Teaching Games for Understanding: Evolution of a Model

By Werner, Peter; Thorpe, Rod et al. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Teaching Games for Understanding: Evolution of a Model


Werner, Peter, Thorpe, Rod, Bunker, David, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


The games curriculum occupies an important place in public school physical education. Research suggests that 65 percent or more of the time spent in physical education is allotted to games (Hill, cited in Thorpe, Bunker, & Almond, 1984). The purpose of this article is to inform teachers about current models of teaching games in the public schools. First, the technical model is outlined. It is followed by the history of an emerging model of teaching games called the understanding approach (which stresses the importance of the game, tactical awareness, and decision making, among other things). A brief literature review followed by a discussion of new testing instruments provides the reader insight into the future of games teaching in the public schools.

The Technical Model

Over the last decade there has been considerable debate as to how games should be presented to youth. The traditional model follows a series of highly structured lessons relying heavily on the teaching of skills and techniques. This model is similar to one proposed by Rink (1993), in which the first two game stages are concerned primarily with the development of control and combination experiences through extending, refining, and application tasks which lead toward skillfulness. It has been the belief that once skills have been mastered, the student will be in a position to transfer these skills into game situations. Thus at stage three a student typically enters modified game situations, in which the number of players, rules, and conditions of the game are gradually introduced (Read, 1993; Rink, 1993). Finally at stage four, students play games under conditions which represent the rules and standards of the official game. Students learn specific offensive and defensive tactics under direct guidance of the teacher.

The Tactical Model

An alternative model has been termed an understanding approach to the teaching of games (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982) and has evolved as observations of the technical model of teaching games consistently revealed: (a) a large percentage of children achieving little success due to the emphasis on performance, (b) skillful players who possess inflexible techniques and poor decision-making capacities, (c) performers who are dependent on the teacher/coach to make their decisions, and (d) a majority of youngsters who leave school knowing little about games. In addition, the authors noted that skills (perhaps more appropriately called techniques, in that they were usually practiced out of context) that were taught often did not transfer to the game, that children approached this phase of the lesson with low motivation (children are often heard to ask, "When can we play the game?"), and that the skills were focused at the average child.

The history of the understanding approach to games actually dates back to the late 1960s and 1970s to a group at Loughborough University, England (Werner & Almond, 1990). This approach does not assume that tactical or strategic awareness in games must wait for the development of sophisticated skills. Bunker and Thorpe (1982) argue that if it does, some children will never be able to play because they will never attain the skill level required of them. These authors take the point of view that the task of the teacher is to present a game which children can enter with some of the skills already developed and that improvement can be achieved through understanding what the game is about. Rules and equipment used in games are modified to ensure that all children can play and gain insight into the games they play.

Evolution of a Game

The evolution of any game follows the model presented in figure 1 (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982). First, students must be capable of understanding (with guidance) the particular game form, and will be led to recognize the unique problems to be solved. It is important at this level for teachers to give careful thought to the size and shape of the playing surface, the number of players on a team (e.

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