The forgotten Constraint: The Teacher! & the role of Teachers, Principles and Theoretical Frameworks for this particular teacher.

The forgotten constraint

The title above is not entirely fair. Teachers are never forgotten. The role of the teacher as the connector between learning scenario and learner is vital. Take for example the act of facilitating with instructions, e.g. via the setting of rules. Rules to a large extent shapes the game (the learning game) in a socio-cultural environment where the influence of systems shaping behaviors is everywhere. It is probably the strongest influence to a beginner learner’s game attitude and behavior, e.g. “I don’t like this game, the rules are just too complicated!” or “Tell me the rules or I won’t be sure of how to play this game.” When I first started reflecting deeper on my teacher-learner interactions, I find myself very heavily relying on rules, or facilitative instructions set as rules, to lay out the teaching scene. One of the reason for this is the propensity for young learners to focus more intently on anything associated with rules, especially in a teaching and learning environment that is just embarking on a more learner centered platforms where actions need to go beyond standalone movements. Seems the word rule does seem to capture attention more intently for students!

In constraint or modification based approaches like Constraint Led Approach (CLA), Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) or any other Games Centered or Based Approaches (GCAs or GBAs), an application aim is to create a game-like scenario that gives opportunities (affordance) to learning focus. Typically, this opportunity giving design looks at environment, task and self for constraint modification. (Constraint: A function of an aspect of a game situation that provides opportunities for targeted affordance, usually referred to in learning scenarios.)

In CLA and sometimes even for TGfU in its application, its pedagogical objectives are implemented based on the principles of sampling, modification representation, modification exaggeration and tactical complexity control. Inevitably, this might suggest that the ‘teacher’ in this approach is the lesson design. (Later I will mention more why this ‘face’ of TGfU does much injustice to what this approach is really about)

This is where my notion on the teacher being the quasi constraint comes in. The teacher and his/her facilitative instructions, e.g. via modified Rules, seems like a secondary influencer that can also be the prime mover for activity implementation articulation by teacher to learner. I say secondary because if we look at a constraint based approaches, the first part of implementation planning will look at activity set-up before the necessary implementation mechanics of giving instructions, by whatever mode, to guide that set up. In educational based GCAs, the teacher intervention in pre-activity, in-activity and post-activity plays an important part in the learning experience. In these educator involved approaches, the role of verbal set-up can very effectively involve the setting of rules or instructions to complement and facilitate the planned activity. This intervention includes the setting of activity through instruction manipulation. So, we can argue that the direct intervention of the teacher (not to be confused with direct teaching) in shaping student behaviour, aligned to modified activities, precedes the successful expected learning outcome, as much as we rely on the well-designed activity to do likewise.

In the foundation years of TGfU, the role of rules as primary (rules that defined the game) and secondary (rules that are effected by how the game works better and can be changed, usually by governing entities, without changing the essence of the game) (Almond 1982 and reported by Harvey, Pill & Almond, 2018) reflected very early on the appreciation for how games and its training derivatives can be shaped by rules or rather supported by the teacher direct instructions. In instruction manipulation, we can temporarily change the primary rules to meet affordance needs. Very early on in my blog reflection, I described how I rely on tweaking primary rules to demonstrate playability in games for learning. Thus I am tempted to also state that the principles of sampling, representation, exaggeration and complexity can also rely very successfully on the clever use of rules as part of good teacher instruction manipulation!

So, it seems the teacher factor also needs some recognition and similar focus consideration that task, environment and learner constraints go through if we consider that the teacher does at time operates like an extension of the learner, albeit with a sub functional extension relationship (as opposed to the main functional aspect of the learner as an actor executing a task in its environment) that exist between learner and teacher that might see both operating very dependently. This inter dependence between learner and teacher may not always be seen as a good thing as sometimes we want to work towards a total focus of learner to task and environment without any unproductive influence (This is something that is probably somewhat difficult from a pragmatic point of view where classes are huge, outcomes are expected instantaneously and stakeholders are a plenty!). Thus the teacher may perhaps also be considered the quasi constraint, a self-classifying one that influences the rest of the interactive affordance of task, learner and/or environment modification for learning.

Teachers, Principles and Theoretical Frameworks

This brings me to the second focus of this article, the role of the teacher in a GCA like TGfU and its possible resulting tension in different pedagogy/approach use, in my own context and opinion. As teachers, we gravitate towards sequenced, cyclical or linear relationships that is heavily influenced by administrative and logistical relationships (my own observation). This is perhaps our own undoing when there is a need to investigate more complex systems like the learning environment. The breadth of a GCA may not fully be embraced from its philosophical/theoretical framework birth under such sequential bias circumstances. To some extent, we neglect theoretical frameworks and put a lot of faith in proven (to our standards) working principles, different from research needs. I have been hinted to very often by peers of the irrelevance of such understanding in daily praxis, where administrative, logistic and operational matters triumphs in importance.

For all domains in education, the role of teacher as a facilitator and instigator of learning is not doubted. In Physical Education (PE), there is a very subtle accepting that the more important teacher experience (as a player or teacher) and its manifestation in the lesson design creates that learning opportunity {acculturation or past physical education and sporting experiences results in the maintenance of the status quo of a teacher-driven, reproductive paradigm – (Moy, Ian, Keith , & Eric , 2016)}. The teacher is just a conduit to replicate self-proven learning opportunities. The emergence of TGfU, representing the best (at least for me) of social constructivism and guided discovery theoretical underpinnings and its affiliated approaches heightened the importance of teacher’s learning situation analytical ability to facilitate the best lessons, as much as focus on the learner and the game also increases. Over the years, I feel that the influence of the theoretical, very educational aligned, framework that made the founders of TGfU sit up and do something about it in packaging and exhorting as best as they can a comprehensive, very plausible approach to better teaching in PE, has lessened somewhat. That is, if it had even been on a heightened state. TGfU has been relegated to an operational model with i) sequential necessity and ii) merely an approach based on the principles of sampling, representation, exaggeration and tactical complexity. These two descriptors has been used very often by senior educators and papers describing TGfU (or at least what I notice as one of the main tenet of TGfU in critical discussions on it.) This cannot be the end all be all of TGfU.

I don’t fully agree with this limited definition as this merely describes the implementation of TGfU strategies and the main body of this approach is the bigger framework of understanding and all its constituent aspects from social and educational fields. While the steps of the TGfU model has been shown often to exist sequentially (especially in schematics – adding to its operational reputation), the bigger underlying need is to understand the need of the learner and making an informed decision for the learner what is needed and this might not be reflected as sequential to the eye of an external observer (again, a personal reflection). The learning solution needed is never a convenient step 1 to step 6 implementation process. I believe the sequential representation, as much as it defines a sequential implementation process (and probably meant to for most cases), is also about the teacher thinking flow process where solution implementation may take into consideration what the learner needs are through a systematic educational (guided discovery) and constructivism analysis flow. The thinking steps might be ordered (as in diagram below) to facilitate analysis but I won’t be surprise if different practitioners adopt it slightly differently base on context, e.g. I might decide that game appreciation might be best be delivered in a skill execution phase of the lesson and the skill execution activity might be delivered in a game (see ‘What makes a game?’) where performance in a previous learnings is also allowed to be involve. A class session aligned to this thinking flow may not look like following a TGfU diagrammatic sequence (see below) but I will argue it is an acceptable understanding approach!

TGFU Diagram

If you take cue from Harvey, Pill and Almond’s 2018 article Old Wine in new bottles: a response to claims that teaching games for understanding was not developed as a theoretically based pedagogical framework (Harvey, Pill, & Almond, 2018), you will realise that it took a whole global village (not just Thorpe and Bunker – though these two, amongst the other instructors at that time, are my biggest direct TGfU influencers during teacher training) to come out with TGfU and it definitely wasn’t overnight! As I read this and papers like Clara’s How does TGfU work?’: examining the relationship between learning design in TGfU and a nonlinear pedagogy (Clara, Chow, & Keith , 2012) and Renshaw’s Why the Constraints-Led Approach is not Teaching Games for Understanding: a Clarification (Ian, Duarte , Chow, & Keith, 2016) and reconcile it with my own experience as a PE teacher in training in Loughborough, I get a feeling that the extent of the role of the direct (as opposed to the indirect need of the teacher to contribute in terms of knowledge needed to understand skill acquisition conditions and replicating said conditions) expert intervention of the teacher is very much also alluded to, albeit circuitously. When I reflect on the use of facilitative direct influencing instructions in the beginning paragraphs, I was keeping in mind the use of strategies that not only originate from learner, task, environment but also the fourth direct element of the teacher. Not a teacher-centric source of strategies but rather a teacher-influencing one.

I learnt a lot from all these academic writings (I have to confess that areas like perception-action, non-liner pedagogy, neuroscience perspective, cognitive and ecological psychology, etc. really satisfies this old constructivist brain of mine very easily!) and I try my best to reclaim a bit of the learnings that I was very privileged to have had in Loughborough as a not very attentive student unfortunately. My memories (perhaps a bit romantised) seems to fit these rich information very nicely without much tension, contributing to my own current personal professional development journey. I appreciate and look forward to exciting fields coming on to take the burden of proof for our established behavior approaches, to make better sense of my own current possible practices. In a recent interview in Singapore, Richard Shuttleworth (, a well know performance scientist, talks about needing a paradigm shift in thinking for coaches as they look at perspectives of coaching from information processing to emergence systems through constraints. He said he was worried to call it an ‘approach’ as it might eventually lose its importance and considered a fad. I agree on the last preceding sentence that at times very good work from different perspectives do put the blinkers on practitioners that seems to encourage the chasing of new ‘fads’ all the time. What is needed is the understanding that as much as movement is about complex systems, the world we operate the movement in is also a complex, multi-subject environment, requiring the knowledge of all. The paradigm shift needed is also the ability to take in all and work on knowledge development to make sense of all the information available for the teacher. The role of the expert teacher is still vital! Good learning does not occur on its own.

So, this professional development journey needs a strong conviction to take stock of all opinions within own context and make best decision. We the teachers on the ground are after all partly the subject of all these great works and the ones who need it out on the ‘battlefield’ on a daily basis.

Reference and recommended readings

Clara, W. K., Chow, J. Y., & Keith , D. (2012). ‘How does TGfU work?’: examining the relationship between learning design and a non-linear pedagogy. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17(4), 331-348. doi:10.1080/17408989.2011.582486

Harvey, S., Pill, S., & Almond, L. (2018). Old wine in new bottles: a response to claims that teaching games for understanding was not developed as a theoretically based pedagogical framework. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 166 – 180. doi:10.1080/17408989.2017.1359526

Ian, R., Duarte , A., Chow, J. Y., & Keith, D. (2016). Why the Constraints-Led Approach is not Teaching Games for Understanding: a clarification. Physical Education and Sports Pedagogy, 21(5). doi:10.1080/17408989.2015.1095870

Moy, B., Ian, R., Keith , D., & Eric , B. (2016). Overcoming acculturation: physical education recruits’ experiences of an alternatove pedagogical approach to games teaching. Physical Education and Sport Psychology, 21(4), 386-406. Retrieved from



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