The right tool, for the right job.

PE Teachers have an almighty tool shed of teaching styles, methods and approaches at their disposal to nurture the physically educated person. We can develop the quality and impact of our teaching by expanding the range of tools we have, picking the right tool for the job at hand, and learning how to use that tool more effectively. This is a key part of refining our craft. Social media is awash with discussions about the which tool is the best to use in PE, but I have grown wary about how much that actually moves our profession forward. It is like arguing over whether a hammer or a screwdriver is the better tool. Even if we all agree it’s the hammer (it obviously is), that doesn’t mean that the hammer is always the best for every task or problem we are presented with when teaching. Turning young people’s sedentary behaviours into active ones can’t be achieved by using just a hammer or a screwdriver, no matter how well we can use them. It is far better to talk about what tasks each of them is useful for and how to competently use the them in those tasks.

For example Guided Discovery does have a place in our PE teaching tool shed, however for it to be a useful tool we need to use it for the right task and use it effectively. When I have seen it welded there has been very little thought about why and how it should be used, like using a screwdriver to try to hammer in nails. Often it is used ambiguously, allowing children to flounder by facing tasks and problems that are either too free form or too complex. As James Paul Gee points out in Good Video Games + Good Learning:

Learners are novices. Leaving them to float amidst rich experiences with no guidance only triggers human beings’ great penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalisations that send learners down the garden path.

Muska Mosston and Sarah Ashworth in Teaching Physical Education offer some clear guidance for why and how to use Guided Discovery in PE. There are three styles that are the start of a cluster of that Mosston and Ashworth class as production. That is the discovery of single correct concepts, convergent responses and divergent designs.

Style F – Guided Discovery:

The PE Teacher has a predetermined response, idea or concept that a child is led to via a logical and sequential design of questions. In this the role of the PE Teacher is to make all of the decisions, including the answer to be discovered and the sequential design of the questions. This is a fundamental part of the teaching style and is not something that can be achieved without good subject knowledge and thorough  planning. The role of the learner is to ‘discover’ the answer by responding to the questions which are scaffolding the learning. It can be used with groups, but is much more effective when used one-to-one as it involved engaging in a dialogue of question and answer.

Style G – Convergent Discovery

Again there is a predetermined correct response that the PE Teacher wishes the children to discover, however rather than a sequence of questions there is a single key problem to solve. The children then engage in reasoning and questioning to make connections with their previous knowledge and experiences to discover the answer.

Part of the process is for the children to verify their solutions and responses through trial and error and by rechecking whether their solutions solve the problem. A key reasons this style would be used is not just uncovering the correct solution, but for children to realise they are capable of producing questions, seeking out new information, linking it to existing knowledge and analysing their efforts. It is more effective to use when the learners have sufficient prior experience in the activity and also are provided emotional security to take risks.

Style H – Divergent Discovery

This style goes beyond finding the answer to a teacher decided pre-determined response. Engaging in forms of movement provide the participants rich opportunities to discover, design and invent. The PE teacher still makes decisions about the subject matter topic, the specific questions and problems to solve and how it is to be presented to the children.

By using the divergent discovery style the children are challenged to producing options and answers within the activity  rather than replicate and perform or to uncover the specific target. Ultimately this is about designing – sequences, routines, strategies and equipment. There is no single correct answer being sought, but to verify the multiple solutions elected by the problem or question that was posed.

The right tool, for the right job.

If we want to get better at teaching PE we need to expand the range of teaching methods at our disposal, understand why we would use them and become more effective at implementing them. To do this we must move beyond the dichotomy of which teaching style is better and engage in a nuance conversation and reflection whether the style is relevant, worthwhile and appropriate for the task at hand. This also includes taking into account the purpose of our PE curriculum, the prior learning and experience of our pupils and what it is we would like them to learn.

There is a complimentary relationship, not an adversarial one, between the teaching styles, methods and approaches we have available at out disposal in PE. All are necessary in the educational process, but none are sufficient on their own.

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