What is being taught in Senior PE? A reflection on Cognitive “Information Processing” and Ecological “Dynamic Systems” skill acquisition theories

This Blog is developed from my SA Secondary HPE Conference keynote presentation December 8th, 2015. To read the presentation abstract, the program is available at

Keynote Presentation is available here -
What is being taught in Senior PE? A reflection on Cognitive “Information Processing” and Ecological “Dynamic Systems” skill acquisition theories

In 2015 I was asked to give a presentation at the South Australian Secondary Health and Physical Education Conference on current theories of skill acquisition. This is about the third time in the last five years I have been asked to present on this topic at this conference in either a workshop or keynote. This year was different as leading into the conference I had been engaged via email with a HOD at a secondary school on and off throughout 2015 as to why the information processing model still dominated the skill acquisition syllabus of senior years PE, and why the sport performance checklists were still influenced substantially by the idea of fixed or rigid techniques.

When I went to teachers college we were taught a ‘cognitive’ model of skill acquisition. This information processing model was based on a linear relationship between information processing and subsequent player behaviour. Technical models as optimal and fixed motor patterns were prescribed for player replication. Skill was thus equated with technique. Teaching was equated with programming, and the metaphor of computer programming was invoked – coaches designed the script which the players would run. The result was an emphasis on highly directive instruction progressing the player from closed to open practice spaces using progressive part pedagogy. Mosston and Ashworth (2002) describe this pedagogical emphasis as a command style of teaching style from the reproductive cluster of teaching approaches. Learning was then movement reproduction. The teaching focus was on the movement performance and a skilled player could reproduce an optimal ‘textbook technique’.

 Figure 1. The Information Processing Model showing a linear arrow of information flow

However, for most players and especially those with limited experience in ‘backyard’ and pickup games where movement variability was inherent, learning in this context that limited game play and progressed a high volume of dill practice has been shown to have low transferability from practice to game context where skill is viewed as defined motor pattern (a set technique). Kirk (2010) described it as sport-as-sport techniques.

The information processing approach to perception and action understood in physical education settings seems to result in emphasis on the development of set internal representations for prescribing movement behavior. The traditional idea is that the action systems passively depend on the information provided by the perceptual systems for movement organisation as a movement model (the technique) is retrieved from the players’ memory and activated by habit achieved from rote learning the movement by drill repetition. However, memory is a complex, multifaceted and reconstructive process. Thus, rather than the concept of a fixed memory the concept of active and continuous processing should be emphasised, as opposed to a more static, concept of storage. Schmidt and Bjork (1992) suggest practice be seen as an opportunity for transfer appropriate processing.

Schmidt and Bjork (1992) suggest the practice conditions that produced the best retention performance seem to provide added "difficulty" for the learner during the practice phase, which is reflected in poorer performance at that time. Thus, "random" practice serves to keep the performer from generating a stable "set" for a particular task, and forces the learner to retrieve and organize a different outcome on every trial.

Ecological non-linear dynamic system perspective focussed on the movement outcome is consistent with an emphasis on active and continuous processing. This thinking about skill acquisition focusses on individual coordination dynamics to produce biomechanical sound and functional effective movement solutions in the moment. Rather than focus on a static, fixed movement model (a technique) teachers are encouraged to understand Force as equaling understanding movement

Understanding Force = Understanding Movement (where movement is the coordination dynamics of the individual)

Applying biomechanical principles, specifically, how and when forces are applied to skilfully perform motor skills, will enable physical educators to more clearly define correct form (or the shape the player is in at the moment of object contact or release, or propulsion – e.g. running, jumping) Two questions are pertinent:
-        How is force applied?
-        When is force applied?
(Satern, 2011)

In an ecological perspective of skilled performance where the player is one part of a dynamic system comprised of the playing environment, the task requirements and constraints, and the interactions of players in offensive, defensive and transition phases of play, perception and action are considered coupled as information and movement are complimentary pairings. Skill therefore emerges as a workable solution to the problem of the moment. This suggests a goal orientated outcome – an ‘in the moment’ response. The equation to explain this from the Australian sport coaching Game Sense approach is ~ Technique + Game Context = Skill
(‘game context’ refers to elements such as pressure, decision-making, timing, use of space and risk)
(Den Duyn, 1997)

In this ecological perspective of skill as emergent within the momentary dynamics of play the performer is not ‘locked into’ a rigid ‘optimal’ movement model but to a functional bandwidth of movement responses that are biomechanically and thus ‘technically’ sound. This permits the performer to dynamically respond to the performance context. This is demonstrated in the following clips.

Glen Maxwell, first ball of a T20 – adaptive to the moment with a technique not found in any cricket coaching text.

Kevin Peterson Swat Shot– adaptive to the moment with a technique not found in any cricket coaching text.

Lasith Malinga – you won’t find that arm action in any cricket coaching text.

This brings me back to where this blog started - Senior Years PE. My observation of senior years PE checklists are that they mainly give a lot of weighting to technical competence through descriptions of an idealised ‘optimal’ technique, and thus assessment of the individual’s compliance with a narrow technical model, rather than a functional bandwidth of movement responses. Very little weighting or emphasis is given to the outcome of the movement performance in the context of play in assessment descriptions, nor to demonstrations of tactical understanding, and a capacity to read and strategise the play offensively, defensively and in transition. This seems contradictory to what skill acquisition literature suggests defines the elite player – which is elite decision making.

What are the attributes that set aside the skilled from those who are not?
Ø  Faster and more accurate in reading and recognise patterns – ‘read the play’
Ø  Predictive decision making – use situational probability data better
Ø  Dual task performance
Ø  Superior task specific knowledge developed through extensive task specific engagement
Ø  Interpret greater meaning from available information

 This is not arguing against the need to implement a practice space that develops the personal coordination dynamics of the individual player, but rather arguing for an understanding that in the moment of play the player seeks to optimise their personal coordination dynamics to the perception of the complexity of the required moment response to produce an optimal solution to the problem the game is presenting in the moment.

Senior physical education syllabus documents usually include a unit of work on skill acquisition. I am not arguing that the information processing model not be taught as one way of explaining skill performance. I am arguing that other explanations, such as an ecological perspective and dynamic systems theory, need also be taught. Perhaps the inclusion of ecological modelling and systems thinking perspectives in the skill acquisition course component would lead more senior years PE teachers to reflect on the validity of performance checklists that appear to emphasise sport-as-sport techniques as opposed to sport as perception/decision making (information) -movement workspaces.

What are the implications for Senior Years PE Teaching?
The literature is suggesting is that the set of possible movement solutions for a learner’s task problem can be limited by the dimensions of the perceptual-motor workspace imposed by the coach. Directed coaching may define both a very narrow search process for the player (the cues specified by the teacher) and understanding of how to respond in the moment (one solution - the technique that is demonstrated and thus prescribed). Random unguided discovery learning theoretically encompasses the whole workspace the player is operating in. However, completely random searching of the workspace by the player would be time-consuming and possibly unsafe, and could lead to losses of confidence and motivation in learners. An important role of the coach, from this theoretical position, would be to support the search process by manipulating constraints so that exploratory activity occurs over an optimal area of the perceptual-motor workspace. This closely aligns with Mosston and Ashworth (2002) description of a guided discovery teaching style.

Phillips, Davids, Renshaw & Portus (2010) provide the following advice:
Ø  Eschew the notion of common optimal performance models,
Ø  Emphasise the individual nature of pathways to expertise, and
Ø  Identify the range of interacting constraints that impinge on performance potential of individuals, rather than evaluating performance referenced to group norms.

Further, Williams (n.d.) suggests learners should practice in variable and random practice situations as soon as possible, and that prescriptive feedback from teachers/coaches needs to be faded out as early as possible and learners encouraged to develop their own error detection and remediation ability.

I encourage teachers of physical education to be designers of educational spaces through Play with Purpose - to design a lesson to achieve Perception/Information-Movement Coupling consider the following steps

1.What is the game (tactical) problem?
2.What is/are the conceptual focus (game appreciation)?
3.What is the movement goal (the movement outcome)?
4.Choose or design a game that couples this game understanding (points 1-3) for the players.

The planning template would look like the one I suggest in this article on Using Tactical Games

Two implications arise from the research into information-movement coupling that are relevant to sport teaching in physical education
1. Active exploration of a motor skill permits greater success in skill performance to develop (Savelsbergh & van der Kemp, 2000).Learners should therefore be encouraged to explore movement opportunities so as to develop flexible and adaptable movement patterns (Williams & Hodges, 2005).
2. Exploratory practice is valuable: (a) To assemble functional coordination structures to achieve a specific task goal (eg., controlling a ball); and, (b) As it allows players to refine and adapt basic coordinative structures to enhance movement flexibility (eg., controlling a ball in different ways and under different conditions) (Davids et al., 2005)
An understanding of information-movement coupling also informs sport skill assessment as it is important to examine motor expertise in a testing environment that replicates the performance context as closely as possible (Farrow & Abernathy, 2003).

I recommend reading the following scholarly papers about Senior Years PE and the retained emphasis on information processing concepts for skill acquisition to pursue the ideas I have reflected upon in this blog in more detail.

Margot Bowes. (2014). Skill acquisition for senior school physical education: Up’skilling’ for the 21st century. Physical Educator – Journal of Physical Education New Zealand,47(3), 5-12.

Kain Noak. (2015). Are current skill acquisition learning theories adequately reflected in our practical assessment of Year 12 PE students? Active and Healthy Magazine, 22(2/3), 20-22.

As I wrote earlier, I am not suggesting that the information processing model not be taught in skill acquisition courses. I have suggested that "old" interpretation of information processing theory as leading to static or fixed models of performance is not consistent with the concept of active and continuous processing. Indeed, information processing is required in a dynamic systems perspective of skilled performance. Both an information processing model and dynamic systems model should be taught in skill acquisition courses. In relation to the practical component of senior years physical education and the assessment of performance, where the criteria for performance is the execution of what is a essentially a new or novel response, such as the performance of skill in game context as each moment in a game is unique to the moment, practice should be organised to facilitate:
- transfer from practice to the game, and
- generalisation of both the understanding of the shape or form of the movement (biomechanics of the movement) and patterns of play
(Schmidt & Bjork, 1992)

The design of practice to achieve this would take the form of variable practice that represents the performance workspace to the player during practice, and in the case of senior years physical education, assessment of performance would occur in context - that is, either during the game or during a match review as happens in high performance sport.

Davids, K., Araujo, D. & Shuttleworth. R. (2005). Applications of Dynamical Systems Theory to Football. Retrieved from
Den Duyn, N. (1997). Game sense: Developing thinking players: A presenters guide and workbook. Belconnen, ACT: Australian Sports Commission.
Farrow, D., & Abernethy, B. (2003). Do expertise and the degree of perception-action coupling affect natural anticipatory performance? Perception 32, 1127-1139
Kirk, D. (2010). Physical education futures. New York, NY: Routledge.
Mosston, M., & Ashworth, S. (2002). Teaching physical education, 5th ed. New York, NY: Benjamin Cummings.
Phillips, E., Davids, K., Renshaw, I., & Portus, M. (2010). Expert performance in sport and the dynamics of talent  development. Sports Medicine,  40(4), 271-283.
Schmidt, R. & Bjork, R. (1992). New conceptualisations of practice: Common principles in three paradigms suggest new concepts for training, Psychological Science, 3(4), 207- 217. Retrieved from
Satern, M. (2011). Defining the “correct form”: using biomechanics to develop reliable and valid assessment instruments. Strategies: A Journal for Physical and Sport Educators, 25(2), 32-34. DOI: 10.1080/08924562.2011.10592140
Savelsbergh, G J P., & van der Kemp, J.  (2000). Information in learning to coordinate and control movements: Is there a need for specificity of practice? International Journal of Sport Psychology, 31, 467-484.
Williams, M. & Hodges, N. (2005).  Practice, instruction and skill acquisition in soccer: Challenging tradition. Retrieved from http://www.goalkeeper.pl/upload/file/daniel%20journals/Practice%20instruction%20and%20skill%20acquisition.pdf


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