Teacher Influenced Constraints vs Skill/Action Scenario Constraints in PE (Constraints To Learning and Constraints Of Learning)

Constraints to teaching

In this article, I look at how constraints in teaching, as made popular by Constraints Led Approach (CLA), might be misunderstood at times as being a literal constraint to teaching.

Is there more than one way to looking at the role of constraints in learning for PE, more specifically motor learning or skill acquisition? To some extent, meanings of labels do affect our strategies, especially in a climate where we tend to run with the headlines! Recently, in a discussion on twitter, the topic of the teacher putting constraints to learning was brought forth, in relation to Constraint Led Approach (CLA) strategies. How indeed do we as teachers put constraints to work in teaching and learning? Its ‘headline’ meaning, constraint sounds negative, seems very counter intuitive to teaching and learning and I wonder how many actually think this way, effecting lessons designs inadvertently, when trying to understand the valuable role of constraints that are shared by CLA and to a large extent in some form in other pedagogical approaches.

Newell’s theory of constraints, from which CLA took a bit of work from, talk about three domains or types of constraints that effect motor development. These constraints are learning skill/action related occurring factors (that needs to be adapted to – it doesn’t disappear) that may get in the way of learning and they are in the domains of individual (structural and task), environment and task. These constraints also fit in somehow with Games Centred Approaches (GCAs) that hinges from an educational and social constructivism birth that focuses a lot on the learning of a task through understanding and experience. The task constraints in GCAs are heavily relied on for modification and sampling to bring about the best circumstance for a learning opportunities (that is if we borrow this terminology of constraint from the ecological folks).

So how does the ‘Constraint to learning’ and ‘Constraint of learning’ dichotomy (from the title of this article) of experiencing constraints come into the picture? Will the idea of constraints to learning represent lesson design that inadvertently add in barriers to develop the desired movement solution that counters or slows down learning? I can see this very possibly happening as we hope to replicate a suitable learning scenario through the use of task modification. So Constraint to Learning over here can also be referred to as Teacher Introduced Constraints.

Then we have the ‘Constraints of Learning’, which I will see as skill/action related constraints to that said skill learning that exist in its authentic environment (Skill/action Scenario Constraints). Over here, I can imagine the teaching aim of working towards the surrounding constraint environment, around the desired learning action/movement, to allow more attention (attunement in perception-action terminology or awareness for understanding) and solution planning opportunities (affordance in perception-action terminology or opportunities for understanding). At this point, it is obvious that I am using popular ecological descriptors like constraint, attunement and affordance with reference to Game Centred Approaches (GCAs) also. Most of us teachers have very similar functional structures in our teaching repertoire. We may not call it the same things and perhaps even not give too much definitional importance to it as it becomes an instinctive aspect of our praxis.

So, are these two perspectives of constraints affecting identification and handling of appropriate constraints for teaching and learning? I started this thinking thread when I came across a twitter thread lamenting on the role of using constraints in teaching as stifling as it suggests limiting movement solutions. I can imagine why someone who may not grasp the full appreciation for constraint led learning might say this. It might also be an impression for GCAs where the teacher seems to put in design elements that may seemingly get in the way of expected learning. There also might be a possible confusion of the term constraint as its literal meaning doesn’t seem to suggest a symbiotic function and maybe even an agonistic influence. This confusion is especially pertinent to me as I shared my thoughts recently on the role of the teacher as a quasi-constraint, also an important influencer to students desired learning areas. The last thing we want is a situation where a teacher’s over-influence actually prevents effective learning. So is it fair to say;

  • A constraint is not action but more of a function that can be modified (simplified) depending on what is needed for a learning area, also used when constraint is enhanced for fine-tuning of learning area for more advance learners (overloading).
  • If an element of a learning scenario, part of a game context, does not interfere adversely with learner behaviour, it need not be considered a constraint (see next point).
  • If an element of a learning scenario, part of a game context, but not part of the targeted learning area affects behaviour, then it is an attractor that can be taken away or modified to encourage focus on learning area. You can also think of it as a secondary constraint (focusing on secondary constraint that is secondary to desired learning area over that of the main primary constraint might result in lack of progress in lesson outcome – frustration and bewilderment why students are not learning).
  • Constraints and attractors tends to be individual learner dependent, even though is possible to predict trends in its impact across learners.
  • The most basic of lesson activity is one where all constraints and attractors area taken away.

Consider the below examples which is an attempt to clarify my thoughts on the above and how some scenarios may consider constraints as a constraining action and at other times an agonistic learning function to learning;

Table 1

Constraints of Learning (Skill/action Scenario Constraints) Possible outcomes

– Getting beginners to alternate between standing and sitting while bouncing basketball.

· Body positioning with ball (Expected Learning),

· Defence pressure (pressure negated) and moving to target are considered as constraints*.

– Reducing task constraint movement complexity of having to dribble ball with opponents while getting learners to get used to ball manipulation.

– Standing and sitting as representative of body re-positioning while dribbling and keeping ball close.

– Getting learners to bat a slower or bigger ball.

– Getting learners to try different bat hand holding positions.

· Successful striking/batting (Expected learning)

· Speed and size of pitched ball, hitting implement handling are considered as constraints*.

– Reducing task constraint complexity.

– Allowing task degeneracy (movement solutions are generated via various means and not just one way) opportunities.

– Using external cues as teaching points and limiting it to one or two cues, e.g. Get under ball, Try hit the square on the backboard.

· Executing passing or scoring (Expected learning)

· Individual positioning is considered as a constraint*.

– Reducing task complexity.

– Aligned to cognitive thinking flow.

– Allowing task degeneracy.

*Constraints here are interacting constraints on the learner, at the targeted learning area, as a result of needing to carry out skill/action. These constraints are modified accordingly while considering the effect of attractors (distracting factors other than the constraint of relevance {the area in which teaching is focusing on at the moment} that can either be taken away or modified) to allow opportunity for learning.

Table 2

Constraints to Learning (Teacher Introduced Constraints) Possible outcomes

– Instruction for beginners to stand on the spot while learning how to bounce a basketball.

· Body positioning with ball (Expected Learning),

· Defence and moving to target pressure negated – Treating attractors (secondary constraints) as constraints*.

– May be considered as a modification but not entirely falling into exaggeration, sampling or representation, i.e. there is no part of game scenario where there is extended stationary handling even though one could argue that the next step is to move around while bouncing, a progression.

– May be considered as reducing complexity.

– Giving beginners a set of instructions to internalise before executing skill/action.

– Demonstrating to beginners exact hand and foot position in a batting exercise before executing skill/action.

· Body positioning with ball and hitting implement (Expected Learning),

· Instructions giving here considered as a constraint* (learner is inhibited by cognitive information processing in executing skill and therefore carefully crafted instruction will help in that, i.e. neuro-programming).

– Affecting cognitive flow processes for beginners. (Traditional cognition vs Embodied cognition)

All attractors and constraints removed.

The constraints* considered here are more attractors (secondary constraints).

– Using specific biomechanical cues (internal cues) as teaching points for advance learners in a 1 v 0 drill, e.g. free throw cue of Balance, Eyes on target, Elbows aligned and Follow through.

· Successful scoring (Expected learning),

· External cues given here considered as constraints* (learner is inhibited by cognitive information processing in executing skill and therefore carefully crafted instruction will help in that, i.e. neuro-programming).

– Restricting discovery approach.

– Restricting degrees of freedom for movement – decomposition (breaking down a skill to its smaller parts and putting it back together) of skill. Restricting exploration for understanding.

All attractors and constraints removed.

The constraints* considered here are potential attractors (secondary constraints).

– Using a prepared lesson plan (fixed activities) for a class of many students

· Successful delivery of expected learning from pre-planned tested strategies (Expected learning),

· All attractors and constraints are considered as similar for various learners – learner will benefit from strategies and focus issues from previous batches of learners and is unlikely to differ from past learners needs.

– May not meet differentiated needs of students. Mixing up primary and secondary constraints for learners pre learning, not learner centred.

The context and individuality of constraint functions not totally considered.

*Constraints here become literal hurdles that are introduced that may not be the spontaneously existing constraints that comes together in the task, environment and learner domain for the said action/skill targeted learning area.

*The above for illustration purposes only. All strategies are multi-faceted in its perspectives and lesson designs cannot be evaluated based on a uni-dimensional judgement.

The above two tables are just an attempt to explore the very real possibility that we as teachers may sometimes can inadvertently get in the way of learning. This is a very vague area to come to any easy or definitive conclusion on because it is very unlikely to find a teacher who is not creating learning in their teaching, regardless of their approaches. To some extent it is because of the broad definition of learning. An improvement in an action/skill is usually the minimum we expect and it always considered as happening in our subjective observation. On the other end of the spectrum (my thoughts are full of spectrums!) is optimization, a concept of learning that considers the network relationship between all constraints and attractors in a learning scenario and its synergy in being able to adapt to different needs of a game environment. There is always a role for all the different approaches working together or individually in a PE class or a sports group, whether it is personality driven or scientifically backed. One of my approach in reflections is to look at the minutiae to appreciate the complex interaction that is the bigger picture, while working towards generating effective approaches to teaching well.

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