Hierarchy of Learning Domains

In my last post I looked at the four domains of learning within PE and asked if they were both necessary and sufficient to achieve one of PE’s ultimate aims, that of empowering lifelong physical activity.

Mel Hamada asked via a comment on the post “Great points raised – would you say these four are equal or that they are all important but you have a hierarchy?” A good question to reflect on.


When initially looking at the four learning domains as legitimate outcomes of a holistic approach to Physical Education I was influenced by the thinking on Physical Literacy. Margaret Whitehead describes Physical Literacy as “the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.” As set out in the definition the three essential elements of PL are the affective (motivation, confidence and commitment), the physical (physical competence) and the cognitive (knowledge and understanding). These elements are interdependent and of equal importance. Each is essential to realise progress on an individual physical literacy journey. This combined with the educational benefits claimed for PE and school sport led to the intial development of our current framework for our PE Curriculum.

Do I have a hierarchy or are all the learning domains of equal importance? I certainly personally value the physical domain most highly. For if we don’t improve physical aspects beyond what is natural growth, development and maturation then can we legitimately call ourselves teachers of physical education? It is the one domain I hold myself to account for and influences the choices of curriculum, content and pedagogy. Why? The best thing we can do to make a student feel confident in our subject is to make them competent and feel competent. It is believed that motor skill competence drives physical activity levels, although that is currently being contested, so a focus on improving motor competence is central for me as a key learning outcome to curriculum PE. I also see that social dynamics have a huge influence over whether children seek out opportunities for movement and physical activity or not. As an adult I have found it is those dynamics that influence me on where and how I am active. I’m beginning to see that teaching social skills which are needed within a movement context are an essential element to life long movement.

Figure 1 from Stodden, D. F., Goodway, J. D., Langendorfer, S. J., Roberton, M. A., Rudisill, M. E.,Garcia, C., et al. (2008). A developmental perspective on the role of motor skillcompetence in physical activity: an emergent relationship.Quest.60, 290–306.
Whatever learning domain I may or may not prioritise within PE, the emphasis is always on experience at the centre of learning and of knowledge in action. So how does this practically work? When teaching I have a primary and a secondary focus over the unit of work. From Year 7 to 11 each of the learning domains will be a priority multiple times, so pupils always come back to reapply and refine what they have learnt previously in those domains. For example I’m currently teaching Dance to Year 7 and the primary focus is to develop their social skills within a movement context (in the hope they might transfer to other physical activities) and the secondary focus is developing their physical skills with the movements of the dance itself. Over the next few years the social domain will be the priority in a number of activities such as wrestling, games making and athletics. It is the primary focus that is the main objective over the course of the unit of work and the key area for student reflection and assessment.

A 2 by 2 matrix perhaps isn’t the best way of visualising the four domains. It makes them seem separate and isolated when in reality they are fluid and impact on each other. Even if I have a priority for learning within a scheme of work, a focus on a another domain might be the key for progress and learning. For example the focus in last term’s rugby unit for Year 7 was the physical. However one young man got very emotional when decisions went against him when in games. This prevented him from making the physical progress he wanted. So for him I focused on the affective side and worked on implementing a IF, THEN protocol. It was a partial success which requires refinement in the future, but it was sufficient to help the student overcome his emotions enough when playing and therefore help him to make the desired physical progress he had wanted.

Using the four domains as overarching themes for learning in PE needs to be as flexible as say teaching styles. You may be focusing on learning and progress on one area, but it maybe that a focus on another that is key to supporting and developing the learning. Therefore It becomes a moment of professional judgement and decision making. We need to ask what will help help with the focus of learning and sometimes more of the same is not the answer. I’m hoping with experience, attention and reflection that I will become better at spotting those moments and have a bank of tools to call upon to help the children in my care learn.

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7 thoughts on “Hierarchy of Learning Domains

  1. Another great read. Thanks.

    You’re right; the 4 domains are intertwined with one another. However, assessing them as a collective (or worryingly as a physical literacy score!), for me, potentially devalues them. Assessing in these areas allows us to identify the next appropriate actions suitable for appropriate learners and groups.

    Our greatest challenge is to ensure our planned responses to our assessment provide enough metacognitive opportunity to help the intertwined links of the 4 domains set down solid roots rather than just flow seamlessly past each other, remaining unconnected. I appreciate you’re still using goal setting, which I think has plenty of mileage, and strategies mentioned above, but I’d be interested in learning any other results you and your team have had with this.

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    1. Hi Liam. In honestly the goal setting has stalled. I’m probably the only one who is using it at the moment, but it isn’t user friendly or workload friendly at the moment. We have all decided to investigate a way of improving this over the year. My department seem quite keen with a paper reflection journal. I have my doubts, but they are providing me with evidence of it’s effectiveness at the end of term. How is your process going?

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  2. Encouraging that you are focusing on the social domain when it comes to athletics. So many coaches I coach with and against are most concerned with the physical (specific sport skills, development of those skills) or even the cognitive (run certain plays, know where to be or go) instead of the social domain where we can teach our students how to be a decent human being through sportsmanship, humility, class, and selflessness.

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    1. I’m sure I have misattributed this quote to Wayne Smith (ex All Blakcs rugby coach) but better people make better players…so why not better humans make better movers…which leads to better movers could make better humans.

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  3. An interesting read. I was wondering how you applied the terminology to each of the domains. Particularly in the ‘affective’ domain where you have used ‘behaviours for movement’. I would question whether this implies something observable, and I am not sure that in this domain, the outcomes (or the learning) in this domain need to be observable. ‘Knowledge of movement’ may allude to something tangible and external rather than internally constructed, and therefore would ‘understanding’ better fit the domain where it could be linked to the decision making around movement? Semantics I know, but terminology is discursive and has ontological and epistemological meaning as well as notions of power.

    Another aspect to consider may be that of the senses, and this could have links to more Arnoldian conceptions of movement. As you acknowledge, in prioritising one over another, it may mean a separation of the four domains, and thus a similar debate such as the one between monism and dualism may ensue. Looking at the matrix you have posted, it would seem that this could be examined as a four-way continuum, possibly similar to the body classification system, with positions within it (or upon it it) fluidly linked to objectives, outcomes and even student perceptions that shift temporally according to changing contexts (time and space). As ever, a thought-provoking blog, but my musings are there to be shot-down.

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