Discovery learning, exploratory learning, and guided discovery are approaches commonly referred to as being constructivist in nature. It implies the learner is not an empty vessel and has the capacity to construct knowledge with some support, through guided experiences and challenges. Mayer (2004) concluded that pure discovery learning, i.e. constructive education, is less effective than more teacher-directed educational methods. The main argument is that there is too much cognitive overload for beginner learners to successfully and efficiently negotiate this form of learning and they don't have the precursor knowledge or skills (ie research skills) to be able to construct deep understandings.
Explicit learning or teaching, according to Hughes et al. (2017) involves the following:
- Teachers tell students, explicitly,what they will be learning, and discuss how it relates to other content, why it is important and where they will use it.
- Considers the prerequisite skills and background knowledge needed to learn
- Breaks down (segmenting/chunking) complex tasks and strategies into smaller, more “manageable” units of instruction.“Chunks” are taught separately, in a logical sequence, to reduce cognitive complexity and load.
- Students provided clear, concise, and consistent descriptions and demonstrations of how the skill or strategy is performed.
- Sequences skills from easy ones to harder ones to complex.
- Uses a faded feedback approach where after a new skill or strategy has been modeled, the teacher provides initial practice opportunities and promotes student accuracy and conﬁdence by using appropriate levels of guidance or scaffolding through use of prompts (physical, visual, and/or verbal). The level or strength of prompts is gradually withdrawn as students continue to demonstrate accuracy and understanding.
- Involves frequent feedback early in learning and student responses are elicited to increase learner attention and engagement, as well as providing teachers with information about how well students are understanding/performing
- Independent practice activities follow a lesson and are critical for retaining and generalizing new skills and knowledge, and are most effective when created and completed in a deliberate and purposeful manner
- Focuses on critical content
I also think there are too many times where we make the mistake of hiding the learning intention, the learning process/steps and and we wait for it to happen in some sort of “ta-daa” moment at the end. Lazy teaching can be excused as discovery learning and as long as they are having fun they must be learning something.
Being explicit, clear and transparent doesn’t preclude other goals or experiences from happening or moments of spontaneity, creation etc. It shouldn’t preclude student voice - you can co-construct the explicit learning intention with your learners - what do they want to learn in, through or about? You can let them decide how they will optimally challenge themselves towards this goal through providing differentiation (choice) within your learning activities. You can also have two learning intentions and two different approaches going at once. One might be a rather concrete learning intention ‘about’ movement (describe and apply the concept of ‘impulse’ during catching and throwing, demonstrating what balancing the space looks like in offence), another learning intention ‘in’ movement, maybe to do with feelings or expression or asking the learners to describe what they felt changed as a result of the lesson, and both would require different pedagogical approaches.
Why I like the idea of being explicit and transparent, is that it sharpens the pencil and makes us really, really think about what we are going to be doing and why. We have a very limited time to get some learning happening and how we use that time is crucial. So for me, being explicit helps to push us beyond the “roll out the ball” and see what happens model that I still see a lot of (busy, happy, good). It moves us beyond the random “shake the phone and out pops a warm up game” approach. It pushes us to do more than get a HR up for 50% of the lesson with no other obvious learning focus. It makes us consider what the learning goals are and what these would look like if they were to be successfully achieved. It gives the learner a clear picture of the intent of the time they are investing and the consequences of their effort (providing these are meaningful learning intentions and providing they have guidance to get there), then having this clarity can reduce uncertainty, frustration and add to meaningful engagement through adding purpose (what is the point of this? Why are we doing this? How will it impact me and my lifelong learning?). It also makes us consider how we measure learning, how we use this to give quality feedback to learners, and how we think about difference (differentiation). Finally, it gives us permission to reward effort.
A grey area for me is not about explicitly stating the learning intentions or outcomes, that should happen. Rather it is the kind of pedagogy we adopt during the teaching of a motor skill (note I am not talking about meaning making, emotion, social interaction skills here, or even concrete knowledge about movement). For me there remains confusion and apparent contradiction between motor learning and control theory, particularly around constraints-based approaches and non-linear learning, and the more concrete and arguably linear models put forward by numeracy and literacy experts that deal primarily in the cognitive and not bodily spaces. I am not convinced that the explicit and direct instruction brigade have overcome the mind-body dualism issue, nor do they really have to when focusing on beginners solving math problems or how to use a comma. In this context, often the answer is correct or it isn’t and there are demonstrably more efficient ways to get to that answer (models of success). My particular concern with the earlier description of explicit teaching sits with the elements that push for chunking of skills and sequencing their learning linearly.
Motor control people like Renshaw, et al. (2009) advocate, “key concepts such as the mutuality of the performer and environment, the tight coupling of perception and action, and the nonlinear nature of systems that are made up of many interacting component parts that move between phases of stability and instability via processes of self organisation under constraints” (p.119). Handford et al. (1997) advocated for a more ’hands off’ approach to coaching using the environment and the task as teacher. Both suggest 'discovery learning' as the go to pedagogy. This grates up against what Kirshner and colleagues (2006, 2013) profess ‘works’ for learners as they argue strongly against experiential, discovery, inquiry-based teaching approaches. Whilst I don’t think Kirshner and colleagues don't always appreciate the nuance of the different learning styles they critique, their points are worth listening to and rationalising.
So what for learning a motor skill. Motor learning I don't think can be spelled out as a linear progression from one point to another. Indeed development can be a process of moving two steps forward and one back as the body, when challenged to adapt, looks to self-organise back into what it was comfortable with. This makes planning learning progressions and developing success models complicated. It could be that success at the end of a class is that someone looks more uncoordinated as they transition from a previously stable but inefficient movement, towards an unstable but more efficient movement. Perhaps what Kirshner and others are missing by ignoring the body is the role multiple constraints play in learning, including the body. Form and structure of the individual, their emotions knowledge, feelings, cognitions, goals, growth and socio-cultural context, all interact with the environment and the learning task and each continuously influences the other (Renshaw, et al. 2009). This is a lot more stuff to coordinate than solving a math puzzle on a page.
So for me, to rationalise what an explicit approach for motor learning would involve, I will start by saying what it isn’t and then what it could look like:
- It isn’t decomposing the motor skill into manageable components and practicing these in isolation with direct instruction and feedback on each component. Explicit teaching instead would involve simplifying the task, but retaining its interlinked features (perception-action, inter-joint couplings) and context.
- Explicit teaching in motor learning wouldn’t present a model of success that is a one size fits all perfect (or even elite) model of performance. Rather, success for motor learning is the attainment of a permanent behaviour change to achieve more consistent movement outcomes under increasingly more complicated constraints. So the models of success we provide for motor learning should only be a general guide with some core features. The success model provided should be qualified so that there is flexibility and adaptability so that learners can generate a movement solution that is unique to suit the personal, task and environmental constraints. I don’t like the concrete staged FMS drawings of the child stepping in opposition as a model of success because it is reductionist. One thing I never understand is when teachers set an explicit goal of teaching the FMS overarm throw (side on stance, hip shoulder rotation, follow through) and then play a bunch of small sided passing games in confined spaces that never ever require any of these components to be elicited. Worse, is when they assess them as deficient using a static success model. Generally the most efficient movement in these types of games is an underarm front on pass with enough joints only to get the job done. So a core feature of any ‘success model’ we provide at the start of the class for a motor skill, should highlight flexibility, variability and adaptability and be suited to the context. The explicit video model we set up on the i-Pad, presents a range of success models where no two throws, jumps, hits, etc.. are the same, but they showcase adaptability/efficiency and convey a successful idea of what learning will lead to and look like.
- Explicit teaching in motor learning is definitely not ‘free play’ and ‘exploration’ with a few questions thrown in along the way. Explicit teaching in motor learning requires the teacher to deliberately facilitate new movement solutions by purposely “…designing learning environments that provide controlled boundaries of exploration in dynamic settings through the provision…” of well thought out and relevant task constraints, and this should be shared with the learner (Renshaw, et al, 2009). Both the learner and the teacher have an idea of what they are trying to achieve and we can use a questioning approach to operationalise or facilitate this. Feedback can come from the environment or the teacher but it is directing the learner towards a more efficient movement form.
- Explicit teaching in motor learning should not involve the teacher saying something every 5 seconds. Explicit teaching arguably is advocated as a teacher centred pedagogy, particularly as argued by Kirshner and colleagues (2014) who state:
By giving full learner control, Krishner suggests learners continue to practice tasks they like or are already proficient in. I call for compromise here and for the use of multiple pedagogical styles employed to suit the particular learner at a particular time, not one style for all. My rule of thumb is that the teacher attempts to understand how the learner is progressing and intervenes when the learner appears to be operating outside of a suitable search parameter (Bandwidth) linked to the task. This will happen more frequently early in learning and fade as the learner progresses. In other words, when the learner is spinning their wheels, provide some specific feedback (change constraints -enviro, demonstrate or give specific verbal feedback). When it is really clear some simple instruction/feedback will have an immediate and positive impact on performance, give that instruction, the learner likely does not have the luxury of 300 practice trials to work it out for themselves. If there is a particular trick that through experience you know works, then share it, that is what you are there for. If the learner asks for help/feedback, then give it. If the learner is searching, experimenting, and progressing, let them go but keep checking in. If the whole group don't seem to understand what the focus is, pull them up and make it clear. Time is a crucial constraint here and efficiency should be a focus.
Finally and perhaps too simplistically - if I am teaching about some concrete knowledge 'about' movement, ie. a biomechanical concept say, my go to is going to be explicit. When it comes to the affective, embodied objectives of PE, again, once we have scaffolded and modelled a language and approaches for articulating feelings in movement, then we can definitely do the student centred exploration/discovery of this so they can continue to construct and share their meaning in ways that are meaningful to them. What the research shows us is explicit pedagogies work in many learning contexts and often more effectively than discovery approaches. How they work in motor learning needs some more consideration.
Handford, C.H., K. Davids, S. Bennett, and C. Button. 1997. Skill acquisition in sport: Some
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Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J. and Benson, S. K. (2017), Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32: 140–148. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12142
Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395
Ian Renshaw , Jia Yi Chow , Keith Davids & John Hammond (2010) A constraints-led perspective to understanding skill acquisition and game play: a basis for integration of motor learning theory and physical education praxis?, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 15:2, 117-137, DOI: 10.1080/17408980902791586