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1 Oct 2013

Students’ Engagement through Integrative Pedagogies – An Ecological Approach

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Classroom ecology (CE), underpinned by an ecological educational approach, presents students’ engagement as a central pedagogical goal in classroom management

Autor(es): João Costa*, Marcos Onofre*, Maria Martins*
Entidades(es): *Technical University of Lisbon – Faculty of Human Kinetics; Department of Education, Social Sciences, and Humanities; Laboratory of Pedagogy
Congreso: X Congreso Internacional sobre la Enseñanza de la Educación Física y el Deporte Escolar
Pontevedra, 5 al 8 de Septiembre de 2013
ISBN: 978-84-939424-4-1
Palabras Clave: physical education, student engagement, integrative pedagogies, classroom ecology, subject department.

Students’ Engagement through Integrative Pedagogies – An Ecological Approach


Classroom ecology (CE), underpinned by an ecological educational approach, presents students’ engagement as a central pedagogical goal in classroom management, where a dynamic balance between the instructional, managerial, and social task systems frames constantly negotiated programs of action. Pedagogically well-balanced classroom ecologies achieve higher engagement levels by intentionally integrating the students’ social system. These integrative pedagogies facilitate negotiation within the instructional and managerial task systems, sustaining curriculum as the CE central piece.

In Physical Education (PE), research under the CE raises questions on how and why teachers (do not) achieve pedagogically well-balanced ecologies, especially attending the wider school ecology. This view concurs with increasing concerns from broader educational research on how teachers’ collective work interacts with the classroom context.

This work contributes to clarify how a classroom of one teacher portraying an integrative pedagogy is facilitated by the department’s collective decisions. A case-study was conducted to analyse, within a PE department, the teacher and one of her classes triangulating all data. Classroom ecology data was collected through teacher’s and students’ questionnaires, and lessons’ observation.

Department’s data were collected through observing subject department’s life, analysing its documents, and interviewing its coordinator.

Results highlight curriculum and students’ success as common grounds for collective decisions that facilitated integrative pedagogies regarding to curriculum management, development and assessment. High levels of student classroom engagement were observed, as teacher’s classroom practices aligned with departments’ decisions. From a mesosystemic focus, reciprocity between both microsystems is pointed as determinant in achieving school-wide students’ success in PE.

Keywords: physical education, student engagement, integrative pedagogies, classroom ecology, subject department.

Advocating for an ecological approach towards students’ pedagogical engagement

Classroom Ecology, firstly introduced by Doyle (2006) as an innovative and emergent paradigm, analyses the classroom management phenomenon from Bronfenbrenner’s (1976) ecological vision on educational settings. This approach underlines the systemic interdependency and focuses the microsystems’ importance to promote ideal behavioural and developmental outcomes. Likewise, Doyle argues from his theoretical background for the reciprocal influence between teachers and students in achieving high levels of students’ cooperation and engagement with the proposed activities across interdependent task systems, namely the instructional, managerial, and a social as proposed by its forerunner (Allen, 1986).

Overall, both Doyle and Allen agree on how classroom environments are shaped by primary vectors – engaged by the teachers -, and secondary vectors – students’ behavioural responses – as either concurring or opposing force that shape the real characteristics of the program of action. When students express opposing vectors, it is initiated a tacit negotiation process pushing teachers to respond with one of three possible ways: a) forcing instruction by ignoring the students’ social agenda; b) allowing the manifestation of their behaviour by suspending the instructional task system, traded for good standing and cooperation in the managerial system; or c) implementing instructional and managerial task system taking into account students’ social agenda. These authors’ research concurs that the latest response, here identified as integrative pedagogies, promotes higher levels of students’ engagement.

Hastie and Siedentop (2006), crucial contributors of classroom ecology research in Physical Education (PE) settings, endorse this approach for its critical and integrated comprehensive analysis of both teachers and students’ classroom behaviours. The authors not only stress that initial findings on classroom ecology are consistently replicated for PE, which reveals common themes and concerns throughout the various educational and instructional contexts, but also that research in this subject area has contributed to broaden the initial framework.

Tousignant and Siedentop (1983) made a first incursion through a qualitative approach on the PE classroom ecology, and identified transitions as another set of activities within the managerial task system, in which usually occur higher off-task behaviours. In this study, the authors enlightened how accountability could have a formal or an informal dimension, adding the conclusion that, despite teachers were perceived as providing teaching quality, they were in fact quite different in their accountability focus, shaping different classroom ecologies. More specifically accountability focus varied between those that mainly elicited students’ cooperation to those that demanded high-level effort and performance, revealing substantive differences of students’ engagement in favour of the latest.

Another important contribute of research on classroom ecology in PE lessons referred to the formal acknowledgement of a social task system firstly made by Jones (1992). The author concluded that effective teachers used social tasks to accommodate the relationship among students, and between them and teachers, by embedding those tasks within the instructional and managerial task systems providing high levels of student engagement and success. However, Hastie (1995) was the first author to devote specific attention to the students’ social system as presented by Allen (1986). Hastie’s research has been essential in explaining how and why students engage differently throughout classes, raising critical elements in that regard. Specifically, curriculum reveals as one of the most important factors influencing students’ engagement in PE lessons (Ennis et al, 1997; Hastie & Pickwell, 1996), alongside with accountability (Lund, 1992), and instructional tasks characteristics where differentiation seems crucial (Graham, 1987). Ennis and her colleagues found that students explicitly did not comply with teachers if they imposed their curriculum decisions, but at the same time students were highly willing to comply with teachers that negotiated curriculum contents to provide authentic and significant learning experiences while being assisted by demanding learning assessments as accountability mechanisms. Lund extended this last notion by showing that when teachers integrate different assessment mechanisms to provide multidimensional accountability focused on student learning, actually achieve highest levels of students’ classroom engagement. A final form of accountability, labelled as content-embedded (Hastie & Siedentop), refers to curriculum’s power to intrinsically drive students’ social system to sustain, or strengthen, the program of action.

These contributions allowed us to say that merging meaningful curriculum contents with a multidimensional and content-embedded accountability to intentionally accommodate the students’ social system within instruction and organization, is determinant in defining integrative pedagogies, which are shown to provide PE classroom ecologies influencing high levels of students’ engagement.

Despite all knowledge constructed on PE ecologies, research of how classroom management can better promote and sustain students’ engagement in PE is still needed (Hastie & Siedentop, 2006). Research demonstrates that integrative pedagogies induce ideal classroom environments for influencing student’s engagement and ultimately curricular success in PE. However, these pedagogies seem scarce and dispersed in teaching practice, raising questions of how and why only some teachers’ develop them.

Part of the answer may well rely on recurrent solicitations to understand PE classroom ecologies attending to the wider school context (Hastie & Siedentop; Siedentop, 2002; Siedentop, Doutis, Tsangaridou, Ward, & Rauschenbach, 1994). This relationship is receiving considerable attention as educational research raises attention to the interconnection between the teachers’ collective work at the school context and their classroom practices (Vieluf, Kaplan, Klieme, & Bayer, 2012). Castelli and Rink (2003) shared this concern when they compared high and low performing schools in PE, and found important differences in justifying their (under)achievements.

The authors found the subject department’s collective dynamic as fundamental, stressing some specific elements such as the coordinator’s supportive leadership, collective visions of students’ performance, independency of external sources of change, or sharing evidence of students’ results. Moreover, regarding teachers’ perceptions of instruction, main differences pointed by the authors refer to specific changes in instructional strategies -even though without observing them -, and less dispersion of students’ success in high performing schools which monitored progress more frequently.

The Research Question

Bronfenbrenner’s (1976) ecological view appears once again to introduce an important notion that potentially facilitates the search for answers addressing the later claims. This is the notion of mesosystem as the level of interaction between different microsystems and carries elements of reciprocity that can amplify behavioural and developmental outcomes in each microsystem. In this line, the classroom emerges as the microsystem where a common vision of PE is materialized, a vision that is constructed at the microsystem of the teachers’ subject department collective work, presenting a mesosystemic relationship which can amplify students’ engagement in PE.

Despite the important contributes towards understanding the teachers’ work, and some even referring its classroom impact, research has not consistently been seeking to observe and enlighten this interaction in promoting students’ engagement. Portugal is no exception when it comes to the need to clarify the PE classroom ecologies experienced by teachers and students. Furthermore, less is known on how teachers’ collectively work and more so, on the nature of its interaction with classroom ecology, intensifying later concerns for the Portuguese PE reality.

Attending to the international and national stated necessities, our study sought to explore the following research question: Under strong collective work conditions, how is students’ engagement promoted through integrative pedagogies?

Research Design

A case-study design (Yin, 2010) was conducted, constituted by one teacher and one of her classes, within the respective PE department, triangulating methods and all data sources to ensure trustworthiness. All ethical concerns were addressed before the onset of the study, collecting required authorizations from national agencies, school board, teachers and students. The school was randomly selected from a list delivered by four PE experts referring them as good examples of collective work where the PE National syllabus was consistently developed.


The school in which the study was conducted inserts in a central Lisbon’s urban setting, with approximately 800 students from 7th to 12th grade. The respective PE department was constituted by eight teachers, four of them being stable for at least 20 years (the oldest had 26 years of presence, whereas the youngest was in his first year in this department). Five teachers were women, and the group’s mean age was 43 years old (±12.7), with a mean teaching service time of 22.8 years (±14.2). Despite PE teachers strived and worked for more and better facilities and materials, no restraints were made to the mandatory curriculum as even swimming permanently presented as a content taught to all students through a joint cooperation with the local city hall. After applying to all department’s teachers an open-ended questionnaire built to differentiate teachers’ perceptions of negotiation in the classroom ecology, one teacher was randomly selected within a stratified group portraying more consistent perceptions of providing integrative pedagogies. The female teacher had 38 years of experience, being in the respective department for 20 years. One of her classes (12th grade) was randomly observed. This class was composed by 10 girls and 8 boys, with a mean age of 17.7 years old (±0.9).

Data on classroom and subject department’s microsystems

Data was gathered during the 2010/2011 school year’s last two terms, addressing both microsystems under research. Accordingly, classroom ecology was studied through teacher’s and students’ questionnaires on their intentions for the PE lesson, and complementing their perceptions by observing in situ and resourcing to the video record of two 90 minutes lessons. As for the PE subject department, this was studied through observing its collective life during formal plenary and informal meetings, analysing its reference work documents during that year, and interviewing its coordinator to achieve greater insight on the department’s history and processes. The strategy of analysis was mainly inductive, however guided by specific theories for each microsystem, specifically classroom ecology’s conceptual structure, a theoretical framework of teachers’ collective work named Professional Learning Communities (PLC) (Hord, 2004) – less discussed here -, and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological approach on educational research to capture the mesosystemic dimension.


Despite the fact that the explicit focus of this work is on classroom ecology, firstly general but important results regarding the PE subject department’s collective work will be introduced to better contextualize the classroom microsystem’s results as a mesosystemic interaction for students’ engagement through integrative pedagogies.

The PE subject department’s collective dynamic

A first concern was to confirm the experts’ opinion by seeking to understand the extent to which the syllabus’ methodological guidelines were followed by this department and what was there in this group to be considered a good model of collective work. In fact subject department’s results highlight the national curriculum’s importance for collective decisions regarding to its management, development and assessment, as these dimensions were present throughout all data sources. Collective work was also substantially similar to the full model of PLC as presented by Hord (2004), where students’ success is a determinant decision-making factor, and external recognition was also evident from national school assessment reports. The coordinator’s leadership was also very much appreciated by his peers and he also felt much support from them, reinforcing this department’s strong collective dynamics (Castelli & Rink; Hord). Despite that, he recognized the struggle of younger teachers at the school due to the historical “weight” and professional dynamic of older colleagues, as an interaction that sometimes blocked initiatives towards the department’s innovation and development.

Regarding to curriculum management, contents were collectively prioritized and strategized according to the main content difficulties that students revealed. However, teachers had also the flexibility and individual responsibility to adjust these priorities according to their initial diagnosis of classes’ characteristics. Moreover collective commitments were evident in following syllabus’s guidelines to teach each year at least 5 different content categories even though they taught all categories of nuclear activities (collective games, athletics, gymnastics, dance, swimming, racquets, dance, outdoor activities, and traditional games). A broad and meaningful curriculum such as this has better chances to be negotiated to be accepted and engaged by students (Ennis et al, 1997;

Hastie & Siedentop, 2006), especially when subject departments converge on its importance (Castelli & Rink, 2003) and this collective orientation clearly points to a facilitation in that regard. On curriculum development, both the coordinator’s view and students’ results sheets concurred with the subject department being highly successful in promoting students’ PE achievement. This was evidenced by their learning results, which showed to increase year by year, thus actually completing the respective cycle of education beyond what the syllabus preconizes as success, an important trait of high performing schools (Castelli & Rink) and successful PLCs (Hord). This level of curricular development is a strong commitment within the department, considering the coordinator’s reference to the absence of a “merry go round” effect, as one in which students repeat the same learning goals instead of keeping evolving within and across each subject matter. This commitment opposes to Ennis and colleagues who identified the “merry go round” problem concurring to students not being willing to engage with learning. On curriculum assessment, syllabus’s guidelines were also fully followed, as the subject department defined operative curricular criteria for the students to achieve success.

Also, assessment instruments and procedural guidelines were defined at department level to ensure greater validity when comparing students’ results. Additionally, they applied to the final years of respective cycles of education “learning certification global tests” assessing students in a number of content categories under authentic game situations through criterion based references, observed at the same time during the lesson by at least three subject department’s peers. Finally students’ results also allowed the department to become self-accountable through collective discussions on the less-achieved contents and how to surpass those difficulties on teaching issues. This level of coherence and self-accountability across the department is also a characteristic of high performing schools (Castelli & Rink) and successful PLCs (Hord) and it provides a level of multidimensional accountability on a collective basis (Lund, 1992). Supporting on Lund, this increases the possibility of occurring instructional alignment where planning, teaching, and assessing are an integrated process to assist students in achieving established learning goals.

Integrative Pedagogies amplified by mesosystemic interactions

Classroom ecology must consider not only how teachers and students behave, but also what they think (Doyle, 2006; Hastie & Siedentop, 2006). The observed teacher was selected for her perception of developing an integrative negotiation process. In this regard the instructional alignment revealed in her practices, clearly aligned with the departments’ decisions, played an important role in defining her integrative pedagogies. Castelli and Rink (2003) verified that low performing schools reflected professional isolation within the department, and that is not common when teachers organize as PLCs (Hord, 2004). The fact that an instructional alignment is achieved with reference to the department’s decisions is a first and most important mesosystemic reciprocal interaction supporting both microsystems (Bronfenbrenner, 1976). This means that at the classroom level the teacher’s decisions were supported in collective work, and in the department’s level their decisions were informed and validated by results obtained in classroom through common instruments and processes.

The instructional alignment, as Lund (1992) presents it, was specifically observed when the teacher had planned groups of students by skill level according to the syllabus’ references, proposing game situation tasks adjusted for each groups, and used the collective orientations to assess students. This differentiation concurs with Graham (1987) who found that when teachers differentiated teaching, students responded with higher engagement levels which can be another form of embedding the social task system within instruction (Jones, 1992). However, Graham also observed that in game situation tasks students’ success was still compromised. In this teachers’ class, it was possible to observe from the curricular demands expressed in learning tasks that being a lower skilled student did not necessarily mean being low skilled at all. Therefore, another important mesosystemic interaction emerges when students’ success as effects of curricular development’s collective commitments where observable in this class. This concurs with the reported absence of a ‘merry go round’ effect, most important for students’ engagement (Ennis et al, 1997). The alignment with departments’ curricular management decisions was evident when the teacher assessed three different content categories in one lesson, all with game situations, which are also elements known to bring diversity and authenticity to curriculum and greatly valued by  students (Ennis et al). Overall, this teacher revealed a strong and effective instructional task system with high levels of students’ engagement and success (Doyle, 2006; Hastie & Siedentop, 2006).

Quality in the managerial task system was also evident, namely when we observed that students had to change from an outside space to the gymnasium so that the lesson could proceed to assess Dance and Acrobatics. This change was swift and fluid, opposing to the transition difficulties for teachers to manage because of higher levels of off-task behaviours (Tousignant & Siedentop, 1983). Students knew exactly the lesson contents, how they were organized as learning tasks, and space transitions seemed routinized, all critical elements for a successful classroom organization (Doyle; Hastie & Siedentop). Moreover, the teacher assessed in one lesson Volleyball, Dance, and Acrobatics, while still providing simultaneous opportunities for students to practice other contents according to their needs (e.g. Solo Gymnastics), constantly revealing complex classroom organizational demands such as multidimensionality and immediacy (Doyle). Clearly this lesson’s goal would not have been fulfilled without this effectiveness of the managerial task system that allowed this level productivity (Lund). A major mesosystemic interaction that facilitated the managerial task system was evident as the subject department organizes facilities’ rotations to ease the teachers’ planning and instruction. This is a long standing collective routine and it provides stable conditions necessary for teachers to plan their classroom ecology.

As for students, the questionnaire collectively revealed their perceptions towards an academically oriented social agenda, valuing lessons oriented for learning instead of those reduced to a recreational or a fitness and health oriented approach. Therefore, most students valued the entire curriculum areas and learning its contents. This is not consistent with Allen’s (1986) results where he found that most students were hybrid in their intentions. It also opposes to studies by Hastie and Pickwell (1997), or to partial observations by Ennis and colleagues as curriculum contents never seemed to induce lower engagement levels. The fact that these students pertained to the 12th grade, the final and determinant year before applying to higher education, where PE grading still counted for higher education application, could actually be argued as an important factor in influencing their social agenda. Nevertheless, having observed that students were working towards levels of curricular achievement beyond the established requirements for success, along with their preference for learning oriented lessons reveals a mesosystemic interaction of convergence with the department’s vision of PE suggesting a more intrinsic interest in their social agenda for PE. Moreover, students would still ask for the teacher’s help, as she also monitored the classroom with feedback on learning tasks increasing the classroom learning orientation over grading.

Multidimensional and content-embedded forms of accountability were also evident in influencing all systems because when students finished their assessing, or in case they did not reveal greater problems in those contents, as facilitated by the teacher they took the extra-time and opportunity to work on other contents on that they were to be assessed in later lessons. Therefore, we observed that, when given the opportunity, the students’ social system did not stress instructional or organizational demands, in fact it supported the established program of action high levels of engagement (Lund; Hastie & Siedentop). This level of accountability can be achieved either by teachers individually or through a subject department’s collective commitment (Lund). Concurring with Castelli and Rink, and Hord, clearly the latest form was the observed one, thus indicating a most determinant mesosystemic interaction that clearly facilitates the teacher’s classroom management to provide integrative pedagogies objectively with high levels of students’ engagement and success.


On a collective microsystemic level, the department revealed great adhesion to the national syllabus guidelines, functioning as a PLC with high levels of performance as indicated by students’ results which served as a critical collective performance indicator. For the classroom microsystem, the classroom ecology observed concurred with the teacher’s perception of providing integrative pedagogies throughout all task systems, revealing high levels of students’ engagement and positive indicators of curricular success. The classroom ecology was supported by a learning oriented students’ social system which interacted with instruction and organization as a negotiation facilitator by strengthening the program of action. The integrative pedagogies provided by the teacher can be summarized as accommodating the social task system in instruction through differentiation, and in management through routines and lesson’s content explanation, all internally regulated by a multidimensional and content-embedded accountability. Therefore, grading never seemed to outweigh learning, as shown by students’ and teacher’s behaviour.

Important mesosystemic interactions were also observed throughout all task systems, which suggest an amplification of the teacher’s integrative pedagogies to promote and sustain students’ engagement. Namely, collective decisions that facilitate classroom management and instruction towards integrative pedagogies that accommodate the students’ social system, and classroom decisions supported on department’s commitments and processes to validate collective discussion on results obtained throughout school classes to improve the department’s work, present as observable characteristics with reciprocal influence in both microsystems. This can be a critical element in promoting students’ engagement and curricular success in PE needing further investigation.


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