PE Research Digest: engaging teachers with research in physical education

Introduction and Welcome cropped-leonards-3.jpg

Hello and welcome to our research digest: engaging teachers with research in physical education (PE). You can see what it is we are trying to do from our title. We hope that over the next twelve months, our brief (but hopefully informative) monthly posts will introduce you to us and our research, and encourage you to think about how this research might impact on your knowledge and practice in PE.

Over the past year, I have had a number of discussions with many PE teachers and PE students from around Scotland, all telling me that they have an interest in research and a desire to engage in research. However, they also told me that they simply don’t have the resources or the time to devote to this, especially the time to read research articles. We hope that the short excerpts that we will post for around the next 12 months (sometimes in a video format) will support those of you who have this interest in engaging with research. We aim to inform you about the types of research that we do here at the University of Edinburgh, and of the research that is taking place in the field of physical education around the world. We also hope that this ‘blog-type’ format will enable and encourage you to engage with us and with our research. We would like you to read our posts with a critical eye and let us know how you feel about our research. Does it confuse or inspire? Will it make you think or act differently? Do you want to know more? Whateveryour question, dilemma or comment is, please let us know.

Over the months to come, you will see that our research themes are relatively broad and varied – but ultimately, we all have similar aims: to understand more about our subject so that we develop a knowledge base that promotes high quality teaching, learning and positive student experience. It seems appropriate that I begin by telling you a little bit about one of my research projects. As I have already mentioned, please read on with a critical eye so that we, or you, can begin to engage in discussions about what this means for you.

Pupils’ perceptions of and experiences, in team invasion games: A case study of a Scottish secondary school and its three feeder primary schools (Gray, Sproule and Wang, 2008)

Background to my research

The research project that I am about to describe was a small and introductory part of my PhD thesis, stemming from my personal interest in teaching and learning team invasion games. As a ‘younger’ adult I was a very keen, but not a very good rugby and hockey player. I could perform all the ‘taught’ skills during practice, but my decision-making abilities were always very poor. I just never knew what to do with the ball when I had it. As a PE teacher, a hockey coach and then a teaching fellow, I could see that many of the students that I worked with had similar problems. They didn’t know what to do when they had the ball and often lost it under pressure. Many of them did not cope well with this and ultimately came to dislike team invasion games and PE. I then began to get quite anxious when about 10 years ago, there was a convincing rhetoric from PE policy makers that team games were no longer relevant for students in schools, and that they should be replaced with more ‘life-time’ activities such as yoga and skateboarding. This was a concern because, for me, physical education has always been about student learning and it is my belief that team games – when taught well –  provide a rich, challenging and rewarding context for student learning, perhaps more so than ‘life-time’ activities. However, more worryingly, I could find no concrete evidence that this is what young people in schools in Scotland actually thought about team invasion games PE. Consequently, I decided to find out for myself.

What sort of research did I do?                      

I was clearly interested in asking students if they valued and enjoyed team invasion games in their PE curriculum, but after reading some of the literature in these areas, it also became apparent that one of the key factors in terms of motivating students in PE was their perception of competence in games. I selected a sample of students from a local secondary school (all the S2 and S4 students) and all of the P7 students from its three feeder primary schools to ask them to what extent they valued and enjoyed the team games in their PE curriculum. However, based on what I had learned from my reading, I also aimed to find out how competent they felt in team games and what experiences they had in PE that contributed to their perceptions. To do this, I used a mixed method design that involved collecting both quantitative and qualitative data relating to the themes of value, enjoyment and perception of competence. I surveyed a relatively large number of students (n=285) to get a general impression of their views and to see if there were any relationships between the various themes that I ‘measured’. However, from this larger group, I also selected a smaller sample of students (6 from each year group) that I could talk to face-to-face to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that affected their feelings about team invasion games within their PE curriculum.

What did I find?

As you might have expected, the primary school students valued team invasion games more than the secondary school students and the male students from all age groups valued team invasion games more than the female students. However, the questionnaire data also indicated that for all of the year groups in this study, there was a relationship between the value they placed on team games, their enjoyment of team games and their perception of competence in team games. In other words, regardless of the students’ age or gender, those students who felt that they were competent games players, enjoyed games more and valued games more. Those who felt less competent, enjoyed games less and valued games less. These findings were elaborated further by the qualitative data. Students talked about enjoyment in team games in relation to being involved, being challenged at an appropriate level and experiencing success. By contrast, they talked about negative experiences caused by negative evaluations by others and playing with or against more able students. In general, they did not enjoy being in situations where they were not experiencing any success. Interestingly and importantly, none of the students who were interviewed said that they did not value team games. They all recognised the important opportunities they offered for being part of a team and learning skills that would support their continued participation in PE, sport and physical activity.


So what? What do you think?

I’m really interested to know what you think about these findings, however, here are just a couple of the conclusions that I have come to. Firstly, they make me think very carefully about how I read policy. I am now forced to ask a number of questions when I am presented with a policy document. What evidence is policy based on? How involved have students and teachers been in the development of policy? What are the implications of rolling out policy based on a top-down model of policy development?

My second conclusion is more about what this means to you as a PE teacher and how you deal with disengaged students. I can’t help feel that often, when something is too difficult, we choose an easy option. As a PE teacher said to me not too long ago:

Team games are too difficult, especially for girls, so let’s just give them something that they can do. As long as they are moving then that’s enough?


Team invasion games are difficult and you can put in a lot of effort for not very much return. They are prime sites for experiencing negative feelings, including feelings of incompetence, especially when taught in a way that glorifies skill development, scoring and winning at all costs. I can see why in contexts like this, students can become disengaged from games and PE. Herein lies the challenge for PE teachers. How should team invasion games be taught so that all students can be successful? In my article, I make the suggestion that PE teachers should consider alternative approaches such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU) for the development of positive learning experiences in PE. I don’t wish to be prescriptive about how PE should be taught and I know that many teachers have adopted this approach already. However, I do think that there are some principles associated with TGfU that are worthy of further exploration. For example: the development of off-the-ball skill and decision-making, offering a meaningful and contextual rationale for each task, promoting a broader concept of ability (teaching/evaluating/praising social, cognitive and emotional skills), accepting mistakes as part of learning (developing patience and resilience), collaborative problem solving and so on. Not only would this exploration provide a more in-depth understanding of the pedagogical factors that contribute to student learning in games, but also the affective outcomes associated with positive and successful learning in games – something that is critical in a context where the promotion of student health and wellbeing is so important.

Shirley Gray, Lecturer in Physical Education, University of Edinburgh

Useful references:

Gray, S., Sproule, J. and Wang, C.K.J. (2008) Pupils’ perceptions of and experiences, in team invasion games: A case study of a Scottish secondary school and its three feeder primary schools European Journal of Physical Education, 4 (2), 179-201.

Gray, S., Sproule, J. and Morgan, K. (2009) Teaching team invasion games and motivational climate. European Journal of Physical Education, 15(1), 64-89.

Gray, S. and Sproule, J (2011) Developing pupils’ performance in team invasion games. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 16 (1), 15-32.