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The classroom ecology paradigm and its contribution to understanding context in physical education

Peter Hastie
p. 29-50


L’objet de cet article est de montrer en quoi le paradigme de l’écologie de la classe permet d’apporter une vision heuristique pour analyser le contexte en classe d’éducation physique. La première partie de l’article présente trois systèmes de tâche en interaction au sein de la leçon permettant de comprendre le déroulement du travail en classe. Ces systèmes de tâche : d’instruction, de management et de sociabilité sont décrits et reliés pour expliquer comment les stratégies et les intentions d’origines de l’enseignant évoluent. Le concept défendu par ce programme d’action est que les contenus et le management sont imbriqués pendant la tâche d’instruction. La deuxième partie de l’article fait une revue de recherches en éducation physique issue du cadre théorique de l’écologie de la classe. La troisième décrit la façon dont ce paradigme prend en compte le contexte. Pour finir, l’article examine certains concepts sous-exploités dans l’écologie de la classe alors qu’ils pourraient être des outils heuristiques pour renseigner le niveau d’efficacité de l’enseignement.

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1In 1970, Jacob Kounin presented his theory of classroom systems operations, consisting largely of task, opportunity to respond, and accountability ecologies. An important message conveyed was that certain discrete teacher activities were not necessarily linked causally to certain student activities, but that the larger system of teacher and student actions, setting variables, and situational contexts must be functionally taken into account; and must be done so in relation to the temporal patterns extant to system activity. Illustrative of this message is the example of “classroom management [being] unrelated to how you handle misbehavior and how you handle misbehavior [being] unrelated to the amount of misbehavior that you get” (Kounin, 1983: p. 7). In other words, a discrete teacher activity such as a verbal desist, in and of itself, while popularly viewed as a potentially effective action when confronted with a misbehaving student, is not necessarily causally related in a generic way with the desired outcome of a student ceasing in that misbehavior. What is important is to take into account the many teacher and student actions and reactions, setting events, and situational peculiarities; and to view their functional relationships in time-based context; when determining a potentially effective course of teacher action (Doyle, 1990; Sharpe, 1997). Following Kounin’s (1970) initial model building, more sophisticated analyses of the notion of an ecology of classrooms have been undertaken. Doyle (1977), for example, presented the view that classrooms have the characteristics of simultaneity, multidimensionality and unpredictability; lending themselves to the importance of scientific study in context.
With respect to physical education research at the time of Kounin and Doyle’s seminal works, Larry Locke (1977) presented a condemning account of research on teaching physical education in which he noted that such research “rarely is sequential (each study starts de novo, uninstructed by findings, failures and questions derived from previous studies), never is replicative (by intention) and largely is atheoretical” (p. 2). Locke’s major criticism at the time was a failure of the field to directly observe those events which were taking place in the gymnasium. He chastised researchers who treated the gymnasium as a “black box”, and who assumed that it was unimportant to examine the process events which took place at those points where teachers, students, curriculum and organization collide.
The reason for revisiting this notion of the black box and the critical importance of examining context is a view that there has been a 21st century “creep” towards studies that violate Locke’s demand to study the process events that take place during instruction. In particular, it is important to consider Locke’s (1977) definition of what would be not only as “not research on teaching,” but also as “not research at all”. In the latter, Locke includes studies in which students are asked to report (or pass judgment upon) events which they may have seen, but which the investigator did not. For example, examination of many issues of the leading journals in sport pedagogy include studies in which a large number of students across a large number of settings complete questionnaires concerning their achievement goals, self-reported persistence/effort, expectancy-related beliefs, subjective task values, enjoyment, and perceived competence, to name a few. Again, what is missing in many of these studies is any observation of the students within the context in which they are participating, which leads to generic, nonconsequential results which fail to advance the task of improving the lives of students during physical education. As a result, Hastie and Casey (2014) suggest that future studies in sport pedagogy (and particularly the case in research on model-based practice) include rich descriptions of the curricular elements of the unit under study, together with a detailed description of the program context that includes the previous experiences of the teacher and students with the model or with models-based practice.

The Classroom Ecology Paradigm

2In terms of finding a heuristic that allows for a rich description of “what’s going on in the gym” as well as providing an analytical lens for explaining how those events develop, researchers in sport pedagogy have found utility in following the classroom ecology paradigm. The classroom ecology paradigm depicts the behavioural dynamics of classrooms in a way that helps teachers and researchers interpret, predict and respond to those dynamics (Siedentop, 1988). Essential to this paradigm is that its focus is on studying life in classrooms as it naturally unfolds. By consequence, it has a dimension of an anthropological view which can only be accomplished through regular and long-term observation of that life. Research in this paradigm focuses on the “work” that students are required to do during their lessons, and represents class life as a set of three interrelated systems (managerial, instructional, and student social), in which changes in one system are likely to influence changes in another. The two key issues in the ecological model are described by Doyle (1986) as “order” and “academic work”, and it is important to understand that they two are closely linked. If, for example, a student (or group of students) become off-task and potentially disruptive, this has clear implications for the amount of academic work that can be achieved, as the teacher will most likely act to restore order, and thereby temporarily suspend the instructional focus of that lesson. In the reverse sense, if a teacher has and maintains rigorous standards for student performance classroom management tasks, opportunities for student socializing may be diminished. Indeed, findings from the earliest studies in physical education using this model confirmed that the compelling agenda for physical education teachers is the establishment and maintenance of order through a managerial system that typically focuses on cooperation rather than compliance (e.g., Jones, 1992; Siedentop, Doutis, Tsangaridou, Ward & Rauschenbach, 1994). However, it has also been noted that many teachers gain and maintain such cooperation in the managerial system by reducing the demands in the instructional system (Hastie & Pickwell, 1996; Rovegno, 1994).

Tasks and Task Systems

3The central tenet of the classroom ecology paradigm is the idea of tasks and task systems, first introduced by Doyle (1980), and expanded by Tousignant and Siedentop (1983) who identified three task systems that typically operate within physical education: managerial, transitional and instructional. Managerial tasks are those which relate to attendance and behaviour, and in some cases, appropriate dress. Transitional tasks are defined as “the operations that the students were expected to do to accomplish the instructional tasks” (Tousignant, 1982, p. 99), while instructional tasks are those related to the achievement of subject-matter goals. With respect to instruction, Doyle’s (1983) concept of academic work sees that the curriculum can be seen as a collection of academic, or subject-matter tasks. It is the task then that designates the situational structure that organizes and directs student thought and action (Doyle & Carter, 1984).
Within physical education research, the most typical categorization of instructional tasks has been in their purpose related to skill development. Rink (1994) described these as “informing tasks” (those which provide information to students about the upcoming task), “refining tasks” (those concerned with improving the quality of the performances by the students), “applying tasks” (those which provide students with opportunities to apply their skills in game or scrimmage situations), and “extending tasks” (which are progressions of previous tasks which challenge students to perform in more difficult situations).
A third, but later identified task system relevant to classroom ecology has been named the student social system. Acknowledging that life in classes is highly social, Allen (1986) first foregrounded the importance of this system when he suggested that students have two major goals, those of socializing and of passing the course. Later McCaughtry, Tischler and Flory (2008) suggested that this task system should be broadened into a social task system with three dimensions: relationships between teachers and students, relationships among students, and the social climate of the school. Translating this to perhaps school’s most highly social context, physical education, Siedentop (1988) argued that students’ social agendas have strong potential to interact with the managerial and instructional tasks systems in ways that influence the ecology of class life.
Despite the task presented by the teacher, all students have the opportunity to choose to respond in a number of different ways. Within physical education, Marks (1988) was the first to list these as on-task, task modifying (where a student alters the stated task to make it either more difficult or easy) or off-task (including deviant or non-participant). Son (1989) introduced the concept of “task congruence” which is a measure of the extent to which the initial response of students corresponded to teachers’ stated task. Son’s analysis was made on two levels: responses to antecedent task statements, and subsequent consequences. The results of this investigation showed that congruent student responses to stated tasks were more likely to be influenced by informal contingencies such as the nature of the activity or student interest, than by antecedent task statements such as a task specification or the formal accountability system. Doyle (1986) notes that order can often exist in a class without full and continuous engagement by all students. He adds that “passive nonengagement is not necessarily problematic in establishing and sustaining order even though it may be unsatisfactory for learning” (Doyle, 1986: p. 396). In physical education, there is also the possibility of such fake engagement, with Tousignant and Siedentop (1983) describing the “competent by-stander” as those students who are extraordinarily skilled at staying well within the boundaries of the managerial system but who cleverly avoid participation in the instructional system.

Teacher Response and Accountability

4Once tasks are presented and students begin performing (or not), the teacher must make a number of decisions. When the students’ responses to the task are considered nonproblematic, the decision most likely is to continue with the task. Alternately, where students are not responding to a satisfactory degree, the teacher may stop the task and present a new task. The middle ground for a teacher is to modify the task without abandoning it altogether, which Doyle (1986) suggests is a more sensible option since he claims that even in the best circumstances, transitions to new work are difficult to manage.
What is of more significance however, is that regardless of the nature of the original task, and how explicit the original task might be, it is the subsequent supervision and accountability that determines the work students accomplish. In all lessons, teachers provide commentaries to students about the appropriateness of their behaviour, effort, or performance, with those comments containing general or specific information. Doyle (1983) states that how these teachers express the consequences of student behavior defines the accountability system operating in the class. Becker, Geer and Hughes (1968) first referred to accountability as existing where there was an exchange of rewards or grades for performance. What is important to note, however, is that “grades” are not solely the scores on a report card. Rather, grades operate as a form of reward structure, which may be formal (such as a written examination or a skills test), or informal, which is far more common within physical education. In fact, Jones’s (1992) study of elementary school classes revealed no formal accountability, with informal strategies such as active monitoring and commentary, sitting out, public recognition, and teacher feedback being the tools used (Lund, 1991).

The Programme of Action

5For the purposes of describing the completed work in this paradigm, the concept of the programme of action (Doyle, 1986) needs to be foregrounded. The term is used to identify that place where the issues of subject-matter content and management come together in ways that are not easily separated. The programme of action, then, encompasses the positioning and sequencing of content and management within lessons. Having a specific direction, momentum and energy, the programme of action determines appropriate behaviours for students during different instructional contexts.

6Merritt (1982: p. 224) suggests that classroom activities contain “vectors” that, once entered into, pull events and participants along their course. The term vector is used purposefully, suggesting that the programme of action draws events and participants along its course. Primary vectors are manifested in those agendas that the teacher has for the lesson, and define both action and the order necessary for the action to move forward smoothly. Secondary vectors are typically student initiated, and serve to test the robustness of the primary vector with its teacher-controlled or content-embedded accountability. Students initiate secondary vectors for a variety of purposes: to reduce the demands of a task, to lessen the chances of being held accountable, to seek a more interesting task, to engage socially with peers, or even out of boredom. Teachers often react to these secondary vectors, and how and when they do will “define the boundaries and strength of the primary direction vector and shape its direction” (Doyle, 1986: p. 420).

7The programme of action can therefore be described as a concept at the macro level of a lesson. We know from previous studies (Carlson, & Hastie, 1997; Hastie, 2000; James, Griffin & Dodds, 2008) that a program of action can be robust in that it is in a position to counter deflections, and as such, programs of action can perhaps best be graphically identified using the concept of vectors. That is, where the primary vector contains sufficient strength (one which contains achievable yet challenging tasks) and durability (in which there is some authentic outcome which can accommodate students’ social agendas), it is capable of pulling events and participants along a course toward quality performance. Doyle (1986) suggests a delicate balance exists between attending to the primary vector and attention to inappropriate behaviour.

Research on the Key Elements of the Classroom Ecology Paradigm

Studies of Tasks and Task Systems

8Graham (1987) was the first to use Rink’s categories of instructional tasks to examine student engagement (measured in number of contacts per minute) and percentage success during instruction, finding that teachers regularly differentiate movement tasks for high and low skilled students to allow for similar response rates. In a following study, Jones (1992) analysed the task systems operating in elementary physical education, and found that while students produced minimal task modification in the managerial task system, and produced high levels of compliance in instructional tasks, they rarely reached success rates above 35 percent. In addition, Jones suggested that content development typically followed a pattern of presenting informing tasks, then adding extensions, and finally applying skills to modified game situations. Notably absent from most lessons in the Jones’ study were refining tasks, which are considered as keys to student learning. In other studies, there is little evidence of the use of extending tasks (see Ayvazo & Ward, 2011; Ward, Kim, Ko & Li, 2015).
More recently, particularly within research on teachers’ content knowledge, Ayvazo and Ward (2011) identified four categories of what they called “intratask adaptations” which are modifications for individual or small groups of students. These are listed as: (a) modifying task complexity (i.e., modifying space, equipment, number of students, or rules), (b) refining or breaking task (i.e., asking students to perform only one or two elements of the task for the quality of performance without changing the task), (c) restating task (i.e., repeating the entire task in forms other than the ones used when the task is delivered to the entire class), and (d) competition condition (i.e., changing a learning condition from noncompetitive to competitive situations). In an intervention study, Ward et al. (2015) showed that after a workshop that focused on badminton content knowledge, teachers used more of these intratask adaptations with increased numbers of restating, modifying, and refining tasks for the individuals or small groups.
Within sport pedagogy research, the student social system has received considerably less attention than the managerial and instructional task systems. While some research using the ecological model has mentioned the influence of student’s social agenda in affecting classroom processes (e.g. Jones, 1992; Son, 1989), only the studies of Hastie and Pickwell (1996) and Carlson and Hastie (1997) have focused on this system. Nevertheless, this research on the student social system shows it to be a no less critical component in determining the nature and extent of subject-matter work within physical education. For example, Hastie and Pickwell (1996) showed that boys in a dance class invented a number of strategies they use to get out of instructional tasks they saw as unattractive or trivial. More significantly, these strategies allowed them to attend to their social agenda, particularly as the number of boys exceeded the number of girls in this class.
There have been cases within physical education, however, where the student social system is jointly constructed by the students along with the teacher. In a study focusing of student misbehaviour, Supaporn, Dodds, and Griffin (2003) described a class where the instructional task system was weak, with ill-defined tasks, and the managerial task system was minimal, with few explicit rules, routines, and expectations. Social interactions, however, were a way of getting along with minimal disruptions, producing a condition that the authors suggested could be described as procedural display (Bloome, Puro & Theodorou, 1989) “whereby both teacher and students merely went through the motions of constructing a physical education lesson without real attention to class work as the goal” (Supaporn et al., 2003: p. 344).

Studies of Accountability

9Accountability research within physical education began with Tousignant (1982) describing a continuum of accountability within the instructional task system of physical education. Tousignant suggested that teachers hold their students accountable at one of four levels. First, they can be held accountable for “minimal participation”, no matter how good or average the performance. All that is expected is that students present themselves at class ready to participate. At a slightly more rigorous level, students are held accountable for their “effort” during their engagement in tasks. At an even higher level of demand, some degree of performance quality is expected. In these cases, teachers might praise students for quality execution of a skill, or alternately to either chastise students for unnecessary errors. At the highest level of Tousignant’s accountability continuum is an evaluation of how the performance was achieved.
With respect to accountability research within the managerial task system, it has been found that good class managers have clear, consistent, and fairly rigid boundaries for managerial tasks and practice these routines until they become routinized (Fink & Siedentop, 1989). This finding was supported by (Hastie, 1994) who showed that when teachers continually reinforce behavioural and performance standards, they achieve the highest levels of task compliance and student involvement.
These behaviors are part of what has been named active (or intensive) supervision (Doyle, 1984; Emmer, Evertson & Anderson, 1980). First, Lund (1992) found that monitoring is the precursor of accountability and, as the instructional task system becomes more demanding, the complexity of this monitoring increases. The act of supervising student work was also found to be a strong factor in the accountability system operating in the classes investigated by Hastie and Saunders (1990). However, an intricate interrelationship between supervision, student involvement, and the opportunity to respond was identified. In terms of accountability, students were least likely to be off-task when the teacher was working directly with the students, and most likely to be off-task when the teacher could not see the student. Non-supervised students tended to become deviant where the opportunity to respond was high (such as when a large number of students can be actively involved at the one time), but tended to avoid involvement where the opportunity to respond was low (such as when required to wait for a turn to participate). van der Mars, Vogler, Darst and Cusimano (1994) extended this concept to include teacher location, rate of movement, and provision of verbal feedback. In a series of studies that found that active supervision correlated significantly with students’ total motor engagement and also with students’ moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) levels (Schuldheisz & van der Mars, 2001). The essential message from all the studies that focus on accountability seems to be that the work that eventually gets done in classes depends upon the strength of the programme of action.

Studies of the Programme of Action

10To date, little or no research exists within classroom ecology research in physical education as to how teachers achieve the balance between developing a manageable class environment and sustaining high levels of student work. Particularly within the research on direct instruction, while it is known that many classes lack intensity, and require little effort from students (e.g., Siedentop et al., 1994), research is warranted into those settings characterized by strong programmes of action. How teachers achieve this is only speculative. Siedentop (1988: p. 121) has suggested that it might be through “a certain kind of technical virtuosity”, where instruction takes place so as to accommodate the student social system within the instructional task setting. This might enhance productivity and reduce the potential outbreak of secondary vectors. Studies that have examined curricula with content-embedded accountability, that is, those which accommodate students’ social agendas, would support this idea. Examples in this case are particularly located within models-based practice (e.g. Dyson, Linehan & Hastie, 2010 in cooperative learning; Hastie, 2000 in Sport Education). The findings of these studies provide some progress with respect to Siedentop’s (1998) argument that researchers have not paid sufficient attention to how the curriculum model contributes to or detracts from the establishment and maintenance of the programme of action. The idea here seems to be that technically sound teaching is not sufficient, in and of itself, to sustain a programme of action, especially in situations where an ordinary multi-activity curricular format is in place. Teachers certainly can create strong accountability systems that keep a less-than exciting instructional programme going forward (Siedentop, 1988), but the question was whether it can be sustained over long periods of time and at what cost to the teacher. It would seem that models-based practice might well address some of these concerns.

How Does the Classroom Ecology Paradigm Deal with Context?

11In dealing with context, it is first important to define the conceptions of context as they might apply within physical education and sport. At a school level, context in this case will refer to those variables described as presage and context variables (see Dunkin & Biddle, 1974) relating to students (age, sex, ethnicity, abilities, previous experience with the subject) and teachers (age, sex, knowledge and experience) and resources (available space and equipment), rather than the context of teachers’ work as relating to their working conditions (Johnson, Kraft & Papay, 2012). Within an individual lesson (and throughout an individual lesson), the context can be described as the nature of the task and implicitly expected behaviors of both teacher and students. Drawing from a system designed to systematically observe student fitness instruction time, McKenzie, Sallis and Nadar (1991) listed these lesson contexts as management, knowledge, fitness, skill, game play, or free play. To date, minimal research has been conducted examining student work within differing lesson contexts, although there is evidence that from the results of surveys of students across various countries with respect to their overall enjoyment of physical education, and show an overwhelming preference for time spent in game play (Hill & Hannon, 2008; Greenwood, Stillwell & Byars, 2001; Mokgwathi, 2005; Smith & St Pierre, 2009). These data support those from previous studies (e.g., McKenzie, Alcaraz & Sallis, 1994) which also indicate a much greater preference by students for game play compared with fitness activities. From an ecological perspective, the intuitive rationale for students’ preference for games and sports is that they present the most playful component of physical education and also the most significant opportunities for socializing. In fact, this postulate is supported by students’ voice where they note that activities that allowed them to “be active, socialize, and work with and against friends and classmates” were those they believed had the biggest impact on enjoyment (see Smith & St. Pierre, 2009: p. 216). Likewise, Rikard and Banville (2006) reported that the most popular curriculum areas that fueled enjoyment were team based activities where students could compete and interact.
Beyond this individual lesson focus, however, we may examine the curricular intent of the instruction taking place. Most recently, there has been examination within physical education of a number of curriculum (or pedagogical) models with specific learning outcomes and unique features (Metzler, 2011). Within each of these models, there are what could be described as the “immutable aspects” which cannot be compromised if one is to correctly describe a particular unit within physical education as following a particular model. For example, within Sport Education these include that the unit of work takes place over an extended period of time, the idea of the persisting team, the presence of developmentally appropriate competition consisting of small-sided games, and that students take upon roles and responsibilities other than that of player (Hastie, 2012). Likewise, within Cooperative Learning, Johnson and Johnson (1989) include positive interdependence, individual accountability, promotive face-to-face interaction, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing as the five essential elements necessary to fully implement the model.
Hastie (2000) conducted the first ecological analysis of a Sport Education season. Through the examination of the tasks and accountability operating in this season, it was determined that the high level of enthusiastic student engagement was due to the presence of three vectors, all of which make positive contributions to sustaining the program of action. These vectors include the teacher’s managerial task system, the student social system, and the content-embedded accountability inherent in the curriculum model. Sport Education was described as providing a multidimensional program of action, in contrast to more traditional physical education settings, where teachers either push students through the curriculum with strong external accountability as a way of achieving and sustaining order, or retreat to a curricular zone of safety and negotiate minimum student work for cooperation in the managerial system. Later, Sinelnikov and Hastie (2008) demonstrated that Russian students (a cohort selected due to their histories of having no opportunities for group work, responsibility or autonomy) were highly compliant with the explicit tasks in the managerial and instructional task systems, and became increasingly at ease with the tasks requiring less teacher direction. It was in the student social system that the most dramatic observations were noted. For some, the disruption in their social agenda led to different ways of fun. For others, the season design allowed for team affiliation and achieving goals previously unseen or unavailable during physical education. Finally, Layne and Hastie (2013) initiated Sport Education with a cohort of early year’s students, and found that with time, both managerial and instructional tasks became increasingly implicit and irrespective of the explicitness of task, compliance was high.
Dyson, Linehan and Hastie (2010) examined the ecology of cooperative learning in elementary physical education classes. Within this study, and its focus on task development, it was found that instruction time, management time, transitions, and wait time decreased significantly during units of throwing and catching as well as kicking over a 15-week period. Further, refining, extending, and applying tasks increased significantly. Cognitive/social tasks, however, were observed consistently in every lesson and contributed to student learning. These findings were replicated in a high school setting, together with the finding that in this case, much of the accountability for student performance in managerial and instructional tasks was embedded within the cooperative learning tasks. In addition, the student social system contributed to work in the managerial and instructional task system (see Dyson & Strachan, 2004).
While the previous section has examined school settings, it should be noted that there are other contexts in which the ecological model can serve as a useful heuristic to study physical activity engagement. Although beyond the scope of this review, those sites can include sports coaching settings (Hastie, 1993), outdoor adventure sites (Hastie, 1995; Zmudy, Curtner-Smith & Steffen, 2009), or pre-schools (Hastie, Rudisill & Boyd, 2016).

Underinvestigated Analytical Tools

12There are a number of concepts within the ecological paradigm that, while serving as explanatory tools for classroom outcomes (and hence provide valid and reliable tools for analysing context) have received less attention within the literature. It is the purpose of this section to describe those concepts, and explain how they serve to add to our understanding of class events.

Negotiation and Trading-Off

13Doyle (1986) notes that students’ responses to work create pressures on the management system of a class. Where these threats are problematic, teachers often simplify task demands and lower the risk for mistakes. Where tasks are relatively simple and routine, classes tend to proceed smoothly with little hesitation or resistance.
In the development of tasks, then, a considerable degree of negotiation can occur. First identified by Woods (1978), negotiation is defined as any attempt by students to change tasks, to change the conditions under which tasks are performed, or to change the performance standards task completion is judged by. This is a more micro level conception of negotiation than that described by Howley and Tannehill (2014) or Wahl-Alexander, Curtner-Smith and Sinelnikov (2015) where students were formally invited to take ownership over the selection and implementation of activities within their physical education programme.
Students negotiate in various ways. While in classrooms negotiations are typically verbal interchanges, in physical education they are more often accomplished through student modification of learning tasks. Students modify tasks to make them more or less challenging, to increase their chances of success, or to hide their social interactions. Students may also try to avoid participating in tasks and try to hide their non-participation from the teacher.
This understanding of how students attempt to influence the subject-matter demands of the class is seen clearly in Alexander’s (1983) initial evidence of a contingency-developed tasks system. The extent to which a task initially explained by a teacher becomes the actual task practised by students and that accepted by the teacher depends upon the teacher’s supervision and accountability practices. A programme of action that has a strong work orientation, especially when students work toward some authentic curricular goal, typically results in high congruence between tasks as stated and those practised by students. Without the content-embedded accountability, however, a strong work orientation typically requires active supervision and strong teacher imposed accountability.
Negotiation is also less likely to take place where the stated task involves little risk. Where the teacher has not specified the conditions or criteria for successful completion, then almost any answer becomes acceptable, and hence students do not need to reduce the task demand. That is what Doyle (1986) meant when he said that without accountability the instructional task system is suspended. A teacher’s skill and will to anticipate and then deal with negotiations typically reveals the likelihood of a strong or weak programme of action.
Trading-off is that situation where teachers negotiate with students to produce the necessary cooperation in the managerial system by reducing the demands of the instructional system. They also might allow for certain kinds of student social interaction to gain the necessary cooperation (as found by Jones, 1992, in the elementary setting, and Hastie and Pickwell, 1996, in the secondary school setting). At times, teachers might even suspend the instructional task system and allow students to engage in non-disruptive socializing tasks, provided they complete the managerial tasks, as was found to be the case with one teacher in the study of Hastie and Saunders (1990).
The degree to which teachers trade-off depends upon the difficulty of the context in which the teaching is taking place, as well as the intention and expectations of the teacher for learning and achievement. Sanders and Graham (1995) found that teachers have a “zone of acceptable responses” for the tasks they present to children. In their study, on some occasions, teachers allowed significant adaptation when children made attempts to change a particular task, but then allowed no freedom for other tasks.
A further factor affecting teacher negotiation is the degree to which the teacher possesses effective teaching skills. Doyle (1986) notes that effective teachers in difficult situations tend to push students through the curriculum as a way of achieving and sustaining order. This notion of teaching skills was wholly supported in the study of effective elementary physical education specialists (O’Sullivan et al., 1989). For these teachers, one could contend that the overall programme of action had the capacity to engage students and keep them engaged enthusiastically. However, where teachers encounter difficulty in gaining the cooperation of students in the intended tasks, they often retreat to a ‘curricular zone of safety’ (Rovegno, 1994). Here teachers often restrict their content to application tasks (nearly always game play) and reduce the level of accountability to simply one of compliance in the managerial system.


14Consistent with its borrowing from the fields of physics and systems literatures, the primary vector is so-called in view of the fact that it has both energy and direction. That is, the primary vector moves a course throughout a lesson. The teacher therefore, must be continually engaged in performing activities specifically designed to keep the primary vector moving forward in desirable directions. Momentum then could be defined as a continuous flow of student work. That is, within a lesson, at any phase of that lesson there will be specific levels of student engagement. To measure a lesson’s momentum, we can observe student engagement and response rates at regular intervals of the lesson. Lessons in which there is a relatively stable line would indicate a lesson with considerable momentum. On the other hand, lessons with weaker momentum would be characterized by less stability. Some novice teachers, for example, may begin lessons and then be unable to sustain the momentum of the program of action, or even move in a more random pattern of action and nonaction (refer to Sharpe and Hawkins, 1992b, for corollary support of this view).


15While a lesson will contain an interpretive measure of relative momentum, it will also contain a certain level of pace. We define pace similarly to Sharpe and Hawkins (1992a) term of velocity, as the rate of change of tasks. Effective implementers of the managerial system component of an instructional ecology tend to set up work activity so that it moves at speeds that drive the students through the subject matter at a rapid pace. Lessons that are fast paced are characterized by a majority of time allocated to activity, but in which teacher and student activity transitions are quick and which require little change regarding equipment and space. Further, single tasks do not extend over long periods. Like momentum, student response rates are also salient to the concept of pacing. It is one thing to move the content forward in a brisk matter, or to have minimum time spent in transitions and task presentation, but if students’ response and success rates are low, there may be little advantage.
In their study of high school physical education teachers, Siedentop et al. (1994) commented that they saw little “intensity” within the programme of action, inferring a climate that could best be described as “casual”. What was missing from these lessons in terms of pacing was evidence of students seriously and intensively engaging in learning activities. This was accompanied by a belief of teachers did not believe that they could intensify the instructional setting, which led the authors to add that they “saw no accountability procedures that would have intensified practices and motivated students to a more energized approach to learning” (p. 394).
There are cases, however, where lesson pace was deliberately manipulated and significant changes were achieved. In a study that incorporated peer-mediated accountability, Crouch, Ward and Patrick (1997) demonstrated increases in the number of practice trials achieved by students and improvements in the percentage of trials that were correct. In that study, the accountability strategy consisted of teacher-established goals, peer recording of performance, public posting of student performance, and special content-related activities that served as public recognition of achievement.

Signal Systems

16The idea of signal systems relates to how a teacher maintains pace. From a behavioural point of view, the signal system is a group of discriminative stimuli (Kounin & Gump, 1974). Student behavior chains are linked in a time-based manner by certain ecological events (most often teacher interactions, but not limited to such) that serve two purposes. In congruence with behavior systems theory (Morris, 1992; Ray & Delprato, 1989), they first reinforce or punish those events that they follow and second, they serve as discriminative stimuli for events they precede. Consequently, a verbal hustle from a teacher and directed at a particular student or group, might serve to either reinforce appropriate pacing or signal the need to increase the pace. It is critical to note, however, that the degree to which these discriminative stimuli are effective rests nearly solely with the effectiveness of the consequences. As a result, accountability and feedback form an important cohort within a lesson’s signal system.
To date, only one study could be identified that has explicitly examined signal systems within physical education. In a study of pre-school children engaging in a mastery-motivational movement intervention, Hastie, Rudisill and Boyd (2016) provided contradictory evidence to Kounin and Gump’s assertion that where the continuity and insulation of signals are low, and intrusiveness is high (i.e. the exact conditions of a mastery climate), lessons could be expected to have lower levels of engagement and higher levels of off-task behaviour. Instead, these authors found that on average, the students spent over 70% of lesson time participating appropriately in the motor skill tasks. It was suggested that given time, together with teacher strategies enacted to improve signal insulation that the children seemed able to selectively attend to the most important signals as the programme progressed.

Holding Power

17While most concepts within the ecological paradigm focus the researcher’s attention on the teacher and students, the concept of “holding power” relates specifically to the tasks presented during lessons. First introduced by Rosenthal (1973), holding-power refers to a setting’s capacity to sustain participation. Holding-power is to a setting what “attention-span” is to a child, both describing duration of activity involvement. What is critical however, is to consider Rosenthal’s findings concerning a cohort of children’s participation during free time in a daycare centre. In that case, there was a complete absence of consistency between the same child’s length of stay in one activity and length of stay in another, and an absence of age, sex, or race differences in length of stay in different activity settings. This lead to the conclusion that length of stay in an activity setting is more reasonably attributable to an activity’s holding-power than to a child’s attention-span.
To date, there have been no studies within physical education that have examined holding power. Kounin and Sherman (1979) have speculated that settings with lower holding power are those which tend to require students to engage in repetitive tasks and don’t provide clear indications of something being accomplished as a result of their effort. In contrast, those with higher holding power contain more opportunities for legitimate task modification (or allow different paths to be taken to achieve the goal), or provide clear indications of progress. From this understanding, we might expect lessons which follow more mastery orientations might have stronger holding power (and hence student engagement) than those with less possibilities for student voice and choice (see Reeve, 2006; 2012).


18The essential tenet of the classroom ecology paradigm is that it urges a shift in thinking from teachers to academic work as the central element of students’ experiences in classrooms. Within that concept of work, focus is placed on the tasks set in place and the teacher’s response to student engagement (especially with respect to the accountability system put in place). Importantly the paradigm represents teaching-learning as a set of interrelated systems, in which changes in one system are likely to influence behavior in another. As a result, it provides an anthropological heuristic that is particularly well adapted for the examination of context within physical education.
With this noted, the limitation of the paradigm lies in its less than robust ability to delve into teaching and learning as it is related to the content covered in classes (see Amade-Escot & Venturini, 2015). That is, these authors suggest that the model struggles with respect to focusing on “the epistemological facets of knowledge when accounting for classroom events” (p. 434). By consequence, due to the inability of the paradigm to provide a detailed analysis of the dynamics through which curricular knowledge is enacted, there may be cases where some of the intricate details of content issues and pedagogical processes are overlooked.

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Peter Hastie, « The classroom ecology paradigm and its contribution to understanding context in physical education », Recherches & éducations, 15 | 2016, 29-50.

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Peter Hastie

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