To speak or not to speak, Teaching in Physical Education (PE)

To speak or not to

Original mage from

This reflection explores partly the role of information provided in a learning activity design, with special reference to verbal instructions and such. I ponder on the practicality of such mode of information giving and also the need to perhaps consider more quality than quantity.

I go on further to connect this to the idea of teachers as a repository of strategies or experts in learning processes. This is can be further exasperated when the role of the teacher’s experience exerts a big influence in expecting learning to take place.  

This concept of the ideal discovery environment for learning being one that is silent, or close to, of the teacher’s voice is an interesting semi-mythical, urban legendary, etc. sort of idea that has been constantly doing the rounds in discussions when the latest contemporary methodologies and teaching approaches in Physical Education (PE) are spoken of. Of course, the silence here usually refers to the level of information giving through instructions, for example, that is precedent to or during learning taking place. In discussions at some academic level, this learning design scenario of information coming mainly from the environment, self and task makes reasonable sense and possible implementation scenarios includes a hint of minimal and calculated direct teacher intervention. In fact, this academic direct perception view (information comes direct from contect) is probably misunderstood and really gets in the way of many young and progressive teachers who are out to explore more contemporary, e.g. non-linear, approaches in teaching. I wrote quite a bit about on it earlier when I described the fear of not being competent enough in specific game skill sets that seems to precede the ability to be silent. It doesn’t help that the hugely popular Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) approach hinted at this when one of its founders suggested that the best teaching scenario is one with minimal teacher talking, something that I believe was not meant to be literally taken and that it refers metaphorically to needing to think carefully about activity design!

In fact, talking to task ratios can even be found in some teaching guides which puts pressure on needing to find the optimal teacher talk and student superficial behavioural outcome balance of either listening to teacher or being busy in a task. This causes a significant alienation of the need to be aware of teaching and learning processes, by-passing it to go directly to what can be observed by an observer only. In fact, I will hazard that this whole a teacher/coach should talk during teaching/coaching dilemma is very much also, contributed by stakeholders wanting accountability in service providers like teachers and coaches. In an interview with a Netball coach I did, this was a key issue that crops up when wanting to pursue a non-linear approach that might seem also like a hands-off approach.

Interestingly, amongst very experienced and well-known coaches who share thoughts on social platforms that I have come across, this idea of minimal teacher/coach involvement has the opposite connotation, i.e. that teachers/coaches who don’t have enough knowledge and competence tend to be minimal in direct involvement when it comes to facilitating learning. Contributing to this importance of the coach’s ability, is the acculturation of own experience. Every athlete or coach will remember vivid memories of being given long and detailed instructions or lectures that made them what they are today.  The significant persona recollections probably points to just that, a memory connection of very implicit effective learning processes that has been tagged on to very explicit influential personas from the past. Great teachers are like that. I personally have credited my own passion for PE to past teachers and their personalities and I realised it is more the experiences they put me through rather than anything else. Can you imagine the impact this makes to a teaching environment if the believe is that it is the personality of the significant adult that makes good learning and no emphasis on the processes that the said adult puts the learner through?

So, is there something deeper that we need to be concern with when it comes to this debate over this metaphorical and literal debate over to speak or not to? I can align this to the discourse between linearity and non-linearity in learning processes and its associated lesson designs. I also see this as a struggle between the need to leverage on the experience of the teacher/coach and the learner’s physiological experience needed for learning processes to take place. It is a struggle as many times dichotomous perception creates uneasiness that does not take accurate consideration of the role of the context (outside that of the teacher and surrounding the learner). Recently in a discussion with a young intern, I seek her opinion on a recent activity we did where we told students to do a squat while ensuring the knees do not go beyond the knees. This advice that goes with the squatting action is a very popular one that comes direct from the gym-going fraternity and is especially important when progressing to heavy weights in order to isolate specific muscles for training effect and also to prevent injuries, e.g. strain on back and knees. When it comes to our young learners doing own body weight squats, what does “do not allow the knee to go beyond the knees” mean? Upon further discussion with my young colleague, she suggested that this could be a way to get use to the eventual biomechanical need from carrying external weights, i.e. a decomposed technique focus. I doubt if knee placement in a PE classroom context will create much issue under own body weight other than its repetitive contraindicative effects. At this point, it is the teacher trying to create the learning without the involvement of the eventual environmental, task or athlete constraints. Is this knee placement advice even task relevant for current practice in own body weight work-outs? Possible alternatives will be facilitation that allow learners to do such squats with different configuration of limb placements and then referring to aspects of biomechanics like lever system, keeping spine in safe position and so on. All these will put focus on the context and theoretically create deeper understanding. It takes time but might go further than the sole ‘injury’ advise to influence movement which probably comes when teacher assumes the role of a repository of experience and thus the provider of appropriate outcome cues, independent of experience. The discovery flavour is hinted here.

This to-speak-or-not-to (quantity) dilemma (closely followed by the what-to-speak! (quality) dilemma) can also be eased with consideration and differentiating of factors like the role of implementation strategies and learning processes. An example will be a recent sharing by a peer that states the role of non-linearity in teaching as part of an arsenal of teaching strategies, a view very popularly shared. Should learning processes like non-linearity be a strategy or a lawful fact? my opinion – a lawful fact. Can you influence how a learner learns physiologically at different points in teaching and thus be strategic about it? my opinion – to some extent within a narrow and aligned range. Or is it more the strategies based on lawful facts like physiological learning processes that is variable? my opinion – strategies are much broader and varied.

Of course, here it is important to differentiate between what we mean when we say strategies, tools, etc. and actual physiological learning processes. There are many strategies and tools for different contexts and probably just a narrower and more aligned range for the processes involved in how learners learn which then should be our over-arching direction. It is good to have an arsenal of tools but perhaps more important to have a clear unified philosophy (back by understanding of learning processes) for learning and teaching.

Again, I will hazard a guess that we are very focused on implementation strategies, the hows, without much worry on the whys of such strategies. Based on our very inductive like evaluation cycle (i.e. we test different evidences and assumes it contributes to the ultimate conclusion) of the tools and strategies we used, it is very likely that our lack of depth into the physiological whys of learning makes little impact on outcomes because we only replicate tools and strategies that works. Our implicit understanding of how our the body operates in a learning environment may differ but I believe that it all feeds into the same ultimate lawful processes, i.e. whether it is linear, non-linear, a hybrid, etc. and that is why we all seem to be achieving the same learning despite differing  perspectives. We can improve if we carry on developing our arsenal of tools and strategies but an emphasis on a constant reflective process that strives to connect a narrow band of lawful processes to that of a much wider band of strategies will do much better. End of day, do we want to be like a big warehouse of ready-made implementation strategies or much leaner experts of learning processes that is able to produce strategies on demand? Both works!

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