Learning and teaching

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Having never formally been taught how to teach theory lessons for certificate Physical Education I found myself following a standardised lesson format where the pupils faced the teacher, waiting for the transmission of knowledge (Sotto 1994). I found my lessons followed a similar, basic structure in which I would:

1. Set out my aims and objectives for the lesson, refer back to previous work covered and identified my learning intentions.

2. I would explain the current topic and ask for pupil discussion regarding prior knowledge.

3. I would provide an academic task related to the topic.

4. I would summarise what has been covered and how it will link with the next lesson/series of lessons.

The lessons were planned according to the department medium and long term plans to ensure the content was covered at the designated time scales, something essential for Standard Grade Physical Education, particularly due to the obvious examination pressures.

My perception of these lesson were that they were successful as they had variation in terms of the level of discussions taking place and types of tasks related to the content, coupled with the fact that my formal examination results from teaching this way were very good, (according to SQA statistics). However, I felt the need to explore different methods of teaching to ensure that as a professional, I was meeting the learning needs of the pupils in my class and developing my own teaching competencies. I was sceptical that the method of teaching present within my classroom at this time was providing a challenging enough context for the pupils in my class, therefore I was keen to investigate other learning methodologies. One method that interested me was the cultivation of a constructivist classroom.

In this assignment I will detail the methodology adopted to implement the principles of constructivism, provide explanation regarding the necessary intervention that was required and highlight the pupils' perception regarding this new learning methodology and what they felt the impact to their learning was.

Data Collection

In this study it was necessary to use two main types of data collection. Firstly, the use of video recording to capture group discussion, group problem solving tasks and final presentations. The second method of data collection was in the form of written information via learning logs, evaluation forms specifically relating to the group presentations and final topic evaluation questionnaires. This written information was designed to identify the pupils' perception of the topic; how it was planned, carried out and what the pupils felt were the main strengths and weaknesses of working this way and critically identify the impact on their learning.

I felt that the data collection methods were appropriate to the task and provided relevant data. However the depth of information was the key aspect of the whether the chosen methods were effective or not. For example, the learning logs were one aspect of the written data that provided the most disappointing quality of information and one method that I may not use in the future, the pupils did not elaborate on the answers to the questions and did not provide me valid and useful information.

The use of video recording was completely new to me in a classroom setting and once the pupils were used to working with a video recorder it provided some excellent information and provided a true insight into the group setting. The questionnaires provided me a valuable insight into the pupils' thoughts and feelings about how successful this topic was and this method allowed me to evaluate the overall approach. As with any type of research, the method chosen will have strengths and weaknesses. I have summarised these below in tables 1 and 2:

Strengths & Weaknesses Of Video Camera Recordings

Table 1



Enables all situations to be constantly reviewed.

Origin of problems can be diagnosed.

Behavioural patterns of teacher and pupils can be seen.

Patterns of progress over long periods can be clearly charted.

Can be very conspicuous and distracting.

If camera is directed by operator, it will only record that which he or she deems to be of importance; operator acts as editor.

(Source: Hopkins 2002)

The use of video recording allowed me to gather information directly relating to the group discussion; it encapsulated the nature of the discussions and provided a basis from which the specific discourse could be analysed. This was incredibly helpful when the actual quality of discussion was scrutinised.

Strengths & Weaknesses Of Questionnaires

Table 2



Easy to administer; quick to fill in

Easy to follow up

Provides direct comparison of groups and individuals

Provides feedback on:


Adequacy of resources

Adequacy of teacher help

Preparation for next session

Conclusions at end of term.

Data are quantifiable

Analysis is time consuming

Extensive preparation to get clear and relevant questions

Difficult to get questions that explore depth

Effectiveness depends very much on reading ability and comprehension of the child

Children may be fearful of answering candidly

Children will try to produce ‘right' answers

(Source: Hopkins 2002)

I felt that the end of topic evaluation questionnaire provided me with an insight into the views of the pupils and provided me with a basis to work from. The feedback from the pupils was useful as it gave me an understanding of their perception of my strategies and provided me with direction for future development. The results from the pupil evaluation forms (both group and self evaluation) provided me with quantitative data that could be fed back to the pupils during the plenary session at the end of the block, this data was useful as it provided information on the group scores and informed the pupils which group they thought provided the best presentation. (See appendix ?? for this information).

Both methods of data collection provided valid and useful information which was analysed and used to inform the participants (and myself) of the results of working this way. There was qualitative data produced in the form of the transcripts which were annotated and via the end of topic pupil evaluation questionnaires. They were scrutinised to identify relevant information that could inform further practice. Quantitative data was produced by the pupils in the form of their assessment of each others' presentations and from their own self evaluation forms. This data was straightforward to analyse and as mentioned provided an integral part of the plenary session.


Learning Theories

Having gained almost 10 years of teaching experience I found myself in an unusual position where I was about to start a new topic with my S3 SG PE class with no real plan to map out the progress of the class' learning and understanding of their new topic. I felt excited and terrified in equal measures of adopting a constructivist approach; however I felt comforted by the amount of research I had undertaken in adopting this approach and felt confident of the benefits that the pupils would gain from learning this way. To say I had no real plan in place would not be strictly true as in my mind I had a mental picture of how I would like the direction of learning to take but as will be seen later in this study this is the crux of the teacher relinquishing control of their classroom and asking the pupils to take charge of their own learning as at times it will take you to some surprising places. (Clarke, 2005). One vital component of this notion was organising my classroom to ensure the pupils co-operated in a collaborative manner in small groups.

Wood (1998) summarises Vygotsky's view of learning as “co-operatively achieved success” and this is something that I as a practioner wanted to explore further. I felt the principle of co-operation was something that I did naturally, however, after investigation I realised that the co-operation I assumed was occurring, was between the pupils and myself as class teacher and not the pupils with their peers. Vygotsky suggests that children learn by instruction from others and the learning process is strengthened if the task is learnt in a co-operative manner. After examination, I felt that for the benefit of my practice I had to investigate different methods of teaching theory lessons in PE to ensure that “real learning” can take place (Sotto 1994).

Literature from Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS, 2009) surrounding Curriculum for Excellence (aCfE.) highlights the importance of utilising active and collaborative learning methods to enhance the learning experience based on principles of Assessment is For Learning (AiFL). This provided me with the impetus to critically analyse my approaches to teaching. After reading Brooks and Brooks' (1999) description of the constructivist classroom and also the impact constructivist principles can have on the effective use of formative assessment (Clarke, 2005) I wanted to investigate the application of such principles and measure the impact this would make on my teaching. As Clarke (2005) highlights, some practioners avoid risks due to being “embedded in old ways of teaching” and I was determined not to become such a teacher, I planned to do this by systematically relinquishing control of the direction of learning to the pupils.

I wanted to investigate the opportunity of the pupils taking charge of the direction of their learning by handing over as much control to the class in a move towards creating a constructivist learning environment. I organised the pupils in to groups of four, trying to ensure each group was as diverse as possible in terms of academic ability and friendship groups. I wanted to ensure that the members of the group would not be over familiar with each other as that may hinder the quality of the work produced (Azmitia & Hesser, 1993). It was vital that the pupils understood and appreciated that there would be a change to their ‘normal' lesson format and this afforded me the opportunity to provide an explanation of why I was adopting a constructivist style and why I was putting them in charge.

Bruner (1990) provides the following principles of constructivistic learning:

    1. Instruction must be concerned with the experiences and contexts that make the pupil willing and able to learn (readiness).
    2. Instruction must be structured so that it can be easily grasped by the pupil (spiral organisation).
    3. Instruction should be designed to facilitate extrapolation and or fill in the gaps (going beyond the information given).

Advocates of a constructivistic approach suggest that teachers should first consider the knowledge and experiences of their pupils. The school curriculum should then be built so that pupils can expand and develop this knowledge and experience by connecting them to new learning. Whereas, campaigners of the behavioural approach, on the other hand, advocate first deciding what knowledge or skills pupils should acquire and then developing curriculum that will provide for their development. (Huitt, 2009).

I was very conscious of being true to the Bruner's above principles as I wanted to ensure I knew all the necessary and relevant information regarding the pupils' previous experiences related to this topic. To do this I met with the Biology department. There are natural crossovers between Biology and PE and this meeting allowed me the opportunity to scrutinise the topic content in the S1-3 curriculum and use this information to gauge a starting point for the first brainstorming task. I wanted the pupils to demonstrate “readiness” to learn (Bruner, 1990).

Using a framework developed by Dunn and Larson (1998) to explain the process of implementing elementary level technology curricula, Alesandrini and Larson (2002) specified ten events that provide the foundation for a constructivistic approach to teaching and learning. These ten events were then categorised into five main components of an effective constructivistic lesson/ series of lessons: investigation, invention, implementation, evaluation, and celebration. This became the foundation of my approach to cultivating a constructivist learning environment and the specific approach will be detailed within the timeline section of this self study.

The first task for the pupils was to come up with a topic title through a whole class verbal discussion (they agreed upon “Body in Action”) and became the focus of this group work session, to my surprise this topic title was not too dissimilar from the course material in PE which asks pupils to investigate The Human Body in Action, (it became clear that this topic title was also the same title the Biology department uses-possible coincidence?).

The pupils were then given two tasks; one an individual task which was to complete a learning log (See appendix ?? for further details) the second task was a group task that involved the pupils brainstorming about the topic content around this new title. This session was filmed and the resulting discourse was transcribed and analysed. See appendix ?? for examples of pupil work from these brainstorm sessions. From this analysis it became apparent that the quality of the group discussion I had hoped the class would achieve was way below the expected standard. This critical incident became the focus of my first intervention as it challenged my thinking by forcing me to investigate the reason why the initial group work was of such a poor standard.

To counteract this I investigated comparisons with the work undertaken by Mercer (cited in Wegerif et al 1999) it became apparent that the quality of discussion could be categorised as what Mercer describes as “disputational talk”. This type of talk is characterised by disagreement and individualised decision making. There were few attempts to pool resources, or to offer constructive criticism or suggestions. Disputational talk also has some characteristic discourse features notably short exchanges consisting of assertions and counter-assertions (Mercer, 1996). This was demonstrated by the lack of verbal interaction of group 2 and the autonomous decision making made by JW who interestingly was the member of the group holding the pen, suggestions were rarely offered and when this occurred the suggestions made were met with disregard rather than enthusiasm to explore the ideas further (See appendix ?? for the annotated trascipt). Therefore, it was necessary to identify why this was happening and how I could improve the quality of group discussion.

The priority for me as a practioner was to try and identify methods whereby the group work undertaken started to progress towards “exploratory talk” (Mercer, 1996). This highlights the underlying principle that Gillies and Khan (2007) commentate on that pupils need to be explicitly taught how to work successfully in groups. Therefore before I could proceed investigating the cultivation of a constructivist classroom, I had to investigate how to encourage each group to work co-operatively. This was done by applying the principles surrounding successful group work as studied by Gillies (2004), these were:

  • Actively listening to others;
  • Resolving conflicts democratically;
  • Sharing ideas
  • Working with others to evaluate the group's progress.

I set the class three distinct problem solving challenges in an attempt to improve their abilities to work together; two in groups of eight and one in the original groups of four. I felt this approach was not only relevant to this age group but related to the research undertaken by Gillies would yield some very promising results. It was my intention to ensure that the nature of these problem solving tasks forced the groups to interact in a constructive manner by providing co-operatively achieved objectives.

All members of the group were equally important to the success of solving the task, therefore it was necessary that all views were considered but more importantly valued. Decisions had to be made on a democratic basis which involved all members of the group working together to reach the common goal, this would only be achieved by actively listening to each other and reaching agreements that all members were consulted upon, but more importantly agreed upon. It was at this point I assessed the impact of these sessions by analysing the discussion of group two to identify the level of improvement made, this was critical to ensure that the pupils were in a position to carry on with their project work.

From my analysis it was apparent that there was now an improvement in the type of discussions the group were involved in; sufficient enough for me to be confident that the move towards using constructivist principles with this class was going to be beneficial for the pupils. (See appendix ?? for annotated transcript). This meant that I could again follow the constructivist rationale with confidence.



Session 1

Class organised into groups. Explanation given to pupils to inform them that they were in charge of their learning for this block. Class discussion regarding topic title.

Session 2

Each group brainstorms and record a list of words / terms they feel are associated with the topic title “Body in Action”.

Session 3

Spider diagram / mind map is produced by each group detailing what they feel are the relevant areas of investigation.

Session 4

Amalgamation of all four plans by B Sloan to identify 4 topic areas.

Intervention Session 1

Due to the poor quality of discussion taking place, it was necessary to work on the groups abilities to co-operate and work in a collaborative manner.

Intervention Session 2

Invention and Initial Implementation

Session 5

Group set a mini project to establish if any improvement had been made in terms of collaborative group work. Sufficient improvement made and each group selects project focus.

Session 6

Group investigation work at library.

Session 7

Group investigation work at library using computers.

Further Implementation and Evaluation

Session 8

1st draft of presentations, refinement and initial evaluation.


Session 9

Final presentations by each group.

Session 10

Plenary session and announcement of winning presentation.


As stated previously Alesandrini and Larson (2002) specified ten events that I have used as the foundation for my approach to constructivistic learning. These were:


  1. Contextualising: As class teacher I explained the process to the whole class, then worked with pupils in small groups to help them connect their previous experiences to the task at hand.
  2. Clarifying: I asked the pupils to discuss the project among themselves in their groups of four and as teacher I facilitated the pupils as they strived to determine what they needed to know in order to complete the project.
  3. Inquiring: During this stage the pupils begin the process of acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills they needed to complete the project; as class teacher I tried to facilitate this process by asking questions and helping pupils identify and understand credible resources.

Invention And Initial Implementation

  1. Planning: Pupils in each group begin to organise their knowledge and develop some initial plans as to how to approach the project.
  2. Realising: Pupils develop a first draft or beginning product that will meet the stated criteria for the project. Each small group will develop an original approach and no two will look exactly alike.

Further Implementation And Evaluation

  1. Testing: The pupils check their project against the criteria to see if it meets the specifications. It is expected that the first attempt will need some or several modifications.
  2. Modifying: Pupils rework their project in terms of deficiencies they may have identified. They then retest and modify until they have a finished project that meets the stated criteria.
  3. Interpreting: Pupils describe the value of the project relative to their backgrounds and experience; they share this with their own group.
  4. Reflecting: Pupils broaden their evaluations of the project and put it in larger context.


  1. Celebration: Pupils present their projects to the larger group while the larger group acknowledges the value of the effort and results of the group and assesses the performance of each group in 3 categories.

Having now completed the topic, I asked the class to complete a questionnaire to gauge their response to this new approach (appendix ??). 11 out of 16 pupils noticed that the topic was different to the previous one. They noticed that:

“ more time in classroom doing group work”

“we worked in groups more and Mr Sloan did less talking!”

“we had to do a presentation”

“our presentations were filmed and we used the smartboards”

“Body in Action was the first topic we have done that we actually spoke about, the first one was done through practical work”

“It was much more groupy and talkative as well as interactive”

“we spent a lot of time in the classroom instead of doing it outside”

“we planned it as a class”

When asked about what they enjoyed about the topic, they responded:

“I enjoyed finding facts about the body, I didn't know there were so many joints. I also liked the problem solving tasks”

“Being able to learn a lot of things about the body we didn't know”

“Planning for our presentations and using the computers to investigate the heart. I like watching the groups doing their presentations”

“Research for the presentations”

“It was fun!”

“the topic was interesting”

The pupils were also given the opportunity to say what they did not enjoy about the topic. Very few responded:

“sometimes my group mucked about and were lazy”

“Being bossed about”

“presentation was scary”

When asked about what they felt they learned from this topic they said:

“A lot about the body and how it works”

“how the human skeleton is put together”

“how the body works during sport and PE”

“lots about the heart and lungs”

When asked which topic was best for their learning, 12 chose Body in Action. Although there were clearly some pupils who did not engage with this topic as fully as others, the majority of pupils enjoyed it and agreed that it was beneficial to their learning. The two most common themes running through the pupil responses is their appreciation of the opportunity to contribute to the planning of the topic and the variation of activities - especially during the research prior to doing their presentations, it is interesting that they value their involvement in structuring their own learning so highly and enjoy research work.

My own assessment of the topic was similar to the pupils. I was encouraged and inspired by the outcomes of the approaches used throughout. By simply starting the topic from a slightly altered viewpoint, the entire learning process altered. Instead of telling the class what we were going to do, I was asking the class what they wanted to learn. At each stage, I felt this altered viewpoint raised the motivation of the class which led to an extremely dynamic and energetic classroom which was focused on learning. This learning, was also much more varied than in the past. As well as learning the necessary facts regarding the human body, the pupils were also developing their skills, ranging from working in a group, to planning and presenting information. This is very much in line with the objectives of aCfE.

Those advocating a constructivistic approach should always consider that there are a variety of principles from learning theories that can be utilised within application of constructivism. For example, when working on a pupil's learning it is certainly appropriate to teach a specific skill using direct instruction, observe the pupils practicing the skill, and providing corrective feedback to ensure mastery starts to occur. The major issue is whether to start with a curriculum that is taught step-by-step in an inductive manner as suggested by the behaviour theorists or to start with the pupil's knowledge and understandings and help the child fill in gaps necessary to solve a situation-specific problem as suggested by the constructivists.

Principles of learning from an information processing perspective such as recognising the limits of short-term memory, providing many opportunities for pupils to identify the connection between prior knowledge to current learning, and recognising the need for spaced practice can also be implemented within a constructivistic approach. Again, the major distinction is in where to start: with a predesigned curriculum or with the pupil's experiences and knowledge base.

This then begs the question, what is the correct approach? In my view the answer is both! If we start with the pupil's knowledge base before we have established desired end goals, there is a tendency to have the pupils simply “make progress,” thereby limiting pupils who are not adequately prepared. These pupils may develop adequate thinking skills, but can have large gaps in their knowledge and skills. On the other hand, if wefocus only on desired end goals, especially knowledge goals, without consideration of the pupil's acquired knowledge and background, we run the risk of developing knowledge and skills that have no meaning to the learner and are therefore easily forgotten.


The aim of this self study was to critically reflect on my teaching practice in order to identify progressive routes with which my abilities as a practioner are enhanced. I attempted to do this by investigating the use of collaborative group work during theory lessons in Standard Grade Physical Education through the introduction and establishment of a constructivist learning environment within my classroom. I have adopted approaches that were different to my previous practice in a systematic way, in order to challenge me as both a learner and as a teacher. I have found myself attempting to convert my classroom from an orthodox ‘instructive' one, to one based on the principles of constructivism within a collaborative group setting. The types of problem solving challenges I used acted as an introduction into how group work can be developed but I am realistic enough to understand that this should be an ongoing process rather than a one-off quick fix. These types of challenges will inform the pupils of the potential of group work but will not have a long-lasting effect on future group work.

For fundamental changes to occur when these pupils work in groups there must be a change in the pupils' mindset and this must be reinforced every lesson, therefore the success of this factor may be out with the parameters or timescale of this study. However, what encouraged me was that even after this short intervention I was pleased to report that sufficient improvements had been made and the group work progressed to a point whereby the pupils produced some excellent presentations.

This journey has not only exposed the learners to new methods of classroom working it has also enabled me to move out of my comfort zone and find motivation and challenge in adopting a new approach, something I have thoroughly enjoyed doing. This journey has inspired me to maintain the momentum gained by doing this self study and identify other areas of teaching Physical Education that could benefit from adopting this approach to learning. References

  • Alesandrini, K., & Larson, L. (2002). Teachers bridge to constructivism. The Clearing House, 75(3), p118-121.
  • Azmitia, M., & Hesser, J. (1993). Why siblings are important agents of cognitive development: A comparison of siblings and peers. Child Development, 64, p430-444.
  • Bank, S., & Kahn, M. Brooks, J.G. & Brooks, M.G. (1999). In search for understanding, the case for constructivist classrooms. 2nd ed. Alexandria, Virginia USA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Clarke, S. (2005) Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom. London, Hodder Murray p11-24.
  • Dunn, S., & Larson. R (1998). Design technology: Children's engineering. Bristol, PA: Taylor and Francis Publishers (The Falmer Press).
  • Hopkins, D. (2002) A Teacher's Guide To Classroom Research. Buckingham: Open University Press p115-118.
  • Gillies, R M. (2004) The effects of cooperative learning on junior high school students during small group learning. Learning and Instruction, Elsevier Science Ltd v14 n2 p197-213.
  • Gillies, R M. & Khan, A (2009) Promoting reasoned argumentation, problem-solving and learning during small-group work, Cambridge Journal of Education,39:1, p7 — 27.
  • Huitt, W. (2009). Constructivism. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. [online] Accessed Nov 2009, http://teach.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/construct.html
  • Mercer, N (1996) The quality of talk in children's collaborative activity in the classroom. Milton Keynes, Elsevier Science Ltd p359-375.
  • Sotto, E. (1994) When teaching becomes learning. London, Continuum.
  • Wood, D. (1998) How children think and learn. 2nd ed. Oxford, Blackwell.

Learning and Teaching Essay Outline Brian Sloan