Why PE is no place for a drill sergeant

Alex Beckey found the traditional method of repeated drilling sapped motivation by focusing on what children couldn’t do, so he turned to ‘ecological dynamics’ – a student-led approach
21st October 2016, 12:00am
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Why PE is no place for a drill sergeant


Alvin, an enthusiastic Year 7 boy with tight cropped hair and glasses, was experiencing school rugby for the first time.

In his brand new kit, he hung intently on every instruction and tried to do his best. He was enthusiastic, engaged, ready to learn.

However, his initial energy waned with each mistake he made. A dropped pass with the try line tantalisingly close was the final straw and tears started to stream down his face. He stormed away and sat down.

I sat down by him and asked: “What’s up?”

Alvin looked at me and said: “I keep making mistakes - that means I’m rubbish”.

“No,” I responded, “It means you’re learning.”

This scene has been played out in many ways within my career. As a PE teacher, I’m frequently confronted by children who believe that making mistakes is not acceptable.

Where has this come from? We seem to have created a world hell bent on minimising error and promoting the most correct and efficient ways to do things. On reflection, I have been complicit in forming that world.

My historical approach to professional practice has been born out of a belief that developing motor competence in my subject is the best thing we can do to foster confidence and lifelong movement habits in children. Like most PE teachers, I was taught that the most efficient way to achieve this was the drilling of technical movement patterns.

Repeat, repeat, repeat

Supported by Karl Anders Ericsson’s work on expertise and deliberate practice, repetitive technical drilling is the dominant pedagogical approach within PE and youth sport.

As a younger teacher, I would have seen the issue with Alvin as a technical deficiency, one solved by demonstrating to him what a good pass looked like and having him repeat it over and over and over again. I would have given constant verbal feedback, mostly focusing on what he was doing wrong and how he could fix it. So his pass would become more like the one I showed him: more like mine.

This approach is effective in improving performance in the short term and showing the desired progress now craved within schools. However, it views Alvin or any child as a body in isolation rather than a complex biological, psychological and social human being in context.

If I had taken this drilling approach with Alvin, I don’t think he would have lasted very long. He would most likely have left, rejected and demotivated, potentially taking that experience as confirmation that movement and sport were not for him. Another child lost to inactivity.

Alvin would have been another child lost to inactivity 

So while the pursuit of automaticity and perfection, through repeated drilling, is undoubtedly a useful method of developing competence, we must accept its limitations and interrogate the criticisms.

It can be hugely demotivating as it is a deficit model of teaching, focusing on what you can’t do rather than what you can do. It lacks meaning and purpose. It prevents children from exploring and discovering their own functional movement solutions to a performance problem. And there are other options.

Student-centred, enquiry-based styles of instruction such as Teaching Games for Understanding and Game Sense have been developed to counter the negative impacts of drilling. But despite these alternative instructional models having been around for a long time, PE and youth sports coaches have not fully embraced them as their default methods of teaching sports.

Many reasons have been given for this: it is often messier and far harder to measure progress, and it takes more subject knowledge to teach this way. There’s also sometimes a reluctance by more experienced teachers and coaches to embrace new approaches.

For me, though, the key issue was that there was no consistent and coherent learning theory to support skill acquisition and develop motor competence through a guided discovery-style approach.

Goal-directed behaviour

But ecological dynamics may be the answer to that conundrum. This is the love child of ecological psychology and dynamical systems theory and proposes that humans are complex adaptive systems and that behaviour, including movement, is essentially goal-directed and information-driven.

So what does this mean for a PE teacher? Two things that go hand in hand: self-organisation and constraints.

First, it demands a belief that children can self-organise their actions with decisions through trial, error and limited instruction. A good example of this is when babies learn to walk. They can manage this without direct, prescribed instruction from a parent. They are given opportunities to explore and find their own best-fit solution.

Babies learn to walk without direct, prescribed instruction from a parent

This also leads to a diversity of movement patterns, rather than a one-size-fits-all optimum one, which actually may be more functional in the dynamic and unpredictable environment of team sports. This allows for flexibility, adaptability and creativity.

Second, teachers need to be aware of the different constraints controlling the amount of information on offer to the child. These can be broadly classed into three categories: individual constraints, such as physical maturation; environmental constraints, such as the culture of the classroom or the weather; and task constraints, such as rules of games or equipment used.

By manipulating these factors, we increase or decrease the information on offer and can guide our students to find movement solutions that work for them.

When these movement solutions are developed in learning environments that are fully representative of the performance environment and also contain all the key information sources, then students will develop adaptive capabilities that will serve them well in future movement challenges.

Practical pointers

So what does this look like in practice? Well, at the end of 12 weeks of after-school rugby practice, Alvin was still turning up. In one session, we were playing an 8 vs 8 game looking at going forward after the tackle. However, the flow of the game was being disrupted by some of the players throwing the ball away during and after the tackle.

A typical response would be to first isolate the issue and practice it, then slowly build up to the full game again. Within an ecological dynamics approach, we try to stay in the game and manipulate the constraints.

The constraint my colleague changed was a rule. If the players could set the ball correctly after a tackle, then the opposition must stay still till the first pass by the attacking team had been made. By using the rules as the tools to teach, Alvin and his teammates were able to find their own answers to the movement problems that were occurring within the game and preventing them from going forward.

One of the best - if not the best - things that we can do as a teacher is to improve student’s competence in our subjects. Both perceived or actual competence is a powerful motivator and builds confidence. Confidence in turn leads to more competence in an uplifting positive spiral of engagement, along with a willingness to seek out more opportunities for movement.

Ecological dynamics offers us a robust alternate learning theory about acquiring motor skill. One that gives purpose and meaning by exploring movement in context, not by the learning of isolated techniques.

It questions the practice of judging children’s ability, via the meeting or not meeting of a perfect model, that may not be the optimum for them. This then provides children with a sense of autonomy - they are trying to find their own solution to the movement problem, not one that is prescribed by the teacher.

Most of all, ecological dynamics provides a learning theory that allows the development of competence, a reason for why they are learning and a sense of autonomy. All these together can provide a climate of motivation, which in turn will foster effort, persistence and problem-solving both within and beyond the PE class.

Alex Beckey is director of sport at Reading School

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