Learning theory and its application to roundnet

Roundnet game in action with a Zero Bounds set

by George Dean of Spike-It Coaching

As Roundnet is very much still in its infancy in the UK, promoting the sport through positive teaching and coaching (hereafter collectively ‘teaching’) is essential to increase the performance level and the amount of players in the country. Regardless of the level of teaching we involve ourselves in; a PE teacher or coach to a player who watched some good YouTube clips and is helping out teammates to apply the ‘bod of god’; we are responsible for promoting good practice and enabling growth and development of the sport – we salute you!

Personal beliefs and the impact on teaching

To understand why we teach the way we do, and the reasons we justify the methods we use, it is important to explore and consider our beliefs and the impact this whilst teaching players. Beliefs in this sense relate to what we think knowledge is, if you presume a particular belief then you will be more inclined to teach in a certain way. Interestingly, our beliefs on knowledge, without reflection and purposeful exploration can become a product of our previous experiences regarding teaching or and learning (way back when we were in school for some people) – which can lead to the methods we use and apply becoming dated and conflicting with the contemporary research in education. Therefore, it could be argued that reflection on these beliefs are crucial to promote effective practice in education. The beliefs briefly discussed are known in the literature as epistemological beliefs. Another key aspect important to cover is learning theory, this is a continuation of epistemology as it applies “what is knowledge?” to understand the process of generating and evolving knowledge, “how do people learn?”. A final concept to be introduced is a learning model, this applies the learning theory to a process of teaching which can be followed to achieve particular outcomes – to call it a step-by-step guide would undermine the sophistication of educational models (but it kind of is).

Competing epistemological stand points

When considering learning theory and application to practice, it is vital to understand the underpinning competing ideologies with regards to beliefs about knowledge (Light, 2008). One stance is that learning occurs through passing on knowledge, typically from a place of power, which is then added to pre-existing knowledge. This considers knowledge to be like adding a brick to a wall, ready to be hurled into action when appropriate. This stance is known as behaviourism. The contrasting view is that knowledge is a complex process of change and growth, whereby knowledge gained adapts and evolves pre-existing knowledge (Kirk and Houssin, 2020). Additionally, this considers learning to be a social process with individuals interacting with reality (people, task, context etc.); therefore, living is experiencing reality and learning (Davis and Sumara, 2003). In other words, we are constantly learning by adapting and evolving pre-existing knowledge through experiences. This stance is known as constructivism.

Depending on the lens through which you see learning, your approach to teaching and coaching will adapt. For example, if you follow behaviourism and therefore believe you can pass on all knowledge through showing or telling (it’s as simple as giving the learner a brick – if you will) your lessons may look dissected: you will teach something through repetitive decontextualized practice until it is learnt. This is a result of the belief that meaningful learning can occur in the absence of reality (Kirk and Houssin, 2020). In contrast, if you follow constructivism: your practice would resemble the game, you would focus your efforts on natural learning which is contextualised and you would allow learners to problem solve and learn through experiencing reality. This would occur through task modifications, creating an intended learning environment and promoting social interaction – therefore, combining knowledge (pre-existing and new) that they and their peers hold (Dyson et al., 2004; Light, 2008).

Constructivist approaches

From a contemporary perspective on teaching, the literature is in favour of constructivist ideologies and perspectives on passing of knowledge (Kirk and Houssin, 2020). Models adhering to these ideologies have been reported to promote transfer of learning, knowledge retention, increase motivation and engagement, generate problem solving, improve game related skill and tactical awareness and increase inter and intra relationship skills (see the review on Teaching Games for Understanding in physical education by Barba-Martín et al., 2020 and on sport education by Harvey et al., 2020). A Model which adopts these ideologies is Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). In this first blog I will outline TGfU and present some ideas on how these can be applied to Roundnet.

Brief overview of TGfU

Figure 1. TGFU Bunker and Thorpe (1982).

TGfU was created by Bunker and Thorpe (1982) (see figure 1), in this model the authors prioritised tactical awareness over developing technique. Accordingly, it was believed that technique, or in this approach skill – the ability to select the appropriate technique depending on the situation – will develop naturally through experiencing reality i.e. task (game), environment (learning space, peers), and individual (pre-existing knowledge). The educator will create games which are purposefully modified to promote problem solving, resulting in a deliberate outcome. Learning is reinforced and assessed by high amounts of open questioning (questions which promotes thinking and variety in answers – “why?”) and tactical feedback which will promote pupils to think about tactics applied and consider ways to become successful in the game. O’Leary (2015) wrote an excellent academic article on the learning the ‘full version’ of TGfU in practice. Within this paper he outlines key components which must be delivered to follow the model (see table 1).

Table 1. Teaching games for understanding: Teacher and student benchmarks (O’Leary, 2015)

Application to Roundnet

To apply this model to Roundnet, teachers and coaches should consider (1) the intended outcomes of the session; (2) what successful performance would be; (3) how the game can be modified to enable these behaviours to happen; (4) how to differentiate the activity to ensure all learners can access the tactical development without being hindered by their skill level; (5) tactical feedback and questions which will promote meaningful reflection on the task; (6) after the game is ‘appreciated’, tactical awareness is being demonstrated and decision making is successful, feedback and tasks which focus on skill to be implemented where necessary (see table 2 for an in depth example).

Table 2. Example task focussing on offensive pressure

Potential Issues and tools to help

Applying this model, it can be challenging for a number of reasons including, diverting to decontextualized teaching, low subject or pedagogical knowledge and feelings of unease when learners are independently engaging with a sometimes chaotic environment (Butler, 2005; O’Leary, 2015). To overcome these barriers, it is highly recommended to read the article by O’Leary (2015) as this highlights pedagogical knowledge required in great depth. Following this, educators can apply specific tools to promote the ethos of TGfU whilst removing an element of chaos from the environment. One tool an educator can perform is ‘freeze-frame’ to enable tactical feedback and questioning relevant to what has just occurred. For example, in the task in table 2, if a player performed a smash towards a defender who was standing far away from the net; you can pause the activity, ensuring participants do not change their position; then ask the learner to reflect on their decision made using probing questions to assist in their reflection. The purpose of this would be to provide an opportunity for learners to identify decisions made and to promote positive aspects of performance. In this case, the aim is for the learner to identify that they selected a smash toward a player was far away from the net. If they can rationalise their shot by saying “it was to relieve pressure and allow us to get back in position” this should be praised as it indicates they are engaging with problem solving. However, if they are unable to identify the fault, you should ask the group to provide some input to draw on the collective knowledge of peers. This will hopefully result in the learner realising they should have performed a drop shot or identified space elsewhere to perform a smash into. To uphold the ideologies of constructivism, it is essential to provide the opportunity for the learner to realise their actions and potential corrections through questioning and peer knowledge rather than giving the answers away from a place of power. If this is adhered to the educator is promoting independent learners who will actively problem solve during performance, something which is essential in game play due to the incredible amount of decisions to be made.

Another key tool to assist in delivery of TGfU is questioning. A specific strategic strategy to attempt in practice is funnelling, starting with lower order questions, “what?”, then moving onto “when?” and “why?”. This will provide levels of questioning accessible to all, promoting involvement in freeze frames or in the final plenary, and assist in learning by guiding the players through the process of reflection – presenting a full picture of the tactic focussed on. General focus whilst questioning should be on increasing the amount of open questions, promoting higher order thinking (analysis, evaluation and justification). By focusing on these, an educator can assess understanding of complex aspects of performance which will be affected by numerous variables and promote pupils to ask themselves these questions in game – “should I complete a smash now, why?”.

To conclude, TGFU is an approach which can promote naturalistic learning, increased retention of learning and numerous positive developmental outcomes in learners. In this blog I have provided a framework which enables an educator with little experience of TGfU to apply to Roundnet in their practice. Furthermore, I provided an example which follows the process outlined (see table 2). The final section gave two pedagogical tools to apply in practice which will promote the ethos and underpinning ideologies of TGFU. A vital point for reflection when planning or applying tasks is the degree they represent the intricacies of the full game, accordingly, if the task feels decontextualized consider ways to promote problem solving which resembles the decisions made in the full game. In other words, ask yourself what decisions do I want them to make, then create tasks which enables them to make these decisions. Another vital consideration, is that it can be challenging to adopt a pedagogical model in practice (without specific training) therefore following an all or nothing approach might not be appropriate and could provide a barrier to apply. A potential method to overcome this is to incrementally draw from models in an all or something approach until you are applying all of the teacher benchmarks (table 1, O’Leary, 2015). However, if doing this, educators must have an understanding of the underpinning learning theory, spend time reflecting on sessions; and importantly, consider that beneficial outcomes of TGfU might not be achieved if used partially. Therefore, another avenue to develop teaching skills would be to book a place on Spike-it Coaching’s Roundnet level 1 course. During this one-day course we cover learning theory in depth and applied to practice; provide a TGfU Roundnet scheme of work, which could be followed in primary, secondary or in a club environment; provide vital considerations to physical activity, holistic health benefits; outline considerations when organising sessions, events and tournaments; and cover a multitude of pedagogical tools which will assist in upskilling your delivery of Roundnet.


Barba-Martín, R. A., Bores-García, D., Hortigüela-Alcalá, D., & González-Calvo, G. (2020). The application of the teaching games for understanding in physical education. Systematic review of the last six years. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(9), 3330.

Bunker, D., & Thorpe, R. (1982). A model for the teaching of games in secondary schools. Bulletin of Physical Education, 18, 5-8.

Davis, B., & Sumara, D. (2003). Why aren’t they getting this? Working through the regressive myths of constructivist pedagogy. Teaching Education, 14, 123-140.

Dyson, B., Griffin, L. L., & Hastie, P. (2004). Sport education, tactical games, and cooperative learning: Theoretical and pedagogical considerations. Quest, 56(2), 226-240.

Harvey, S., Pill, S., Hastie, P., & Wallhead, T. (2020). Physical education teachers’ perceptions of the successes, constraints, and possibilities associated with implementing the sport education model. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-12.

Kirk, D., & Houssin, E. (2020). Beyond molecularization: Constructivist, situated and activity theory approaches to movement learning. In H. Larsson (Ed.), Learning Movements: New Perspectives of Movement Education. Abingdon: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003142775

Light, R. (2008). Complex Learning Theory— Its Epistemology and Its Assumptions About Learning: Implications for Physical Education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 27(1), 21-37.

O’Leary, N. (2015). Learning informally to use the ‘full version’ of teaching games for understanding. European Physical Education Review, 22(1), 3-22.

Write a comment