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Students’ rush in where teachers fear to tread: Sport Education as student-centred approach

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored the idea that more is better and that multi-activity programmes may have contributed to an increase in young people’s participation rates over the last 40 years. We suggested that an increased repertoire of sporting experiences as a young person serves as a means of protection from physical activity ‘dropout’ and buffers against the increasing specialism in activity that occurs in adulthood. Discussions on the blog focused around the need to provide more quality and less ‘filling’ and to understand more than just what the kids have done in the past but also what they have learnt.

In this week’s blog we explore one the first empirical studies of Sport Education. It reports on the positive benefits to students’ learning that it can accrue from its use. Certainly, this paper is an advocate for Sport Education, but as you read the blog I ask you to consider whether you would try it or if you have, were your experiences the same?


Paper 33: 

Hastie, P.A. (1996/2012). Student role involvement during a unit of sport education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 153-175) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

In the thirty-three blogs to date this is the first to explore pedagogical models or models-based practice and - as a teacher (in both secondary school and tertiary education) who has used Sport Education (SE) - it is interesting to read some of the earlier findings from the 1990s. I have long been an advocate of this approach and from  seven years of experience I have ‘evidence’ from my own practice that a models-based-approach can make a difference. However, as Hastie says, this study was undertaken with “one class, and particularly an all-boys class” and that his conclusions should be “limited to that group only”. I guess this is the weakness of small studies and the findings should be treated with a ‘pinch of salt’. However, much of what this study found is replicated in my work and in many other studies in both SE and other pedagogical models, which is one of the strengths of in-depth studies, and therefore I consider this paper to be particularly informative and potentially transferable to a number of contexts.

Some of the arguments that Hastie made for using SE hold true today as they did then, and wouldn’t have to lead to the use of SE, just a change in practice. He argued that physical Education is (a) too focused on elite sport (i.e. the 1st team or the varsity team etc.) in a limited number of sports, (b) the focus of lessons is on decontextualized techniques (skills and drills) that are rarely practiced in ‘real’ situations, (c) games (when they are played) occur in isolation - with teams picked on an ad hoc basis for each lesson - and bear little resemblance to the real world of sport (i.e. enduring teams or festivity) and (d) physical education rarely uses the multiple roles available to participants that are common in sport.  (i.e. coaches, referees, statisticians, or journalists)

However, experience tells me that while the aspiration of SE is to rectify these ‘omissions’ it is not a catch-all cure for the perceived ills of PE and nor is it an easy step from the old to the new. “It’s easier to say a thing than do it” – as the saying goes – and this is definitely the case with SE. To say you are doing something (and many of the criticisms of SE and other pedagogical models is that they represent a ‘name change’ approach and not a pedagogical shift) is one thing but then you just get a “wolf in sheep’s clothing. To actually do it and to make the changes necessary to adopt a models-based approach to PE is something completely different. For example, using SE means more that placing students in enduring teams for a unit of work and applying a number of pedagogical principles (see the physical educators video for an overview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CvriuuBuzNY). I am strong advocate of a models-based approach but it took me years and multiple units of work to be in a position to say I was using, for example, SE and it was a battle. It went against THE way of teaching PE (that Hastie criticised) and my colleagues didn’t like it. I stuck to my guns and made the changes and the kids loved it. It is worth the fight but don’t go into change with your eyes closed. Prepare, stick to your guns, and it can be one of the most rewarding things you can do – it certainly was for me.


The Paper

The three main findings from this study were (a) that it increased the students’ opportunities to practice,  (b) that is positive impacted on the students perceptions of skill development, and (c) that it enhanced the social context in which learning occurred. In other words, the students felt that they practiced more, got better quicker, and had the chance to work with their existing friends and make new ones. 

The students in this study were used to having PE daily but they were also used to swapping the focus of their lessons every three weeks – so really a multi-activity programme. They were taught in a very teacher-centred way and they felt that they were bossed about by the teachers and told to do things that they didn’t want to do. Many students felt excluded from lessons that favoured the most able and disenchanted with lessons that focused on skills and not fun. To them SE must have seemed like a breath of fresh air and that may have skewed the results in favour of the model. However, it is hard to look beyond the results in this school and not imagine what the results might be if more schools tried this.

The study indicated that students’ engagement in PE increased as the SE season progressed and showed higher levels of “motor-appropriate practice than in skill sessions conducted by the regular teacher.” When student coaches were ‘in charge’ their sessions “were characterized by considerable activity”. As a consequence of these improvements the students demonstrated particularly high levels of similarity in their engagement and improvement across the unit. In other words, most students showed increased engagement in lesson and increased skill. They were on task more often and were more accurate in their work.

The study also showed that students preferred learning from each other and receiving information from the role of the coach in their team than the teacher.   The teacher was seen by the students as  “making us do what we don’t want to do” while learning from the coach was seen as letting them chose. This might have been because they had more focused time to practice – time that wasn’t interrupted by whole class discussions. The use of small-sided teams was one facilitating factor in this, as it allowed the students to have an enhanced number of contacts with the ball. Furthermore, all the students felt that they had received more opportunities to be involved and to actually participate in this unit. This was attributed to the competition inherent in SE. However, Hastie also suggested that this wasn’t the ‘normal’ competition found in PE but a more inclusive form that celebrated improvement, good play, sportsmanship, and engagement, not just winning or loosing.

The students all felt that their skills improved and that they got the chance to play in different positions. This was a new feature of their lessons as previously the less able students, in particular, were often left to play in the least desirable positions on the pitch. While the study didn’t explore the effectiveness of the inter-student instructions the perceptions of the students were certainly positive.

All in all the study was shown to be a success. However, to what extent the findings are transferable outside of the context is questionable. That said, pedagogical change in PE has been shown to be evidence based and this paper certainly provides evidence that SE works and works well. So, go on (I dare you)…give it a go or tell us how you have faired with the model in the past.


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be.

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

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On Friday 30 August at 22:06 Antonio Calderón said
Thanks and congrats for your "alive" blog Dr Casey. You always write about hot topics for reflection. Thanks. From my experience with teachers and SE, when they deliver their first SE season, they travel along a "continuum" and have differents feelings. The first weeks (and planning-weeks), are pretty hard. This hardness will depend of the way the teachers have learnt and experienced the model. If they have "lived the curriclum" as some authors recommends, they will have a better first experience than those that learn the model with deficiencies (just theorical work shops and not practical). The teacher education and the extended support are also important to survive the first lessons (or seasons). When they have an effective learning of the model, they reach the "turning point" sooner than if they have not. The turning point is the moment in which students are gaining autonomy and work appropiatly in their practice areas. This is a "good moment" for the teacher who can stay out and give feedback, and assess, and help some teams, while students are assuming their roles and practicing. All the elementary, secondary and post-secondary (16-18 years old) teachers we work with, recognize this turning point and define the whole experience as great for them and great for the students too (despite the initial k-os). I think one reason for having a good first experience is that you (and your students) practice something different than they usually do, and this is always good. I agree for sure that the findings of Hastie paper, from a research point are not transferable for all context (just one boys class), but what we see in the actual literature (20 years later) is that remains papers reporting same good findings. Actual SE papers still report effective learning experiences for all students (no matter what their level of skill and motivation is). So this still supports the benefits of SE for both (students and teachers). Last year we are having some problems with the grades 5 and 6 (all that glitters is not gold). In Spain some rural (and urbans schools) actually have students from many nacionalities (morrocco, ecuador, colombia, romania, etc.). The challenge is to select teams with no fights. Moroccans girls (because of her acculturation) are not very happy being part of a team with boys (no matter where they are). However, despite the initial reticences, they integrates themselves in their team, and collaborate with their mates to reach the learning goals (an win in the formal competition). So at the end, "good" SE experience for them too. Do anyone has this situation?, how do you resolve it? One thing we have learnt, is that after the first season, teachers said that they will remain using SE but , this is not always true, they go back with a more teacher-centered model. They adapt the "SE" model and may be still using teams and roles, and back with direct instruction and traditional competition format. They feel more confortable with this adaptation. Not sure about why, what do you think? This my experience, and happy to share more. Thanks again !! @acluquin
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On Saturday 31 August at 08:52 Ross Halliday said
Ash, Great post on a great topic mate! I am currently in the midst of our year 6 unit of sport ed (basketball), it is without doubt the most popular unit of the year for the students. In my opinion this is not only because it's regarded as 'fun' but also because ability rears its head less as a (non)motivational factor. The students actually learn a lot too (which provides the WHY), and despite what some teachers may think, kids actually do LOVE learning new things. We have players, coaches, officials, tournament organisers and media teams. Below are just some of the the things the students have actually DONE this term in our unit; The tournament organisers wrote letters to their class teachers kindly requesting "earn and learn money" (part of our internal reward system for grade 6s) to provide prize money to the winners. They offered in return grand final hospitality in the form of lemonade and sandwiches courtside, they have also invited other teachers and the principal. They have asked the yr 5s if they can attend the final too as supporters. The media team have created a weekly newsletter which includes info about the players and teams. These are supplemented by video interviews they email to the class. The interviews are funny and brilliant in equal measure! The coaches plan each training session and share their plans in google drive with the players and other class-mates. the quality of their sessions always astounds me. Umpires have researched online the hand signals for all the various basketball violations, and saved in google drive for players to read. The Tournament organisers are also arranging half time entertainment for the grand final in the form of a band (some of whom are players, umpires... so filling a few roles! They are offering them some earn and learn money to perform and currently solving the set-up problems they face to have it all going on in the gym. There are many more little successes going on but those are just a few that are noteworthy this time around (we're in week 3 of 6). The beginning can be hard to set-up, I get all the kids to brainstorm the roles we need (by watching a BBall game on youtube) and write assessment criteria for each role (5 kpi's). they then apply for a job thru google forms and their criteria is used for assessment throughout the unit and at the end. But once its up and running its terrific to see them create, wonder, problem solve, collaborate, think critically, work in teams and reflect. If you think this kind of thing could be fun, imagine what it feels like to do it when you're 12 years old! Sport Ed is a winner and if you're not doing it already then, take it from me... you should. Physical education is about much more than just physical activity/ ability and improving sporting performance. Your students will thank you for it (literally). I will be blogging in more detail about our current SpEd unit at its conclusion in a few weeks so if you, or any readers, are interested in any of the above, keep your eyes peeled and i'm more than happy to share my experience (not that my way is perfect). I'll sign off with your valuable sentiments Ash "give it a go...I dare you! Ross Halliday www.makingpefizz.com
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On Saturday 31 August at 11:49 Sarah Scott said
Thanks for this very thought provoking article! I have never taught using an SE style of pedagogy before (mainly because I have no practical knowledge of it) but I have read about and spoken to people about it. This article struck such a chord with me because the 'benefits' of the study are very similar to those that I found when completing some action research around teaching games for understanding (Like Hastie this involved one class only, a Year 9 girls group). I hold my hands up...after the first few lessons I felt ready to give up.....there was definitely an 'adapting period' for both my students and I! I didn't give up and the emerging benefits were worth the anxiety that I felt at the beginning. My learning environment became 'learner led', as Hastie mentioned in his article, learners took on the role of the 'teacher' and began learning from each other - This did leave me feeling like a spare part initially but it gave me the freedom to work in depth with the learners/groups that required it the most. One of my eureka moments was to hear 'girl's coaching each other about tactics during competitive game play - TGFU has allowed them to understand games concepts as they never had before! Another triumph was observing learners moving whether they had the ball or not as opposed to standing still. I strongly believe/agree with the responses above that adopting a 'learner centred' pedagogy whether it be SE or TGFU gives learners a strong sense of empowerment so that they are engaged in the learning, they gain a greater understanding of different concepts and tactics because they are provided with greater opportunities to participate in higher order thinking and therefore their performance abilities and understanding improve so that they gain self esteem and confidence in the 'physical' environment. Reading this article and the responses above has ignited my interest in experimenting with SE within my classroom this year so any tips on how to organise this and set this up would be gratefully received! Thanks for this - Now that I have signed up I look forward to reading many more articles! Sarah Scott
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On Saturday 31 August at 23:04 Andy Vasily said
Hey Ash, this blog post will be a great addition to our 'Instructional Models' learning theme for PEPLC. It is a good summary for identifying why the Sport Education model can be very successful when properly implemented within a PE program. Although the study focuses only on one group, I think that we can all see that this type of approach allows students choice and to design their own learning in a sense. Although we cannot automatically assume that the Sport Education model will enhance student learning, I think it is safe to say that when we provide students choice and to experience a wider range of roles and responsibilities in PE, we are putting more control in their hands which will provide them with a greater sense of ownership over their learning. A vast amount of literature on education in general does conclude with certainty that students who have more ownership over their learning achieve greater success in school. So from this point of view, I see the Sport Education model as being a fantastic approach to instruction in PE. I have used aspects of the model with regularity over the years in my classes and for the most part is has been quite effective. Thanks for the blog post Ash. Speak soon.
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On Monday 02 September at 04:34 Krista Rodden said
Ash, I believe when students are given choice their willingness and cooperation levels increase. I believe this is a fantastic way of implementing SE. In my years of being a student in PE, I always hated a teacher that had no clue teaching the skills and techniques. I believe with this method the students are more willing to be open to the teaching. I am a strong believer in the saying you get out what you put in and this method of teaching really brings that to life. The students are in more control of their learning and gives them more ownership in the skills they are learning. Thank you for the post and great insight. Krista Rodden http://roddenkristaedm310.blogspot.com/
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On Tuesday 03 September at 13:42 Peter Hastie said
Well, from 1996 to 2013 we have over 60 academic and practitioner papers dealing with Sport Education, so it's not withered on the vine. As an executive summary of those works, we can focus on the 3 goals of the model. These are the development of competent, literate and enthusiastic sports players. There is no significant support for all 3, particularly the enthusiastic category, although support for competence is developing strongly. The main reason for the first item lies in the ideas of team affiliation and student autonomy. For skill and game play improvements there are two views. First, the extended length of the unit promotes greater practice opportunities and extended time in refining and applying skills. Second, the fact that competitions are meaningful leads to students taking their practice opportunities more seriously. We have also found that the idea of the persisting team serves to encourage the more skillful students to help the lesser skilled within their teams in order that they can be better contributors during matches. By consequence, the lower skilled students feel valued, which translates to greater investment. It should be noted that a key feature of SE is the creation of small team sizes and developmentally appropriate games... viz, we see 7v7 touch rugby, or 3v3 basketball or volleyball .. Not full sided games. This serves to require/encourage all players to contribute to their teams. I'll wait for further comments and address them as they develop.

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