Pedagogical Content Knowledge and the Personal Learning Device 

Presenting in just the right way to enable students to master knowledge and skills. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Andrew Pass


Do you think that there will ever be a personal learning device that presents content in just the right way to enable students to most successfully master content knowledge and skills? What would such a device even have to know to successfully present content in this way? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to consider what a teacher must know in order to most effectively enable students to acquire new knowledge and master new skills. Then, we can ask if technology could acquire this same body of knowledge. 

In his 1986 article, “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth In Teaching,” Stanford University emeritus professor and former president of the Carnegie Foundation for education, Lee Shulman argues that great teachers must have content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge refers to the disciplinary knowledge that teachers must have about their content areas. One cannot teach something if they do not know it themselves. Pedagogical knowledge refers to knowledge that all teachers, regardless of content area, must have. Pedagogical content knowledge refers to specific knowledge of how to teach specific content. 

Defining the Knowledge

More recently, researchers have expanded upon this scholar’s concept of pedagogical content knowledge, by defining technological pedagogical content knowledge, or the knowledge that a teacher must have to effectively use technology and expect students to use it for the acquisition of specific knowledge and skills. Since this brief article explores the knowledge that personal learning devices must have and not the knowledge that teachers must have to use technology, considering only pedagogical content knowledge is more analogous to our situation. 

Shulman explains that pedagogical content knowledge includes knowing how to best represent ideas that students need to learn, including the most powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations, and cases of how the knowledge applies in the real world. In short, teachers must know how to enable others to learn and understand the content. Certainly all students will not learn the content in the same way. So strong teachers must have a variety of representations and strategies. In order to use the best representations of knowledge under study, teachers must know what makes specific content difficult to learn and understand the misconceptions and preconceptions that students have of this content.

A Personal Memory

A personal memory will shed light on the meaning of pedagogical content knowledge. Sarah and I work together. I am in Detroit. Sarah is in Israel. I focus on business and Sarah leads content development. One day I tell her, “It must be really easy to find content authors to write early elementary school math test items. Everybody knows what 3+3 is.” I am so glad that Sarah is half a world away or I think she would smack me. She explains that this could not be further from the truth. Sarah tells me that it is actually very challenging to find great assessment writers for early elementary school because these writers need to be able to think like young children. This is hard. 

Consider each of the ways that a young child might answer 3+3 incorrectly. Perhaps they get 33. Perhaps they confuse the addition sign with a subtraction sign and get 0. Perhaps they do not know how to read the problem from left to right. Perhaps they simply miscount and get five or seven. As Shulman argues, the teacher must also understand the way that young children think about the content. 

Teachers must also have the ability to use representations to explain the content and develop activities for the young children to learn it. For example, young children might best learn the difference between addition and subtraction signs by forming them with their bodies and showing that the addition sign is larger than the subtraction sign. Consequently, the addition sign means to make something bigger and the subtraction sign means to make it smaller. Of course, this type of activity would not work for every student. Some students might learn better if the rules of addition and subtraction were set to a jingle. Pedagogical content knowledge enables teachers to reach different students in different ways. 

Getting Closer 

Nearly forty years ago, when Lee Shulman wrote his article, personal learning devices seemed far away. However, educational technology developers may be close to producing this kind of a device. Just as strong teachers must possess content, pedagogical content, and pedagogical knowledge, personal learning devices will need to possess the same. 

Can personal learning devices acquire the knowledge needed to represent content in these different ways depending on the needs of individual students?

Using generative artificial intelligence the personal learning device will be able to access content information that students need to learn and display it for them. Of course, this type of information is not always perfectly accurate. Furthermore, Shulman’s whole point, regarding pedagogical content knowledge, is that students need learning supports for specific content. Most students cannot just read the content and learn it at a high level.

Lee Shulman explains that teachers develop pedagogical content knowledge through a combination of research and personal experience. Of course, technology can never acquire “personal experience” since it is not a person. However, over time, through machine learning, artificial intelligence can acquire independent and specialized knowledge of pedagogical content knowledge for every subject area and grade level.

The remaining question is, will the personal learning device, and the artificial intelligence that drives it, be able to use pedagogical content knowledge effectively to meet the needs of specific students? There is no doubt that one day this will be possible.

Andrew Pass is the founder of A Pass Educational Group, LLC.  A Pass partners with organizations to develop customized educational content including courses, assessment items, learning objects, supplemental resources and more.  Write to:


    Leave a Comment

    %d bloggers like this: