considering teaching practice through the lens of systems theory and non-linear pedagogy

Simple, complicated and complex – considering teaching practice through the lens of systems theory and non-linear pedagogy
I was taught to teach sport through a behaviourist ontology and reductionist-mechanistic epistemology that positioned the development of skill as an additive process whereby the bits of the movement skill (such as basketball lay-up) were progressively put together 'bit-by-bit' to build the individual’s movement model as a replication of a standardised movement model. Think of the way a car is built moving along the factory floor, where components are added to the frame in a linear order. Works well for building the car in the most efficient way possible as every Camry ‘under the paint’ is essentially the same car.

Since commencing a career as a PE academic I have been able to play in scholarly paddocks, which has exposed me to new ways of thinking about why I do what I do. I had long ago adopted the Game Sense coaching approach because it ‘made sense’ to my way of thinking – and I got good results with my teams from adopting the approach. I then brought the Game Sense approach from my sport coaching into my PE teaching and ‘played around’ with what it would look like in practice at different stages of the curriculum expectation for student learning outcomes – but I didn’t have a theoretical framework from which to justify the approach when people asked, “why do you do it like that?”. I couldn’t just answer, “Because the Australian Sports Commission recommends it”.

Playing in scholarly paddocks introduced me to systems thinking. Systems’ thinking is a way of ‘seeing’ the overall structures, sub-system components of the system, and patterns in systems to identify solutions that address problems in a way that leverages improvement through the system. I could see the connection of systems thinking to sports as complex and dynamic systems. In sport, play develops from as behaviour emerging from the momentary and situated dynamics of play. Behaviour emerges from the conditions of the system at the moment. Teaching sport in a reductionist framing of sport as compromising a series of technical actions divorces the technical actions from the context: that is, the technical action is a response to the specifics of the play at that moment. Technical actions need to be stable in that they are repeatable (consistency) and controllable (allowing placement and positioning outcomes from the action) by the player, but they also need to be flexible and adaptable to the performance dynamics of the movement. Thus, unlike building the Camry, building a player to perform requires a movement model that can be customisable to the requirements of the moment. This is not to negate the need for consideration of the biomechanics of the movement, so the movement does not produce unreasonable load on the athletes’ body leading to injury. It also does not negate the need for consideration of the biomechanics of the movement so that movement is effective and efficient, rather, it suggests there is a bandwidth of movement potential (Magias, Pill & Elliott, 2015) and not a single technical action – often colloquially referred to as a ‘textbook technique’. The Game Sense approach provided me with a pedagogical ‘toolkit’ consistent with this understanding of the dynamics of players’ performance. Systems thinking enabled me to consider sports as complex performance settings characterised by (often rapid or sudden) changes in the amount and availability of information available to players from movements of the ball, opposition and teammates. I came to see the information flow through the system components (players) and how localised sub-systems (defender-attacker couplings) impacted that information flow. From a coaching perspective, creating moments of advantage by localised disturbances in the system, designed to provide a tactical advantage from which an opportunity to score arises, became a coaching/teaching focus. I quickly understood that these moments cannot be taught in ‘off the line’ or ‘marker based’ drills. It required the use of representative games to create match simulations.

In the sport I am most familiar with, Australian Football, it is essentially a game of ‘keeping off’ like all Invasion Games. If you do not understand the conceptual basis of keeping off games and how the concepts develop into principles of play for when our team has the ball, the opposition has the ball, or for when the ball is neutral/in dispute it won’t matter how good a kick and a mark you are, as you won’t ‘read the play’ well enough to ‘find the ball’. The player-centred and game-centred pedagogical nature of the Game Sense approach introduced me to a non-linear example of sport teaching that treated the physical technical movement models and cognitive tactical aspect of play as complimentary and integrated - developing thinking players (den Duyn, 1997)

Traditional approaches to coaching, foregrounding behavioural replication through command style instruction and practice style pedagogy, is not where the majority of coaching/teaching practice needs to sit when games require performance in the moment, and information is emergent from the situated dynamics of the moment. The ‘right type of brain’ for the dynamics of the game is not built by reproduction conformity to ‘one way of doing things’.

My mind has turned from how to apply the Game Sense approach in PE and sport settings to whether Systems Thinking can assist pedagogical change in coaching/teaching practice. Despite the Game Sense approach being put forwarded by the Australian Sports Commission as a preferred coaching approach and now central to the Playing for Life Philosophy, it is still generally regarded as an innovation as it is unfamiliar to most coaches, particularly in community settings. It is also my experience that it is yet to be the preferred sport teaching approach for the development of game competency by PE teachers, existing only in isolated examples of teaching adhering to the pedagogical tenets of the approach. I am also aware that there is near on thirty years of critical theorising around the lack of learning efficacy of the traditional PE method (as Metzler (2011) called it). If we were to think of teaching from a systems perspective, how would that influence attempts to change teaching/coaching practice, because that is what the Game Sense approach introduction was all about in the mid-1990’s when it was first explained – changing the sport teaching/coaching practice?

There is a line of reasoning that the vast majority of research in education and teaching in particular has little or no influence on practice. This may be largely do to the perception that there is a separation of the research from the everyday pragmatics of the teacher, by many teachers. Duit et al. (2010) provide another explanation. Educational initiatives often reside in the realm of the complicated when in fact what they are engaging with is the realm of the complex. Linear ‘scientific’ research paradigms that have tended to dominate research efforts cannot be expected to capture and inform practitioners working in contexts that are in a constant state of flux and inherently unpredictable even though teachers are trying to bring a sense of order to proceedings. Much research may thus miss the patterns that emerge from everyday pragmatics of teaching because the research is looking instead for the formula or the recipe to change teaching or learning outcomes, or it is focused on the variable under investigation.

Using systems thinking to investigate education and teaching ‘reform’ through the lens of complexity theory is instead the search for the patterns that emerge from the complexity when the system self-organises as a result of the information flow emergent from the interactions between the system components – the school environment, the teacher, the curriculum and the learner interactions. This information flow drives the evolution of the system. Extending this idea, the system will change as a consequence of pressure on leverage points that tip the system towards a threshold from which a cascade effect occurs and the system is forced to reorganise because of the pressure to move the information flow in a new direction. Focusing on one level of change - whether it be a new curriculum document, a research agenda, a change in PE teacher education or leverage of another system component, will not change a system that is in ‘lock-in’ (Synder, 2013), like PE curriculum and pedagogy through the dominance of multi-activity program design and directive ‘command and practice’ style pedagogy, appears to be (when one reads the critical perspective literature). *lock-in is the state where a behavioural pattern or paradigm achieves system wide adoption and becomes entrenched in the system even if it is not the most efficient or effective model for the system – see, for example the story of the QWERTY keyboard (Synder, 2013).

The challenge for reform of the locked-in and 'standard', but yet long problematised PE Method, is to ‘create a trigger event that would ripple through the system’ (Synder, 2013, p15) causing the information flow to change and eventual emergence of a ‘new’ system. 

From a research perspective, the questions appear to be;
What has the most direct effect and greatest impact on PE teaching?
in order to target the right leverage points such that multi-level feedback channels open up and create a cascading, self-organising, and emergent change. Informed by Synder (2013), I suggest this means rolling out an idea across all levels of the system so that the ‘reform’ is iterative, experimental and flexible, focused on leverage points and pursued collaboratively across the system. To some extent, this was attempted with the Australian Sport Education in Physical Education (SEPEP) initiative of the mid-1990's to early 2000's. Upon reflection, I think the project ceased just short of the tipping point being achieved, and the system corrected to its previous information flow - and now SEPEP is used in a few schools by some teachers committed to the value of the model as an alternative to the more common 'sport-as-sport techniques' (Kirk, 2010).

Systems thinking research will mean discontinuing with a view that the system (PE teaching) is less than it should be because of the individuals (the PE teachers) within it - something I believe is implicit in the push by some PE academics towards models based practice as the new PE method.

“Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”  Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker.

In general terms, when change is the focus the systems thinking re-frames the research question from variations of -What do we need to do/create/change to improve (eg. PE)? to How can we use the structures, resources and processes present in the system as leverage points to improve (in this case, PE) education by creating a tipping point that leads to a cascading event?

Many authors have postulated the need for ‘radical reform’ of PE pedagogy and program design (see for example, Kirk 2010) and questioned whether PE achieves any effect on physical activity participation (see for example, Green 2014). Perhaps it is time to change the research questions and consider a different research perspective.

I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

Information Sources
Bernstein, B. (1975). Class and pedagogies: Visible and invisible pedagogies. Educational Studies, 1(1), 23-41.
Brown, A. (1992). Design experiments: Theoretical and methodological challenges in creating complex interventions in classroom settings. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(2), 141-178.
Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2005). Challenging images of knowing: Complexity science and educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 18(3), 3015-321.
den Duyn, N. (1997). Game sense workbook. Australian Sports Commission: Belconnen, ACT.
Dewey, J. (1901). The situation regards the course of study. Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Fortieth Annual Meeting of the National Educational Association, 332-348.
Fong, P. J. E. (2006). Complexity theory, visible and invisible pedagogies in a kindergarten classroom. APERA Conference, Hong Kong, 28-30 November.
Kirk, D. (2010). Physical education futures. New York, NY: Routledge.
Magias, T., Pill, S., & Elliott, S. (2015). Teaching netball using a game sense approach - an example of constraints-led skill learning theory as pedagogical practice. In the Edited Proceedings of the 29th ACHPER International Conference, Adelaide, pp.223-245.
Metzler, M. (2011). Instructional models for physical education (3rd ed). Holcomb Hathaway, Publishers.
Morrison, K. (2006). Complexity theory and education. APERA Conference, Hong Kong, 28-30 November.
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Retrieved from
Sporting Schools (2015). Playing for life philosophy.
 Pill, S.  (2014): Informing Game Sense pedagogy with constraints led theory for coaching in Australian football, Sports Coaching Review , DOI:10.1080/21640629.2014.890778
 Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope

Synder, S. (2013). The simple, the complicated and the complex: Educational reform through the lens of complexity theory. OECD Education Working Papers, No 96, OECD Publishing.


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