Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education 

In the previous blog we asked what types of experiences we present to children in a) our choices of activity and b) the pedagogical approaches that we use. It suggests that authenticity is important in PE so that children begin to understand what it means to be involved in physical activity. In concentrating on decontextualized skills in a climate that values a child’s ability to replicate these skills, are we helping him or her to understand what lifelong participation might look like or are we asking them to decide, early in life, if they can or cannot do these things? Or indeed if they even like them?

In this week’s blog we muddy the water around the idea that ‘teacher does and students do’ (i.e. that what a teacher teaches students will learn) as the basic premise of teaching and learning. Instead the blog suggests that there are many different cognitive processes that occur in different ways and for different students that we need to consider.


Paper 36:

Lee, A.M. & Solmon, M.A. (1992/2012). Cognitive conceptions of teaching and learning motor skills. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 205-221) London: Routledge.


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

When engaged in learning ourselves we know we don’t get it right. Sometimes this is because our teacher (as adults) gets it wrong. They don’t ‘push our buttons’ or the subject area is just boring. Indeed I have heard teachers say just that sort of thing - “Yes, I know the subject is a little dull and turgid but it is very important that you learn and understand it.” It is a self-fulfilling prophecy and, try as hard as we might, getting over this obstacle is always going to be tough. The mandatory course – i.e. the fire safety course or the safety in the office course – is often the worse. We are only doing it because we absolutely have to and the sooner it is over and we are ‘safe’ for the next three years the better.

And yet, how many lessons have we taught where kids are thinking just the same sort of things? And still their lack of engagement exasperates us. I remember teaching a brand new unit of work using Cooperative Learning and feeling that I was owed the students enthusiasm, interest and learning because of the vast amount of effort I was putting in - “I worked my socks off to make this happen and all you can do is stand there and have the audacity to look perplex…how dare you!”

What I failed to take account of was the fact that my ideas – simple as I thought them to be – were lost in translation. And it wasn’t just one translation that tripped them up. Some kids wanted to develop their skills and since that was no longer the focus of the lesson they were confused. Other students enjoyed the social aspects but couldn’t see how to learn or work together without the direct influence of the teachers. Others were used to being the best in the class and the emphasis on improvement and not being the best confused them. Others were used to being the worse and didn’t understand what role they could play in a peer-teaching environment. It wasn’t the students who had dropped the ball but me. They didn’t know how to be students in this environment and my actions were baffling and unsettling to them as many of them had lost their place in the ordered structure of the classroom.

As the authors of this paper suggest, many of the cognitive process that lie between the teacher and learning are preconceived and then the actions of the teacher reinforce the notion of what physical education is and should be. Children are savvy enough to know that kids who aren’t the best get more attention than others and are helped to improve in different ways to the more-able children. They recognise the tone and sentiment of teachers when they offer instruction and praise and quickly adapt their understanding of what ‘praise’ and ‘instruction’ mean to them personally. Indeed, when I broke that down and tried something else through Cooperative Learning my students didn’t know how to ‘be’ students anymore. Now I see that as a good thing but the mistake was in assuming that they would simply understand change.

So I ask you to consider have your messages been lost in translation. Did the students ‘do’ what you said, had planned or intended them to do? Do we need to consider that change is difficult for the students as much as the time and effort to change is for us? What do we need to pay attention to, and how can we ensure all students are supported in the learning process? 


The Paper                                       

The aim of Lee and Solmon’s paper is to advocate the idea that learning is an active, constructive process in and through which students should not be considered as passive recipients of knowledge. They argue that early, laboratory based research (Such as Pavlov and his dog) simplified the learning process too much and led us to believe that the impact of the teacher on student learning was a direct one. Drawing on the growing body of literature in physical education around learning they argue that learning it is far from a ‘process-product’ model and is about more than observable behaviour. In other words, what you see is not necessarily what you get.

They suggested that there were a number of ‘third factors’ that had an impact on learning, such as motivational, affective and cognitive aspects of students thinking during learning. The literature suggests that attention has an impact on student learning, that the way students process information affects it, that behaviour, and use of praise, perceived competence, perceptions of teacher behaviours, instructional behaviours, expectations, perceived expectation and many other cognitive process impact on learning. These act as a filter between the teacher and the learner and turn the process-product idea into a vast oversimplification of teaching and learning.

It is beyond the limits of this blog to explore these issues in anywhere near the detail that Lee and Solmon did but I will try and summarise a little of this below.

If we take the idea of praise as a cornerstone of the practices that we suggest to pre-service teachers then it is interesting to note how differently students perceive the praise that they receive to the praise that other get. Praise, it has been shown, is given more frequently to less able children and in a different way to that offered to their able peers. More important perhaps, the students know and recognised this and translate the type of praise received into an understanding of their own capabilities – as seen through the voice of their teachers.

Similarly, while attention seems like an obvious indicator of the potential (at least) that children are engaged in learning, it is more complicated than that. Children might be attentive but might simply lack the cognitive understanding of what the teacher wants them to. They make understand the teacher but lack the skill to replicate the desired movement or action and therefore look like they haven’t paid attention. The problem is made more complex because these cognitive processes are internal and unobservable and therefore as teachers we make assumptions that children weren’t listening or paying attention.

We could go on an explore aptitude, attitude, prior knowledge, preconceptions, perceived competence and so on and so forth in an effort (as Lee and Solmon did) to better understand the complexity of learning. Better to say that all of these processes serve as mediators between teacher behaviour and student achievement. Please be aware of this the next time you observe a colleague teach, or someone comes to watch you. Consider this the next time you offer praise or question a student about their lack of attention. All in all it makes teaching a more complex process and makes me consider again the art of outstanding teaching. It is like plate spinning and is why it offers us all a lifetime of satisfaction and a multitude of challenges.

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.