Observation in the Montessori PE Environment (Part 3)

In part one of this series, we outlined the importance of observation in the Montessori classroom, as well as a simplified explanation of how to organize one’s observation notes. If you have not read part one and are interested, you can find the article here. In part two, we looked at observation in the Montessori PE environment with a focus on the mechanics of a game. If you have not read part two and are interested, you can find the article here. In the third part of the series, we are going to discuss observation and team dynamics.

It is not hard to sell people from any educational modality that teamwork is an essential component of success. Being able to work with others successfully may be one of the most important skills taught, and not taught, in school. In an era where testing has become such a dominant force, group projects and presentations can be put on the back-burner for test taking strategies practice. Yet, in the “real world,” the ability to collaborate will be a much better indicator of success that test taking ability.

In physical education, teamwork is paramount due to the nature of the games that most of the students play. Skill sets of students, especially in multi-age classrooms, will mean there is a disparity of skill and motor ability. There are lots of good questions that we can ask on how we can create an environment that serves all students and encourages participation and cooperation. In this article, we will look at some of these questions and what we can do so everyone is contributing to the team effort.

Is everyone able to contribute to the team?

For an effective game that fosters teamwork, every single member of the class should have a way to positively affect that the outcome of the game. If the game requires shooting at a goal, every single member of the class should have the physical ability to do so. The goal should not be so high that a weaker student cannot reach the goal. If there are multiple goals designed for different ages or abilities, this can be an elegant solution to keep the game difficulty at an optimum level for everyone.

As a said before, every student should be able to score or succeed, but that does mean that they will. However, they must have the opportunity. If all the younger student can do is pass the ball to an older or stronger student to help the team, the game will become boring to them very quickly. The young child will not understand that their passing can be just as important as shooting; they want to a play a game that they could score.

Are the teams balanced for competitive play?

The best games are ones where the skill level between the teams is very close. This brings about the maximum level of effort as well as enjoyment. When one team is much better than another team, the students who are winning may have fun, but it is too easy and they are not progressing their skills. Obviously, the team that is getting beat badly will not have any fun, and at worst, this may lead to longer lasting discouragement. The students are rarely able to create fair teams themselves; they usually want to play with their friends. For this reason, I rarely let the students create teams. I want to make sure the abilities of the teams are as close as possible. If the game is close, then everyone can be proud of his or her effort. If one team is really beating the other team badly, then one of the teams may be using a better strategy or better teamwork. This can be turned into a teachable moment afterwards to highlight why one team was doing so much better than another. Obviously, to make fair teams, the instructor needs to have a good understanding of the athletic ability of the students. It is not always about height or age.

Are they using effective strategy?

I am guilty of sometimes assuming that students understand a game or sport that they already play or see on TV. Familiarity with the game is excellent for rule comprehension, but that does not guarantee that students actually know how to play the game with effective strategy. One of the best examples of understanding the sport, but not how to play the sport, is when young children play soccer. It is common to see large groups of young children all surrounding the ball moving as a big herd. As they get older, with effective spacing, passing, and strategy, we actually see the sport that we are more familiar with. The same can be said for games in gym class. I let the students develop some initial strategies on their own, but during a natural stoppage in play, I may make suggestions to enhance gameplay, or may highlight something that one of the teams is doing right. The use for effective strategy not only develops the student, but also dramatically increases the chances that they will have more meaningful play.

Is one person dominating play over the others?

When left unchecked, it is a common occurrence to see one player dominate play over others. This can happen for several reasons, but either way, it needs to be addressed. The most common reason one player is dominating play is because their skill level is vastly superior to their classmates. When this happens, this exceptional student will either relish being the best on the court or field, or they will find the game too easy. If the player loves being successful and in the spotlight, pull this player aside and challenge them to incorporate their teammates as successfully as they are playing on their own. Being good by oneself shows skill, but being able to incorporate others shows true talent. If they heed this advice, this will make them more fun to play with, and will increase the chance that students will want to play with them because one player can elevate the whole team’s play. If the game is too easy, then pull the player aside and make it more challenging for them. If the game features catching, they should not be allowed to catch with two hands anymore, just one. For another example, the player is only allowed to throw with their weak hand instead of their strong hand. This will add challenge and make the game more fun for this student because they will try and adapt to this new difficulty.

Are certain players being neglected or ignored?

The answer to this question can be black and white, but often times are a shade of grey. One of the main reasons certain players are neglected during a sport activity is because their skill level is lesser (usually by several degrees) than their peers. Students soon realize that if one player is not “as good” as the other players, they become a liability and they do not want to include them because it might affect how the team plays (especially concerning wining the game). Rule modifications that demand that every player be a part of a game can serve as a Band-Aid to the matter at hand, but continued talks about sportsmanship will be necessary. You can read my blog about sportsmanship here.

The other big reason that students become ignored during games is because they are not paying attention and are not engaged in the game. Some students demand they get the ball, or have a turn, but are not putting in any effort whatsoever during the game. This is not fair to the other teammates who are invested in the game; they do not want to have to include someone who is not as invested as they are. Redirecting this student with tips on strategy may help them be in more advantageous places to interact with the ball or be part of the play. However, sometimes these students need to hear that their lack of effort is directly proportional to the reason they are not getting opportunities.

It becomes tricky when it is a combination of both of these scenarios, however. A student who is identified as not being as good will get the ball less, and if they get the ball less, they will withdraw from the game. If this situation happens with one or a couple games, but not all, it can be explained to the whole class that not everyone is amazing at everything, but everyone does need practice to get better. Changing the priority of the game towards an objective of scoring through teamwork can help. If a student is ignored every game, then going to this student and asking them what games they like could help. In a future gym class, using a manipulative they enjoy using, or playing a game they like a lot can give them a confidence boost because they will have more familiarity.

Truthfully, I don’t have the perfect solution to this scenario; it is the most common, and the most difficult student-to-student interaction that happens in gym on a daily basis. I would love to hear some of your suggestions in the comment section below.

In next week’s blog, we will be finishing up our series on observation and the PE classroom by looking more in depth at the individual.