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.