Do we need brains for Physical Education?

Do we need brains

Will discuss in this article personal learning and perspectives of;

  • PE as an educationally cognitive subject for learners
  • Some views of how cognition appears and operate in PE
  • What does it mean for teachers who are game and learner centred

The need for ‘brains’ or very loosely representing the role of cognition expected in education is something that probably influences quite a bit how Physical Education (PE) is perceived in our workplace, for better or for worse! In discourses talking about the place of PE in schools, it is sometimes described as being marginalised by the education processes that exist in schools. This I will take to mean how PE can sometimes be considered more as a temporary relief for the real cognitive work of the other educational demands of school, i.e. the other classroom based subjects. They are few ramifications to this which we PE teachers are quite familiar with as we go about our daily task trying our best to ensure PE remains  a relevant part of the educational climate.

What exactly is this relevance to the educational process that PE can provide for? This question is only valid for a teacher if there is believe that the outcomes of PE provides a complementary alignment to a bigger picture of what education is expected to provide for the young of our society (e.g. knowledge and the ability to use the knowledge for a better future). For this approach to education in PE, a possible teaching direction is one where the building up of the cognitive function to ensure both knowledge and the processes to use it is intertwined with those that is needed for existence in society in general. The PE teacher of this thinking might be very enthusiastically looking at this aspect when considering lesson design and outcomes. I sense a lot of what I believe in as being important in PE coming from this direction.

On perhaps the other end of a continuous spectrum, I can also imagine educators who might well teach PE for the sake of instilling physical attributes that is needed as a good-to-have proficiency that will impact the ability to lead a physically active life in the future but not a direct contributor to the philosophical intention of existence. This could be the technique-driven, reproduction lesson focus that meets the desires of a series of sporting/playing outcomes that is by itself considered the ultimate educative aim of PE. This could also involve production styles teaching approaches as we teachers get more aware on the role of cognition in physical movements. Teachers here might probably be confident that such an outcome will impact the learners in their adulthood through knowledge and the appropriate processes of how to live healthily and be involved in physical activities and nothing directly further than that.

So we seem to acknowledge the fact that the role of cognition, as perhaps represented to some extent by the above, is a central element of the PE education process.

The next bit of narrative here is what might potentially be of big interest to many PE teachers, i.e. the way we have been teaching PE which includes engaging at a level of leaner involvement in teaching processes that we usually allude to as influencing their cognitive domain. In the teaching approaches we strive for, It is easy to understand that the cognitive should be influenced, e.g. if I am teaching a way that requires no cognitive involvement, I will probably not think it is important for school. In fact, teachers do spent a lot of time thinking of cognition and how it is affected by activities designed for learners in a very discrete relationship where one occurs after the other, i.e. cognition before activity or vice versa. In PE, the role of cognition, e.g. the traditional idea of information processing happening in the central command of the brain, and what is happening on the ground has not really been questioned by many teachers but more often debated on by specialist in the area of psychology (cognitive and ecological {the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings}), neuroscience, movement science, etc.

Are our ideas of cognition for PE valid? I can safely say that my own presumptions on this is that our PE needs for cognition is very much of a central command view and I realised that this possibly could be a different interpretation from very interesting positions at the moment, where the influence of the external, the environment we operate in, on our movement might play a bigger part than our internal processes, i.e. cognition as we know it. Reid did a convenient (for me at least) summary of two cognitive views in his article Physical Education, Cognition and Agency (Reid, 2013), exploring the role of PE education to a learner in an educational landscape that is gradually becoming more scientific. He described the pressure that PE had to face to meet educational expectations through satisfying the cognition demand that is expected of it, i.e. the development of theoretical knowledge and understanding, a traditionally epistemological perspective. He went on to suggest that this view shifted towards the naturalization in philosophy, i.e. needing to take into consideration external influence of scientific assumptions and standards in explanation, “…is a fresh, scientifically informed approach to the philosophical issues of knowledge, cognition and action (pg 925)…”

He went on to discuss two views; an internalist view based upon information-processing or neurocomputational models of motor skills acquisition and an externalist view based on dynamic systems (a theory that looks into understanding complex and nonlinear systems in our environment) , i.e. embodied cognition (see below).

The internalist view is what we are probably used to as teachers. It represents a learner’s ability to learn actions and repeat it at will through a process of encoding such instructions into the central command of our central nervous systems, usually before actions. All this build up the cognition that we deem as important and that usually shapes our instructional programmes. So our brain works like a computer and we key in the necessary instructions through pedagogy to help build up that repertoire of skills that is expected in PE. This perspective accepts the role of feedback via our peripheral nervous system but relies heavily on the information processing ability of the main central command of our brain. When we consider our use of Games Centred Approaches (GCAs), we can say that our main effort is in the building up of the encoding opportunities of this computational-like system, facilitated by strategies of getting the learner to experience and understand movements. In strategies like isolated practice, technique driven drills, reproduction drills, etc. the idea of encoding learning this way is also very strong.

The externalist view offers a motor skill cognition process that does not begin with the brain as we are used to as teachers and perhaps reflected by much of our practises.  Reid offers an informed understanding of this as “…meaningful action characteristically occurs within a context, an external situation with properties of its own which are beyond the control of the agent (learner)…” This is something that we PE teachers understand well in our learner and game centred approaches. He went on, “…Motor outcomes cannot be fully determined by central plans and programs (the central command I was referring to above), because they are subject in various ways to physical and mechanical constraints (such as the effects of inertia, friction, gravity, momentum and muscular elasticity) arising from the interaction of the moving body and the physical environment together with which it forms a complex system…” So, for this view, the idea that action is an outcome of internal processes is not considered but rather the body is able “…to settle into stable rhythms or patterns of coordination, equilibrium and self-organisation without the need  for a centralised internal controller to process and interpret input, determine output, analyse feedback, monitor performance, correct deviant behaviour and maintain stability…”  This ‘mindless’ viewpoint can be quite mind-boggling to the average person, let alone an educator. Constraint Led Approach (CLA) has its theoretical underpinnings from this ecological dynamic view (e.g. Non-linear Pedagogy, perception-action theories).

So cognition over here is Embodied Cognition. The cognition represented here is an emergent (occurring as it happens) cognition that occurs as a result of leaner and environment interaction. Basically the cognition as we know it is no longer the star of the show and even be considered just a supporting factor (or of equal importance), if it exist at all! The adaptive behaviour of the body (which is not controlled by the central command of the brain) can help generate the learning patterns that we teachers all strive for. This adaptation of the body depends on the environment it exist in and the task it sets out to do. The use of constraints to bring out this learning is important to approaches that relies on embodied cognition.

So the idea of embodied cognition (an easy to understand perspective can be obtained from the blog is that the brain does not store a set of preprogramed instructions but rather rely on the response behaviour of the body to environmental and task stimulus. The challenging aspect to understand here is that the responses does not originate from the brain but from the body’s evolutionary ecological mechanisms that reacts according to needs, e.g. survival and learning. For example, if a learner have to catch a ball, a conscious decision making mechanism that gets input from experience might initiate the understanding that our hands need to be used, rather than the legs for example (selection of movement). After that, the hand moves into action with all commands going local to the limbs and its set of nerves and muscles while completing the task at hand (carrying out of movement). The exact neurology and physiology of these processes need more comprehension by me and I believe more looking into from sciences also (have yet to fully embrace this huge exciting field which is considered fairly newish (perhaps since the 1960s and still evolving now) even though aspects of it has been studied much earlier).

The pattern of responses created (degrees of freedom) as a result of reacting to context stimulus (what a task presents a learner in its context) is where main learning takes place, if you consider the effective range of body responses as indicative of learning outcome. So, the brain and cognition that is associated very closely to it has shifted in importance somehow with this understanding of embodied cognition, both in where actual learning takes place in the body (the brain is not the only resource nor does it precedes learning with information processing) and how as a teacher we influence this learning process. For the catching ball example above, what embodied cognition says is that it doesn’t matter what instructions or verbal set-ups is given to the learner beforehand (this gives information that may not directly influence expected motor outcome). The body will use body-scaled (depending on the size of the image of the ball moving towards the catcher, the body will react accordingly with knowledge of where is the furthest it can reach) or action scaled (depending on the action needed and what the body can do, it will offer an appropriate action to meet task demands) affordances (opportunities created by learner, environment and task characteristics that allows a specific type of action to take place) to allow self-organization behaviour that decides what is necessary to reach out for the ball. These actions will also contribute to development (via experience and memory) and will resurface in influencing action when similar context is met again. Therefore, from an externalist view, it is believed that even higher order skills that requires pre-planning and experience (developmental) requires the same body-environment activation, albeit with influence from preceding representative actions.

Some will say that they still see information processing taking place in the explanation above and therefore that brain processes still behaving as traditionally expected. I guess the main gist offered in this ecological perspective is that the body-environment interaction is THE processing and not a bunch of computer-like programming that precedes the temporal-spatial moment of action. There is much attraction also in wanting to equate the latter (computer-like programming) to a central area of the brain as the main ‘learning’ area. The direction from emergent based systems (Ecological Psychology and  Dynamic Systems) sciences is that we need to get away from thinking of a central command (with a central location in the body) that dictates all but rather all aspects of a complex situation contributes to learning which is put together by the body and not just the brain. For us teachers, this view may challenge our traditional epistemology (theory of knowledge with methods, validity, scope, etc.) educational view, where the understanding of knowledge is with the mental contents of beliefs and reasons that allows decision and judgement making abilities and the prerogative to perform well in society, regardless of environmental influence in its inception.

So what does it mean for us teachers who for ever have relied, to a large extent, on the need to initiate and influence learning before it actually happens, specifically in PE? For me, the idea of emergent (happens because of body-environment interactions rather than dictated by preceding information processing) learning and development seems to align adequately to teaching for understanding processes where the learner is encourage to discover movement ranges through authentic game context. Most game-centred and learner-centred approaches already accepts the role of learning in context (with learner, environment and task influence), acknowledging cognition operates better that way. The impact of emergent learning may be the realisation that cognition not only operates better this way but might possibly be also different from the central command-in-the-brain type of cognition we are very used to. My own lay understanding of how we take information from our structurally convenient short, long and working memories for PE might need to consider this shift in cognitive functioning understanding and perhaps give me a fresh way at looking at ideas like implicit teaching, and cognitive loading. I don’t see much of a change in the implementation strategies that have been working well for us but instead influencing a more comprehensive understanding of why our strategies work and allows us to create more informed lesson designs.

So I will say in conclusion that the overall effective pedagogical influence from the above ideas on cognition (internalist and externalist) for me is that cognition has more to it than meets the brain (literally), a premise that does not surprise me at all, knowing the complexity of our body’s operating mechanisms. The need for us teachers to know exactly where learning physically takes place in the body, i.e. the brain, and the sequential stages in the learning process is something that is perhaps ingrained in us by artificial training processes that favor step by step progressions. I don’t think it is flawed and only see better shoring up of teacher capacities in being scientifically informed in the developments that make up our teaching processes. The general theme of building a repository of representational skills with rich degrees of freedom (not fixed skills) through authentic experiences for understanding still hold for me and I am still exploring!

 References and recommended reading

Reid, A. (2013). Physical Education, Cognition and Agency. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 921-933. Retrieved from




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