Teaching and Tweaking Physical Education

A Method of Experimentation and Inclusiveness

When educational theorists of the past polished their theories and models on childhood and adolescent education, their focus was on the academic subjects: mathematics, the sciences, literature and writing. Many of their philosophies were expanded upon solely with these subjects in mind, as the wide-variety of subjects today in contemporary education had not progressed into related subjects and sub-subjects and germane topics. With the branches of learning stretching over dozens of fields and areas, today these philosophies have been modified and reworked to adjust to the various areas of subject learning. Even so, the teaching philosophy of physical education has to many teachers and erudite educationalists remained outside of the ambit of many of the leading philosophies that have governed teaching in the past decades and centuries. The purpose of this essay is to elucidate the teaching methods, philosophies, and attitudes of educators from John Dewey to Maria Montessori, all while developing distinct methods of instruction, and apply it to not a classroom environment, but a gymnasium or even a basketball court.

The psychologist, philosopher and later educational reformer John Dewey put great stock in problem solving and the ability for the adolescent individual to confront other problems and after intense poring over and scrutiny, come to sound conclusions as a result of their learning to think critically, methodically, and creatively (Calloway 107). His firm belief in an individual’s capacity to learn rested in the notion that the only time adolescents do actually think adeptly, is when he or she must mull over a given situation, a set of factors, and possible solutions. Trial and error and methodical steps would lead students to assess problems in the most efficient way possible. In this way, people learn by “testing the waters,” turning a piece in a puzzle or swapping it for another until it fits snugly. The philosophies of Rousseau and Pestalozzi similarly focused on natural learning principles, but put weight on basic human emotions (Calloway 101). Pestalozzi even went as far as affirming the importance of the role of the teacher as a mentor who should be caring and concerned, and fully in-touch with students’ emotions. Conversely, Johann Friedrich Herbart stressed learning as a network of ideas and thoughts, relationships between related and unrelated subjects, but in more contrasting views with Dewey, stressed moral development as indispensable to the development of adolescents (Calloway 102).

Although the differing views of Herbart, on how children learn, may not be unfounded, Dewey’s emphasis of learning from trial and error, simple experiments and thought experiments, hold the greatest import in understanding the means by which children grasp concepts and ideas the most effectively. This can be understood simply, since the scientific method engages the individual and requires a step by step approach that in turn necessitates comprehension at all levels in an ascending order of complexity. It is easy to see how a network of ideas is relevant and crucial to learning, but this association between concepts can only be created once an individual has taken in these concepts individually. Thus, the network will naturally develop only after an individual begins to work out one concept at a time. Moreover, Rousseau’s and Pestalozzi’s focus on environmental learning experiences may be considered only a slice of Dewey’s grand view of learning. There is little need to underscore the importance of any of these factors on learning: the environment, the relationships between concepts, group learning, natural inquisitiveness, and the scientific method, or trial and error; they are all cardinal forms of learning. However even though some of these individual stimuli play a hand in learning more than others, it may be held that without any of these influences on learning an adolescent’s learning experience is incomplete and truncated.

So what would be the application, keeping these aforementioned forms of learning in mind, of a well-founded, as well as rounded philosophy? Herbart’s systematized scheme of instruction that entails preparation, presentation, association, generalization, and application is effective and complete on paper- and in traditional classroom environments. But good teaching requires spontaneity and inventiveness on the part of the instructor. Effective teaching methods such as Herbart’s can become old and overused, disengaging students and drawing attention away from the lessons and the knowledge yet to be learned. With this in mind, it seems more sensible to mix up methods, change lesson plans, and encompass a wide variety of teaching methods all once again to correspond to the ways adolescents learn. Yet even this scenario, after a sequence of lessons, can become too discursive and may have the effect that it sought to sweep away, shying students away in boredom. Reverting back to Dewey, his mode of instruction of questions, assessments, and answers, of- if not scientific experiments- thought experiments, of a priori, independent of previous experience, can be used as the foundation for teaching once more, seeing that problem solving may be the kernel for learning.

The Montessori Method named after the Italian educator, humanitarian, and philosopher, Maria Montessori, highlighted motor and sensory skills, sensory muscular and intellectual development as fundamental to learning. Her use of autodidactic toys, models, and games engenders a self-correcting, trial and error learning method, in a similar manner as Dewey’s methods (Lillard). Needless to say, while her methods have proven successful for young children, they are of course inadequate after mid-grade levels in elementary school. Her emphasis on education’s purpose to develop motor skills and the senses are much forgotten after the third grade when students have matured and grown. In spite of this, applying her methods to the instruction of physical education such as self-directed group activities and games, can cater to older adolescent students.

The organization of the curriculum in a gym class requires a mostly non-traditional approach. Since gym classes involve little formal teaching, such as papers and texts, a creative, but rigorous arrangement of the subject of physical education is necessary. For a physical education class the two main components of the subject are the intangible learning experience- the understanding of body processes, the muscles, forms of fitness, types of stretches, safety, etiquette, and the tangible learning experience- the proper motions in certain sports, and the practicing of correct stretching, safety and etiquette. Here, Herbart’s five-step method may function well with certain topics such as with an instruction on the forms of fitness, a topic too broad to engage students in the physical display of each sort. Dewey’s approach could be implemented for lessons on safety such as presenting a group of students with a situation and encouraging them to solve it speedily.

How would one go about constructing a physical education lesson for a class? When most people think of their own experiences in elementary or junior high school physical education classes the first memory that may come to mind may be an old recollection of the game of dodgeball. Were there any lessons? Or was dodgeball the remedy to rectify the spirits of students that were bored in their other classes?

While games like basketball, soccer, and dodgeball are engaging and require group efforts in cooperation, students are time and again disenfranchised. Often associated with old memories of dodgeball are the recollections of the two dodgeball captains picking their teams, and the last ones standing, dispirited and discouraged. Even though this exact situation may not have happened in all gym classes, these scenes of the “last kid picked” have called to light the effect that competitive physical activities such as sports have on those often disenfranchised and in turn apathetic to physical group activities. In this scenario, Pestalozzi’s perspective of the role of the moderator can be looked upon as an opportunity to impart a positive attitude and encourage involvement by the affected students (Calloway 101).

Using Montessori’s method of instruction through “tools” that correct the individual one class lesson could put students in a set of circumstances where they must doctor a manikin or expel the fluids in its lungs using the Heimlich maneuver, a first-aid treatment taught to many of young age. In this situation students could be the first-comers to a scene of an accident. They would be split into groups and given a different set of circumstances involving the victim “Jack”, the manikin, and identify the dangers and the best strategies to contact emergency services and/or remedying “Jack’s” affliction. A simple apparatus, such as a manikin, can be used in a number of ways. A full-body manikin could be used additionally in exercises to identify muscles, body parts, and other useful applications. These methods of instruction of course are not new. However, it is rarely put into practice in schools. In youthful organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, tools such as these are among the most successful in teaching youth.

Perhaps the most inventive of techniques could be training exercises such as medleys or relays that could take over the lesson plans for the days when dodgeball does not engage all. Group problem solving through medleys that have stations with formal education questions and others with physical procedures could be effective. This would make use of Dewey’s scientific method, in a non-scientific environment. More importantly, many more students would be involved through a possible splitting up of tasks.

The most aptly suited words to describe a well-formed philosophy would be: experimentation and inclusiveness. Just like the students, the classroom or gym environments become a locale of learning for the instructor. The instructor must be receptive to the needs of the students, the shortcomings of his or her own approach, and the level of success with a given method of teaching. In this vein, they must follow through with their own experimentation, constantly tweaking their teaching methods and styles while seeing the effectiveness of each approach. Of course although repetition and familiar teaching approaches may be successful, a too rigid and inflexible style of instruction may have a tendency to render an overused method untenable. Consequently, the idea of experimentation lies within the purview of the teaching methods employed by the teacher. A gym instructor dividing up a group of students up class after class to play one sport or another comes up short of being experimental. To illustrate this austerely, students leave and enter their gym class knowing what to expect and may not be excited about attending. Experimentation thus entails a professor going outside the normal boundaries of any gym class.

All of the educators from Dewey to Rousseau have laid emphasis on the importance of the environment in learning. Part of that environment includes the peers of an individual. Many individuals may learn to understand all that is offered by a subject but engage little with their peers. If this is the case, they have not fully engaged the most dynamic aspect of their environment and surroundings- their classmates. A teacher must conduct a classroom setting where students are interacting and cooperating with one another. Inclusiveness in this respect is essential to a fostering environment. It extends beyond this as well as to the inclusiveness of all relevant subject materials, resources, and strategies. Similar to experimentation, a teacher that is reluctant to use various teaching strategies is certain to limit his or her own capabilities in reaching out to a young group of adolescents. As mentioned previously, disenfranchisement by a certain perceived idea that he or she is not athletically capable is common among all ages-especially youth. It is up to the instructor to make sure students are given confidence so that they can advance their physical talents.

By using Dewey’s concept of learning and his methodical teaching methods as a groundwork, an amalgamation of similar and contrasting views of learning and teaching can occur. Dewey’s approach to childhood education utilizing a didactic scientific method would serve as a basis to progressively blend these ideas together with approaches put forth by Herbart or Montessori. However, even the best and most well-crafted strategies to teaching adolescents, regardless of whether they are based on old or new methods can be afflicted with flaws that adversely affect the teaching environment and throw spikes in the road. Ultimately it is the “malleability” of the lessons and ability for the instructor and lesson plan to engage and include all students in physical education classes that may very well prove to be the most distinguishing feature of the most successful methods in teaching in any classroom- or gymnasium, for that matter.





Callaway, R. (1979) Teachers' Beliefs Concerning Values and the Functions and Purposes of Schooling, Eric Document Reproduction Service No. ED 177 110 Lillard, Angeline: Montessori: The Science behind the Genius

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