in classroom discourse.

An Example from Physics

In the physics classroom, an example of this came up this semester. A lecturer was presenting on the topic of constructive and deconstructive interference, and was discussing lasers as an example of constructive inteference A student asked a question at some point about this being like polarized light. The lecturer was thrown off by this question, and went off on an explanation for why the two had nothing to do with each other. While it is true that polarizers and lasers are different phenomena, arising from different mechanisms, there is a lot of conceptual overlap between the two. In particular, with both situations there are waves, and the phenomena involves thinking about the degree to which waves are or are not aligned with each other. In both cases, those alignments can be described with an angular measure. The difference is that one involves an alignment of phase relations and the other involves an alignment of oscillating planes.

While I'm positive that the instructor understood both concepts fairly well, his understanding didn't help him to see meaningful connections between both content areas and the students' question. For that reason, I might score this RTOP item low.

Anybody have any good examples?


  1. Man, I'm embarrassed to admit that there are tons of examples from my own classroom. There are times when time management forces me into one of those "actually, that has nothing to do with it" statements you talk about here. Flipping my classroom has helped with those but hasn't gotten rid of them. Do you think we should be able to pursue every question from a student? I think probably yes because usually they're trying to find a connection between what they know and what they're learning. Thanks for the post but give me a month's notice before visiting my class ;)

  2. So, I'm not trying to be critical about the teaching. I think I am trying to pinpoint for myself the difference between content knowledge, and content knowledge for teaching, as the RTOP seems to be stressing.

    In my example, seeing "lasers" and "polarizers" as conceptually related isn't necessary for understanding the science. But that conceptual relationship might have helped the instructor understand the seeds of scientific thinking present in the student's question.

    I don't think we can always attend to every question that students bring up. That said, we should try to value students' attempt to see connections among seemingly disparate phenomena.

    I think my point might be that having content knowledge (for teaching) helps us "see" the science in classroom discourse. While that doesn't prescribe for us how and when to respond to students, it certainly can't hurt.