Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

The previous blog we explored the idea that many children cannot afford for PE to be boring and irrelevant. Some children, the blog suggested, who are supported by parents or who find interests outside of PE, will get along despite their PE experiences. However our subject area is seriously underserving others whose life outside of school doesn’t afford them any opportunities for physical activity. The blog concluded by asking if wasn't time to acknowledge that there is no ‘average’ child who can be catered for anymore through a diet of team games and that we need to be pioneers in our programmes if we are to shake up what occurs in the name of PE.

In this week’s blog we consider peer-assisted learning. In other words, how teachers effectively create pedagogical contexts in which students learn in groups and from their peers. However, the blog begins with a discussion that suggests, in order to create new and engaging learning experiences that depend on peer-learning, the teacher needs to be aware that such change to the learning context takes time for the students to learn to learn in a new way.  


Paper 47:

Ward, P. & Lee M-A (2005/2012) Peer-assisted learning in physical education: A review of theory and research In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 434-458) London: Routledge.


My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

On Wednesday night I happened to ‘pop’ on to twitter late in the evening to browse some content before bed. I had spent the day engaging with students through pedagogical models, working on a research paper for resubmission to a journal, and reading this week’s blog paper.  Our research paper explores one of the final units of Cooperative Learning that I had taught as a PE teacher and in reading the students words and the themes we had extracted as researchers I was even more ready to advocate for this approach. By chance, and having been very engaged during the day in my own research, the blog paper was on Peer Assisted Learning generally and had a focus on Cooperative Learning. However, it wasn’t until the culmination of all of these things that I visited twitter.

By chance (or fate depending on your disposition) I picked up on a discussion between three PE teacher that I know (@adamphowell @LovePhyEd @Physed_Pomeroy – and who you should follow if you don’t already) about the frustrating process of pedagogical change. Adam was lamenting the reduction in moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) and expressing the well-founded belief that he could have achieved much higher levels of MVPA if he had taught in a more traditional manner.

Adam said: “Students were super engaged with what we were doing—but on task behavior plummeted compared to a more teacher led lesson”

Matt replied: “have noticed the same trends with some student centered learning stations. Does it just take more practicing?”

Adam said: “feel I could run a very direct instruction teacher led class and have 90%+ on task behavior for the class.”

Now I remember those days of frustration – I had one last week - but I also remember the changes that I engendered in my classrooms as a consequence of long term and sustained pedagogical change and know that I made a big difference in the learning of hundreds of children. Unlike many colleagues who have made the same conscious effort I am fortunate to have an evidence base to support this claim – that is my job after all. So as is my want, I ‘waded’ into the conversation. 

Ash: “Does on task behaviour equate to learning?”

Adam:. “What does concern me is the big drop off I see in MVPA throughout the class period. 

Ash: “They need to be held accountable for their actions - maybe some cooperative learning strategies?”

Matt: “Being accountable when you are 12-14 is key! Great point!”

And so the conversation went on, with Jo added to the richness of the debate.

To me the key is that, not only should teachers teach in new ways but they also have to acknowledge that it takes time to change– more time than perhaps they envisioned for things to get back to where they were and then beyond. Why? Because in changing your expectations and ways of teaching, you are upsetting the ‘way’ of school. By doing something differently then the kids need to learn the new structure (the rules of engagement so to speak) and that takes time. So when you think about pedagogical change consider that kids need to learn to learn in a new way often at the same time that you are learning to teach in a new way.


The Paper

Lee and Ward, in undertaking to review the research around peer assisted learning (PAL), sought to offer guidance to teachers and researchers in their decisions about using these approaches in practice. They did this in the knowledge that one of the fundamental aims of PAL was to break the traditional convention of having a teacher to student ration of 1:30. Such an aim is a good thing but they also wanted to know what happens to the quality of instruction and learning when the teacher is no longer the first point of contact in the pedagogic process. Research in general education, they suggested, demonstrated the effectiveness and utility of PAL in a variety of educational settings. However its growth in physical education was such that the authors wanted to know what affect it might have/be having in this subject area.

In it important to note some of the findings they reported in their overview of the research to date. Firstly and most significantly, but perhaps not most surprisingly, merely placing students in groups or pairs is insufficient to ensure learning will occur. There needs to be a deliberate pedagogical act or curriculum approach that supports and nurtures this learning process. Secondly, PAL should be considered as an umbrella term for a number of approaches including peer teaching and Cooperative Learning. Thirdly, for PAL to be most effective teachers need to create environments in which students build knowledge from experiences focused on problems and collaborative activities, both of which produce cognitive conflict in the student.  In other words PAL approaches are about challenging and disputing understanding rather than just accepting fact.

Ward and Lee examined 28 studies with a combined sample size of an excess of 2300 in order to better understand the implications of using PAL in physical education. A core finding from these 28 studies was that more feedback is given to friends than non-acquaintances.  This finding alone has implications in terms of how groups are selected in general classes or in pedagogical models such a sport education.

In looking at Cooperative Learning specifically Ward and Lee tempered their findings by suggesting that students need to learn the social skills necessary to complete their assigned roles or tasks before the approach can be fully successful and that this takes more time than other PAL approaches.  That said Cooperative Learning structures such as PACER and jigsaw (that hold specific times for face-to-face interaction and individual accountability) increase the number of correct skill performances. In particular low skilled students performed similarly to their higher skilled counterparts, when learning through Cooperative Learning and receiving feedback from their peers.

In a number of studies led by Ben Dyson it was reported that teachers felt that Cooperative Learning helped their students to improve motor skills, game strategies, active participation, and respect for peers.  Similarly students in the same studies said that Cooperative Learning encouraged them to participate, learning was fun, and the lessons allowed them to develop their motor skills and interpersonal skills.

In concluding their review Ward and Lee suggested that teachers using PAL needed to (a) teach the students how to engage in Cooperative Learning, (b) use deliberate Cooperative Learning structures, (c)  consider how to best group students, (d)  ensure that students were accountable for their contributions, and (e) ensure that everybody was included.

With these conclusions in mind we might consider how we structure group work in our classes. Whilst ad-hoc discussion tasks can support social learning, Ward and Lee suggest that these key features maximise learning and attainment. Yet I was left thinking that there may be many other ways in which group learning is enhanced beyond these 5 conclusions. Therefore, I ask you to share, what pedagogical strategies have you employed that maximise learning and achievement in group work? Perhaps, such sharing will help others who are developing their use and students learning through of PAL.  


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence.