“When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and its important to allow yourself to be surprised.”
One stand out moment in my career to date is when I was looking at some promotional pictures an outside company had come in and taken to use for a new school website. Each department had set up exciting lessons so that the photographer could take some action photos. Chemistry decided on explosions, drama had designed a pupil led play, history acting out a famous Roman battle. We just got down to teaching rugby as we usually do. When the pictures came back we were given the chance to pick the best ones to use. As I was looking through them I saw something I hadn’t seen at the time of teaching, there wasn’t one smile on either the children’s or the teachers faces. I can still tell you what technical problems each of those boys had in their passing and catching, but I couldn’t see that they weren’t smiling and enjoying themselves.
Why is this? Was this what I was taught to do? Perhaps it is cultural and we need to work very hard in overcoming it so we don’t lose ourselves to the details. I’m currently reading Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a tour de force look at what causes our best and worse behaviour. Cultural differences extend to sensory processing. Here is Robert in his own words explaining the research.
Westerners process information in a more focused manner, East Asians in a more holistic one. Show a picture of a person in the middle of a complex scene; East Asians will be more accurate remembering the scene, the context, while Westerners remember the person in the middle. Remarkably, this is even observed on the level of eye tracking – typically Westerners’ eyes first look at a picture’s centre, whilst East Asians scan the overall scene.
As a PE Teacher I spent much of my early career building my subject knowledge, especially on what good technique should look like, common errors in technique and how to fix them. This became the focus of my observation and my teaching. Set up a drill, scan for common errors, keep comparing to a perfect technical model, immediately step in and correct. Repeat ad nauseam. I was so focused on the act of teaching the parts I constantly missed sight of the whole.
Those pictures made me reconsider what I was doing when observing. It made me step back, possibly one of the hardest, but best things you can do as a PE Teacher. We worry that if we aren’t in the thick of it, always correcting, intervening or instructing, then we aren’t teaching and the children aren’t learning. The truth of the matter is that children can learn to move without us. Therefore teaching movement needs to bring something new, enhanced or accelerated to the table. We can’t manage that if we are always in the act of teaching. Stepping back and observing helps us to make better judgements and decisions to guide the children’s learning. Do we need to learn to become comfortable with less is more?
To make sense of what is in front of us we need to be able to scan and to notice. Scanning is formal for when we are looking for something in particular. Usually something technical, or related to the learning intentions of the lesson. It helps us to focus, but comes with preconceptions. Noticing is informal, this is when we are looking at the things that are interdependent and interconnected. It is more open to novelty and invention. Scanning and noticing prime our attention for different things and we need both. If we believe in a holistic version of PE with learning outcomes in multiple domains, we need to scan to help achieve the explicit learning intention and notice whether one domain implicitly might impact on another. Is the pass going to ground the result of a technical issue, or perhaps there is a social issue at play? If we are only focused on whether the receivers hands are up making a target, what aren’t we noticing that might be more fruitful for continued enjoyment, development and learning? We need to become more closely attuned not just to the technical, but the physical, social, affective and cognitive. We also need to think about the context, purpose and meaning. This involves moving from noticing to scanning and back again. To achieve this we need to be comfortable with stepping back, with being silent and soaking ourselves in the evolutionary potential of the present moment. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is challenge our departmental culture and to see this as a part of good teaching.
Scott Kretchmar asks us look at both the parts and the whole. Mark Upton at myfastestmileencourages us to zoom in and zoom out. Sir Alex Ferguson in Leading talks about the details and the big picture; “when you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and its important to allow yourself to be surprised.” I like to think of it as scanning and noticing. As PE Teachers we don’t have the luxury like Sir Alex of having someone else teach for us so we can better observe, scan and notice. So we must create an environment that allows us to withdraw a safe distance and focus on both the technicalities and the subtleties of the children in front of us moving alone and together.
The physical and the social, the personal and the situational, the formal and the informal, the abstract and the concrete, the explicit and the implicit, the parts and the whole. We need to notice and scan, to provide us better information and clues to help those we are responsible for to flourish. Richer and contextual cues to make informed judgements and decisions, to ask better questions, know when to step in with support (and with what type of support) or step back and let struggle, play and experimentation continue. Making sense doesn’t necessarily require absolute accuracy but plausibility and we achieve that by submersing ourselves in what is happening; through scanning and noticing.