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Playing the student game

Volume 3: Teachers, teaching and teacher education in physical education

The previous blog explored the idea of assumption. There is an expression that suggests that to ‘assume’ is to make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’ and perhaps, I suggested, we have been guilty of that in education. By assuming that there’s a ‘right’ way of doing things and by assuming that the outcomes of our lessons are obvious then we run the considerable risk of assuming that kids learn what we want them to. 

In this week’s blog we explore the idea of ‘gamesmanship’ in the act of being a student. By being compliant, courteous, caring, and cunning - a model-student in fact – and by focusing on ‘acing’ the course rather than learning then this week’s blog suggest that pre-service teachers learn to play the system and cut the right corners rather than, in this case, developing into good teachers.

  

Paper 55:

Graber, K.C.  (1991/2012) Studentship in preservice teacher education: A qualitative study of undergraduate students in physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 177-197) London: Routledge.

 

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

I spend many hours in a season refereeing for my son’s rugby team. I enjoy it and feel that I am better positioned than others to undertake this role (given my experience as a player, a coach and a teacher). Every game the players tell me things that I might have missed and my fellow parents can often be seen raising hands in exasperation when they think I might have missed something. Indeed, when I watch others referee I am very much the same. My reply to this is often that if I blew for everything that I saw, every marginal decision and every nuance of the rules then the game would fall apart.

I guess this also happens in my teaching. I have standards and expectations in my work and when I teach I am looking to educate my students (those that are now in university, such as pre-service teachers) not only in the theory and practice of physical education but also in the realities of being taught by me. When I am asked to observe colleagues or when they observe me we see different things (see last week’s blog) because we have different expectations.

The thing that we don’t always appreciate is that the students we teach are also learning our standards and expectations as well. Furthermore they have been learning these lessons from every single teacher they have had. Like a poker player looking for the ‘shows’ of their opponents, our students learn to find our negotiables and non-negotiables when it comes to teaching and learning. Once they have this knowledge they can then use it to better navigate our sessions and pass the course, and gain their degree to move onto the next step.

They form study groups and share key texts. They proofread each other’s work and develop a sense of understanding that mirrors their teachers. For me, my students probably learn to say that Cooperative Learning is good and direct instruction is bad. For others they will love athletics or gymnastics or research methods just to paint a picture of the model student. They learn where the short cuts are - he takes a register and she doesn’t or she allows no absenteeism from her sessions while he will allow three before I get in trouble - and play on them. I remember on my PGCE having an education lecture on a Wednesday morning with someone I had never met before or would never see again. As a cohort we learnt that if a quarter of us went to the session and signed the rest in we needed only to meet up at the half way point (10.30am), exchange key information and then we could all attend the seminars and ‘get away with it.’ We got away with it and so we kept doing it. I got my PGCE and it was a lot easier to attend one lecture in four that every one.

The question to me is should we be surprised when our students do it to us and are we even aware of it? Have we become blind to it because we are adults or are we still using the same tricks with regards to our own work? I think, if we are honest, then we have our lines drawn in the sand and as long as they are not crossed then we tolerate some of the gamesmanship that our students bring to our lessons. 

 

The Paper

Graber explores an interesting, and I would suggest still under researched, area of university physical education teacher education (PETE) programmes: The art of being a student. Like many before, and after, the paper suggests that students learn how to be students from very early on in their school careers. Graber suggests that well before formal training as PE teachers our students are developing a disposition that will eventually influence their professional behaviour. In other words they learn to play the game of studentship rather than that of learner.

One of the key consequences of the role they adopt as ‘students’ is that they take relatively few of the lessons they are taught on their teacher education programmes into their own classrooms. Furthermore, there is little evidence that they commit to many (if any) of the beliefs about teaching that formed the heart of their PETE programmes.

But why?

There are a number of obvious (and well rehearsed) reasons. Firstly there is the impact of the workplace on their eventual practices and in order to survive as teachers they need to maintain the status quo. Secondly, the influences of their pre-training experiences as students are so strong that (as has been suggested many times before in this blog) the PETE programme has little or no chance of making any difference.

However, Graber is not so dismissive of the potential impact of PETE programmes and suggests that pre-service teachers can only engage in studentship if the institution allows them to. She suggests that the conditions in which the students learn must be conducive to this ‘gamesmanship’ if is to be allowed to prosper as it does. Indeed such is the pervasiveness of this type of gamesmanship that students, Graber suggests, are free to determine which aspects of PETE they will adopt, which they will pretend to adopt and which they are able to ignore. More worryingly perhaps is the suggestion by Graber that students stop learning what they think is important for them as future teachers and instead begin to study what they think their instructors think is important. 

So what forms does studentship take?

Graber suggests that students engage in a range of behaviours that allow them to progress through their programme with greater ease, more success and less effort. These are namely: short cuts, cheating, psyching out the teacher, and faking public expressions of belief. In this way studentship was seen to emerge as students decided when to study, what to study, how to look interested in the classroom and how to help friends to look better in front of staff. 

Taking short cuts, according to the findings in this study, was the most common student behaviour. It was used so that students could take what they saw as the most efficient and economical way to get a good grade. However, it was only used when they felt that they wouldn’t be sacrificing personal integrity, grades or the change of a good recommendation. The perceived importance of the assignment also had an impact on the degree to which students took short cuts. Important and significant assignments were less likely to be subject to this type of studentship than those that were just seen as arbitrary obstacles to passing the course.

Cheating on exams or assignments was also quite common. This ranged from using other students ideas (both past and present) to writing answers on hands or copying from other students papers. However, this was very much dependent on the specific course. If the instructor was rigorous in applying ‘exam’ rules then cheating was a lot less likely. Inaction around issues of cheating, Graber found, led to an increase in the number of students willing to cheat.

Colluding or psyching out were strategies used to influence the instructor and get information out of them. By collaborating as a class to question the instructor on the content of the exam, and by sheer weight of numbers, students felt that they could elicit clues about what assessment was likely to follow. Again the success of this ploy was instructor dependent and suggests institutional failings.

The final ploy for enhancing their ability to do well in the course was image projection. If they could persuade the staff that they had internalised desirable behaviour then students felt that they could do better on their course. This could occur through faking, brownnosing and image management. By showing respect for the institution’s ideas (in whatever form they could) – especially the individual instructor’s beliefs – the students felt they could get better grades.

The underlying message here is that students (and I would argue at all levels of education) learn what counts and what doesn’t and adjust their behaviour accordingly. They work hard when things are seen as important and cut corners when they don’t. While Graber labels this as studentship I would argue that they could all be positioned under the sub-heading of cutting corners. Students learn how to find the quickest and surest way to the best grade and then navigate towards this across the duration of their course. Like a river finding the easiest way to the sea, students seek out the easiest path. Sometimes they meet immovable objects so they go around them and some times they meet little or no resistance and simply go through the middle of it. Either way we need to be more aware of these studentship games and decide what, if anything, we want to do about it.

 

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

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

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve 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? If you want to do something or are looking for help then 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 14 February at 21:28 Graham Mallen said
I have never really considered the aspect of ‘student gamesmanship’ from both the perspective of the student or indeed the teacher. However having read this blog it has certainly made me reflect and appreciate just how much of an issue this is within education. Ashley, I feel better now knowing that you skipped a few lectures in your time as I have indeed done so myself. Whether students are simply being apathetic towards their learning or just trying to survive by what doing what they think is best, teachers and lecturers need a system in place to monitor and control such behaviour. In my own A-Level class’s I have a monitoring and tracking system. It lets me see trends in attendance and academic performance, therefore allowing me to implement any initiatives where required. Students know that if grades, completion of homework or attendance drops then I will contact home. More specifically they know exactly how much of a drop in grades there needs to be and how many times they miss a homework or fail to attend a lesson before I contact home. Even when they try to play the system and blame everyone and everything else when problems arise I try to be as objective as possible. But in a small sixth form it is difficult to have continuity with all teachers in terms of tracking and monitoring students. It must be a lot harder when tracking and monitoring young adults at a university. Nevertheless, if we want students to both succeed and develop good habits it needs to be done. Teachers and lecturers need to be reading from the same page and students need to know where they stand. They need to know that they will receive the same treatment from one teacher as they would from another, and not because one teacher is mean and another is nice, but because its policy. When I myself studied at Bedford there were a number of excellent lecturers, however for me there was one that stood out and indeed partly shaped how I approach A-Level teaching. This particular lecturer taught me anatomy and physiology. What I liked about him was that he had standards and if you did not meet them that was your problem. He did not lower his standards, you had to raise yours. If you were late to lectures, wore jeans in seminars or weren’t focused in lesson, he did not want to know. For some students it frustrated them, they could blag their way with other lecturers but not him. Gamesmanship did not seem to work on him, he didn't allow it to be a factor in his teaching. I can not speak at undergraduare level but certainly at A-Level we have to take a harsh stand with students, be as objective as possible. However we need systems in place that we can all follow so not to let gamesmanship be a factor in determining a student’s academic performance. I think certainly on a PE QTS course teaching placement can play an influential role in the eye of a trainee teacher. Being 18/19 years old you are still developing and understanding your own views and values of the profession. In 8 years of teaching I have worked with colleagues that regularly cut corners to make life easier for themselves. But were they like this during their own teaching placement? What was the major influence on their attitude? I worked with some excellent teachers during my own placements and some not so good who wanted the easy life! At times during placements you do fall into that trap and let these teachers affect your own teaching. When you are young and impressionable you do want to fit into the social norm of a particular group or individual. I can see how it is easy to pick up bad habits during placements through a type of ‘vicarious reinforcement’. If you see another PE teacher getting away with little but having fun at the same time because he is coasting, you could easily imitate such behaviour. Thus, bad habits and poor values and morals can be formed. For universities putting students on a placement it is essential they can trust the school and its particular staff. These experiences form the PE teachers of tomorrow, so the margin for error is slim. As mentors and other teachers are influential to trainee teachers, major influences also come from the lecturers themselves. My anatomy and physiology lecturer was very objective, partly due to the content he was teaching. However this is not as simple as when you teach other areas such as teaching styles themselves. If you are an influential lecturer who is passionate about Cooperative Learning for example, then your most likely going to find your students agreeing with you. As much as we should remain objective and not biased in our teaching it is difficult as we all have our passions, especially if it is an area you have researched. However as difficult as it is to remain unbiased when teaching, we must remember how impressionable students can be and also how influential teachers can be. Whether they are playing ‘the game’ and saying what you want to hear, or genuinely unsure about a topic, we must allow them the freedom to make up their own mind. I teach Psychology as a second subject and have recently been teaching the infamous ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. I have found it extremely hard not to be too influential when discussing certain questions but try to give both side of the argument. As starters I have therefore introduced critical thinking questions to which I do not really fully know the answer. I get students to discuss them, allowing them to form an opinion without my influence. What is key in all of this is allowing students to form their own opinion as best as possible as it is important for them to understand their own views and not merely regurgitate someone else’s (just had a flashback to Good Will Hunting ‘how do you like those apples scene’). Image protection for students is key, but as teachers we should give them the confidence to believe what they want to believe and be proud of it. I found the point of exam cheating interesting (I’m surprised it is so common), performativity is so essential today, non more so than in A-Level teaching. The transition from Key Stage 5 to undergraduate is massive and there is a lot of pressure on staff to make sure students do well in exams. So much pressure in fact that it can be hard not to be guilty of ‘teaching to the test’. I often wonder who wants the grades more, the students or the schools. Yet without the grades students do not get into their first choice universities to which many have their dreams pinned on. Whenever I slightly deviate off the topic I am forever saying ‘this is not in the exam however interestingly…’. A-Levels can be a harsh environment and even if we do help to get our students the grades to get into their chosen university, have we actually prepared them enough? If students are more concerned with the grade than what they are learning at university this may be due to the over protection they get at A-Level. Again I question who are schools really protecting. Moral development and the formation of values is something that both schools and universities must consider more. However harsh and stringent teachers and lecturers must be, at the heart of our thinking and actions must be what is inevitably best for the student when they stop being a student. Now I am going to monitor my monitoring system to make sure my students are on track! Thanks for another great blog.

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