I felt my frustration rising. I had watched this group for a while now. There was a lack of willingness to put in any meaningful effort into the task. All the individuals in the group were not working at a level that was needed for learning to occur, let alone just get some benefit from physical activity. At times they focused on the task and the success and quality shot right up. There wasn’t a lack of ability. Then as quickly as it appeared, it disappeared. Gone. Spooked by the distraction of one or more of the group to something insignificant. I fought back the frustration and questioned the task. Was it too easy? Too demanding? Did they understand the purpose? What could I do to change it? I was brought out of my deliberation by laughter. There was plenty of laughter. Laughter at the mistakes they made, especially the simplest of ones. The feeling of frustration came rushing back. It took every fibre of my being not to raise my voice at them. I had learnt from previous experience this approach only ever got a short term bump in performance, never an increase in long term learning. I gained their attention and slowly walked over to speak to them.
This moment has played out over and over in my career and continues to pose me a problem with no real solution. In every year group there is a group of students whose motor competency makes little to no progress because they fear failure so much they are unwilling to take the risk of making the effort required for any success or learning. They embrace failure from a lack of effort, because I believe this is easier for their ego to deal with then actually trying and failing. This group, to protect themselves from embarrassment, employ a huge range of avoidance techniques. As the years progress, the gap widens between them and their peers. Even those who started with less prior ability with them start to pull away. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter as much if they still enjoyed movement or found some meaning in it. However they see the gap grow and this only increases their anticipation of failure, anxiety and stress, leading to the employment of even more avoidance techniques.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explores human behaviour and decision making processing. One of the many theories that is put forward in the book is that of Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory attempts to explain the process of how people decide between the potential choices that involve risk, usually where the probabilities of the outcomes of those choices are known in advance. The theory states that people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains rather than the final outcome, and that people evaluate these losses and gains using certain principles. There are three main principles of prospect theory. The first two principles are that the evaluation of the choice is relative to a neutral reference point and also there is diminishing sensitivity. The third principle is that of loss aversion. Simply put loss aversion is that the response to losses is stronger than the response to corresponding gains. Whilst loss aversion is mainly to do with financial rewards and gains I wonder if a version of it is at play within PE? Are the students in the scenario outlined above driven more strongly to avoid losses than to achieve gains? In acquiring a new skill in PE; not achieving it is a loss, exceeding it is a gain. As Kahneman puts it “...the two motives are not equally powerful. The aversion to the failure of not acquiring a new skill is much stronger than the desire to exceed it.”
Without our students willing to take the risk of failure, how are we able to help them develop their movement competency? This means we need to reduce the cost of the risk of trying. The above wordles have given me some possible avenues to explore in the future to solving the issues of loss aversion. They have been made from 450 co-constructed targets of Year 7 to 9 students within my school. We have moved to a narrative based style of assessment that focuses on the physical, cognitive, social and affective development within PE. Two key areas emerge from looking at the targets as a whole. Students feel they give up too easily and that they don’t treat peers positively when mistakes are made. These need to be addressed to try and create a ‘have a go’ culture within PE lessons and where my focus will be directed in the future. How we try to overcome loss aversion is a big question that needs to answered if we want to empower our students to move on their own terms.
I continue to believe that the best thing we can do for our students to make them confident in our subject, is to make them more competent. Movement is at the heart of physical education, but without spending time on the social and affective aspects of movement then competency will not develop as well for all. Learning in the cognitive, social and affective domains is not meant to replace learning in the physical but support it. To help those students who are risk adverse we must also look to develop the behaviours of movement and build a community of movement within lessons for them to have a go and see that trial and error is an essential part of learning to move.
“It is not because things are difficult we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.” Seneca