The path to expertise

“Craftsmen take pride in skills that mature. This is why simple imitation is not sustaining satisfaction: th skill has to evolve. The slowness of craft time serves as as source of satisfaction; practice beds in, making the skill one’s own.” The Craftsman by Richard Sennet

Last year I wrote a post regarding the development of expertise in teaching PE. I made the case that to become better PE teachers we needed to become more like a fox. Why? Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea; and foxes, draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to one single idea. How does that help in PE? The domain of teaching PE is a complex and often unpredictable one, a PE Teacher who sees themselves as a fox rather than a hedgehog would set out to make use of as many tools as possible to understand and respond to this complexity.

Robert Green, in his book Mastery, identifies three distinct phases. The first is the apprenticeship; the second is the Creative-Active and the third, Mastery. Using this we can see 3 stages of developing PE craftsmanship. The apprentice stage is where we are looking to survive and often do this by imitating the practices of the more experienced teachers around us. The journeyman is the next stage, where we look to revive our teaching through experimentation. Finally mastery is achieved when we thrive and innovate our teaching, which then benefits the rest of the PE community. PE Teachers often don’t get passed the apprentice stage, continuing to imitate the practices they learnt at the beginning of their career becoming hedgehogs in the process. This is the key reason why I felt we need to become more like foxes so we can continue to experiment and push our practice forward.

Two papers I have recently read have helped to clarify my thinking with regards to hedgehogs, foxes and improving my craft.

The first is Learning to Play: A “Hedgehog Concept” for Physical Education by Tyler Johnson. Johnson makes the point that “physical education is many things to many people” which leads to a lack of professional focus. This is similar to the ‘two masters’ dilemma that Scott Kretchmar proposes in The Increasing Utility of Elementary School Physical Education: A Mixed Blessing and Unique Challenge. Often PE follows more than two masters – the current flavour being character education, fighting obesity and developing sports talent – and as both authors would agree that pursuing multiple purposes without any prioritisation virtually guarantees that none of them will be accomplished well. This poor curriculum alignment may be a fundamental factor why many children feel that PE lacks any real personal relevance to them. To overcome this ambiguity Johnson suggests a concept that can bring the profession together: “providing a large quantity of quality opportunities to learn to play is a valid hedgehog concept for physical education“. As PE Teachers we might not necessarily all agree with his hedgehog concept, but we should accept that our own curriculum’s need a clearly articulated hedgehog concept if we want our PE provision to be as successful as it can be.

The second is Physiotherapy as bricolage: Theorizing expert practice by James Shaw and Ryan DeForge. In their paper they put forward that physiotherapists should develop a pluralistic epistemological perspective which would determine their approach to decision-making. Rather than trying to find a single, consensus based practice, which is considered ‘right’, ‘true’ and ‘ideal’, they should embrace multiple practices to deal with the complexity of their domain. What is true for physiotherapists is also true for physical education teachers. The authors base their call for multiplicity on the notion of a bricoleur – a French word that means a handyman or handywoman who makes use of the tools at hand to complete the task. Helping children move from sedentary behaviours to active behaviours is a complex puzzle to solve. Our main tools to solve this puzzle are our teaching approaches. Surely drawing on more approaches rather than less will help us to move our teaching and our profession forward? Bricoleur or fox, both want to weave together a myriad of insights, approaches, styles and evidence that will contribute to our expertise that will better provide a meaningful experience of PE to the children we teach.

Shane Pill once told me that PE is a highly contested and low consensus domain. One reason for this I can see is as PE teachers we often try to validate our subject by attaching it to the latest social problem. This often leads to PE Curriculums with multiple purposes, implemented on them by external pressures, tried to be achieved through one dominated teaching approach. We have got this the wrong way round. We may never gain consensus as a profession, but at least we can achieve consensus in our curriculum, although this will not be an easy task. If we want PE to play a role in a child’s education we need to have one clear purpose – the hedgehog concept – that Tyler Johnson proposes, but we achieve that through Bricolage which is the result of being a fox. As Richard Martin in the Neo-Generalist states either/or is such a limited position and should be replaced with both/and, leading to a hedgefox hybrid. Expertise in teaching our subject will only be achieved when we are clear in our purpose, but adaptive in our approaches to achieving that purpose.

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