Game Sense: Its History, Development and Future

Richard L. Light

The Idea of Game-Based Learning

Game Sense is a pedagogical approach for teaching and coaching games and team sports that sits within a range of methods and approaches referred to as GBA (game-based approaches). GBA vary in terms of how learning is theorized and the epistemology they sit on, the extent to which the teaching/coaching process is structured and what the aims of the approach are but, in practice, look very similar. They all locate learning within games or game-like activities, emphasise questioning and take an inquiry-based or problem-solving-type approach that involves dialogue and reflection. In academic debate we can all be a little precious at times about theoretical ditferences such as what learning theory best explains learning in and through GBA. At the 2017 ACPHER Game Sense for Teaching and Coaching conference in Adelaide I made this point as provocateur, following Ian Renshaw’s keynote on constraints-led theory. In this volume, we have a similar difference of opinion on theorising learning in and through Game Sense expressed by Shane Pill in Chapter 3 and by me in Chapter 4, yet at a practical level, there is not much difference between us.

In physical education and sport pedagogy, and most other disciplines and sub-disciplines, there are very few real innovations or new ideas. Instead, they tend to be developments or redevelopments of ideas, or reorganising of them. This is why history is important in discussions about sport and physical education pedagogy. This is why we always need to recognise where ideas come from and how they have been shaped by changing social and economic conditions. My father studied in a master-of-education program after World War II at The University of Sydney and was immensely influenced as a teacher by the thinking of John Dewey, who is considered to be the most influential thinker on education in the 20th century. His genealogical approach sits within the history of philosophy and is shaped by Darwin’s theories and views of the world (Lamont, 1961). Dewey strove to reconnect philosophy to the mission of ‘education-for-living’. At the turn of the 21st century I found his perspective on learning exciting and enlightening for thinking about sport coaching and teaching physical education. This was many years after his death in 1952, and his work continues to influence thinking on education, including GBA (see Quay and Stolz, 2014). The ideas of the great thinkers in the West and the East are part of a long development of knowledge over thousands of years.

Game Sense was developed from Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU), but ideas about coaching team sports by locating learning in games had been suggested before Bunker and Thorpe’s ground-breaking publication in 1982. For example, over the 1960s Wade (see 1967) advocated the use of small-sided practice games in football (soccer) to develop tactical knowledge, skill in context and improve skill execution through the increased touches of the ball in games when compared to drills. He promoted taking a problem-solving approach in which the teacher or coach guides the student or player towards solving the problem without telling them what to do. He urged teachers to have imagination and to think creatively when teaching football, which I suggest is equally as important, if not more so today. Wade (1967: xiii) suggested, ‘Clearly the teacher who can set problems and also guide a child towards appropriate solutions has an advantage. But any teacher with imagination can set problems and guide a child toward possible answers’. Does this sound familiar half a century later?

The 1960s was a period of new thinking about education that challenged the status quo with progressive education (see Dewey, 1916/97) and child-centred teaching challenging the traditional approach. In the UK during this period Mauldon and Redfern (1969) proposed the use of games in primary (elementary) schools instead of drills to develop skills. These ideas on teaching and coaching were not limited to the UK, with Mahlo (1974) taking a similar approach in France, and it was in this context that Thorpe and Bunker, and later Len Almond developed TGfU. In response to concerns with British universities graduating physical education teachers with good skills but who were not good players, Thorpe, Bunker and Almond located learning in games that were modified to suit the learners/athletes. They were used to develop skill in game contexts, tactical understanding, decision-making, awareness and all the other important interacting components of game play. One of the keys to the success of TGfU in achieving these objectives was the use of questioning as a central feature of the approach.

Bunker and Thorpe’s response to the problems they saw was practical and relatively simple, but effective. They focussed on the game itself as a whole instead of on breaking down into core or even fundamental skills or technique and drilling them in isolation from the game. Locating learning in games designed and modified to suit the needs, experiences, skills and other abilities of the learner gave relevance and meaning to what was learned. It also addressed their concern with student boredom by bringing back the fun and joy that games can promote.

When I was developing my teaching of Game Sense and TGfU at The University of Melbourne from 2000 to mid-2004, this is what struck me most when teaching pre-service teachers. It is what they most commented on and wanted to provide for their students during practice teaching and some of our visits to local schools to teach games. It is also something that really appealed to US masters’ students when I was coaching at the two Global Coaching Symposia, I was invited to in 2018 and 2019 where I lectured and ran workshops on Positive Pedagogy for sport coaching (see Light and Harvey, 2019, 2021). Indeed, one of the students contributed a chapter in the second edition of Positive Pedagogy for sport coaching on his attempts to make American football training fun (see Sneed, 2019).

Over the past two decades, TGfU has changed significantly from Bunker and Thorpe’s (1982) proposal. Growth in attention paid to TGfU was most marked over the course of the 1990s in the USA, where it challenged the dominance of the ‘skill drill’ approach and stimulated a tactical versus technical debate. It led to suggestions for changes (see Kirk and MacPhail, 2002) to the conceptual model of TGfU that were followed up with its development into a model with six stages. With this approach, learners pass through six stages in a cyclical representation that might occur across a range of levels from a single lesson or training session to a unit of work for the term in physical education. Since then development of TGfU into a model has seen it increasingly structured with current interpretations significantly different from the 1982 version.

When asked about the difference between TGfU and Game Sense Rod Thorpe said that “... I see Game Sense as incorporating more of the original teaching games for understanding” (Kidman, 2001, p. 26). As a pioneer in the early development of TGfU, Len Almond confirmed the extent to which TGfU had changed over 30 years in his presentation with Alan Launder in the TGfU symposium at the 2010 AIESEP World Congress. There he explained how, when first conceptualised, TGfU was just a loose idea or concept, and how far its current interpretation is from the 1982 concept. He suggested that TGfU had been designed to be a ‘starting point’ from which improvement in student learning in physical education could evolve. Thorpe and Bunker themselves addressed this issue in their keynote address at the 2008 International TGfU Conference in Vancouver, Canada. They recognised the need to develop TGfU but questioned whether or not the current form (at the time) of TGfU had moved too far away from the original intent and principles to still be called TGfU. In conversations with Rod Thorpe at the 2003 Melbourne conference he suggested to me that the current interpretations of TGfU at the time were very good, but perhaps were not TGfU as he had conceived it.

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