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Revisiting the role of case knowledge in teacher development

Rupert Knight, Associate Professor in the School of Education at University of Nottingham

Teacher knowledge is very much in the foreground of English early career teacher development, as articulated in the Department for Education’s (DfE) Core Content Framework and Early Career Framework, which position teacher learning largely as a matter of atomised skills to observe, practise and reproduce. They imply a view of professionalism based on competence and compliance, underpinned by a ‘what works’ view of evidence. However, professionalism has also long been associated with the exercise of professional judgment (Sachs, 2015). With this in mind, I have revisited Shulman’s (1986) views on teacher knowledge, and this blog builds on his rationale for case learning by arguing for the power of comparing and contrasting cases.

The case for case knowledge

Shulman (1986) suggests that there are three forms of teacher knowledge: ‘propositional’, ‘case’ and ‘strategic’ knowledge. The prevailing DfE view seems strongly to emphasise propositional knowledge, partly in the form of ‘principles’ (theoretical claims drawn from limited types of empirical research) but also as ‘maxims’ (knowledge of practical, highly structured routines, as also codified in many popular books and resources). Shulman’s strategic knowledge – professional judgment applied to particular situations – also draws, however, on ‘case knowledge’. Case knowledge, in the form of ‘specific, well-documented and richly described events’ (Shulman, 1986, p. 11) itself takes different forms: ‘prototypes’, ‘precedents’ and ‘parables’. While the use of cases continues to be advocated within teacher education internationally (see for example Helleve et al., 2021), it is not prominent in the UK.

I revisited these ideas when working on a recent book (Knight, 2022), for which I was keen to capture authentic examples of oracy practices. The schools visited were purposively selected for their well-established oracy interests and the observed teaching often exemplified theoretical ideas as prototypes. However, my intention was also to offer more varied snapshots, supported by insights from interviews, as wider precedents of practice, which could form the basis of reflection. In doing so, I was mindful also of another of Shulman’s ideas, taken up and developed by Loughran (2019): pedagogical reasoning links formal and practical knowledge by going beyond what works to get at the often tacit why of teachers’ practices.

Juxtaposing cases

With this in mind, my ‘cases’ took the form of brief, vivid portraits of lesson episodes, including evocative details from the classroom environment and reference to the underlying rationales. In the subsequent analysis, I drew out principles for consideration in an attempt to model pedagogical reasoning. Beyond the discussion of these cases individually, what proved to be particularly generative of new insights was the device of juxtaposing and comparing examples, not only from different schools but across age phases and curriculum areas.

‘What proved to be particularly generative of new insights was the device of juxtaposing and comparing examples, not only from different schools but across age phases and curriculum areas.’

For example, when analysing participation in whole-class discussion, I considered a year 4 writing lesson alongside another school’s year 11 PSHE session on peer pressure. Despite the different contexts, the comparison yielded common practices in supportive classroom cultures, including validating diverse responses, tuning in to moments of peer discussion and invoking peer support. Elsewhere, tasks conducive for small-group talk were explored through the pairing of guided reading in year 6 with history from year 9. In this instance, it was possible to see how established principles for talk-rich tasks – such as ambiguity and the built-in need for varied perspectives – were upheld in both settings. However, far from downplaying difference in a quest for one-size-fits-all principles, these comparisons also brought to the surface context-specific tensions as part of the ‘problematic’. In the latter pairing, for example, dilemmas about the place of prior knowledge in exploratory discussions emerged. Combining cases, therefore, may be particularly effective in disrupting thinking and triggering pedagogical reasoning, creating a need to restore ‘pedagogical equilibrium’ (Loughran, 2019).

Taken alongside a current orthodoxy of routinised approaches to developing teacher expertise, it may be timely to re-evaluate the role of cases (whether written or filmed) in developing professional judgment. The juxtaposition and comparison of contrasting examples may be particularly powerful in grappling with the highly situated and complex nature of school classrooms.


Helleve, I., Edide, L., & Ulvik, M. (2021). Case-based teacher education preparing for diagnostic judgment. European Journal of Teacher Education, 46(1), 50–66.

Knight, R. (2022). Classroom talk in practice: Teachers’ experiences of oracy in action. Open University Press.

Loughran, J. (2019). Pedagogical reasoning: The foundation of the professional knowledge of teaching. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 25(5), 523–535.

Sachs, J. (2015). Teacher professionalism: Why are we still talking about it? Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 22(4), 413–425.

Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4–14.