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Introduction to Teaching Games for Understanding

This is an excerpt from More Teaching Games for Understanding:Theory, Research & Practice by Joy Butler & Linda Griffin.

This book is a collection of essays written by teacher educators with a passion for sharing knowledge, research, and insights about the Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) approach. The intended audience for this collection is teacher educators and graduate and undergraduate students in physical education and sport pedagogy as well as practicing teachers and coaches interested in helping students and players to become better games players.

All our authors presented at the Fourth International TGfU Conference, which provided an arena for a restatement of the importance of games as a learning process. The conference was held in May 2008 at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. The next seminar will begin the newly adopted four-year cycle in 2012 in the United Kingdom and will be hosted by Loughborough University in Leicestershire. This event will mark the 30th anniversary of the seminal TGfU paper written by Bunker and Thorpe in 1982.

TGfU has become a significant movement in physical education worldwide. The 2008 TGfU conference was attended by 355 participants (150 teachers, 40 coaches, 40 graduate students, and 125 researchers and teacher educators) who represented 26 countries from 6 continents. Over 90 presentations, including 22 practical sessions, took place at the conference. The 2008 conference was able to achieve a more desirable balance in research, theory, and practice. The planning committee spent a great deal of energy targeting the K-12 schools, coaching organizations, and their networks.

This book represents and reflects on the spirit of the TGfU movement as it was communicated at the 2008 conference. The following reflect growing trends:

  1. Strong and evolving international networks generated by regular international seminar conferences (every four years) and one-day symposia and workshops before the AIESEP Congress. These also occur every four years but are spaced evenly between the TGfU seminar conferences, thereby producing international venues every two years.
  2. An organizational structure that supports conference planning and promotion in the form of a TGfU task force, extant from 2002 to 2008, which has since evolved into a special interest group of AIESEP.
  3. Five books, online proceedings, and three special journal editions (Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy and two editions of
    Health and Physical Education Journal) related to conference

The TGfU conferences, organization, and subsequent publications have resulted in the following:

  • Sharing ideas and expertise between coaches and teachers regionally, nationally, and internationally
  • Enabling structures to integrate research, theory, and practice in the same venue as well as exploring commonalities and differences within each major discipline of study—research, theory, and practice
  • Communicating philosophical and sociological interpretations of TGfU worldwide

Almost three decades after the Bunker and Thorpe article (1982) outlined a model for the teaching of games in secondary schools, teachers and coaches are embracing the notion that the TGfU philosophical underpinnings align more closely with humanistic, child-centered, and constructivist ideals. Motor development research tells us that there is a sensitive time for learning new skills and concepts quickly and efficiently. Perhaps there is a similar period in which a profession can effectively respond to a new curricular approach. It takes time for the necessary examination of the merits and demerits of a new approach and for a comparison of the new and old assumptions. As teachers begin to understand that the approach offers cross-curricular connections, sound pedagogical logic, and efficient integration with the mission and goals of schools, then the time has come for TGfU legitimacy.

The TGfU movement is experiencing what we hope is the period before its peak. Once the approach becomes a common part of teachers' repertoires, it will have served its purpose: to improve the teaching and learning of games. TGfU has provided many of us with a catalyst for discussing the nature of good teaching, coaching, and learning, allowing us to consider the values and beliefs that underpin such approaches and their place in both physical and general education. In the process of considering a new approach such as TGfU, teachers and coaches have been led to consider their existing frameworks for conceptualizing games and to reflect on how their values and beliefs structure the way they teach and think about students' ability.

If TGfU is to become a movement that will broaden the scope of the physical education and coaching ethos, it must be anchored in sound research through a community of inquiry focused on the exploration of ideas. The curriculum and pedagogy department chair at UBC, Dennis Sumara, gave a rousing speech in support of the conference's goals and the need for education in general to go in this direction. Likening the TGfU movement to that of the whole language movement (WLM) of the 1980s, he cautioned TGfU advocates to avoid the mistakes of the WLM and to anchor TGfU in sound research. We believe that TGfU has built a strong community of practice that has led to the development of an international organization. We hope that this organizational structure can support research collaborations through global networks, connect research with practice, and maintain and promote TGfU international conferences.

The international TGfU task force's evolution into the first special interest group (SIG) of the Association Internationale des Écoles Superieures d'Education Physique (AIESEP) is a vital first step. This SIG and its alliance to AIESEP will help to sustain interest and ensure the maintenance of high-level research into the teaching and learning of sport-related games as they relate to TGfU.

The original TGfU task force was formed after the first TGfU conference. At a crowded town meeting, the conference organizers asked the international delegates where they thought they wanted to go from that point. The response was a resounding endorsement of Butler's proposal that an international committee be established to harness the groundswell of energy evident at the conference. A proposal for the task force was welcomed by AIESEP, and a meeting was held at the 2002 AIESEP Congress. A group of 10 members were elected to this task force, and ultimately the group created spaces for 2 more seats to obtain broader international coverage, encompassing 5 continents and 12 countries. Those members were Minna Blomqvist (Finland), Ross Brooker (Australia), Joy I. Butler (chair, USA), Keh Nuit Chin (Taiwan), Jean-Francis Gréhaigne (France), Linda L. Griffin (USA), Lynn Kidman (New Zealand), Raymond Liu Yuk-kwong (Hong Kong), James Mandigo (Canada), Robert Martin (USA), Elaine Musch (Belgium), and Steven Tan (Singapore).

The mission statement of the TGfU task force was written in 2002 (identified in bold) and the rest was developed by the TGfU SIG in 2009.

The mission of the AIESEP TGfU special interest group is to establish a globally representative group of institutions and individuals committed to the promotion and dissemination of scholarly inquiry around ways of knowing, learning and teaching through games-centered approaches. One of our major goals is to broaden international cooperation and understanding among teachers, coaches, researchers, students and institutions of the world through best practice, critical educational and research collaborations and exchanges. This group will allow us to address global challenges such as language, terminology, practical interpretations, philosophical and theoretical differences, and the dissemination of information through national and international organizations.

Table I.1 summarizes the task force's objectives, action plan, results, and future plans. At the 2006 AIESEP Congress in Finland, it was decided at the TGfU task force meeting that the movement had become large enough to handle a general membership with an executive group to help conduct affairs of the membership. AIESEP agreed to take on its first special interest group, and the policies and election process were developed. The transition of task force to SIG was formalized at the TGfU conference in Vancouver. Currently, the SIG executive committee consists of five members (past chair Joy I. Butler, chair Dinant Roode, chair-elect Tim Hopper, secretary Steve Harvey, treasurer James Mandigo) and began Skype meetings in January 2009. The final column of the table outlines the work that the SIG executive board has started as a strategic planning process.

Table I.1

With an increase in research efforts since the first conference in 2001, this book offers an opportunity for authors to examine the developments of TGfU from a broader theoretical basis than in the first book (i.e., postmodern, complexivist, and postcolonial perspectives) and with a wider research application. As part of striving toward a state where TGfU is no longer needed, the common thread weaving through this publication is a critical examination of the ways in which TGfU embodies big ideas and such different ways of knowing and being in our discipline of physical education and sport pedagogy. We believe that the movement has created a platform for critical discourse about new ideas and responses to challenges concerning pedagogical practice. Postmodern, poststructural, and postcolonial perspectives have allowed us to move away from reductionist positions and afford strong theoretical and empirical foundations from which we can address questions associated with the production of knowledge, the formation of values, and an understanding of embodiment.

Guiding Questions for Authors

The following questions served as a guide to all the authors:

  • How does the TGfU approach influence pedagogical and curricular practices?
  • What is the epistemological and ontological basis for TGfU?
  • In what directions should TGfU research go?
  • When will TGfU have served its purpose?
  • How does TGfU serve as a catalyst or forum for the major issues facing physical education?
  • What are the facilitators and inhibitors of a TGfU approach?

Structure of This Book

TGfU started with that altruistic desire of most committed teachers: improved student learning. David Bunker and Rod Thorpe combined this central passion with a critique of the UK school system and its tendency to turn off students and produce ineffective games players. Len Almond's expertise in curriculum development and alignment with social psychology enabled him to create a robust curriculum framework. All three were classic action researchers who engaged teachers and themselves in the very act of their own change. What started as a good idea in the vicinity of Loughborough University, where they first explored the approach, has reached much wider orbits around the world, changing the way that practitioners think about the place of games within their PE programs and the way that games are learned and taught. In other words, what started with physical educators concerned about the inadequate experiences of their learners has turned into a global force to be reckoned with.

The preface (Rod Thorpe and David Bunker) and foreword (Len Almond) reflect on whether the TGfU model, as they envisioned it in its inception in the 1980s, has retained its tenets after teachers and coaches have applied the model to their practice. They share some of the issues that have arisen over the years. In essence, they question whether sufficient thought has been given to contextualizing learning in a game form and what makes a good game. They guard teachers against thinking that the TGfU model is an excuse for the teacher or coach to throw a ball into the mix and let them play, or that it is a reason to be in control of highly structured sessions. The ongoing debate about development of techniques and skills is also discussed in the context of the literature available on skill acquisition.

Part I: TGfU Movement in an International Context

Joy I. Butler and Linda L. Griffin map out the journey the TGfU movement has taken since the ideas were first conceived and mapped out by Bunker, Thorpe, and Almond in the 1980s. In this introduction, Butler and Griffin give the context for TGfU moving globally.

Raymond Liu Yuk-kwong, retired from the Hong Kong Institute of Education and the director of the third conference held in 2005, examines the effects and influence of their work in Asian countries. In chapter 1, Liu Yuk-kwong analyzes how TGfU has been received in seven Asian countries (Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Macau, Korea). Liu Yuk-kwong analyzes the current situation in each country and makes some recommendations that will improve the research and application of TGfU in future developments. While there is ample literature published in Western countries such as the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, much less has been published in Asia, making this a key component of our consideration of the global impact of the approach.

Part II: Research: Reexamination

Chapters 2 and 3 describe research and call for a reexamination of TGfU research through the lenses of five authors. In chapter 2, Judith Rink reviews the research on TGfU from learning perspectives. She first defines the processes of learning inherent in the approach and the assumptions about the role of the learner inherent in these processes; second, she examines the implications of dynamical systems theories of learning as a framework for support of the approach. Third, she examines the contradicting theories on the development of expertise.

In chapter 3, Connie S. Collier and coauthors Judy Oslin, Daniel Rodriguez, and David Gutierrez describe their research into models of sport and games education and their experiences in teaching teachers to use models of sport and games education. Their study examines the teaching and learning in sport and game units involving four teachers with varying levels of experience, grade levels, and teaching contexts. The notion of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK) serves as a central tenet in examining the four teachers' version of sport and games models. The authors' findings suggest that the teachers value certain aspects of the public theories defined in the textbooks and formal teacher preparation curricula and develop unique interpretations of the models representative of their students' needs, their personal beliefs about sport and games, and their teaching contexts.

Part III: Theory: Understanding, Learning, and Complexity Thinking

Chapters 4 through 8 consider the big ideas embedded in TGfU. These include the various ways of knowing and being implicit in our physical education and sport pedagogy and their relationship to the conceptual framework of TGfU. Over the past three decades, the TGfU movement has created a platform for critical discourse about these new ideas and responses to challenges concerning pedagogical practice. Postmodern, poststructural, and postcolonial perspectives have allowed us to move away from reductionist positions and afford strong theoretical and empirical foundations from which we can address questions associated with the production of knowledge, the formation of values, and an understanding of embodiment.

A curriculum theory is based on assumptions about society, human beings, and education. . . . The basic assumptions of a curriculum theory are a form of ideology and understanding curriculum as praxis requires examination of these assumptions. (Jewett, Bain, & Ennis, 1995, p. 14)

In chapter 4, James Mandigo and John Corlett present an analysis of the purpose of TGfU: how it connects to the recent UN focus on the new decade in literacy and how it is defined by the physical. Understanding how to play games with poise, confidence, and enthusiasm is part of being physically literate. Mandigo and Corlett discuss how, through a TGfU approach, students are more likely to attain knowledge and understanding of common rules and strategies, apply technical and tactical skills across a variety of games, and experience positive motivational states for themselves and others within and outside of games. This, they argue, facilitates the attainment of physical literacy and ultimately the healthy development of youth.

In chapter 5, Rebecca J. Lloyd and Stephen Smith bring a vitality approach to games and sport as they encourage learners to think in and through the motions of the activity. Their theory is that such an approach to games and sport brings the kinesthetic experience of movement to the fore. Understanding how to play and knowing what tactics to use become derivative of knowing kinesthetically why one is playing and what movements are called for in making the motions of play as poised, balanced, connecting, flowing, and fitting as possible. When games and sports are taught this way, the authors believe, students and teachers alike better understand the intrinsic, expressive, connective, life-enhancing qualities of movement.

In chapter 6, Brent Davis and Dennis Sumara begin a trilogy of chapters that describe more recent theoretical frameworks for TGfU. Their chapter is framed by an assumption that teachers are always and already working to affect individual understanding and collective action simultaneously. They focus on one of complexity theory's main elements: enabling constraints, which support the sorts of tasks and structures that enable both individual and collective learning. Although enabling constraints might sound like an oxymoron, the phrase flags a necessary tension rather than a contradiction. Complex unities are simultaneously rule bound (constraining) and capable of flexible, unanticipated possibilities (enabling). The pedagogical intent of enabling constraints is to investigate established knowledge while engaging in a process of establishing knowledge.

The concept of enabling constraints segues nicely into the focus of chapter 7, written by Tim Hopper and Kath Sanford, which considers complexity thinking as a way of helping us to consider more physically, emotionally, and socially meaningful perspectives to inform learning in PE. The challenge in teaching games is to enable learners to access game play so that they are invested in playing again and again. The authors draw on two examples of learning in game play. The first involves an alternative type of game play using video games. This provides a perspective on the learning that happens through engaging in a virtual world that adapts to the players and teaches the players skills that lead to more advanced game play. The second example is based on a lesson using the TGfU approach and illustrates the teacher's role in guiding learners to read game play and to adapt the game as they refine their capacity to engage in the game structure. Both examples inform us about the learning processes, which give ownership to the players by allowing them to reinvent game play and adapt the game to their own abilities and those of their coplayers.

Chapter 8, written by Brian Storey and Joy I. Butler, uses complexity thinking as a theory to frame the learning processes involved in TGfU.The authors explore language for describing games learning as a complex adaptive process that reconceptualizes the purpose of teaching games. Simply put, the game does not produce only winners and losers; rather, we see players and learners. The authors draw from an ecological perspective to understand the learner, the learning environment, and the teacher's role. The study of complex adaptive systems in education allows the authors to view players as biological systems, nested in a set of interactions that constitute a game localized in time and place and within the living history of the participants. Each game is also nested in our complex sociopolity that projects values into the games curriculum and pedagogy while being reflected back by the games as they are played out. To capture the importance of game thinking to the broader sociopolitical background, the authors present a philosophical understanding of the game as a metaphor and its implications for games teaching.

Part IV: Practice: Assessment, Coaching, Elementary and Secondary Teaching

Chapters 9 through 14 explore various forms of practice in TGfU with foci on assessment, coaching, and teaching at the elementary and secondary levels. In chapter 9, Jean-François Richard examines the critical role that assessment plays in the teaching-learning process in TGfU. He examines the efficacy of authentic assessment instruments such as the Game Performance Assessment Instrument (GPAI) and the Team Sport Assessment Procedure (TSAP) as ways to help learners analyze the construction of game performance and build authentic, meaningful, and durable learning.

TGfU is an approach used widely at all levels in athletic practice. In chapter 10, Lynn Kidman and Bennett J. Lombardo offer the first of two chapters on the application of TGfU to coaching. Like many of the authors in this book, Kidman and Lombardo reexamine the purpose of playing games and the learning-teaching-coaching dynamic. They draw out the benefits of using a humanistic coaching approach such as TGfU, which positively influences self-esteem, self-direction, and independence and creates opportunities to express moments of joy and supreme well-being.

Chapter 11, by Adriano De Souza and Steve Mitchell, provides a bridge between the coaching focus and the global perspective that TGfU had taken on since the first international conference in 2001. They suggest that TGfU is more prevalent in public school physical education programs than in coaching programs. The authors look more closely at the use of TGfU as a coaching methodology in the United States, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. They investigate the reasons for the adoption or nonadoption of TGfU in coaching contexts, and then examine the impact of TGfU on coaching practices and player performance.

Inez Rovegno describes in chapter 12 how the original TGfU framework designed for secondary schools can be considered and used for elementary children. Basing her ideas on current research, Rovegno offers suggestions about what elements of the framework can be similar and what might need to be different when considering progression, meaning, and relevance at each elementary level. Inez uses Laban's analysis of movement and its movement concepts as a means of identifying ways to vary skills presented so that they become open, gamelike, and tactically useful. Inez suggests that game appreciation is a priority for elementary children as they approach tactics and skills. This is a useful chapter for teachers who are looking for ways to teach game structures, rules, and boundaries so that children understand them and find them relevant. It's also a framework for breaking down and progressively teaching the thinking skills, social skills, and affective aspects of games that are necessary content at the elementary level.

Daniel Memmert explores in chapter 13 the possibility of elementary children being able to be creative in game play, despite the enormous amount of information they need to absorb in order to simply participate. Memmert leads us through areas of focus that a coach or teacher should attend to when teaching players to identify tactical solutions and be tactically creative. Memmert outlines his theoretical framework for the development of tactical creativity in team sport and describes its implementation with elementary children. The framework distinguishes between a macro (content) level and a micro (method) level. The former points toward the natural (noninfluenceable) or organizable environmental conditions (macro rules) and the latter toward the methodical accents in the respective training units (micro rules) that can be steered by the teacher. Through the three micro rules, Memmert suggests that players can learn to perceive, use, and learn better alternative solutions for unexpected situations in game play.

In chapter 14, Kath Howarth, Jennifer L. Fisette, Michele Sweeney, and Linda L. Griffin integrate Laban's movement concepts as a way to unpack (deconstruct) tactical problems in invasion games. When one examines old material through different language, new ideas start to emerge. The authors take an in-depth look at invasion games through larger concepts such as time, space, flow, tempo, and risk. For example, one of the tactical problems in invasion games is to maintain possession of the ball. Though we understand the specific on-the-ball skills and off-the-ball movements related to each specific game, there are still questions we have to consider:

  • How do we unpack this tactical problem for the learner?
  • How do we shape games appropriately for each level of learner?
  • What sequence of concepts will be most efficient in helping learners increase their tactical awareness?


The authors of this book have shared their passion for games teaching and learning and, most important, their commitment to and concern for improving the learning experiences of youth in sport-related games as a way to facilitate the development of decent human beings. Throughout this book, you will read about new concepts to describe the learning-teaching-coaching process that allows the TGfU community and beyond to be open to new ideas and set aside old baggage. A few of the chapters highlight Laban and various movement education concepts, which bring us back full circle to the roots of constructivist learning. Authors make connections between theory and practice, providing a praxis orientation theme to this book.

TGfU is a global movement, and this is a point of pride. As editors of this book, we hope that the community can keep learning and growing through our multiple ways of knowing and collaborating. We also want teachers and coaches worldwide to know that they are welcome to join the movement at any time.


Jewett, A.E., Bain, L.L., & Ennis, C.D. (1995). The curriculum process in physical education. Dubuque, IA: Brown.

More Excerpts From More Teaching Games for Understanding:Theory