Poles Apart

Mar 29, 2017

In Complexity Thinking in PE, Richard Tinning and Anthony Rossi write ‘In the face of messy, unruly, boisterous classes of school children and the expectation to deliver predictable, explicit, educational outcomes, teachers of physical education are likely to reduce complexity and have their pedagogy shaped by more practical contingencies rather than by complexity thinking.‘ They certainly make a good point, one that up until recently I would have wholeheartedly agreed with. However what I find that a complexity view does do is remind us that things are interconnected and interdependent. It isn’t a practical tool, but potentially allows us to use the tools we already posses in different ways.

Most of my time as a PE Teacher or youth sport coach is spent solving problems and using my judgement to make decisions. How can I help motivate this child to move? How can I teach this piece of knowledge or skill? What teaching method is best suited to this context? Should I remain quiet or should I step in with feedback? There probably isn’t a moment of the day where I’m not having these sorts of questions pop in my head. For many years I have sought to solve them much like a GCSE PE exam question; with the ‘right’ answer. We are seduced ‘with a search for certainty and a belief in the existence of identifiable causes to identifiable effects, when in reality such predications and certainty rarely exist. This mechanical view does not lead us easily into exploring interrelationship, co-evolution, dynamic flow, the emergence of the totally unexpected, collapse, the ways different factors interact — or give sufficient consideration to the distant future or the role of the past.

But many of these questions are not really problems to solve in the traditional sense, but are in fact polarities. The world of PE and school sport seems to be made up of unsolvable polarities and they are rampant everywhere you look. Mind or Body. Winning or Participating. Silence or Teacher Talk. Direct Instruction or Guided Discovery. Competition or Cooperation. You find them in every thought we have, in every discussion we engage and in every decision we make. We treat these questions with simple answers, but in doing that we may end up leaning too heavily to one side or another. Embracing the excesses or extremes of that polarity. Barry Johnson, creator of the Polarity Map, suggests that you cannot solve polarities. You can only manage them. A metaphor that Barry Johnson gives of this is breathing. Which is better for us, inhalation or exhalation?


The first step is to notice when you have a polarity and not a problem at play. These are issues that are never solvable in any way that could truly last. By understanding the paradoxes that exist in PE, perhaps they may help us to make better decisions for the children we are responsible for. One personal example of that for me is coaching sports through techniques or through games. At the beginning of my career I was taught that the former was the best way forward. Recently my experiences, reading and discussion with other professionals have made me question that position. I have started to swing towards the games centred approach. However surely both combined will outperform either alone? Living at one pole or the other narrows our thinking and therefore our practice. By accepting a polarity we can begin to see the upside and downside of both poles, allowing for informed judgement and decision making. Fighting against what Johnson calls ‘tradition bearing’ and ‘crusading’ patterns of behaviour. By seeing and feeling all sides of a situation, we can participate in a healthy dance between them. Preventing us from rushing to be ‘right and certain’ but towards being ‘accurate, whole and complete’. Seeing things as polarities, where both sides impact on each other, allows us as PE Teachers to take greater account of our context and our particular community. Giving us the freedom to seize opportunities and to be adaptive to the needs of our students.

By existing between the two poles we may find something richer and deeper than just a simplistic reductionist answer. In Simple Practices for Complex Times, Jennifer Berger and Keith Johnston suggest we should think of the space in-between any polarities as a dynamic wave. Something we should be surfing all the time, not something to try and build on and stay put. You’ll never solve a polarity, just as a surfer never solves a wave. They just stay on top of it as it shifts and changes, matching their weight with the rhythm and the force of the wave. ‘People love surfing waves. We could love surfing polarities, too, if we could just recognise the ride for what it is and learn from the mistakes we make.’ It reminds me of some wisdom that Jorge Carvajal once shared with me on twitter the more “mature” I get, the more I look to just get out and surf vs looking for the perfect wave of my youth. Perhaps it is time to embrace the polarities in our subject and ride the waves that come our way.