Skill Acquisition and Learning: Are they the same thing?

This reflection explores the following;

  • Do we think of acquiring new skills as learning (referring to the very generic layman term that is closely associated with the act of teaching) or skill acquisition (referring to the phrase usually use by scientific theories)?
  • Do we even think of the above?
  • Does it matter?
  • How does our practices differ if we make the big assumption that the two perspectives above does have a significant implicit associative impact in the way we go about our teaching practices?

This reflection came about as I keep using the term skill acquisition and learning interchangeably, both in its meaning and associated practices. With these mentioned processes, the significant adult present, in a school context, that makes it happen is usually the coach, instructor or teacher. These teaching roles that I have just mentioned also got me thinking of any noteworthy baggage (either historically, culturally, semantically, metaphorically, etc.) that have accompanied the use of these descriptors, i.e. skill acquisition and learning, when looking at how they carry out their teaching practices and thus the way students are expected to learn. I am beginning to notice the presence of very implicit assumptions that comes together with the way we expect the attaining of skills to occur and therefore our strategies for it.

Let me offer the below;

Skill acquisition: The acquiring of skills comes primarily from the context – from environment-task, supported by internal physiological process (including cognitive processes) – within the learner. The teacher is facilitative to the acquiring of skill (includes knowledge, ability to move effectively, etc. – movement solution) that happens in the context of interest (movement problem which includes the context). This has an ecological perspective (interaction between person and environment). This approach hinges also on the environmental and sociocultural influences of the needed skill and requires the interactive behaviour of the learner to the mentioned influences in order for learning to manifest.

Learning: The learning of skills is influenced primarily by the teacher with the context being secondary as it supports the teaching strategies and thus the teacher. The teacher is the creator of knowledge. The act of teaching as we commonly know takes a strong influence from this perspective. Knowledge is present within the teacher and the offering of this knowledge in the appropriate way creates that learning. This has a strong teacher led constructivist perspective, where the teacher creates the learning context necessary with emphasis on transferring knowledge from teacher to student, usually linearly (decomposing a skill with the objective of putting it together eventually).

(Both the word Learning and the phrase Skill Acquisition have far more comprehensive meaning than mentioned above. For the purpose of the discussion here, the above are offered.)

The above is probably not the best attempt at trying to use very established, and difficult to delink with traditional meanings, words to describe two different views of skill/knowledge building processes that is often mentioned in the realm of Physical Education (PE), explicitly or otherwise. These words include learn, teach, create, acquiring, etc. To a large extent, we have always look at attaining new skills from a cognitive point of view, and this is where the word learning takes its strongest meaning, and much emphasis is given to what is happening in the mind, e.g. motor schemas, programmes, creating an illusion, etc. These are considered vital and the prime mover to expecting anything happening physically. Thus, a lot of effort is put into influencing the ideal situation in the mind. We are happy with this and we do not differentiate our perspectives of learning (i.e. “How do we learn a skill?”), as we do not have any real impetus to do that. We are implicitly confident we know what learning is, based on a student outcome evaluation, and we work on strategies based on this. The above descriptors of skill acquisition and learning serves little purpose in reflection or activity design. It is a very natural viewpoint as we tend to be strongly supported with the view that we create understanding, i.e. learning, in learners by influencing the right learner mind-set via effective known movement solutions to known problems. .

When considering the ecological skill acquisition perspective, it takes a slightly different tone. This is where there is hardly a mental and physical duality in skill acquiring processes. In fact, the mental-physical whole only exist because of the environment. We can say that over here, we use the individual physiological processes, movement problem and solution space as propping each other up in successful teaching outcome. The teacher here understands the whole task-environment-learner interaction and design an effective skill acquisition session. This approach is a realization that skill acquisition processes crosses the boundaries of biophysical and social-cultural sciences. You notice that in the above, there is no explicit mention of the teacher as a primary contributor to the skill acquisition processes other than the need to being aware of it and thus able to take advantage of it in activity design.

Again, I will bring forth the possible said counter that the above are all semantics that are in the realm of the key-board warriors and researchers and does little to help the practitioner on the ground. I will think that it is important to re-look our processes that have given possible skewed interpretation because of fixed association with semantics that we have been using for both our teaching and how our students learn. We do what we speak/think and we place a lot of fixed importance to descriptors in our practice realm that may limit the actual physiological processes and its influence needed within the learner, e.g. the learning and skill acquisition expectations mentioned above. Just like when we conveniently express processes serially, when it may not be, when trying to comprehend it, the descriptors and implicit meaning we attached to it may also compromise the true integrity of the processes we hope for in what we are trying to achieve as learning or skill acquisition from our students.

Even in the way we communicate with learners, descriptors have the potential to affect response. There is an incredibly area of motor learning science, not known enough in my opinion, that looks at the motor learning process within us and the words we use to encourage action, e.g. ‘return the serve – teacher creating knowledge’ as compared to ‘just touch the shuttle with your racket – teacher facilitating a learning experience’ for a young beginner who can hardly connect with the shuttle in badminton. (See Harjiv Singh’s blog, for some stuff on this from point of view). We might recognise it as external and internal cue focuses influencing cognitive loading and maybe even motivational elements at play. I see it as a complex body coming up with solutions via contributions from various paths and this includes cognitive-physical-environment concurrent inter-play that might suffer from sequential and decomposed (breaking it up to cognitive and physical) interpretation. Could this simple badminton example above be another part of the Learning – Skill acquisition false separation that I am alluding to? False because there should not be just one way in which learning happens best and dichotomy because it is taken by some quarters as two camps of teaching.

Let me come back to the two possible common differentiated perspectives offered at the beginning on the possible friction between Learning and Skill Acquisition and how it might distract us from true processes. Recently I started a short series of lessons on Floorball for my students, a newish teaching sport for me that I do play at a very beginner level. With a typical technique-focused concern, I was worried about getting the most basic thing right, teaching the Floorball stick hold the way it is supposed to be, i.e. the established way as decided by experts in the field. About a year before this, I was shocked (more like embarrassed!) when told by a colleague that I have been holding the stick wrongly for a right-hander and the curve on my blade was not suitable for a righty. I have been holding it like in Field Hockey, with my right dominant hand lower than my left one, with the stick jutting out of my open side (to the right side of my body). As such, my preferred blade curve was towards the left. I was told by the colleague, who confirmed it with a Floorball coach, that a right-hander should have the dominant hand at the top of stick, with the left hand lower and the curve of the blade towards the right. Even a very well versed player concurred on that.

This to me could be an example of teaching and learning from a teacher as the creator of knowledge perspective. The teacher knows, from whatever means, and introduces the facts to the learner. This can be a powerful source of learning but can inevitably get in the way of being true to the solution manifold (a range of solutions to meet the needs of the a problem that is never totally fixed in its manifestation) that is necessary for an effective movement solution.

Back to my dilemma and I have not even faced the class yet. My own limited playing experience sees me very often also moving my dominant hand to the top of the stick, i.e. one hand on stick only, as I move with the ball away from my body for fast breaks. This reinforced to some extent the advice I received above that a righty like me should have that said holding position, albeit with two hands. Further exploration told me that the hands could assume various positions base on where the ball is and what needs to be done with the ball. This is what I will say is an example of a skill acquisition perspective (as described above). My big dilemma is not a dilemma! Depending on where the ball position is, the stick holding changes. Admittedly, for each holding position in association with ball location, there are mechanically ideal solutions that can serve as good guides, i.e. not stick your fingers out, shoulder width apart, maintaining a more consistent stick hold pattern, etc. This is especially so for the more advance game where the solution manifold reduces in possibilities to a particular point in a problem spectrum (which widens as you are offered a bigger range of problems from better players). I like to think that the problems offered by movement should be the primary focus, not the expected solutions we teachers think should be offered first.

Learning vs Skill Acquisation

As I am writing my concluding paragraph at my usual neighbourhood coffee shop, I reflected on the nearby group of tertiary level students having their weekly Ultimate Frisbee training led by very able and enthusiastic coaches leading their peers. I captured a picture snapshot of a common drill I see them using very frequently (see picture attached). This snapshot by no means reflect the overall theme and effectiveness of the session, which I have observed as being quite tremendous in depth and progression. I will not comment on the usual opinions of on-task and task relevance issues that such a drill might suggest (i.e. limited on-task individuals and the relevance of such drills to actual play). Rather, I will like to offer the possibly perspective of the coach/teacher here wanting strongly to create knowledge in the pursuit of such technique and outcome-led activity designs. Is this also an example of how the teachers/coaches can strongly be influenced (albeit very implicitly) by their own assumed clarity on what it takes to acquire new skills, i.e. a learning or skill acquisition process?

So, with my classes already starting, what I will do is to be very aware of both perspectives and not get overtly engross with either. In fact, good learning happens when we are aware of all aspects of skill acquisition. I can’t run away from the fact that students do want information presented to them at times (solution before problem) and that I am seen as a creator and presenter of knowledge, but I also see the joy when they discover such information as solving problems at the same time as when presented with the solutions, i.e. teaching for understanding. I think the key here is not to be pressured to be able to create knowledge and instead provide the opportunity to almost discover solutions together with learners in creatively designed environment.

Some readings that were influential (fleeting or otherwise) in the above.

Uehara, L., Button, C., Falcous, M., & Davids, K. (2016). Contextualised skill acquisition research: a new framework to study the development of sport expertise. Physical Education & Sport Pedagogy, 21(2), 153–168. Retrieved from,url,uid&db=s3h&AN=112376570&site=ehost-live

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