Weaving a pedagogical web: a qualitative investigation of secondary physical education teachers’ practice
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While the close investigation of teachers’ classroom practice received considerable attention in the 1960s and 1970s, fine-grained observational studies of classrooms have progressively disappeared from the research landscape. Research in recent decades has tended to have a restricted focus of attention, concentrating on the objective measurement of ‘effective’ teaching to identify forms of classroom practice that can raise educational standards. This research agenda has been increasingly critiqued for oversimplifying the complex nature of classroom life, but capturing a more complete picture presents a number of challenges. There is a need for researchers to provide a fine-grained account of teachers’ practices in the classroom while giving a sense of the purposes framing these actions together with an alertness to salient contextual influences. The study presented in this thesis set out to engage with all these challenges and provide a ‘fresh’ interpretation of teachers’ day-to-day practices in comparison to many past studies. Given the intent to capture both teachers’ practices and how they framed these actions, Robin Alexander’s definition of ‘pedagogy’, which highlights the need for researchers to adopt a ‘bigger picture’ perspective, was an appropriate heuristic guide for this study. Six teachers of physical education working in different secondary school contexts participated in this study and a key concern in sampling was the desire to recruit highly competent practitioners. A pilot study and conversations with a number of key informants ensured the participants chosen were highly skilled teachers. This study was conducted in two inter-related phases. The first phase of the research involved tracking these teachers in their school context and 88 lesson observations were conducted to view them ‘in action’ with classes. The second phase involved conducting a semi-structured interview with each teacher to explore the insights gained about their practice during the observation phase of the research. A theoretical framework – featuring five framing categories and a ‘teacher-pupil power dynamic’ element – was constructed to encapsulate the main findings from the observation and interview research. The five framing categories represent the patterns of classroom interaction identified in this study, i.e.: teacher-directed, teacher-guided, pupil-led, pupil-initiated, and teacher-pupil negotiated practice. There was a degree of variation in all the participant teachers’ practices that were observed in this study, contrasting markedly with research in the physical education literature reporting an over-use of ‘direct’ teaching. The ‘teacher-pupil power dynamic’ derived from observation and interview work and is composed of two related dimensions. The first dimension captures the ‘fine-tuned’, ‘negotiated’ and ‘responsive’ nature of these teachers’ practices and highlights how teachers and pupils simultaneously shape classroom events. The second dimension encapsulates the core factors – respect, familiarity, time, and context – shaping teacher-pupil relationships and the decisions made about classroom practice. The thesis sets out how the teachers in this study carefully enacted a repertoire of teaching approaches by: ‘fine-tuning’ practice in advance of lessons taking place; ‘responding’ to situations in the immediate act of teaching; ‘negotiating’ the learning intentions for lessons with the pupils; and making judgements about practice against the changeable nature of teacher-pupil relationships. These insights contribute to the education and physical education literature by presenting a dynamic picture of classroom life and suggest that a more responsive, interactive form of teaching was displayed by these teachers than is revealed in the majority of past research studies. The central insights gained from this study contribute to research on pedagogy by providing a close analysis of the micro-interactions that take place in school classrooms and the influences shaping these interactions. A related and equally important contribution to pedagogy emerged from the sustained period spent observing these teachers, which developed a deep understanding of their teaching actions over time and across different physical activities and stages of schooling. The teachers in this study both responded to, and shaped, the dynamics of the classroom; and the interactive forms of teaching that they displayed are not adequately captured in existing definitions of pedagogy. Accordingly the thesis presents an expanded version of Alexander’s definition of pedagogy that foregrounds the dynamic nature of teacher-pupil relationships.