A comparative study of students' track and field technical performance in sport education and in a direct instruction approach.

Author:Pereira, Jose
Position::Research article


The reform movement within Physical Education which gained momentum during the 1980's proposed a move from teacher-centred approaches grounded on behaviourist premises towards student-centred teaching approaches based on constructivist and social learning theories (Chandler and Mitchell, 1991). As an example of a teacher-centred approach, Metzler (2011) lists Direct Instruction as an example of one model that foregrounds the teacher as the instructional leader. In Direct Instruction, teachers are placed on "centre-stage" (Curtner-Smith and Sofo, 2004, p. 351), and by consequence are responsible for most of the decisions about content development, class management, student accountability, and student engagement (Metzler, 2011).

On the other hand, Sport Education is proposed as following a more student-centred set of pedagogies, grounded within the tenets of constructivist premises (Metzler, 2011). In Sport Education the assumption is that learning comes as an interactive and cooperative construction of shared meanings between students devised by means of authentic learning environments and meaningful activities (Siedentop, 2002). Thus, students' sporting experiences are framed within specific features commonly found in youth, community, and interscholastic sports programs. First, students in Sport Education become members of teams and maintain their affiliation throughout the entire season. Second, there is a system of formal and regular competition in which significant record keeping takes place. Third, the entire season is designed to be festive and concludes with a culminating event that celebrates team and student performance (Siedentop et al., 2011). In a major departure from most forms of competition within physical education, students in Sport Education act not only as players, but also take on responsibilities such as coaches, referees, trainers, scorekeepers, and statisticians among others. By consequence, the increased range and complexity of learning activities dictates that Sport Education seasons require a longer allocation of time that might be found in other formats of physical education. The model's pedagogical structure also encompasses several formal accountability procedures aimed at enhancing student inclusion and equitable learning opportunities. Namely, it seeks to create a sense of community among students by means of extensive teamwork where the higher-skilled students work with their less-abled peers so that all students believe they are making contributions to their teams and enjoy the sense of belonging (O'Donovan et al., 2010).

Reviews of Sport Education (e.g., Hastie et al., 2011; Wallhead and O'Sullivan, 2005) have confirmed the effectiveness of the model in enabling student engagement within student-centred learning tasks of the curriculum, and that the emphasis on persistent team membership encourages personal and social development. However, with respect to students' skill development, there is still a need for further empirical evidence showing the impact of Sport Education on student learning. As a case in point, research to date has either been grounded primarily on survey reports seeking the perceptions of students and teachers (Hastie et al., 2011), or has consisted of empirical studies that lacked appropriate comparison groups in experimental or quasi-experimental research designs (Wallhead and O'Sullivan, 2005).

Nonetheless, two studies (Hastie et al., 2013; Pritchard et al., 2008) have indeed compared student skill accomplishment in units taught using either Sport Education or Direct Instruction approaches. However neither of these studies showed a definitive advantage of one method over the other. For example in the volleyball study of Pritchard et al. (2008), while there was no significant difference between models for skills and knowledge, Sport Education was considered more efficient in enhancing students' volleyball game-play. Similarly, in the track and field study of Hastie et al. (2013) Sport Education was shown to be slightly more effective than Direct Instruction in promoting students' improvements across three events (hurdles, triple jump, and shot-put), even though students had enhanced technical performance in both approaches.

It should be noted those both the above mentioned studies presented their results without taking account of the students' gender or their initial skill levels. By consequence, these studies perhaps missed the opportunity to provide "a more complete analysis of the impact of Sport Education on the development of player competence" (Hastie, 1998, p. 374). This point is important given research in Physical Education that has highlighted the critical role that gender holds in the conduct of the subject, particularly in instances where some settings socially reward boys for aggressive and dominant game behaviours (Ennis et al., 1997; Gutierrez and Garcia-Lopez, 2012). Within these settings of pervasive male-dominance in lesson activities, more learning opportunities are afforded to boys over girls, who in turn are often alienated from power roles and decision-making processes (Chase et al., 1994; Ennis et al., 1997; Ennis, 1999; Griffin, 1984, 1985; Harrison et al., 1999; Hastie, 1998; Parker and Curtner-Smith, 2012; Pritchard et al., 2014).

In the same way as gender, students' initial skill levels also have the potential to influence skill development. As an example from volleyball, French et al. (1991) showed that the initial level of lower-skilled students constrained their participation during all class transitions to increasingly complex activities. In contrast, two studies by Mesquita et al. (2005; 2012) found greater gains by lower-skilled students compared with their higher-skilled classmates in units of volleyball and soccer respectively.

Given the limitations of previous research on student achievement in physical education with respect to both design and accounting for gender and initial skill levels, the purpose of the current investigation was to examine the effects of two instructional units (one Sport Education and the other using Direct Instruction) on students' technical performance in three track and field events (hurdles, triple jump, and shot put). By incorporating an increasing number of dependent variables, the significance of this work lies in its ability to provide a more complete account of the impact of different instructional approaches on student learning.



The participants in this study were 47 sixth-grade students (25 boys and 22 girls) aged between 10 and 13 years old from two classes in a school in Northern Portugal. Each class completed either a season of Sport Education (9 boys and 10 girls) or Direct Instruction (16 boys and 12 girls) in track and field athletics. The classes met twice a week during a period of 10 weeks for a total of 20 lessons. Each lesson was scheduled for 45 minutes.

The teacher of both classes was a female who had 19 years of experience in teaching Physical Education at both 2nd and 3rd levels of schooling (5th to 9th grade), and as such had significant experience teaching the track and field, as it is a mandatory element of the Physical Education curriculum in Portuguese schools. The ethical committee of the authors' university approved the research protocol, and the parents or legal guardians of each student signed an informed consent letter allowing the participation of their child in the study.

The track and field athletics units

The sport education season: The Sport Education season included all the features suggested by the benchmark literature in the model (seasons, persisting teams, formal competition, record keeping, festivity and a culminating event) (Siedentop et al., 2011). The first lesson served the purpose of introducing the educational goals and procedures embedded in Sport Education to the students, as well as allocating them to four mixed-ability teams based upon their performance on skills tests performed in lessons prior to the season. During this first lesson, the students allocated themselves to various team roles. Consistent with the study of Hastie et al. (2013) these roles were student-coaches, statisticians, starters, timekeepers, and finish judges assigned for running events and for taking measurements in the jumps and throws.

The following lessons saw students interspersing practicing athletics skills with formal competition of hurdles, shot put, and triple jump in a competition format known as the "event model" (Siedentop et al., 2011, p. 111). During within-team event practice, students were given the opportunity to practice roles and to compete with teammates within a noncompetitive environment. During formal competition the teams were paired to compete with one another on a rotational basis while alternating scoring records and the competition managerial requisites (i.e., role performance--taking measurements and running times). Throughout the season each team's statistician kept an updated account of the performance of all team members and transferred the team's scores to the main class score chart.

Sustaining an equitable learning environment: The structure of this Sport Education season implied that students could experience participation in different roles throughout the unit on a rotating basis, while the formal competition schedule ensured the equitable participation of all students. Additionally, the power roles (i.e., the student-coach role) were proportionally assigned to girls and boys in order to prevent potential imbalanced power relations between students based on status and gender portrayed by some accounts...

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