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TGFU seminar-“i finally understand”: pre-service teachers’ perspectives on learning TGFU.

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This study explored pre service teachers’ understanding of TGfU during a Theory and Practice of Games course. Limited evidence exists regarding how pre service teachers learn TGfU and how they develop PCK (Gubacs-Collins, 2007; Lodewyk, 2009; Storey & Lunn, 2009).

Autor(es):Sheehy, Deborah; Pagnano-Richardson, Karen; Bohler, Heidi
Entidades(es):Associate Professor Bridgewater State University, USA
Congreso: congreso de la asociación internacional de escuelas superiores de educación física (AIESEP)
Úbeda A Coruña, 26-29 de Octubre de 2010
ISBN: 9788461499465
Palabras claves:TGFU, Constructivist teaching

TGFU seminar-“i finally understand”: pre-service teachers’ perspectives on learning TGFU.


This study explored pre service teachers’ understanding of TGfU during a Theory and Practice of Games course. Limited evidence exists regarding how pre service teachers learn TGfU and how they develop PCK (Gubacs-Collins, 2007; Lodewyk, 2009; Storey & Lunn, 2009). Data were collected over two semesters from 51 physical education pre service teachers (29 = M, 22 = F) and included:( a) one 90 minute focus group interview, (b) lesson reflections,( c) concept maps, (d) teaching evaluations,( e) TGfU comprehension questions,( f) pre service teacher-generated questions, and (g) pre service teacher ratings of learning experiences. Data were analyzed qualitatively (Strauss & Corbin, 1998).

A continuum of understanding was identified as a theme, which represented the varied meanings pre service teachers made of class experiences. Placement on the continuum was mediated through experiences with TGfU, depth of understanding of theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of TGfU, motivation to learn, and recognition of how games learning can occur for others. To develop a deep understanding of TGfU, pre service teachers must have multiple, diverse learning experiences to engaged with the content and each other.


Almost three decades ago the approach known as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) was conceptualized as educators were concerned that children were not experiencing the thrill associated with games, and that children and adults had little understanding of games (Almond, 2010). TGfU approaches with much iteration around the world (e.g., Play Practice, Game Sense, Tactical Games) centralize children’s experiences in modified games as the vehicle to teach games understanding (Thorpe & Bunker, 2010; Thorpe, Bunker & Almond, 1986). TGfU now has become a significant and sustained movement in physical education with regular international conferences, the organizational structures to support conferences, and numerous publications (Butler & Griffin, 2010).

TGfU has been described as a “holistic curriculum model of pedagogical content knowledge” (PCK) (Griffin, Dodds & Rovegno, 1996) because it allows teachers to integrate knowledge of content, teaching methodologies, and how students learn (Shulman, 1986). There is limited evidence regarding how pre service teachers learn and understand TGfU and how they develop PCK about TGfU (Gubacs-Collins, 2007; Lodewyk, 2009; Storey & Lunn, 2009).

Research on Learning to Employ TGFU

Light and Butler (2005) stated that “physical education teacher education programs that emphasize TGfU can justifiably be seen as working at the forefront of educational change but there is an inherent problem involved with attempting to initiate change through pre service teachers…(pg. 242).” Teachers entering the profession today face many obstacles. First, there is fear and anxiety related to classroom management and content preparation. New teachers must also navigate through sometimes murky academic, social, and political waters, which may negate their efforts to bring change into a school. Nevertheless, sustained interest in exploring alternative approaches to teaching and learning sport-related games (Butler & Griffin, 2010) has resulted in curriculum changes within physical education teacher education (PETE) programs (Collier, Oslin, Rodriguez, & Gutierrez, 2010; Light & Butler, 2005; Sheehy, Bohler & Pagnano-Richardson, 2010). Some teacher education programs have responded to the need to teach how to create and modify games and to enhance understanding of game play by restructuring activity courses around games classifications and providing experiences for students to teach TGfU lessons (Collier, et al., 2010; Storey & Lunn, 2009).

Activity courses with a focus on theory and practice in teacher education can serve as a model for best practice when taught by PETE faculty rather than coaches or instructors who have expertise in specific content. When PETE faculty serve as primary instructors for activity courses pre service teachers have the opportunity to experience integration of content knowledge with a specific curricular approach such as TGfU (Collier et al., 2010). When PETE faculty modeled elements of TGfU instruction during two pre service teacher education activity courses, pre service teachers showed these later as in service teachers. TGfU elements that persisted in these teachers’ practice included (a) game-practice-game approach, (b) question-answer session, (c) on and off-ball solutions, (d) applied solutions to games, (e) small-sided games, (f) problem focus, (g) problems alignment with game conditions, and (h) transfer of tactics (Collier, et al., 2010).

Storey & Lunn (2009) found that pre service teachers benefited from learning to teach TGfU in an applied setting (i.e., teaching TGfU to home schooled students). Significant teacher and student diversity of abilities contributed to simultaneous development of conceptual knowledge, instructional skill, and confidence in the pre service teachers’ ability to teach TGFU. Learning to teach using TGfU has much support from pre service teachers. Light & Butler (2005) reported that the appeal of TGfU for pre service teachers in both Australia and in the U.S. was that they felt it provided more equitable sport experiences for all children than traditional approaches. Pre service teachers also articulated the importance of TGfU as a way to stimulate student interactions and to serve as a foundation for the development of relationships between students and with the teacher. Female pre service primary teachers’ experiences with TGfU included enjoyment, involvement and engagement of students, regardless of ability (Light & Georgakis, 2005).

These pre service teachers saw TGfU as viable and realistic teaching of games. In Australia, pre service teachers’ responses to TGfU were generally positive indicating an increase in enjoyment, understanding and cognitive engagement in the games. Other pre service teachers believed that TGfU’s focus on the intellectual components of game play was a vehicle to improve physical education’s low curricular status as non-academic (Light & Butler, 2005).

Theoretical Framework and Purpose

One way learning to teach sport-related games can be understood is through constructivist learning theory (Davis & Sumara, 1997; Light & Fawns, 2001; Rovegno & Dolly, 2006). Situated learning, a form of constructivist thought, has been proposed as a possible explanation of the processes underlying the TGfU approach (Kirk & MacPhail, 2002). Specifically, situated learning assumes that learning incorporates active engagement of learners with their environment (Kirk & MacPhail, 2002; Rovegno & Kirk, 1995). Sociological aspects emphasizing the role of the environment and how learning is constructed within a ‘situated’ setting suggests that relationships among the various physical, social and cultural parameters in the learning context play a crucial role in TGfU (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Thus the acquisition of tactical knowledge can only be achieved by actually moving within a game context which TGfU provides (Light & Fawns, 2003). For these authors, the separation of knowledge and movement from the influence of specific learning contexts is unrealistic in explaining how learning occurs in a TGfU approach. Pre service teachers need contextually rich setting to learn to teach, including sites where they can observe, reflect, and be mentored by teachers who know and support contemporary curricular models (Collier, 2009; Howarth, 2005).

Since interaction and collaboration are essential aspects of being in a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), pre service teachers learn at the edge of this community, experiencing legitimate peripheral participation, later moving toward the center as they develop competence and confidence. Since limited evidence of how pre service teachers learn and understand TGfU and how they develop PCK (Gubacs-Collins, 2007; Lodewyk, 2009; Storey & Lunn, 2009) exists, this study explored pre service teachers’ understanding of TGfU during a Theory and Practice of Games course. Understanding how pre service teachers learn to teach TGFU within a PETE program may provide insight into how best to revise PETE curricula so students gain full participation in the community of practice.


Participants/ Data Collection

Data were collected over two semesters from 51 physical education pre service teachers (29 = M, 22 = F) enrolled in a 15-week games course at a State University in the United States. Institutional Review Board procedures were followed; informed consent was obtained from all participants and pseudonyms were used. Data collection included (a) one audio recorded 90 minute focus group interview held at the end of each semester, (b) two written lesson reflections, (c) one concept map of TGFU, (d) two teaching evaluations by the professor, (e) TGfU comprehension questions, (f) pre service teacher-generated questions, and (g) pre service teacher ratings of learning experiences.

Data Analysis

Data were analyzed qualitatively (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Focus group interviews were audio taped and transcribed verbatim. Written documents (e.g., lesson reflections, comprehension questions, etc) and transcripts were initially open coded to discover and develop categories, properties, and dimensions (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Categories were merged and adjusted as analysis proceeded. Data were examined for relationships among categories as a part of the inductive reasoning process (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). Negative cases that did not fit into categories were identified. Trustworthiness was established through triangulation of multiple data sources and use of peer de-briefers who were not course professors. Because the lead researcher was the course professor, the research team constantly and carefully checked for biases in data analysis and interpretation. Participation in the interview was not a course requirement and the pre service teachers freely chose to participate.

Description of Curricular Setting

The games course is an early program requirement (sophomore year) designed to develop what Shulman (1986) referred to as Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK) with a specific focus on understanding and implementing TGfU. The games course introduces pre service teachers to TGfU and its theoretical underpinnings, provides opportunities to peer teach, and showcases longer units in three of the four games classifications (net/wall, invasion, strike/field). A four-credit methods course (junior year) follows in sequence, where pre service teachers plan and implement TGfU invasion game lessons with middle school students under the tutelage of a TGfU expert professor. Later, pre service teachers plan and implement a series of individual TGfU lessons in a pre-practicum experience and finally plan and implement several 12-lesson units delivered during the full immersion practicum/student teaching experience

Description of the Course

Sequencing of course experiences followed a pattern resembling the TGfU model: pre service teachers were presented problems (in the form of challenging assignments) to solve. Problems increased in difficulty during the semester. Early on, pre service teachers read and made notes from the Mitchell, Oslin, and Griffin (2006) text. Readings were discussed during class and the professor underscored the main points. Through these initial class deliberations, pre service teachers were introduced to the basic concepts commonly associated with TGfU (e.g., Games Classification System and Levels of Tactical Complexity).

These concepts, while commonly accepted among those who regularly work with TGfU, challenged these pre service teachers’ previously held notions of what games teaching should entail. Simultaneously pre service teachers participated in TGfU badminton lessons taught by the course professor. Badminton was deliberately selected as the first unit because the nature of this net/wall game is such that play pauses at the conclusion of each point, providing increased ease of processing the tactical situation. Each class period involved experiencing TGfU as taught by a knowledgeable professor followed by discussing concepts associated with the model. In week three, pre service teachers began peer teaching badminton, followed by lacrosse and softball, using lessons from the Mitchell, Oslin, and Griffin (2006) text.

To reduce the inevitable overwhelm that often accompanies teaching a large group, pre service teachers worked with partners (each with their own responsibilities) to present a TGfU lesson to the entire class. Written feedback was given by the course professor on the lessons and pre service teachers were required to complete a written lesson reflection. To emphasize longer units, 20 consecutive lessons each of badminton, lacrosse, and softball were experienced by the pre service teachers. At midterm, the pre service teachers were again presented with a “problem” – designing their own individual concept map. The focus of the concept map was TGfU and the interrelatedness of all of the concepts discussed during the first half of the course.

The semester ended with more complex reading assignments. Class discussions of those assignments centered around teaching for delight (Kretchmar, 2005), developing problem-solvers (Griffin & Sheehy, 2004), constructivism and TGfU (Griffin & Butler, 2005) and observation, opposition relationships, debate of ideas, competency networks, tactics, and strategies within team sports (Grehaigne, Richard, & Griffin, 2005). The pre service teachers completed comprehension questions that required them to make personal connections to the content, link the content to prior knowledge, and pose questions that remained unanswered for them.


A continuum of understanding was identified as the major theme representing the varied meanings that students made of class experiences. Placement on the continuum was mediated through breakthrough experiences with TGfU inside and outside of class, an integration of the theoretical underpinnings and practical applications of TGfU, motivation to learn in a community of practice, and recognition/valuing of how games learning can occur for others. Three distinct points, which represent categories on the continuum, were identified as follows: (a) “It changed the way we think about teaching”, (b) break-through moments, and (c) “I finally understand.”

“It changed the way we think about teaching.”

This category’s en vivo code serves as an endpoint on the continuum. All 51 pre service teachers stated in their final interview that participation in the games course changed how they think about teaching games: “This class has really changed the way we all think about teaching” (Beth, interview). All participants noted how they were taught in secondary school with a traditional skill-drill approach, but after the course they supported using TGfU. Steve said, “…The biggest thing I learned was to get students involved…quickly. Don’t bring them into the gym and explain things for 15 minutes and then have them play for 5… get them to answer their own questions” (Steve, interview). Although changes in thinking about teaching were apparent, participants at this end of the continuum did not have a deep understanding of TGfU. These participants’ knowledge of TGfU was (a) fragmented, the theoretical and practical underpinnings disconnected, (b) based on emotional responses with limited cognitive reflection, and (c) focused on self.

First, fragmented knowledge of TGfU, constructivist learning theory, and/or games content knowledge influenced students’ understanding of TGfU. For example Chris, just beginning to see connections among lesson parts, noted, “I need to continue to learn to be an observer during game play one, I had a better understanding of why we were asking students questions and how the opening game related to the practice task” (Chris, written lesson reflection). Some pre service teachers’ understandings of constructivist learning theory was fragmented and not clearly understood in relationship to TGFU, as Barbara wrote in a student-generated question, “It [constructivist teaching] is putting students in a group and asking them to solve a problem.”

Second, although diverse learning activities to facilitate understanding of TGfU were provided, some pre service teachers’ participation within the learning community was hindered by their strong emotional responses to experiences, which seemed to limit cognitive engagement. Claire stated in an interview that she did not really learn during the 20-lesson softball unit: “I know I was kind of bored because I play softball and I just wanted to play a [full-sided] game.” Third, while the games course structure required pre service teachers to learn from and with each other, consistent with constructivist learning approaches, some pre service teachers focused on themselves and were unable or unwilling to contribute to the community of practice.

Alicia’s response exemplifies this: “I felt a little more relaxed and comfortable with my classmates–but I need to work on my self esteem with teaching. I couldn’t answer a question when a student asked me for clarification.” And Kim’s lesson reflection: “There is nothing I can do to improve my TGfU teaching, although I could give more feedback during game one…my partner kept interrupting me.” (The instructor noted on the lesson plan that students were standing around and Kim was silent during the situated practice.)

Frequent break-through moments.

The midpoint of the continuum represents pre service teachers’ break-through moments when they made key connections among concepts related to important learning outcomes. Peer teaching, active participation in TGfU lessons taught by peers and the experienced instructor, and reading and discussing the TGfU literature provided opportunities for pre service teachers to confront what they did and did not understand about TGfU. Some came to new understandings of TGfU or game content. Nancy commented in an interview about the value of participating in TGfU lessons because she was learning softball content knowledge: “I learned a lot more through participation; part of that was because I understood tactics more than ever, and there’s no way I was getting that from teaching as opposed to participating.” Jeff noted his deeper understanding of how a TGfU lesson unfolds and the role that teachers must play in different parts: I finally realized that the practice task was the time to teach them the skills and I gave them lots of feedback.

During Q and A I used student answers and tied them to the next question. I worked to stay clear of being a robot teacher (Jeff, written lesson reflection)! Another break-through moment occurred during class discussion about an article: I actually got it, it made sense why we teach it this way, or why use TGM instead of the traditional model when we were doing the fun versus delight [Kretchmar article]. I remember when I was reading the fun article I couldn’t believe… that someone wrote a six-page article on what the difference between fun and delight was… But once we started to talk …it started to come to me that, like, fun isn’t bad…. then when we were talking about the difference, how when you reach delight it’s because you learned tactically, you did something over and over again, rather than just going through the motions, you really start thinking about what to do in situations and then something will happen, like you scored the game-winning goal or something. And then that’s why it [delight] is really more beneficial because there’s a better chance that you’re going to improve and succeed in the sport (Clint, interview). “I finally understand.” This category’s en vivo code serves as an endpoint on the continuum representing the highest level of understanding that pre service teachers attained during this course.

Characteristics of pre service teachers’ knowledge included (a) integrated knowledge of TGfU and how the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the model connected, (b) co-created understanding of TGfU through active engagement with classmates and the teacher, and (c) focused attention on the learner and beyond themselves. Integrated knowledge of the theoretical and practical underpinning of TGfU was evident in the flexible and adaptable manner that some pre service teachers could talk about, reflect on, and demonstrate understanding of TGfU in their peer teaching. Lesson reflections, student-generated questions, and interview transcripts were filled with details that outlined the parameters of these pre service teachers’ understanding of TGFU. They understood the what, why, and how of TGFU can meet the needs of students in physical education. …the questions are pretty crucial to getting the kids to figure out what the problem is and how to solve it. So it’s the type of questions that we ask that are really key. What’s the problem? What are you doing out there? When is it occurring? So, it’s the who, what, when, where, how. How could it be solved? Who owns the problem? …the constructivism learning piece, where we don’t want to be telling the students what the problem is and how to solve it because they aren’t going to learn as well (Nancy, interview).

Jack understood the importance of student centered learning: “With TGfU you can transform each lesson in a way to meet the needs of all students. In TGfU you help students understand why we do something” (Jack, studentgenerated question). Pre service teachers at this end of the continuum were actively engaged in the learning process as they co-created understanding of TGfU with classmates and teacher; “We learn from each other, watching, asking questions, and supporting each other” ( Dave, Interview). Kate focused on including student responses to improve her questioning: “I would like to improve my questioning skills in order to create the questions and to provide conversation. Using specific examples from what I observed will help and will be a positive reinforcement to students as well” (Kate, written lesson reflection). Jeff valued the opportunity to learn from teaching his peers as noted in an interview: When you peer teach you don’t have any behavior problems. When we went into the schools you have to worry about the motivation and are they on their cell phone…with your peers, because they’re on task and they’re listening, you can really get a feel for the first game, the questions, the practice and then the second game (Jeff, Interview).

A final characteristic for pre service teachers at this end of the continuum was their ability to filter their experiences in class to focus on “others” learning and/or experiences, including their classmates and future students. Carl focused on how his students experienced questions during a peer teach: I really focused on slowing down when I spoke…asking better questions that related to the lesson focus and to the student responses. It worked well for the most part… as I asked quality questions that had to do with student responses and they were more open ended (Carl, written lesson reflection). Jim’s focus on his students was evident in his lesson reflection: I adjusted game play to reduce the number of players standing around during the lesson….Used freeze technique so that students could see what they were doing well… I spent a lot of time preparing…I want to make my own questions based on how the students are responding and not just use the book (Jim, written lesson reflection).


Participation in a semester-long course focused on teaching and learning of TGfU produced important changes in how pre service teachers think about games teaching. These pre service teachers all stated that the course changed their thinking about games teaching to a more student- and game- centered focus. Pre service teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986) placed each along a continuum of understanding that revealed, on one end, a fairly superficial notion of how and why games can be taught using TGfU, and on the other end, a deeper, more integrated understanding of TGfU and the supporting learning theories. Pre service teachers were situated on different points of this continuum based on whether or not they experienced break-through moments in their understanding via different course experiences.

These break-through moments allowed pre service teachers to move to more central participation in the community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991) that developed. Moreover, conditions appear to be necessary in order for pre service teachers to perhaps move along the continuum of understanding. Multiple experiences, developmental readiness and motivation appeared to be conditions that mediated break-through moments. Break-through moments were highly personalized instances that were social in nature whereby pre service teachers made meaningful connections among theoretical and/or practical applications of TGfU that improved their own multiple types of performances or that of others.

Different types of experiences within the games course, as well as multiple experiences over time, positioned pre service teachers on the continuum closer to more integrated understanding and more central participation within the community of practice. These pre service teachers experienced TGfU from different vantage points. They participated in, taught, and reflected on lessons, studied multiple readings, discussed and generated questions based on readings, and created concept maps. Rich engagement and multiple opportunities for moving into the community of practice resulted in break-through moments that became real-life illustrations of what Kretchmar (2006) described as “turning”. “Turning” is growth whereby one learns to view from a new perspective and behave differently over time through patience, dedication, persistence, and practice (Kretchmar, 2006). The games course experiences allowed richer engagement with materials and generated opportunities for moving further into the community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

Researchers have found that pre service teachers need contextually rich settings to learn to teach, including sites where they can observe, reflect, and be mentored by teachers who know and support contemporary curricular models such as TGfU (Collier, 2006). Embedded in the games course experiences were multiple opportunities to integrate theory and practice. Pre service teachers who experienced “turning” were able to draw on theory during their teaching episodes, co-create knowledge as a community, and link theory to future practice and student learning. The learning experiences (e.g., course assignments) and the lesson structures (e.g., readings, discussions with peers and professor, co-teaching with peers) provided ongoing and diverse means of central participation within the learning community. As in any classroom, however, the degree to which all students engaged in class activities varied. Pre service teachers who wholeheartedly engaged in the work gained valuable understandings to be shared and shaped with their classmates and instructor, thereby enhancing their level of contribution and moving them into the center of this community.

Pre service teachers who chose to “opt out” of assignments or who provided surface responses did not have the necessary content understanding to engage in class meaningfully and thus, more peripherally participated within the community; positioning them in the wake of their peers, and ultimately inhibiting access to the powerful, co-created learning that developed from this group.Developmental readiness, or an unwillingness to “turn”, appeared to influence pre service teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge about TGfU. Those pre service teachers who were focused outside themselves could imagine how TGfU would work well to meet the needs of school-aged children. This is consistent with Light and Georgakis’ (2005) findings with pre service primary teachers who also viewed TGfU as a viable and realistic approach to teaching games. In addition, the pre service teachers who focused outside themselves were more willing to take risks by asking questions and seeking support outside class to develop appropriate and engaging lessons.

The pre service teachers who demonstrated the most integrated understanding of TGfU were those able to associate TGfU underpinnings with other programmatic experiences. In contrast, those pre-service teachers who demonstrated egocentric characteristics seemed focused on themselves as skilled games players rather than as novice teachers. Pre service teachers’ perceptions of themselves in relationship to the content knowledge may have set them up to remain peripheral participants (e.g., Claire said, “I know I was kind of bored because I play softball….”). As a result, it is possible that their unwillingness or inability to take learning risks, or failure to view themselves as novice teachers negatively influenced their centrality of participation within the community. Their idea of participation in the course was self-centered, relating to their ability to play the game, rather than forward thinking about future practices as teachers.


In conclusion, this study highlights the importance of developing a community of practice within a games course to aid in cognitive development along a continuum of understanding. Offering multiple, diverse learning experiences over time helps pre service teachers’ understanding grow and aids in the development of central participation within a community of practice. This study also underscores the need for teacher educators to understand the experiences of pre service teachers located on the periphery of the community.

Teacher educators need to be sensitive to those students who perceive themselves as skilled games players. These students may perceive themselves as experts with regard to skills of the game, but may not have deep tactical knowledge or understanding of how others learn which is needed to teach games to all students in schools. We should find ways to draw on their content knowledge to include them in the community, but help them develop tactical understanding, and ultimately pedagogical content knowledge, without blocking their pathway to the central community.

Additionally, some peripheral pre service teachers may still be negotiating their roles within the teacher education program, therefore, they may not view themselves as novice teachers or they may see themselves as already competent coaches. Consequently, teacher educators must carefully navigate communal pathways to draw these students into the community of practice so they are motivated to learn from the vantage point of a novice teacher and feel competent to contribute to the classroom community.


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