Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we asked what cultural experiences children and young people bringing into PE from their experiences of sport in extra curricular and community sport. It asked the question ‘if sport is in schools does it need to be educational?’ and considered the role that free play has in establishing social hierarchies and acceptable behaviours in school.

In this week’s blog we examine learning theory – particularly experiential learning – and ask what place it has in our classrooms. Drawing on the wider work around learning the blog suggests that there are two main philosophies of learning – mechanic and organic – and asks the reader to consider where they would position themselves. Is learning in your class a ‘cause and effect’ process or is it more holistic than that?

Paper 40:

Quay, J. (2003/2012). Experience and participation: relating theories of learning. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 293-307) London: Routledge.


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

I was trying to explain the term “abstract empiricism” to a student yesterday (after he had read the term in a paper I had set for my masters class) and I struggled a little to explain the notion adequately. I must admit to being stumped for a few minutes and even looked around the room for support from a colleague - only to remember that I was teaching alone. This made me consider the way that, as authors, we use vocabulary that is familiar to us and often neglect the readability of our work. However, with time and a little internal reflection I was able to translate this term and offer a plausible explanation to the student.

Abstract empiricism, to me, is almost the same as anecdotal evidence. Let me explain. Empiricism, according to the dictionary is a philosophy or doctrine that suggests that all knowledge is derived from a sense of experience. What the author of the student’s paper was trying to suggest in using this term – but in a roundabout way - was that without theoretical underpinnings and an understanding of the thinking behind ideas then we are driven solely by our own experiences. While, as I will argue later, experience is a key facet in learning, is it acceptable to purely teach on a hunch? Indeed, while some of my best lessons have occurred as a result of hunches and gut feelings there comes a time when I need to understand the bigger picture. It’s not enough to go from hunch to hunch and ‘fly by the seat of my pants”. I need to have a clearer understanding of how children learn and how, as a teacher, I am best place to support this process.

Now, I remember (I think) learning about learning theory as an undergraduate but I don’t recall once looking at learning theory at all as a teacher. No, that’s not true. I now recall a session led by colleague on Gardener’s learning theory (which I can’t remember the name of without looking it up on the internet - no I remembered while I was putting the shopping away - ‘multiple intelligences”) but that didn’t involve doing any of the background reading myself or even lead me to using these ideas in my lesson. After all why did I need to? The kids learnt in my lessons, the rugby team won, and I was a qualified teacher. Yet, this makes me guilty of abstract empiricism – a ‘crime’ I could barely understand as a teacher - but one that I think needs to be addressed.

By ignoring the thinking behind the learning and by assuming that by doing things the way I saw my teachers and my colleagues do it, I was actually doing disservice to my students. But where was the expectation that my knowledge remained current? However, I was qualified teacher and any idea of life long learning was not one that I was conscious of. It wasn’t until I started my masters degree that I became aware of learning theory. Yes, I’d heard of Pavlov's dogs but I didn’t make any connection between this and the learning of the students in my lessons.

Now, I may have been the exception and not rule but I do feel that teaching is positioned as a practical undertaking rather than a theoretical pursuit. Good teaching is about understanding the individual, the class and the school in which learning occurs but it’s also about understanding how and why it occurs. Subject knowledge is a key facet of teaching but it needs to be placed alongside some theoretical understanding of learning.

When I read the conversations and interactions that occur on the blog and on Twitter I see that the learner is increasingly seen at the heart of teachers’ intentions and the curricular for which they teach. In reading this paper, I would clearly place myself in this camp. Yet, how much of this conversation is based on true knowledge and understanding and how much practice is based on a ‘hunch’. When reading the next section, try to think about the thinking that has gone on around the learning that you seek to promote in your lessons. What is the overarching term that best fits your hunches and ideas and see how far you can develop the children in your care.

The Paper                                       

Quay’s paper could as easily have appeared in a Physics, geography, or a drama blog as it could in this one because its focus is on teaching children are not physical education. That said I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review this paper as it afforded me the chance to better understand some of the theories that now deliberately underpin my work as an educator.

One of the key contributions of this paper was Quay’s decision to categorise the vast array of learning theories into two broader philosophies through the use of two metaphors. The first metaphor was that of a ‘machine’ and Quay suggested that in this way learning was seen as mechanical, a process with a cause and effect -one that could be positioned as a behaviourist or mentalist theory of learning. The second metaphor was ‘organic’ referring to learning being holistic. In other words, understanding something meant experiencing it in its entirety and allowing the learner to adjust what they know in light of that experience. The difficulty, Quay suggested, was locating experiential learning theory, the focus of this paper, in one of these two broader philosophies.

Drawing on the work of Dewey the paper argues that there is an intimate and necessary relationship between the process of actual experience and education and that the imperative of experiential learning is to adapt, involved, and learn via our experiences. Quay made specific reference to four learning theories: constructivism, social constructionism, cultural discourses, and situated learning. He further suggested that where constructivism focused on individual learning, social constructionism on small group learning, and cultural discourse on the idea that learning occurs at the level of the wider society, situated learning focused on all three. In this way he positioned situated learning as an appropriate way to consider experiential learning. While it is beyond the scope of this blog to consider situated learning as a concept, it is worth suggesting that the ‘I’ (individual) of constructivism, the ‘we’ (group) of social constructionism, and the ‘world’ of cultural discourse are inseparable facets of situated learning. In other words we need to consider the ‘I-We-World’ view.

Quay argues that experimental education has become a step wise process in which internal reflection follows concrete experience. This in turn results in in the learning making adaptions when they gain further experience. In other words he suggests that students have been encouraged to step out of experience in order to reflect and process before stepping back in. This in-out-in process is more mechanistic than organic and it lacks the notion that understanding occurs through the experience of the entire phenomenon.

Experiential learning, when undertaken holistically, also raises questions about teaching, power, and ethics. What is the place of the teacher when learning is positioned as dependent on but not determined by teaching? Who has the power when learning becomes democratic? And what is being cultivated? Morals? Values? And what is considered as good when learning is seen as being individual, Group, and societal? If as teachers we are deliberately decentralising ourselves and teaching as part of the community how can we ensure that this community cultivates learning?

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.