This personal exploration looks at;
- Teaching methodologies and wanting to find common ground amongst them for better understanding and implementation.
My writing for this article was interrupted by this interest in my professional learning network that seems to be often at odds to the value of Discovery Style teaching/coaching. Almost everything and anything has been put forward as going against this style of teaching that had me thinking with great interest. I even had an educator telling me that Non-Linear Pedagogy (NLP) is basically discovery based and therefore it will be good to let teachers either “…embraced it or allow them the choice to choose another approach…(paraphrased)”. To me, this is a potential inaccurate mixing and interchanging of different ideas and believes in the teaching field that does not scratched the surface of the true workings of what is needed in a comprehensive teaching flow from philosophy and theoretical underpinnings to implementation. Take the above example of the well-known teaching strategy of discovery/guided-discovery that has drawn a bit of flak from researchers, well regarded by progressive educators and blamed on by fans of failing sports clubs! In fact, all the different strategies will have its fair share of enthusiasm and critics. The point is, do we really look at a methodology deeply enough before we critic it? Are all such strategies so distinct in their workings and on their impact when all of them focus on the same learning process? Is there multiple distinct skill acquisition and retaining processes within the body that can explain the use of one over the other?
Let’s come back to the above NLP and discovery comment that is probably lumping together the social constructivism idea of discovery to the emergent acquisition process of the human body. Discovery can be an acknowledgement of the self-organising nature of the human body adapting to a known problem (not unknown). A physiological discovery self-organising process taking place within a learner can be targeted and look precise to an observer (e.g. in NLP/perception-action and its underpinning for Constraints Led Approach, CLA). A social and cultural discovery self-organising process within and between learners acting in an environment can be premeditated and facilitated without the need for a high level of ambiguity for educational settings (e.g. in Discovery and Guided Discovery implementation strategies). In such cases, if we go deeper to explore original intent of ideas, such concepts will not be put together in versus statements. Furthermore, if we accept that the physiological and social processes of learning are universal and need to be understood together, then it cannot be ignored when discussing teaching strategies for comparison. A teaching or strategy spectrum cannot overlook how we learn and is in fact the common thread weaving through the different styles on the spectrum. So, for example, even a command style teaching experience can effectively involve understanding physiological self-organisation (the body discovering the best way to accomplish a very specific task).
Recently I have the privilege again to listen to Tim Hopper and his presentation of his 4R model (Hopper, 2003) to help students scan and take action. The Rs refers to Read, Respond, React and Recover, in a seemingly cyclical descriptor of the outcome manifestation of a perception and action process. As I sat through his very rich teaching experience, I begin my own making of sense of this 4R approach in conjunction to all the other strategies, approaches, models, pedagogies, etc. that play important roles in most professional development (PD) journey that we embark on. I have reflected a lot on PD lingos and its apparent possible confusion that might lead to alienation rather complementary interplay, i.e. a false dichotomy of pedagogies. My sharing of my own perspective of a functional framework, Reinventing The Game (RtG), created confusion that it is a fit-all solution that is lacking, rather than an understanding of which exact hole it is plugging in the complex learning journey starting from philosophy to theory to implementation. A fit-all mentality that potentially creates a lot of model fidelity frustration in implementation occurs when the learning process is whittled down to a short implementation-learning cycle.
We share our own teacher understanding of learning processes through very serially biased means of writing, talking and sometimes even demonstrating. This is seen in articles, speeches, demonstration videos, etc. We have at our disposal plenty of visual schematic articulations of how we can design the perfect class through step-by-step processes. Coupled with these, we have just as rich schematic depictions of how students learn. Basically, the formal and informal sharing communication platforms suggest sequential physiological mechanics when reality may not be so. I can imagine our organic processes as being almost parallel in its workings while we attempt to dissect its mechanics and put back together sequentially to explain (non-linearity vs linearity). Does this auger well on the practitioner who wants to understand better for implementation? Is this where the fundamental and universal truth mentioned earlier (at neuromuscular level) needs to be considered before any convenient follow-the-steps implementation?
How do our students to learn?
How do we want to teach knowing the above?
Are the two preceding statements talking about the same thing? Is it sufficient to not worry about the differences and focus on only one of them and trust that everything will fall into place? Current established models of pedagogies make a lot of implicit assumptions on the area of body and environment interactive process for information gathering, manipulation and its long term existence (learning). As teachers, we are very comfortable with the way we assume we build up knowledge and its action influence. We use this as an implicit underlying understanding of skill acquisition to support the processes and functions that are inherent in the various pedagogical approaches we encounter.
The above questions and quandaries are age old and have been dissected plenty of times and probably the world doesn’t need more perspectives on these, or do they? My reflection for this article comes back to this after a long time looking at how possibly we acquire skills, i.e. learning. I am not referring to using models, strategies, established Process Structures (cyclical or hierarchical) and Functional Structures, etc. (My structured mind uses the word structure here even though I am not sure if it is the best way to describe it.) Rather I am referring to how exactly do the body takes in information and spit out action! In my opinion, teaching strategies need to have one thing in common, that is an awareness of the way the body acquires skill at a neuromuscular level. Is it possible that there are multiple systems involve when considering skill learning at a micro level? I am not sure but put faith that there might be but fundamentally using same physiological-environmental interactive processes.
I define functional structures, see fig 1, as our pulled apart understanding of what contributes to a complex system. These functions are visible actions/decisions taking place, e.g. in the 4Rs mentioned above; the passing, scoring, interception and movement mentioned in my Reinventing the Game (RtG) framework; the game-play, practise, appreciation, understanding, etc. in Game Centred Approaches (GCAs). This structures tend to influence us to think of the body as acquiring skills linearly.
Teaching Process structures are what that is suggested by methodologies as roads to reaching the functional milestones of a skill as represented by the functional structure depiction of different approaches, e.g. step by step instructions/facilitation. So if I come back to the 4Rs again, the Rs may assume functional roles (functional structures) of the various aspects of a skill or movement decision making. However, for teaching, each of Rs need to go through a separate teaching cycle to enhance its awareness and usually in conjunction with another one, or series, of Rs. So, I see a problem here if a movement functional structure is confused totally for a teaching process structure. I am not trying to pigeon hole any established methodologies here as it as expected that there are comprehensive and consist of both functional and process structures working in tandem.
Functional Structures; our pulled apart understanding of what contributes to a complex system. They may not be cyclical nor hierarchical but definitely overlapping most of the time. Tend to be identified via task/game/functional process decomposition.
Process Structures (referring to teaching process structures from henceforth); are what that is depicted as a road to achieving functional structures. They are usually cyclical or hierarchical and embedded in teaching models and underpinned by theories.
So, the sequential-ness that is depicted in schematics of various GCAs is plausible for implementation but also needs the consideration of the parallel or non-linear nature and interplay of functional and process structures. This could possibly mean that an effective teaching scenario will be expected to have multiple series of consideration before any intervention that ensures functional structures are not always put together the exact same way as their decomposed sequential depiction for understanding. Sometimes parts of a functional structure do also represent a process, e.g. the game to game appreciation in Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) when taken together sequential can also be a process to attain the latter. However, from game appreciation to tactical awareness and then to making appropriate decisions; they are more functional structures that need a pedagogical treatment at each step before it can be delivered to a learner. The pedagogical TGfU treatment (process structure) here is leveraging on modified game play and appropriate facilitation to create that decision making awareness. While skill acquisition and performance appears late in a TGfU model schematic, it does not necessarily need to appear late in the experience landscape of a learner. This two functional structures can also be incorporated in the process structures for game play, appreciation, tactical awareness and decision making. So indeed it is a complex non-linear system!
So, it is also possible that when we do use established process structures via models in pedagogical approaches, we may not take into consideration the non-cyclical nature of functional structures when connecting cyclical processes to them. I wrote a bit of this when describing the frustration of teachers who are road-blocked from using great ideas from Games Centred Approaches (GCA) due to not being able to meet assumed strict hierarchical functional structures in step by step depictions which seems to need an understanding and appreciation before actual technical and strategy conceptual learning.
Let’s take another example of the 4R mentioned above. From the perspective of a teacher breaking down a skill, this model gives a clear framework to consider what is needed for teacher hoping to leverage on this for lesson design. (In another article, I spoke a bit about cues used for problem identification and its possible shortcomings as teaching cues also.) The challenge for me is how to translate this problem/strength identification process to a teaching progression that aligns as best as possible to actual learning processes that may not be linear and therefore possibly at odds to a sequentially expected process. This sequentially expected process is enhanced by schematic descriptors and the tendency for practitioners to use what they see literally, even though detailed explanation by developers of such processes usually also demonstrate the need to adapt to the body’s non-sequential behaviour in learning. So, will a teaching scenario with 4R in mind inadvertently start off with a Read activity to improve Respond and then leading to Reaction and Recovery in a sequential order?
From an ecological point of view, I will put forward the possibility that Read may even occur after or during the Respond. It is the teachers job to understand the Read scenario for the Respond and create that environment. For the learner, the Read actually comes together or just after Respond (so difficult to be in exact temporal sync in descriptor language to actual body processes). In an ecological opinion piece by Orth et al (Orth, van de Kamp, Memmet, & J. P. Savelsberg, 2017), Creative Motor Actions as Emerging from Movement Variability, they spoke about “…creative solutions emerge in the act rather than before…”. Creative motor actions here are defined as functional movement patterns that are new to the learner and that satisfy the constraints of the motor problem at hand. This paper challenges the idea of preliminary generation of an idea, i.e. reading a scenario before deciding on response in the mind before execution. It is a direct perception (sufficient information is present in the problem observation) belief that maybe at odds to the indirect perception that step by step instructions might suggest (information needs to be processed in the body first before execution). The Fosbury flop in high jump is used here as a classic example of how it first exists as a consequence of creative problem solving that took in the context of needing higher bar clearance that coincided with the introduction of high density foam landing mats that allowed more ingenious landings. So the creative solution of the flop may have been a result of parallel interactions with information from the environment. Guess we can say that a wider outcome of reading might have been to try a back-leading jump and the actual finer technique of responding and reacting occurring in the action itself. (Borrowing 4R terminology for this individual pursuit activity).
I will carry on to suggest that React is part of Respond if considering the parallel initiation of such cognitive functions that are pulled apart for better teacher understanding but which are very intertwined in actual workings. From a social constructivist point of view, Respond and Read may also occur at the same time as a consequence of knowing what is final objective and needing to React. For both physiological and social expectations, the Recovery process is an anticipatory phenomenon that only makes sense with the presence of the other Rs. So while it is easy to see the interplay between the Rs, the potential issue comes when we try to design lessons using the same sequential articulation as seen in a visual depiction of it on paper.
For me also, the language we use may potentially create biasness that does not favour actually body workings. For example, the literal word Read suggest taking in instructions before an action to build up knowledge, whereas the learning process of a body might be occurring best as the situation occurs. In the earlier paragraph on discovery teaching, it is obvious the literal meaning of discovery has unfortunately conjured images of lesson chaos that may be time wasting and ineffective and is used to simplify a lot of non-linear understanding of learning.
I guess my main point is that we as teachers need to be very aware of what we take in and to be careful to not fall into the Process /Functional Structures trap (look at Fig 1 and imagine what is consequence if function is confused with process). Looking on as an observer to action taking place gives a rich visual image of the functions of the movement that cannot be thrown back directly to learners (e.g. deliberate, explicit, etc.) without a pedagogical treatment that connects functional structures information to relevant process structures (using information of how learning takes place to create a teaching strategy). This dilemma is reflected well between decomposition, breaking down a task to functions, and degeneracy, a phenomenon of structural variation in achieving a task that can influence an organic process of building up a skill. Often this difference is ignored and attempts are made to teach via the direct introduction of a possibly ineffective sequential functional structure.
We need to be clear of important definitions and be able to place the many excellent ideas on models, approaches, strategies, pedagogies, etc. in their correct place and not dumb down everything in the pursuit of simplicity. This is where theoretical underpinnings lay their worth in the bigger picture of understanding and giving respect to the broad learning process that starts from philosophy to theory to implementation.
Readings for this article;
Hopper, T. (March, 2003). Four Rs for tactical awareness: Applying game performance assessment in net/wall games. Journal of Teaching Elementary Physical Education, March Issue, 2003., 1 – 12.
Orth, D., van de Kamp, J., Memmet, D., & J. P. Savelsberg, G. (Oct, 2017). Creative Motor Actions As Emerging from Movement Variability. Retrieved from Forntiers in Psychology: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01903/full