A bluffers guide to non-linear pedagogy

Learning within PE can be seen as a non-linear process. Skill Acquisition development, which should be at the heart of PE to help improve children’s technical competency, along with their physical and social development, is not linear. Especially when that child is going through the trials and tribulations of puberty. Traditional practices that promote an ideal model movement pattern for a certain task, or isolated technical practice to then implement in a dynamic activity such as team sports, might not be the best or only approach. In a recent book, Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition, Jia Yi Chow, Keith Davids, Chris Button and Ian Renshaw, put forward an attractive alternative. This post is an attempt to clarify my emerging knowledge and understanding of non-linear pedagogy and how it might be useful to explore as a rationale to certain teaching approaches within physical education.

Non-linear pedagogy is a learner-centered approach to skill acquisition. An umbrella term for teaching and coaching that uses task and environment design to develop skill acquisition. That advocates for individualised learning, even in team sports. It is through exploration, practice and play that both movement co-ordination solutions and decision making can be learnt and enhanced, by focusing on the nature of specific learner-environment interactions. If human movement systems are considered as non-linear dynamical systems, then ecological psychology and dynamical systems theory attempts to explain how human behaviour is information driven.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 14.56.04

Perception, action, intentions and behaviour are therefore seen to be highly integrated with one another. The combination of these two ideas provides a theoretical framework for ecological dynamics as a rationale for skill acquisition, especially, but not solely, in a team sports context.

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 15.01.11

Ecological Dynamics considers both individual performers and sports teams as complex adaptive systems (systems that are composed of two or more interacting components) that can self organise. It sees each individual performer as having their own individual set of characteristics, which in turn interact with the information from a dynamic or continuous environment. Two key terms within Ecological Dynamics are:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 15.02.48

Not all affordances are equal for individuals. Some are more attractive than others. This is due to the capabilities of the individual to act on the possibilities the environment offers. Perceiving the environment in those terms provides the participant with direct information about what it is they are supposed to do. Affordances along with effectivities offer invitations for the individual to act upon.

Therefore a non-linear pedagogy promotes the practice of creating affordances to act on, through task design and manipulating the constraints of the environment that allow for both the individual and the team to develop. It requires an intimate knowledge, by the teacher, of both the activity and of the participants involved. It emphasises that behaviour is emergent. By shaping the relevant constraints (and therefore information provided), and by challenging the learning experience, that functional movement solutions can occur and will be learnt. Non-linear pedagogy also suggests that practice task constraints should be designed to stimulate the constraints of the actual performance environment.

In the context of a dynamic sporting environment, you want children to be able to learn to perceive that environment, so they have some chance at learning which movements they can start to co-ordinate or control in response to those perceived task demands. If we as PE Teachers don’t expose them to an environment or a situation that that creates information, then its not there to be learnt. We want to try to develop dynamic responsive behaviours. I think we instinctively know that many of the skills for sports can be taught through a games approach, that there needs to be variability in practice and by playing ensures that motivation and engagement in children can be kept high. What we don’t always know is the rationale why this might be the case.

Whilst a non-linear pedagogy promotes the practice of constraints manipulation, through a constraints led approach, it also has some implications for games based approaches used with physical education. Teaching Games for Understanding or Games Sense aren’t necessarily true non-linear pedagogical approaches, elements of constraint manipulation can be used to help develop skill acquisition through modified games.

So is non-linear pedagogy and constraints led approach a silver bullet for PE teachers? I think we need to probably be more pragmatic than that, and realise traditional practices, such as explicit instruction and isolated technical practices still have a place within our teaching toolkit, but we need to start questioning why we use them. Are we able to justify the learning processes and the outcomes that underpin our teaching methods? Clearly understanding why we do something as PE Teachers, allows us better to reflect on the when,where and for whom. Having more knowledge and a clearer understanding means we can begin to ask better questions. It is through better questions we can begin to challenge our practices and to make adjustments to refine and improve them, specifically to focus on teaching and learning.

Obviously my thinking on this topic is still very early on it’s evolution. Any feedback, clarifications or pointing out anY misconceptions of my understanding would be most helpful.


Further information:


Dynamics of skill acquisition – a constraints led approach by Davids, Button and Bennett

Non-linear pedagogy in skill acquisition by Chow, Davids, Button and Renshaw


14C – Interview with Keith Davids, Sheffield Hallam University, Constraints-Led Approach to Skill Acquisition

18D – Interview with Duarte Araujo, University of Lisbon, Portugal, Ecological Dynamics in Sport

20C – The Ecological Approach to Perception-Action & Implications for Skill Acquisition

Webinars/Google Hangouts

Ecological Psychology

The non-linear journey

Blog Posts

7 Principles of a Nonlinear Pedagogy

An Aussie, a Scotsman and a Kiwi walk into a hangout

The ecological approach to sporting performance

Do we really know how to utilise the constraints led approach?

From practice sessions to the real match — expert insights into transfer & learning

What is being taught in Senior PE? A reflection on Cognitive “Information Processing” and Ecological “Dynamic Systems” skill acquisition theories

What is skill development?

Research Articles

DYNAMICAL SYSTEMS THEORY: a Relevant Framework for Performance-Oriented Sports Biomechanics Research

Quantifying the affordances for throwing for distance and accuracy


19 thoughts on “A bluffers guide to non-linear pedagogy

  1. I think this explains a lot if I can actually wrap my head around what I think it means. Right now I need to do some more reading, clarify the terms, look for ways to bring the theoretical back down to my gym full of 1st, 2nd & 5th graders. but honestly, this *feels* helpful. The first non-linear post was quite edifying and this makes me (kinda) want to get clearer on how this perspective might serve me and my colleagues as we struggle through our next round of curriculum revision. Thanks for doing this work!


    1. Hi Sherrie. I’m still where you are at, if I’m honest, in my understanding. I’ve developed a preference for models based approaches in my teaching, but the issue I had with it was that skill acquisition wasn’t fully supported. This gives a clear theoretical under pinning that skill acquisition *may* develop through these types of approaches. However I am aware that perhaps my liking and interest in NLP is because I was looking for evidence to back up my beliefs. What I have clearly developed, through this process of reading and writing, is that of patience. Patience with myself and patience with my students. This shift in thinking has been a very important for me to re-kickstart my development as a PE teacher, if i am to stay in the classroom for the rest of my career. Let me know if you gain enlightenment….I would be very grateful to hear your thoughts and progress in the future. Good luck.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post, thanks for making me think.
    My argument for games based approaches to skill acquisition as always been that students need context for when, why and how a skill is required and they can then develop their own system of executing that skill that works for them (with, at times, the guidance of a teacher). That therefore shifts the focus of the teacher to present learning environments that expose students to situations and challenges that occur in games so the student has the opportunity to understand their ‘best response’ or can begin to understand what alternative responses might be available and what skill development they might require to be able to execute their response.
    It seems that NLP would be an argument for this thinking, but am I correct in my reading of that? Or just hearing what I want to hear?


    1. Hi James in short the answer is yes. What non-linear pedagogy is suggesting is that the one size all mentality of traditional teaching in PE and School Sport needs to be discarded, and prescriptive instructions should be replaced where appropriate with more exploratory informational constraints. Shane Pill has done quite a bit of work at looking at this and a games based approach. Check his work out in the Acpher conference paper The Game Sense approach as explicit teaching and deliberate practice


  3. Excellent read as always. Thanks for sharing. With regards to this statement, “traditional practices, such as explicit instruction and isolated technical practices still have a place within our teaching toolkit, but we need to start questioning why we use them.” My question is, what are your thoughts on why there is still a place for explicit instruction and isolated technical practices?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.