If asked whether children best learn games by listening or by doing, most teachers and coaches would quickly answer: the latter. Faced with this fairly unanimous conclusion, it would not be unreasonable to expect school games coaching to be dominated by high levels of pupil activity, and relatively rare bouts of teacher interruption. At the very least, the measurement of activity levels, and by contrast of talk levels, would seem fundamental to coaching quality. And yet this assumption would be contrary to the way in which the great majority of schools deliver compulsory games teaching to their pupils.
The average level of games-based pupil activity within a 75-minute session is 18 minutes. The single greatest time occupier is teacher talk, at an average 41 minutes. If you believe that children learn by listening, fine: do it like that. If you believe that they learn by doing, though, then maybe this isn’t the best way. Perhaps the most revealing research statistic is that all teachers in these sessions believed that more than 50% of the session had been spent on pupil activity, and less than 25% on teacher talk. The contrast between perception and reality is huge.
What causes this? The first factor appears to be obsession with technical content. Drills and practices are dominated by frequent and lengthy stoppages for the dispensing of technical wisdom by the teacher. This is despite the fact that pupil attention during these interludes varies, and evidence of the effectiveness of technical input in improving performance is mixed. Most of these practices are based on queuing for attempts, which further increases pupil redundancy and depresses activity levels.
Research into games coaching clearly identifies learner engagement as a principal factor in determining whether there is performance improvement, and persistence with practice. It also suggests that early learning should be dominated by ‘deliberate play’ rather than ‘deliberate practice’. The latter, meanwhile, is seen as appropriate for enhancing higher level performance in mid to late teenage years. Yet there is little evidence of the application of this research in coaching – or of schools concerned with the wider issue of how games coaching can be most effective. Sessions for all age groups, including the youngest, are dominated by skills-based instruction. The timeless schoolboy question, “Can we have a game, Sir?” still rarely attracts a positive response.
Can learning be a pleasure, rather than a duty? Little is likely to change until schools accept that the quality of coaching hugely influences pupil enthusiasm and progress. Schools devote considerable time, energy and resources to the organisation and administration of games. Perversely, this is seldom matched by thought and attention around best coaching practice.
Unlike other subjects, in games an ‘every man for himself’ approach still prevails, which means that much practice is poor – and out of date. Systems of quality control are absent or rudimentary. Meetings of coaches and games departments are dominated by organisational questions: coaching rarely makes the agenda. So, the starting point for progress is probably an acceptance that things could be better, and an elevation of coaching development up the agenda.
Next would be a measurement of current practice, ascertaining which sessions had the highest levels of pupil activity. Most schools can easily measure this, with a stopwatch and a pupil who is off games. Comparisons, targets, and consideration of the impact of various approaches are the essence of professional development in coaching. Many teachers are proud of the competitive record of their teams in school matches. A similar pride in coaching quality, pupil activity and engagement would not be inappropriate.
An increased proportion of games in Games would help promote activity and engagement. A radical target of 50% of Games lessons being active in games activity (excluding running round the field) would be a starting point.
Maybe the most fundamental impact that a Director of Sport could have would be to control and develop the quality of coaching across the whole school: finding the best way of doing it, and then applying it consistently. It’s unlikely that this method would be dominated by teacher talk.
Neil Rollings is Managing Director of PADSIS, the Professional Association of Directors of Sport in Independent Schools – www.padsis.com