The child as an agent of movement

This week on Twitter I asked the following question:

The responses have been varied, deep and complex giving me much to think upon, especially with curriculum design and content. However the reason behind it was this: when I explicitly teach motor competences to my students I generally see an improvement in their performance, but in doing so do I rob them of their choice and the opportunity for decision making?

Fundamentally, for me, the main role of the PE teacher is to provide appropriately designed learning experiences in the form of physical activity to develop children’s movement competence. Whilst we can look to develop a child’s knowledge, especially about the beneficial effects of movement on the body and health as a whole, interpersonal skills, positive behaviours and broader educational goals they must be secondary to the development of motor competence. Therefore it is easy to fall into a command and practice style of explicit teaching and learning. This approach is effective and can give us as teachers the sense of an improvement in performance in our student, but does an overtly structured, explicit teaching environment develop a child’s movement competence at the sake of their agency?

By agency I mean the capacity to make indvidual choices and act on them. Decision making in movement, be that in our daily lives, play, physical education or sport is not only a decision for something, but also against something. Agency in PE and School Sport is the iteration of choice and decision for one movement over all the other movement choices that are presented at that moment in time. A child expresses themselves through their movement, no matter what the style, manner or outcome of that movement. However at the same time not only do they express themselves but through that expression they develop themselves and develop a better understanding of their self. Through choice and decision of the movement they shape their potential and who they are. A freedom to make themselves into something different from what they were before.

I have slowly begun to realise that my silent approach to teaching allows the indvidual child to become an agent of their own movement. It is clear that previously when I was over prescriptive in my rugby, football and cricket coaching that I robbed children of choice. When shouting instructions at children from the sidelines during school fixtures and demanding that they follow them, I took away their agency. Instead of allowing to express themselves they become functionaries of myself and my thoughts. Choice and decision was not theirs but mine. Without freedom to choose and decide how to move, they are no longer agents of movement. The child is the performer of the action, and their perspective is from inside the activity in which they are participating. Ultimately they are responsible for the moves they make. They know, see and feel the activity in a way that I as teacher or coach cannot. We can never claim, no matter how experienced we are in that activity, that our experiences are the same as the child’s experiences. How much autonomy do we take away from a child, to ensure motor competency is developed?

However can we leave all the decisions down to the children themselves? Would the explicit teaching of certain skills such as the examples in the table below allow the child greater agency over their movement or would it encroach on it? My gut feeling is probably a little bit of both.

Squat Run Goal Setting
Lunge Jump Distraction Control
Pull Catch Listening
Bend/Hinge Kick Self Analysis
Twist Interceptive Timing Spatial Awareness
Brace Object Manipulation Evaluation

This is the key question I have for myself, my teaching and the children’s learning I’m responsible for. Do I need to explicitly teach some basic motor competencies to allow them to become their own agent of movement? To allow them them to better make decisions and choices about movement within lessons and beyond. If so what are those basic competencies that need to be explicitly taught? Are they the same for all children, the non-negotiables shall we say? Or is everything open for negotiation and do I need to help develop different competencies for different children? The literature states that autonomy is central to developing an individual’s motivation and therefore continuation of an active lifestyle, but then so is perceived motor competence. How do we balance them ensuring that children have the motor competence to take responsibility for purposeful movement and physical activity but also have a sense of control over that development?

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14 thoughts on “The child as an agent of movement

  1. The “Game Sense” approach to teaching skills is receiving a lot of focus in Australia at the moment. This is when skills are taught within the context of a game situation rather through drills. Much less direct instruction is used than would be traditional. The teacher/coach “guides” and the participants “discover”. I believe that this approach is more suited to some situations than others. For example, when coaching track & field I would hesitate to allow young athletes to “discover” how to high jump or throw a javelin! Strict supervision and instruction is required to maintain a safe environment for the participants and others. Of course, if the coach were to instruct javelin using modified foam implements, some experimentation could be allowed within certain parameters. There is a time and place for each type of teaching method. A good coach will be able to identify when to use what approach.

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    1. I have shifted over the last 6 years from a very rigid traditional approach to my teaching and coaching of sport to a more games based approach. However as I spend time developing my ability to teach in this way, especially my questioning and the ability to design games that are appropriate for the desired learning, I have become to realise it is neither one or the another. Professional Decision making and judgement must come into it http://journals.humankinetics.com/AcuCustom/Sitename/Documents/DocumentItem/4991.pdf and we have to do our best to pick the right approach at that moment, for the athlete or athletes we are responsible. I’m guessing there are multiple ways of doing that, but no one size fits all way.

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  2. A really good post. I have often struggled with the same issue but more inclined now to try and let them learn through learning awareness. I was coached by John Whitmore and this is the basis for his coaching. It’s a bit old now but check out his video on Youtube. I can testify it works as he turned non-golfers into functioning golfers in around 40 minutes through focussing on their own feedback.

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    1. Thanks for your comments David. I too, like you have started to let them learn a little more before stepping in. I think the hardest thing to do is step back, not because of giving up control, but because of others expectations. You are the coach, therefore you should coach. However coaching is isn’t linear. The more the coach puts in, isn’t equal to the learning the athlete gets out. Still trying to get the balance right at times.

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  3. These are vitally important questions and I appreciate that you don’t claim to have solutions. These are the questions we need to be asking and exploring, testing and considering. In my own experience I see the demand and need for both explicit teaching of certain skills but lesson frameworks which provide lots of variety and choice and opportunities for reflection. “What worked well? How could you challenge yourself a bit more? What changes when you work with a partner?” These types of questions give us all more information about our learning and where we may go next. At the same time, I could never claim to engage in inquiry-based practice because I set the priorities of the skills, themes, games we will be working on.

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    1. So do we as practitioners give the children in our care the illusion of choice? Is perceived autonomy and agency enough for children, or do we need to go beyond that and give them significantly more? In our risk adversed and bureaucratic world we both teach in, I don’t think thats an option (should it be).

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      1. I think it’s important to consider these questions also in the larger context of the school structure including but not limited to: scheduling, curriculum, class groupings, personnel resources, school mission & values, to name a few. These aspects have a huge impact on how we are able and inclined to try to implement our visions for ideal PE for our students. The other piece of this lies in acknowledging what our students do outside of school. What choices are they making with regard to physical activity and/or sport? How do we celebrate children who pursue activity which is in many ways invisible to us unless kids tell us? Again these decisions may be child-interest driven but most likely with a great deal of parental support/impetus/ direction making it all happen. Children on their own may have wonderful ideas about what they’d like to learn and they also benefit substantially from broad exposure to multiple movement possibilities. This should be much of what we in PE provide: exposure, variety, access to unfamiliar or uncharacteristic movement options. (getting beyond the sports framing).

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      2. Hi Sherri. The points you make about the wider environmental/cultural constraints are important when considering empowering the child to make their own decisions about movement. We talk about agency and empowerment as it is a good thing. Perhaps a better question to then ask is what aspects of their learning should we share, how equally and under what circumstances? I think with what you have said in your comments, the extent of sharing power for those decisions probably depends on a variety of contextual factors. How much agency is the right amount of agency for children? Too much may result in us creating an ineffective and deficient learning environment. Too little and we could crush any motivation and intent to take risks, put in effort and learn. Not an easy one to get right.

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  4. Well said! I wish more Physical Educators would ask themselves questions like these. And I can appreciate that much of your post is dedicated to asking, not prescribing…

    This part right here:

    “A child expresses themselves through their movement, no matter what the style, manner or outcome of that movement. However at the same time not only do they express themselves but through that expression they develop themselves and develop a better understanding of their self. Through choice and decision of the movement they shape their potential and who they are. A freedom to make themselves into something different from what they were before.”

    This is where some of the greatest potential lies in Physical Education, at least as far as developing loving and helpful people go, which I believe is the greatest outcome we can hope to get from being “educated.” And PE has a role in this development—a huge role—particularly because PE, at its finest, reaches into the Aesthetic dimension more than any other. It creates opportunities for deep contact/interaction with the “self” and “other,” BUT only, or mostly, when it is meaningful.

    Students will develop competence through meaningful opportunities. In other words, if they enjoy the process (which may even include pain and struggle), they are more likely to develop competence. The key, in my opinion, is the “lived experience” of the movement/skill/sport, etc. If we want them to develop competence, don’t start with competence…..start with meaning. And what better way to connect with meaning than to give kids choice/autonomy?

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    1. Hi Nate,

      Thanks for the wonderful and insightful comment. I would like to pick up on your final sentence ‘And what better way to connect with meaning than to give kids choice/autonomy?’. How much are we able to do this in the current form of PE? We (the adults) set the agenda, the programme and the delivery. How much autonomy and choice can we really truly give to the children within a school PE programme? Should we be giving as much as we can, or is that autonomy really only a illusion? Is choice, not really choice at all, but some fake of choice. Is perceived choice – you can do this activity or this activity, or you can work towards this learning outcome or this learning outcome -enough for the children to make them feel they have a sense of agency and control over their own journey within PE.

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  5. I teach R to Y6 but mainly work with YR,1,2 and 3 – this is fascinating!

    I totally agree re autonomy and motivation and it’s importance. Without internal motivation/enjoyment individuals will never continue with activity into the later years.
    Reflecting on my practice with younger children it may be revealing to share some patterns I notice.
    At firest young children just want to explore and this brings great joy and intrinsic motivation. Just watch a group of 4yr olds let loose with big foam balls in a hall/playground. …it looks like chaos to my PE practitioner persona but when I really look I see they are learning so much about how that ball responds to their actions;the surfaces etc. At some point (it can take ages) this initial stage wanes and the reward of these explorations lessens. Often they start to challenge themselves to complete specific actions such as throwing and catching or kicking accurately. At this point they are ready for my intervention and specific teaching. They go off and practise giving greater enjoyment/motivation. Again it’s a bit chaotic loo,ing. The cycle starts again…they’re full-on having a go, then it wanes and they’re ready for more input.

    In my experience all individul seek the most basic competencies and the intrinsic enjoyment/reward that these bring. Generally it’s the most able ones who want and respond positively to explicit skills and greater/more continuous intervention. Often these individuals crave input to improve;it’s as if they are intrinsically motivated to improve. The more they do the more they crave.
    Others seem happy to continue to practise the most basic skills and use them with those who are similar. At a point of mild frustration they’re ready for input and willing to work at it. A very small few are demotivated as they seemingly take no joy in physical movement/interaction etc. (That’s another story!)

    In short, the vast majority of pupils seem to go through the same cycle it’s just that they move/learn at their own speed. The key to maintaining motivation and autonomy is intervening at the right moment.
    I think our educational system works against this as there are set, age related expectations and pressure to teach to a time scale not too the individuals needs.

    The most interesting thing of all – I can create in children intrinsic enjoyment/motivation! Many children need support/to be taught to recognise the good feeling they get through sucess/improved mastery of a skill. Once they recognise that feeling of sucess/achievement they become self motivated and ,like the more able pupils, they start to crave intervention and work harder for improvement….the positive, intrinsic motivation cycle is now embedded.
    Also they need teaching /training to understand and enjoy feeling puffed out/tired/muscles aching…..loads of them think it’s negative due to the life style they lead.

    If we get in early teaching them to enjoy the feeling of getting fitter and the joy of improving skills they will be more intrinsically self motivated and hopefully this will carry on through their lifetime.

    Hooe that’s helpful.

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    1. Hi Rachel.

      Thank you for your detailed and well thought out response. I agree with you. The greatest thing we can do to develop enjoyment, confidence and motivation in our students is to make them competent within our subject. Your cycle of practice, support, success then further practice is one i like and think is key. We need to get those basic competencies taught well at a young age, to give them the motivation and confidence to explore new and more complicated movement patterns and seek out other environments and activities to move in.

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