Unpacking the Complexity of Science Teachers’ PCK in Action: Enacted and Personal PCK

  • Alicia C. AlonzoEmail author
  • Amanda Berry
  • Pernilla Nilsson


This chapter focuses on enacted PCK (ePCK), i.e. the specific knowledge and skills that science teachers use in their practice, as it plays out in specific classroom contexts while teaching particular content to their students. In unpacking this aspect of the Refined Consensus Model (RCM) of PCK, we consider both the nature of ePCK and its interactions with other realms of PCK, primarily personal PCK (pPCK). Recognising the complexity of classroom practice—in terms of both the uniqueness of each classroom situation and the necessarily spontaneous nature of classroom interactions—we propose a mechanism through which pPCK is transformed into ePCK, and vice versa, throughout the plan-teach-reflect cycle. We then illustrate these ideas using several empirical examples of efforts to capture and analyse science teachers’ ePCK (and associated pPCK). We conclude with discussion of some of the opportunities, challenges and implications of using the RCM, along with our unpacking of ePCK and its relationship to pPCK, as a means of understanding the knowledge that science teachers utilise in the midst of planning, teaching and reflecting.


The Refined Consensus Model (RCM) of PCK (Carlson, Daehler et al., this volume) builds on a model of teacher professional knowledge and skill developed from the First (1st) PCK Summit (Gess-Newsome, 2015). As compared to the earlier model and in the context of science education, the RCM has a stronger emphasis on making explicit the different variables, layers and complexities associated with PCK and highlighting in a clearer way the relationship between PCK and teaching practice. The RCM identifies three distinct “realms” of PCK: collective PCK (cPCK), representing the specialised professional knowledge held by multiple science educators in a field; personal PCK (pPCK), representing the personalised professional knowledge and skills held by an individual science teacher; and enacted PCK (ePCK), the unique subset of knowledge and skills that a science teacher draws on and that play out while planning, teaching and reflecting on a lesson. Within the model, these realms are represented as concentric rings, with cPCK in the outer ring, pPCK in the middle ring and ePCK in the centre (see Chap.  2, Fig.  2.3). The design of the model is intended to emphasise the practitioner perspective through the central placement of ePCK.

To date, research on science teachers’ PCK has mostly focused on cPCK, e.g. assessing whether teachers know “canonical” PCK, and pPCK, e.g. getting teachers to articulate what they know about teaching a particular science topic in a particular context. However, there has been relatively little research focused on ePCK, i.e. how PCK is utilised in teachers’ actual practice. Therefore, in this chapter, we focus on ePCK,

the specific knowledge and skills utilised by an individual science teacher in a particular setting, with a particular student or group of students, with a goal for those students to learn a particular concept, collection of concepts, or a particular aspect of the discipline. (see Chap.  2)

We unpack this aspect of the RCM, providing our interpretation of ePCK in order to focus attention on the knowledge that science teachers make use of in action. Consistent with the interpretations in Chap.  2, we note that ePCK plays out not only when enacting instruction (i.e. when interacting directly with students), but also when planning for and reflecting on instruction. Thus, we consider ePCK to exist in three forms: ePCKP (for planning), ePCKT (for teaching) and ePCKR (for reflecting). Below we argue that because ePCK focuses on specific and, thus, unique classroom situations, it must involve more than static, declarative knowledge or scripts and procedures. Further, we explore how ePCK, as constantly evolving in response to these unique classroom situations, not only relies upon but also drives modifications to science teachers’ pPCK.

Thus, in the sections below, we start with a brief overview of pPCK. We then unpack our interpretation of ePCK as a form of knowledge in action. Next, we explain how we view ePCK and pPCK as mutually influential, proposing a mechanism through which these two realms of knowledge interact and evolve through the plan-teach-reflect cycle, as pPCK is transformed into ePCK, and vice versa. In order to illustrate these ideas, we then present several examples of efforts to capture and analyse science teachers’ ePCK and pPCK. Finally, we discuss some of the opportunities, challenges and implications of using the RCM and, in particular, our unpacking of ePCK and its relationship to pPCK, as a means of understanding the knowledge that science teachers use while planning, enacting and reflecting on instruction.

The Nature of pPCK

Personal PCK (pPCK) refers to the knowledge resources that an individual science teacher brings to the classroom enabling her/him to think and perform as a teacher in order to promote student learning about specific science subject matter. In understanding pPCK as a form of personal knowledge, we draw on Eraut (2000) who defines personal knowledge as

the personal, available for use, version of a public concept or idea…[that] incorporates codified knowledge in its personalised form, together with procedural knowledge and process knowledge, experiential knowledge and impressions in episodic memory. Skills are part of this knowledge, thus allowing representations of competence, capability or expertise in which the use of the skills and propositional knowledge are closely integrated. (p.114)

Hence, pPCK is a specialised form of personal knowledge that includes different knowledge resources related to the teaching and learning of specific science topics. Consistent with Eraut (2000), who considers skills to be part of knowledge, in this chapter we refer to knowledge and skills collectively as knowledge. pPCK includes both explicit (i.e., articulable) knowledge and tacit knowledge (e.g., experiential knowledge, impressions in episodic memory) and is therefore unique for each science teacher. pPCK differs from cPCK in that cPCK represents publicly held (i.e., shared) codified knowledge.

The Nature of ePCK

Consistent with its connection to practice in the RCM, we consider ePCK to be “tacit knowledge in action” (Eraut, 2000, p. 123), i.e., knowledge that science teachers draw on in the moment of action, where the action may include planning, teaching or reflecting on teaching. This interpretation has two important implications. First, ePCK exists only in action (i.e., as tacit, unarticulated knowledge). Second, ePCK is flexible and generated in the moment of action. Since action occurs in the moment, the underlying ePCK is also adaptive, created and used in that moment. Thus, we contrast ePCK with pPCK and cPCK, which are more declarative and relatively more stable (or static) forms of knowledge.1,2

Science teaching is responsive to students and context, so each classroom situation is (at least) slightly different from others that a teacher has experienced (or knows about). Thus, the ePCK utilised in each classroom situation is unique, and it is unlikely (and even impossible) for a science teacher to already possess the exact ePCK required to plan, enact and reflect on instruction about a particular topic for a particular group of students in a particular setting. Thus, ePCK must be constructed anew for each teaching episode. Of course, ePCK for a given classroom situation might be almost identical to that for another similar situation, but differences in terms of the context and/or students will necessitate (even very small) tweaks, resulting in unique ePCK for that setting. Therefore, new ePCK is constantly being generated for each science teacher during every act of planning, enacting and reflecting on instruction.

Therefore, we view ePCK as the knowledge in action generated during, and made visible in, science teachers’ planning (ePCKP), enactment (ePCKT) and reflection (ePCKR) on instruction in a particular classroom situation. As such, ePCK is the unarticulated knowledge that underlies action in each of these activities. ePCKT is perhaps easiest to imagine, as the knowledge that underlies science teachers’ in-the-moment instructional decisions. Teachers respond to students—e.g., with feedback, with explanations or demonstrations, and questions—in the midst of science instruction, without articulating (even to themselves) the reasoning behind those decisions. Similarly, when planning, teachers may propose particular instructional activities, with the intuitive sense that they will be appropriate for a given upcoming classroom situation (ePCKP). Reflections may start with a teacher’s sense that a given activity did not “go well” or that a particular student was confused about part of the lesson (ePCKR). Such reflections, tied to specific instances and/or specific students, do not already exist as part of a teacher’s ePCK—and a teacher may not have associated declarative knowledge to express the basis for his/her concerns. As discussed in the section below, these intuitive actions (planning, teaching and reflecting) are all influenced by a science teacher’s pPCK; however, in the moment, they exist as ePCK.

Relationships Between ePCK and pPCK

In this section, we describe how—through the constant generation of ePCK and the interaction between ePCK and pPCK—teaching experience can lead to changes in both science teachers’ ePCK and pPCK. We depict this process in Fig. 12.1, which is an expansion of the ePCK and pPCK parts of the RCM (see Chap.  2), depicting in more detail both the different forms of ePCK and the specific points at which pPCK influences ePCK and vice versa. To illustrate the fuzziness that we see between ePCK and pPCK (particularly in their tacit forms), we have blurred the line representing the interface between ePCK and pPCK.3 As shown in Fig. 12.1, in the RCM, double-sided arrows on the interface between ePCK and pPCK indicate a bidirectional flow between these two realms of PCK, representing how pPCK influences ePCK and vice versa.
Fig. 12.1

Relationships among ePCK stages and between ePCK and pPCK

First, pPCK provides the basis for ePCK at each step of the plan-teach-reflect cycle. In other words, ePCK is generated in the moment, but not out of thin air. All of a science teacher’s knowledge, from past teaching and learning experiences, including classroom situations that are similar to the current one, serve as resources. The three dark blue arrows pointed inwards in Fig. 12.1 represent this sourcing of extant knowledge. Second, ePCK is transformed into pPCK, i.e., part of the store of knowledge available for future planning, teaching and reflecting. Consistent with the composition of pPCK as including both explicit and tacit knowledge, ePCK may be transformed into pPCK in either of these forms. The three light blue arrows pointed outwards in Fig. 12.1, following each stage of the plan-teach-reflect cycle, represent the transformation of ePCK into both explicit and tacit forms of pPCK. A conscious process may transform ePCK into pPCK in a form that can be articulated by the teacher. This transformation happens primarily through reflection in, or on, a science teaching episode as intuition and experiences become part of future knowledge that can be explicitly drawn upon in planning, teaching and reflection. For example, a teacher may recognise a student learning difficulty during class and later explicitly draw on this experience to inform future teaching. In a subconscious process, ePCK may also be transformed directly into pPCK without the teacher’s conscious awareness.4 In this case, a science teaching episode (e.g., recognising a student difficulty) becomes subconsciously incorporated into memory that forms part of a tacit knowledge base that may be activated to inform future action (tacit pPCK). Transformation of ePCK into pPCK includes instances of planning and reflecting as well as teaching.

Before unpacking these mechanisms for each stage of the plan-teach-reflect cycle, we note that this cycle occurs on two timescales: a “macro” one focused on a unit of instruction (e.g. a lesson) and a “micro” one focused in-the-moment during a unit of instruction (i.e. many such moments in a lesson). At the lesson level, a teacher plans the lesson, teaches the lesson and then reflects on learning and instruction during the lesson. The teaching of the lesson includes all of the instructional moves that the science teacher makes (whether planned or unplanned). When reflections at the “macro” level are made explicit, ePCK is transformed into pPCK as articulable knowledge.

As illustrated in Fig. 12.2, we can also “zoom in” to investigate how the teaching of the science lesson (as a series of instructional moves) arises. At this level, we see a reflect-plan-teach cycle associated with each instructional move in the “macro” cycle. Here, instruction (“teach” in the macrocycle) comprises a series of instructional moves (“teach” in the microcycle). In contrast, the planning and reflection that occur as part of the microcycle happen during “teach” in the macrocycle (i.e. distinct from the planning and reflection that occur before and after a lesson, respectively). In a microcycle, a particular instance (e.g. an interaction with a student) prompts reflection (i.e., noticing and identifying the significance of a student’s question or contribution to a class discussion), a plan for how to respond and the instruction (i.e., the response, such as a follow-up question to the student or a revision to the instructional plan). As this entire cycle takes place in one instance, in the moment between the student’s contribution and the teacher’s response, the ePCK generated is likely to remain tacit and, thus, unless included in reflection as part of the “macro” cycle, more likely to be transformed into pPCK in tacit form.
Fig. 12.2

Macro- and microplan-teach-reflect cycles

As described above, since each student and each classroom context is a little bit different, most teaching situations will present science teachers with some similarity to past teaching situations and/or teachers’ prior knowledge, but also some uniqueness—such that existing pPCK is relevant and useful, but ePCK must be generated for a particular situation. Thus, when planning instruction, science teachers draw on their existing pPCK, using knowledge of common ways students interact with the content and instructional strategies that can be used to address that content in order to identify a particular set and sequence of learning activities. As teachers tailor instruction to a particular classroom context and group of students, they may propose learning sequences and/or instructional moves without explicitly articulating the underlying reasoning (e.g., knowledge of common student learning difficulties, knowledge of the conditions under which a particular instructional strategy is most beneficial)—or even being aware of it themselves. Through this process, science teachers generate their ePCKP.

Science teaching is complex and uncertain, requiring continuous in-the-moment responses to students’ learning needs and features of the classroom context. While teachers’ pPCK may include a range of instructional strategies associated with particular classroom conditions, teachers are unlikely to find themselves in those precise conditions in any given teaching situation. Therefore, to support student learning, they must generate responses appropriate for the moment. Through this process, science teachers generate their ePCKT.

During and after instruction, teachers may reflect on their planned instruction (ePCKP), their in-the-moment adaptations (ePCKT) and/or the foundational knowledge (pPCK) underlying both. When reflecting on the outcome of enacting a strategy in the unique situation of a particular set of interacting factors in a particular classroom context, science teachers generate ePCKR. While drawing on pPCK (e.g., knowledge of common student difficulties or common student expressions of content understanding) that is applicable across classroom situations, teachers engage in in-the-moment reflections specific to the particular incident under consideration. For example, a teacher may identify that a particular moment was key to the success (or difficulty) that students experienced in a lesson, or he/she may recognise a particular student’s contribution as indicative of a preconception that she had not encountered before. When this ePCKR is articulated and/or stored as knowledge that, while contextualised in the teacher’s classroom, exists for use beyond the specific students and classroom conditions under which it was generated, it becomes part of a science teachers’ pPCK. In this way, insights gained from the specific situation may contribute to new knowledge that can be applied in other situations.

Thus, whether coming up with instructional strategies appropriate for a given classroom situation (ePCKP), recognising new evidence of student thinking (ePCKT), or reflecting on the outcome of instructional strategies or a response to evidence of student thinking (ePCKR), science teachers build on existing pPCK and generate new ePCK. When articulated, the new ePCK can be incorporated into a teacher’s pPCK. In this way, the interplay between these different realms of PCK operates in both directions: ePCK informs and is informed by pPCK.

To illustrate how these different forms of ePCK play out in a science teaching episode, consider the following example. Recalling how her students have struggled to understand natural selection (pPCK), a biology teacher designs an activity to address common learning difficulties (ePCKP). While teaching the lesson, a student expresses an understanding of natural selection that the teacher was not expecting. On the spot, she decides to use Darwin’s Galapagos finches to respond to the student (ePCKT). After school, the teacher thinks about how the student may have come up with his idea (ePCKR). She remembers the student idea and her explanation so that she can anticipate this response when she teaches natural selection again (pPCK). Considering just the teacher’s instructional response in the lesson, we can zoom in further to see how ePCK plays out at the level of the microcycle described above. While some evidence of student thinking may be presented in ways that match perfectly with teachers’ prior knowledge (i.e., pPCK), most classroom situations require teachers to recognise/notice something they have never encountered before—whether a particular student’s way of expressing a known pattern of student thinking or evidence of truly novel student thinking. Thus, when the student expresses her understanding of natural selection, the teacher must immediately make sense of the student idea (i.e., what it indicates about student understanding, what the student does and does not understand; generating ePCKR). Still acting in the moment, the teacher must then make a decision about how to respond, (i.e., plan an instructional move; generating ePCKP) and enact the planned response (generating ePCKT). In these in-the-moment instances, ePCK is likely to be transformed into pPCK only tacitly, but this decision is also available for reflection in the macrocycle and, thus, could contribute to the development of more explicit pPCK.

Illuminating the Complexity of Science Teachers’ PCK in Action: Empirical Examples

In the sections above, we laid out a conceptualisation of ePCK and its relationship to pPCK in order to unpack how these realms of PCK are brought to bear in the moment of planning, teaching and reflecting. In this section, we provide examples from empirical work on PCK that help to both illustrate our conceptualisation and illuminate the complexity of the knowledge in action that we seek to understand by articulating ePCK and pPCK. We start with an example of the processes by which pPCK is transformed into ePCK and then ePCK is transformed into pPCK, both through pedagogical reasoning. This example helps to make concrete specific features of ePCK and pPCK described above and provides further elaboration of the pedagogical reasoning inherent in the transformation from ePCK into pPCK.

Since ePCK is tacit knowledge, the best efforts to capture ePCK may still only result in approximations of this realm of science teachers’ PCK. The next two examples in this section represent different approaches to making such approximations, both seeking to understand the ePCK that is utilised in the moment of instruction (i.e., in microcycles of plan-teach-reflect). These examples serve to illustrate the complexity of capturing ePCK, pointing out where reasonable approximations can and cannot be made.

All three examples highlight tools and approaches that have been developed to capture and/or support science teachers’ PCK in action. While standardised instruments can be used to evaluate whether teachers have acquired particular cPCK, the contextualised nature of pPCK and ePCK requires different kinds of tools and approaches. Below, we describe the use of some of these tools and approaches and the extent to which they can be used to gain insights into science teachers’ ePCK and/or pPCK and the interaction between them both.

Pedagogical Reasoning: Transformations Between ePCK and pPCK in Macro- and Microcycles of Plan-Teach-Reflect

For the purpose of stimulating science teachers’ reflections and developing their PCK, Content Representations (CoRes) have been shown to be a useful pedagogical tool (Hume & Berry, 2011; Loughran, Berry, & Mulhall, 2006; Nilsson & Loughran, 2012). Further, in her review on PCK, Kind (2009) argued that the CoRe tool offers the most useful technique devised to date in science education research for eliciting and capturing PCK directly from teachers. Constructing a CoRe requires the teacher(s) to reflect upon how to teach a specific topic in order to promote students’ learning. It prompts the teacher(s) to articulate what is called “big ideas” and address queries that include: what students should learn about each big idea; why it is important for students to know these ideas; students’ possible difficulties with learning the ideas; and how these ideas fit in with the knowledge the teacher holds about that content. In this way, working with the CoRe as a reflective tool has the potential for transforming science teachers’ tacit pPCK into explicit pPCK but also, when implemented into teaching practice, informing teachers’ ePCK for planning (ePCKP), teaching (ePCKT) and reflecting (ePCKR). CoRes may also be used to represent the collective views of a group of science teachers for teaching a specific topic, so that a CoRe also represents a form of cPCK for that teacher group.

In Nilsson and Karlsson´s (2018) research, the CoRe was introduced to student science teachers as a tool to stimulate their thinking about links between the content, teaching and student learning as they individually planned and tailored science instruction to a particular secondary classroom context and group of students. As such, each student teacher’s individual CoRe was used to stimulate the transformation of pPCK into ePCK (for planning, teaching and reflecting). During the planning process, the student teachers were also encouraged to use resources such as curriculum materials and educational research, thus supporting the process of transforming cPCK into pPCK. The student teachers then taught a science lesson based on their constructed CoRes. Following their teaching, the student teachers viewed their video-recorded lessons and were encouraged to reflect upon their teaching performance to identify unexpected moments (expressed as critical incidents) in relation to their CoRes. Each student teacher chose two science teaching episodes, each about 4–8 min in length, representing: (1) a critical incident where she/he had succeeded in accordance with the big ideas in the CoRe and (2) a critical incident where she/he had experienced difficulties in fulfilling ambitions as expressed in the CoRe. The student teachers made annotations in the videos pinpointing these two critical incidents and providing reasoning as to why they felt they had succeeded or not in achieving their aims as expressed in the CoRes. In this way, the student teachers’ video-recorded lessons were used to scaffold and structure their articulation of their in-the-moment pedagogical reasoning, transforming their ePCKT and their ePCKR into pPCK.

The outcomes of this research indicate that CoRe design prior to teaching episodes raises student science teachers’ awareness of teaching issues around certain science content and engages them in reflection and decision-making that they enact in classrooms. As such, the research supports the notion that reasoning about specific instances of practice can help student teachers develop different aspects of their pPCK (e.g. knowledge of content and knowledge of students’ understanding) as well as their ePCK (i.e., knowledge that teachers draw on in the moment of action, where the action may include planning, teaching or reflecting on teaching). The use of the CoRe as a tool for planning the science lesson illustrates the macrocycle of the unit of instruction. At the same time, the use of video annotations highlighting critical incidents illustrates the microcycle. Such a way of organising student teachers’ reflective work during their practicum implies a transformation from pPCK to ePCK to more sophisticated form of pPCK through the process of pedagogical reasoning, from both a macro- and a microlevel perspective. As such, the CoRe, together with the video annotation tool, proved to be successful in scaffolding, structuring and even transforming student teachers’ reflections, and consequently contributed to their pPCK development.

Approximating ePCK in Microcycles of Plan-Teach-Reflect

The tacit nature of ePCK presents a clear challenge for researchers seeking to capture this realm of PCK. Even when connected to a particular instance of science instruction, artefacts such as lesson plans or annotated videos capture pPCK (expressed when teachers’ reasoning is made explicit as part of macroprocesses of planning or reflecting), rather than ePCK. Because ePCK is transformed into pPCK as it is made explicit, we argue that it is impossible to capture the true nature of ePCK. An alternative approach is to try to infer ePCK through evidence of the planning, teaching and reflecting that occurs in association with a single instructional move in science teaching (i.e., a microplan-teach-reflect cycle). In this section, we describe two examples of this approach.

Cognitive science research suggests that, even a short time after a given activity, people are unable to recall exactly what they were thinking when engaged in that activity (e.g., Ericsson and Simon, 1993; Leighton, 2004). Therefore, there is reason to believe that inferring the ePCK associated with a given instructional move would require teachers to “think aloud” (Ericsson and Simon, 1993) while teaching (i.e., to articulate pedagogical reasoning associated with the planning, enacting and reflection on that instructional move).5 “Thinking aloud” would allow inferences of ePCKT to be made directly from the observed instructional move, but also provide opportunities (a) to elicit pPCK associated with planning and reflecting (as a proxy for ePCKP and ePCKR) and (b) to elicit pPCK associated with teaching (to check inferences about ePCKT made directly from teaching actions). Unfortunately, this ideal is clearly not feasible in real classroom settings. Thus, researchers turn to work with science teachers outside of the classroom context to try to recapture or to simulate aspects of the plan-teach-reflect cycle that happen in-the-moment during instruction. We describe a method of each type in the sections below.

Documenting Evidence of ePCK and Associated pPCK

Pedagogical and Professional-experience Repertoires (PaP-eRs) (Loughran, Milroy, Berry, Mulhall, & Gunstone, 2001) offer one means of representing science teachers’ in-the-moment instructional decisions and actions. PaP-eRs are short (1–2 pages) vignettes intended to represent the thoughts and actions of a knowledgeable science teacher in teaching a specific aspect of the content to students in a particular context. PaP-eRs include information about the classroom context, the teacher’s thinking about the content, examples of students’ responses, and what it is about the content that shapes the approach to teaching and learning and why. PaP-eRs are constructed by researchers in consultation with teachers from data gained while observing a particular science teacher’s classroom and/or through interviewing a teacher about an instance of practice where he/she came to understand the content differently as a consequence of teaching it. Through making explicit these components of classroom practice and associated teacher reasoning, PaP-eRs capture aspects of a teacher’s ePCKP, ePCKT and ePCKR, within the microcycles of instructional moves occurring in the lesson, and since PaP-eRs are constructed post-lesson, their ePCKR in the macrocycle of instruction, as teachers think back on their planned instruction and its subsequent student outcomes.

For example, Bertram and Loughran (2012) used CoRes in combination with PaP-eRs to investigate the development of experienced secondary science teachers’ PCK over a two-year period. In this study, participating teachers (n = 6) individually created CoRes for a science topic they planned to teach, then reflected on the process of making the CoRe and how that process influenced their thinking about teaching and learning, and how it influenced their understanding of PCK. As Bertram and Loughran (2012) noted:

in creating the CoRe, it forced these teachers to explicitly think about and connect with their tacit knowledge about teaching and learning. Thus, the process of working through developing a CoRe encouraged these participants to find ways of articulating that which they knew and how they developed their knowledge of practice. (p.1036)

Following their teaching of the topic, participants were then asked to develop a PaP-eR (in collaboration with the researchers) illustrating a particular classroom teaching episode in science based on their CoRe. As one participant noted:

“So, what I feel is - that this [PaP-eR] is articulating, documenting, making explicit - that kind of process which … on reflection, is a process … that I have going on in my head all the time, in relation to teaching…”. (p.1040)

Bertram and Loughran’s study showed the use of the CoRe and PaP-eR tools enhanced science teachers’ knowledge of practice (i.e., transformation of ePCK to pPCK) through making explicit and sharing their knowledge about teaching and helping to highlight the ways in which content and purpose are closely linked in teaching. In particular, all participants claimed that developing their PaP-eRs encouraged their self-reflection and self-evaluation of their specific contexts and teaching practices (pPCK and ePCKR) and helped to pinpoint areas in which they could improve (e.g., connecting with particular students and their learning needs).

Stimulating Generation of ePCK Outside of the Classroom

Simulating aspects of the plan-teach-reflect cycle that happen in-the-moment during science instruction, outside of the classroom involves a trade-off between the authenticity of a real classroom situation (such as represented in the PaP-eRs) and the ability to capture approximations of ePCK that would be unfeasible in real classroom situations. While not engaging teachers with their own students in their own teaching contexts, this method often incorporates elements of real teaching situations, such as authentic prompts (e.g., video of students expressing their ideas) and authentic response formats (e.g., interacting with a live actor). To date, these methods have not captured all three types of ePCK, focusing either on teachers’ articulating in-the-moment decision-making (ePCKP and ePCKR) or researchers making inferences on the basis of teachers’ in-the-moment actions (ePCKT).

In order to simulate a science teacher’s encountering of unexpected student thinking in a classroom situation, Alonzo and Kim (2016) presented teachers with videos of students expressing ideas about force and motion. The videos, all drawn from real physics classrooms similar to those of the participating teachers, highlighted unusual student thinking—i.e., “unexpected or novel student ideas or questions” (p. 1268). Teachers were asked first to describe the student thinking in the video and then to explain how they might respond to the student. The intent was to capture teachers’ in-the-moment reasoning if a student were to offer the same statement or question in their own classrooms, by asking teachers to make explicit (i.e., transform into pPCK) the ePCKR and ePCKP, respectively, that might underlie a classroom instructional response.

In contrast, two German research groups have devised methods to simulate science teaching situations and teachers’ actual responses to students (i.e., opportunities to infer ePCKT), but do not require teachers to describe their planning or reflecting processes and, thus, do not capture ePCKP or ePCKR. In the domain of mathematics education, Lindmeier and colleagues (Knievel, Lindmeier, & Heinze, 2015; Lindmeier, 2011) used videos of classroom situations highlighting student thinking; however, rather than describing potential instructional moves to an interviewer, teachers were asked to speak (to a computer) as if directly to the student. With this method, researchers capture teachers’ instructional moves in response to the video and, thus, infer their underlying ePCKT. As the video-recorded student cannot react to the teacher’s instruction, this method (like the one used by Alonzo and Kim) involves a single instructional move.

The method used by Kulgemeyer and Schecker (2013) entails multiple instructional moves. In this method, teachers are given time to prepare an explanation of a particular physics problem and then are asked to provide that explanation to a “student” (a specially trained live actor). The student asks questions or provides other responses to the teacher’s explanation, using a predetermined script. With this method, researchers can capture instructional moves that the science teacher makes throughout the explanation interaction and, thus, infer evidence for ePCKT across multiple plan-teach-respond cycles.

In the above described examples, Alonzo and Kim captured ePCKP and ePCKR, while Lindemeir, Kulgemeyer and colleagues captured ePCKT. In order to capture all three forms of ePCK, one might imagine a hybrid situation, in which science teachers are presented with evidence of student thinking and are then asked to (a) articulate not only a proposal for how to respond to the student thinking, but also the reflection and planning underlying the proposed instructional response (i.e., transform ePCKR and ePCKP into pPCK) and (b) enact that response (i.e., provide evidence from which ePCKT might be inferred).

One advantage of all of these approaches is that they permit comparison across teachers. While it is impossible to observe multiple science teachers in the exact same “real” classroom situation, the same video can be shown over and over again, and actors can be trained to behave similarly when interacting with many different teachers. At the same time, this advantage is a limitation, in that ePCK—like the pPCK on which is it based—is specific to a teacher’s own teaching context. Simulations outside of the classroom strip that context away from the enactment. Thus, it is likely that multiple approaches, in combination, will be required to fully approximate a teacher’s ePCK. Methods such as PaP-eRs provide authentic contextualisation, whereas simulations outside of the classroom may capture closer approximations of ePCK.


To date, research on PCK in the science education field has largely focused on relatively static forms of propositional knowledge and, thus, has deepened our understanding of the composition and structure of teachers’ cPCK and pPCK, i.e., the outer rings of the RCM (see Fig.  2.3, Chap.  2). Like other chapters in Part III, ours illustrates how the RCM can be used to classify different realms of PCK and, therefore, more clearly articulate the focus of a given research or teacher education effort. As shown in Figs. 12.1 and 12.2, we found it useful to identify the different types of enactment and, thus, the different types of ePCK that are entailed in enacting macro- and microplan-teach-reflect cycles. In doing so, we highlight the growing body of research that draws attention to the centre of the RCM, exploring science teachers’ ePCK (i.e., PCK in action) and the relationships that exist between ePCK and pPCK. We argue that this work is essential if we are to understand not just what science teachers know, but how that knowledge is transformed into learning experiences for students.

We bring to the RCM a strong interest in and commitment to the aspects of teachers’ work that take place “in action”. While the RCM acknowledges this realm of PCK (i.e., ePCK), it has not yet been fully elaborated. Thus, in this chapter, we have sought to unpack ePCK and its relationship to pPCK. By considering ePCK to be tacit knowledge in action, we emphasise that teachers’ knowledge is often not made explicit, especially in the midst of interacting with students. Our perspective on the relationship between ePCK and pPCK allows us to explain how pedagogical reasoning facilitates the gradual growth of pPCK in response to the experience of teaching particular content to particular students in particular contexts. This perspective also helps us to articulate why it is so difficult to capture exactly what enables a given moment of instruction. So much of what happens in the moment is tacit. While teachers make a number of instructional moves throughout a lesson—many of them unplanned and, thus, generated in the moment—it is extremely rare for the knowledge resources (e.g., knowledge, decision-making) underlying a given move to be made explicit as part of instruction. We cannot directly observe the ePCK involved in teachers’ planning, teaching or reflecting and, thus, do not know exactly what motivates a given instructional move.

We put forth this interpretation of ePCK and its relationship to pPCK with the goal of enabling other researchers to utilise this critical area of the RCM. As others heed the call to focus more attention on PCK in action (e.g., Henze & van Driel, 2015), we see the constructs of ePCK and pPCK as especially valuable for clarity in communicating the aims and challenges of our research and in devising ways to capture particular aspects of PCK in action.


  1. 1.

    This is not to say that pPCK and cPCK do not evolve over time (indeed, as detailed below, we argue that pPCK changes through the construction of ePCK). However, both pPCK and cPCK are static in the sense that it is (theoretically) possible to articulate this knowledge and, thus, to measure it, whereas ePCK is inarticulable and fleeting, existing only in the moment (before potentially being transformed into pPCK). In other words, we fully expect that all three realms of teachers’ PCK will change over time, but that change in ePCK will occur at a much shorter timescale.

  2. 2.

    In this contrast, i.e., a focus on knowledge that is not declarative and not static, we connect with literature that refers to “dynamic PCK” (e.g. Alonzo & Kim, 2016; Schmelzing et al., 2013) as opposed to “declarative PCK”.

  3. 3.

    Although not discussed here, we expect that similar ambiguities exist at the pPCK–cPCK interface; thus, the outside of the pPCK ring (i.e. the boundary between pPCK and cPCK) is likewise blurred in Fig. 12.1.

  4. 4.

    While repeated encounters with similar situations may eventually lead to tacit knowledge becoming explicit, the opposite may also be true, i.e. explicit knowledge may become tacit, for instance, through the routinisation of certain instructional moves over time, as is the case with highly expert teachers. Thus, ePCK that is transformed into pPCK in tacit form may eventually become explicit pPCK, and ePCK that is transformed into pPCK in explicit form may eventually become tacit pPCK.

  5. 5.

    While acknowledging that video stimulated recall is often used to elicit teachers’ recollections of in-the-moment reasoning (e.g., Akerson, Flick, & Lederman, 2000; Nilsson, 2008), following Ericsson and Simon (1993), it seems that such efforts may be accessing existing pPCK (i.e., the way a teacher has made sense of a given classroom event after the fact), rather than pPCK that is being transformed directly from ePCK during the stimulated recall (i.e., pPCK that could serve as a direct proxy for ePCK).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alicia C. Alonzo
    • 1
    Email author
  • Amanda Berry
    • 2
  • Pernilla Nilsson
    • 3
  1. 1.Michigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA
  2. 2.Monash UniversityMelbourneAustralia
  3. 3.Halmstad UniversityHalmstadSweden

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