Making the tacit explicit.

That moderation visit didn’t go so well. In the debrief session the student teacher asked me what I would have done to improve the lesson. This question was about how I would have responded, in real time, to what was unfolding. It was clear that the student teacher wanted me to provide a model as a means to help his own reflection. At the time when I was observing, I had feelings that drew me to possible judgements and decisions, but afterwards back in the office I was unable to verbalise them. The lesson observation proforma that had my notes did not help. Rather than struggle to explore those feelings and gain insight into what I would have done I fell back into easier and more tangible things to discuss such as lesson planning, lesson objectives, groupings, equipment and transitions. Whilst they were no doubt an important part of the debrief, they weren’t the answers the student teacher or I were looking for and the conversation left us both unsatisfied. What use is my experience of teaching PE if I’m unable to communicate clearly to someone else what I would have done?

Personal reflection on a school visit

The reflection above is an example of a persistent challenge that I have been grappling with since moving from PE teaching at school to PE teacher educating at university. How do I take the knowledge and experiences I have gained over the last 20 years and distill them in a way that is coherent and useable for novices? Every interaction with student teachers provides me a chance to meet this challenge. Whether it is at university, online or in a placement school there is always the question “what would you do?” This isn’t what does the book/research/evidence/current fad says to do, but what would I do if I was in their shoes. How do I take my years of professional practice and turn it into shared professional knowledge?

Learning to teach is facilitated by this relationship between professional knowledge and professional practice. John Loughran, in Developing a Pedagogy of Teacher Education, writes that “teaching about teaching should create real opportunities for this relationship to be laid bare for serious examination so that students of teaching might better appreciate not only what teachers know, need to know and are able to do, but to also be able to actively develop, assess, adjust and articulate such knowledge in relation to their own teaching.” Articulating my own implicit knowledge of practice in a clear and explicit manner plays a role in teaching about teaching, so this is an attempt to answer the question I was asked in the reflection above.

This is a first effort to articulate the knowledge of my own practice. To better understand my own practice I have drawn upon Joseph Senese’s work on axioms. Senese was an English teacher, who left the classroom to be an administrator with responsibility for staff development, and then returned to the classroom eight years later. He conducted a self-study to discover the ways that being an administrator had influenced his teaching by posing the question: “What have I learned about myself as a staff developer (teacher educator) that has changed me as a high school English teacher?

Like Senese I want to better understand my own teaching, and that can be achieved by studying ourselves as teachers. Specifically I wanted to be able to express what I do in the act of teaching. Reflecting on my time as a PE Teacher, re-reading entries from my journal and re-visiting artefacts such as curriculum documents, lesson plans and evaluations, three in-action axioms have emerged that guided my judgement and decision making when teaching PE:

  1. Step back to better step in
  2. Learn with, not fix
  3. Do no harm

Step back to better step in

In my time teaching PE I have learned that to make good decisions within lessons you must observe. However this is much harder than it sounds. Firstly you can get caught up in the details of lesson, often in the minute of a movement pattern technique that is the focus of the learning. Secondly there is a false expectation in PE that ‘teaching=doing’ and that if you are not constantly instructing, demonstrating, questioning or giving feedback then you aren’t teaching. Stepping back, remaining silent and observing isn’t abdicating our responsibilities as a PE Teacher, it is ensuring we are gaining information that so when we do decide to step in we know how to add value. Taking up different vantage points, moving around the environment where the lesson is taking place and observing is an essential aspect of teaching as allows us to improve or judgements and therefore our possible interventions.

Learn with, not fix

At the beginning of my career I believed that my role was to fix the young people I was teaching. If their technique was wrong I needed to fix it. If they made the wrong decisions I needed to fix it. If their effort was wrong I needed to fix it. Whilst there is a time and a place for this in PE, it became my default which led to me seeing every pupil as broken – a problem that I needed to solve. This deficit mindset meant that I never saw their strengths, nor engaged in a dialogue with them about what they might perceive are the issues. Linked to observation I would want to find out more of what they are thinking, feeling and perceiving. By finding out more information about where they are at, we could then begin to learn together.

Do no harm

This is the foundational in-action axiom which all others are built upon. As PE teachers we have control over the task design and our teaching behaviours. Both of these can, if not well thought through, can cause harm. Not just the clear physical harm that is inherent in our subject, but also psychological and emotional harm that can occur. ‘Do no harm’ is also about being attentive to the harm that peers might cause each other. There is an asymmetry at play in PE due to the embodied nature of the subject. Physically educating a young person might take 1000s of cumulative meaningful experiences with movement. However the reverse (or worse) can be achieved with just one harmful one.

I have some form of an answer to the persistent challenge of ‘what would you do?” These in-action axioms guided my judgement and decision making when teaching PE and allowed me to respond to what happened within a lesson. This answer does raise a question whether these axioms are even helpful for novice PE teachers? They will probably be better served with a more granular approach, with specific techniques and concrete examples they could implement immediately to gain more success and competence. My answer does not prevent this from happening. However, in my attempt to make the tacit explicit they may in Loughran’s words “better understand and relate to, the deliberations, questions, issues, concerns, and dilemmas that impact the pedagogical reasoning underpinning the practice they experience.”

One thought on “Making the tacit explicit.

  1. I have (and still do) struggled with this feedback or feed-in issue. I totally step in to the step back ideas and used Freire as my link to understanding this more. In my way of being with the students today, I state that I have the pleasure of seeing more of the lesson than they can see, and always will, as observing from the side lines with a backpack full of experience and possibilities will always be something TEs need to accept. However, it is so important to ask the `gate opener’ questions, the what did you learn from that lesson, which part flowed well, where would you go to next time if you revisited this moment again, whilst trying to keep our own backpacks shut, as these are so personal to us and our context that they may prevent/reroute/distract trainees’ next steps.
    It’s a hard one isn’t it, but acknowledging the endless possibilities for personal exploration and advancement is such a wonderful outcome for a trainee to focus on, rather than being told what to do to be better – or to be fixed.
    It is much harder to step away – to be the one to listen and learn – than to be the fixer and expert.
    Humility and vulnerability is within us all – we just have to enact and model it a little more I guess.
    You do that so well Alex.


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