Differentiation and concept-based games teaching
I’m sure I’m not alone in having students complain, “No-one is passing to me” during a game in PE.
With the huge range of ability in classes, I often find myself conditioning games in order to keep everyone involved. This can be done by making an every team member has to touch the ball before you shootrule. Rules like these are great for keeping less confident students engaged.
However, they can also undermine the understandings that we are trying to develop when teaching games. The every team member has to touch the ball rule can, for example, undermine the concept of creating open space in order to create scoring opportunities; a team creates a fantastic scoring opportunity in front of the goal and then remembers that one of their team members (who might be in an extremely disadvantageous position) has yet to touch the ball and makes a pass that results in a lost scoring opportunity. The defenders, too, might be busy marking that one remaining player instead of defending the target, as they should be doing in an authentic situation.
Authenticity is the key to teaching game concepts. So, in a class where there is a large range in ability, I believe there is great merit in differentiating according to ability/experience level. If some students are not ready to compete with the strongest students, then give them the opportunity to play with a group of peers at a similar level. These homogenous groups can play with modified rules to make the concepts more accessible (e.g. in a basketball unit, some students might be ready to play with dribbling, while others play with no dribbling to simplify the skills required and the decisions they have to make – the concept of finding/making space in order to shoot remains the same). The authenticity comes not in playing the real rules (i.e. full versions of games), but by creating authentic situations that isolate important game concepts (e.g. creating space, shooting under pressure from an opponent, defending in a 2 on 1 situation). These activities are far more meaningful if they are challenging for everyone and this is best achieved by grouping according to ability.
Differentiating in this way helps us to honour the game concepts and presents a challenging and authentic context for all students to develop their understanding and movement skills in games. With Primary students, small-sided games are always the way to go; these games provide the perfect opportunity to be deliberate about group selections that will help everyone to be fully involved in a meaningful way.
Of course, there are plenty of occasions when heterogeneous groupings are ideal, such as in game creation activities or where peers teach skills to one another. For game play, I believe ability-based groups are the way to go.