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Australian Educational Researcher (in press), November issue, 2001. 


Using personal construct theory and narrative methods to facilitate reflexive constructions of teaching physical education

Tim Hopper and Tony Rossi



This paper is drawn from two large studies undertaken within physical education teacher education environments. The studies were undertaken independently but concurrently, one in Canada, the other in Australia. Both studies drew upon a range of methods principally guided by personal construct theory (PCT), George Kelly's (1955) theory of personality. This theory has experienced something of a renaissance in recent times though to be fair, it never went completely out of fashion. Kelly has a vibrant following that includes an active personal construct psychology (PCP) discussion list, managed in the United Kingdom. Moreover, Kelly's methodological ideas have been integrated with other work in a variety of fields and settings including educational research (for example Coopman 1997, Diamond 1995, Jankowicz 1990, Solas 1995). We have additionally drawn methodologically, from life history research (Sparkes 1993, Woods 1987) and research which focuses on 'lived experienced' (Van Manen 1990) to complement Kelly’s ideas. Furthermore, we have made, independently, theoretical links to the constructivist work of Vygotsky (1978), social constructionist theory (Billig 1988, Gergen 1991, Shotter 1993) and the social theory of Giddens (1984, 1990, 1991, 1994).



The problem in physical education teacher education

The problem in teacher education is that what is taught in teacher preparation programs as professional knowledge to inform the practice of PE, is not realized by most physical educators in the field. As both Barrows’ (1990) and Hargreaves (1984) suggest, it is practice that counts, not theory for most pre-service teaches.  The persistent problem seems to be one of praxis - that form of practice which is underpinned by theoretical constructs and which is open to reflexive reordering (Giddens, 1991) but which is often dismissed as irrelevant. Siedentop and Locke (1997) have gone as far to say ‘What we have is systematic failure - one that involves the relationship of physical education programs in public schools with teacher preparation in higher education’ (p. 25).  Indeed, they further argue that physical education teacher education (PETE) has failed to directly exert a positive influence on school programs.


The possibility for change in this regard can be informed by the advancing insights we are gaining on how a person constructs discipline knowledge for physical education (Macdonald and Tinning, 1995, Sparkes, 1989,1993) and develops a sense of knowledge for teaching (Carr 1989, Goodson & Walker 1991, Schön 1991). Our intention in this paper then, is to explore the potential for PCT within the physical education teacher education context to provide opportunities for students to develop alternative visions of teaching physical education within pre-service teachers. In doing so, we discuss the 'usefulness' of the theory and its methods in assisting student teachers in 'coming to know', both in and about teaching physical education (see Tinning, 1992).  Finally, we consider the potential  for PCT and its associated methods to  act as a  tool to help students become agents of change as teachers. To illustrate this we have included an abridged story from each study.  We are mindful of space here and felt that to draw more extensively from both studies would result in excessive length for the paper.


In both studies, Kelly's (1955) the repertory grid technique was used and this is explained in greater detail later.  The computer application RepGrid 2 (Shaw 1991) was used as what Jonassen (1996) calls a ‘mindtool’ or cognitive tool. Hence in both studies, technology was used as an organizing mechanism for students to think about and reflect upon teaching physical education. In both studies, the repgrid sessions were followed by interviews or conversations based upon the repgrid session to further explore emerging visions of teaching physical education within the participants of these studies. We describe therefore how the repgrid was used to identify and monitor the evolution of pre-service teachers’ construction of personal beliefs about teaching in their own practice, and pre-service teachers’ construction of knowledge for teaching physical education within the broad brush of knowledge as a social construct. The narratives generated by the grid inspired conversations formed a storied knowledge consistent with Lyotard’s (1984) view of knowledge within the postmodern condition and support Shotter’s (1993) work that reality is constructed through conversational language.

How knowledge for teaching PE is constructed by pre-service teachers

Lortie (1975) was one of the earliest to point to the extended period of 'apprenticeship' that student teachers have been through before they arrive at teacher education programs. According to Lortie then (and others since), it seems that students come to teacher education with some well-formed theories about teaching that emerge from their experience of up to twelve years of full time schooling.  For those wishing to teach physical education, sporting experience is also a factor (Gore 1990, Macdonald 1992). Furthermore, for prospective physical educators there is the social kudos related to the social construction of the body (Gilroy 1994, Kirk 1993, Kirk & Spiller 1994) and what Tinning (1985) has termed the Cult of Slenderness. This body image also contributes to how PETE students construct theories of teaching physical education (see Gilroy and Kirk & Spiller).


With such biographical frames, it is little wonder that pre-service teachers have difficulty in becoming change agents within the field. Not surprisingly, there tends to be resistance among prospective PE teachers to seeing things in alternate ways (Gore 1990, Macdonald & Tinning 1995). To view tradition and what might be accepted as conventional practice as problematic involves personal risk (Giddens 1991) and would be seen as going against the ‘professional grain’ (Rossi 1997). Giddens (1991) would call this 'existential anxiety'. By this he means the feeling of uncertainty and personal risk when we move outside of our own parameters of comfort and security. To meet this challenge, we argue that there is a need to develop PETE students who can reflexively work from their own practice, the practice of others and the practice of those that have taught them in ways that enable them to engage in intellectual risk taking. We view this risk taking as essential for PETE students to develop as teachers.   Moreover, the embracing of risk is entirely consistent with the contemporary visage of the world in the late modern age. Giddens (1994) for instance talks about the uncertainly of living in what he calls a 'post-traditional' society.  Following Giddens, we would argue that even though the pull of tradition tends to be strong, particularly in conservative areas such a teaching, addressing pedagogical complexity in our schools today can really only be attempted through risk taking. 


Teacher knowledge in teacher preparation

PETE has tended to be dominated by a scientific notion of professional knowledge, also referred to in terms of 'technocratic rationality (Altrichter, Psch, & Somekh 1993, Carr 1989, Munby & Russell 1989, Parker 1997, Schön 1983, Schön 1987).  Tinning (1991) argues that this represents the dominant discourse in PETE.  This technocratic rationality creates an 'objectivist' theory of knowledge that sees knowledge in impersonal terms.


Implementing professional knowledge in practice might be better considered as a process of problem-solving., Technocratic rationality generates a form of teaching knowledge that can help to inform practice aimed at the pursuit of only fixed and absolute educational ends, in fixed and absolute environments.  However, in teaching the ‘ends’ are always contentious, and the contexts unruly. The problems of the real world do not present themselves as givens, but as ‘‘messy’, ‘indeterminate’ and ‘problematic’ situations which arise because of ‘conflicting values’’ (Carr 1989, p.9).  Technocratic forms of knowledge then, might be regarded as incomplete as a form of teacher knowledge

Our preference is for teaching to be construed along a social dimension. Here, situated or contextual knowledge is a shared body of knowledge that is inherited from experience and colleagues, and is practical. To understand contextual knowledge teachers use personal knowledge from the frameworks of their lifeworld. From these frameworks, teachers ‘make sense of practical situations, formulate goals and direction for action and determine what constitutes acceptable professional conduct’ (Schön 1987, p.32-33). Working from these understandings of teacher knowledge and practice, it seems appropriate to try help pre-service teachers understand the inherited knowledge that constructs their personal framework about teaching in a context, as well as the professional knowledge that informs the art of teaching.


Understanding teacher knowledge through personal construct psychology

We believe that a useful way to develop this teacher knowledge is through the use of conversations structured around a psychological process known as a repertory grid.  A repertory grid is a ‘tool’ that evolved out of the development of George Kelly’s (1955) personal construct psychology (or personal construct theory as it now more commonly called). Historically, personal construct theory (PCT) was located within the field of psychotherapy, however, more recent work in education has seen the emergence of PCT as a possible way 'into' teacher thinking and personal theorizing a (for instance see Diamond 1985, 1991, Hunt 1987, Olsen 1982, Pope & Denicolo 1993, Solas 1992 and Yaxley  1991).

The central tenet of personal construct theory, 'constructive alternativism', implies that there are always alternatives to how a person views the world.  A person may hold many of these alternatives at one time or they may be developed in response to new situations or a failure (and therefore rejection) of previously held beliefs. As a psychotherapist, Kelly (1955) was seeking a way in which his patients might engage the world with a better understanding of both it and themselves. We have found that through the use and methods of PCT we have gained an insight into student teacher thinking about the nature of their work and the nature of their 'selves' as they take on the role of teacher.


Methodological Considerations: The repertory grid in teacher preparation

We acknowledge that there might be some perceived epistemological tensions in an approach to research that brings together a 'psychologistic' such as the repertory grid with narrative methods. In our view, such tensions are unwarranted. The repgrid has always been associated with a conversational approach to psychotherapy and more recently research work in education and a number of other fields.  The notion of narrative, which tends to be thought of in conversational terms, in fact might be too narrow even within the field of psychotherapy. Don Bannister, a psychotherapist from the UK, tells the wonderful story of how one of his clients found it necessary to 'act' out his constructs using the medium of mime (see Bannister & Fransella 1986).  The repgrid, with its numbers and correlation functions may have the appearance of a highly scientistic research method. However to us, its versatility as a 'conversational' tool was attractive.


The repertory grid then, represents cross-referenced ideas around a context set by the investigator. In the case of these two studies the contexts were effective physical education teaching and professional knowledge for teaching physical education. It is a way of examining one’s implicit theories about a particular context. In creating the repertory grid, the participants are asked to select from a pool of representative elements or create a pool of representative elements based on the context of interest.


In both studies referred to here, all participants (18 in all) were provided with a copy of the grid and some guidance on how to 'read' them. A post grid learning conversation (Thomas & Harri-Augstein 1985) followed each grid session. The conversations were unstructured in that questions were not prepared beforehand. It was based however, in the first instance at least, on the grid itself. The conversation may well go beyond the grid.  This is regarded as acceptable and appropriate (Pope & Denicolo 1993) and the participant (and interviewer) have liberty to pursue any line of mutual interest.  All conversations in both studies were audio taped and fully transcribed.  The transcripts were given back to the participants for agreement or modification as a process of establishing ‘trustworthiness’ in the discussion. This conversational phase is normally conducted as soon as possible after the grid session. There is normally a period of 'training' where the participant is shown how to read and interpret the grid.   


In the Canadian study, the repertory grid was used with eight pre-service teachers over a two-year period to consider the context of effective teaching in physical education. The pre-service teachers were given a pool of representative role titles such as ‘most effective PE teacher high school’, ‘most effective coach’, ‘least effective university lecturer - PE’ and ‘least effective teacher high school’.  This list of teachers could be tailored according to the participant’s experiences, but from such a list, participants selected eight to twelve teachers that, from their past, represented each of the role titles. By classifying teachers as effective and ineffective, participants were deciding the characteristics that, in their experience, implied effectiveness in teaching.


In asking the participants to select from a pool of teachers from different times and contexts, the repertory grid creates a process where the participant is comparing, contrasting and synthesizing the similarities and differences between teachers. Normally, this process would be too complex to consider with any more than a few teachers. The computer software RepGrid 2 (Shaw 1991) allows the computer to be used as a cognitive tool in this process.   Once the elements have been elicited they are then arranged, at random, in a triadic form by the computer program. The participant must pick one of the elements as being distinguishable from the others.  Once selected, the computer arranges the elements in a bi-polar fashion, with one element (identified as different in some way from the other two) at one end of the pole and the other two at the other end.  It is at this point that the participant begins to construct his or her personalized view of the contextual world before them.  The participant has to say why or how the one element is different from the other two.  This is known as the emergent pole of the construct.  Once this is done and entered into the computer application, the participant then has to say why the two elements at the other end of the pole are similar and enter this response.  For example, one of the participants in the Canadian study (John) chose two teachers who in his opinion had ‘No knowledge, ill-prepared’ compared to another teacher who was ‘Intense, prepared, demanding.’ These two descriptors, when connected, are known as a bi-polar construct. Using a 1 to 5 rating scale for the bi-polar construct (‘1’ very, ‘2’ somewhat, ‘3’ neutral, ‘4’ somewhat, and ‘5’ very) John rated his selected elements (teacher role titles) based on the bi-polar construct.  For example, in Figure 1 John rated his teachers from his past according to where, in his opinion, they fit on the continuum from “very  - ‘Intense, prepared, demanding’” to “very – ‘no knowledge, ill-prepared’”. This process was repeated with different triads of elements eliciting new bi-polar constructs until John felt that no more bi-polar constructs could be elicited. In John’s grid it can be seen that several words such as “clear,” ‘energy” and “demanding” are repeatedly used.  In a sense this was a limitation of John’s construction of the grid because similar words elicit similar understandings.  However, for John the emerging poles on the opposite end of the bi-polar constructs caused a contrasting view of the repeated words.  These contrasting views generated thematic thought objects for John on effective teaching.




Once the elements and constructs were elicited the computer software created a grid showing how the number patterns for each teacher role title correlated with other teacher role titles.  This correlation produced a cluster­ing analysis in the form of a tree diagram showing the degree of similarity between number patterns (from 100% to 70% similarities).  Figure 2 is an example of the original repertory grid John produced that shows the clustering effect. This clustering process highlights the degree of commonalties between teachers that John identi­fied as effective and ineffective, offering a frame of reference for these teachers. Often these commonalties can be elaborated upon by stories told by the participants. Such stories offer a frame of reference for what the participant has experienced as effective or ineffective teaching.  Similarly, when the com­puter software clustered the number patterns of the bi-polar constructs, it indicated the bi-polar constructs that for John, had common ratings for all the teachers considered. Such clusters and the stories that emerged from them became John’s thought objects or themes for what he believed an effec­tive teacher would look like. It is important to note that bi-polar constructs are not necessarily opposites. The descriptors at either end of the pole characterize the thinking of the participant.  Hence binary opposites serve no particular logic in grid construction, the participant chooses how to describe the ends of the pole based on their own perspective, experience, language and so on. Binary opposites may well emerge on a bi-polar grid, but they do not do so as a matter of course.




 The Australian study was different in that the participants generated the elements themselves within the context of 'knowledge for teaching physical education'... If this approach is adopted it is helpful for elicitation of elements to be done in discursive fashion with the use of pencil and paper before being transferred to the computer software for the grid creation.  The reason for this is that persons undertaking repertory grids for the first time (and sometimes on subsequent occasions also) may struggle with language to really capture what it is they mean. Caution is appropriate here too, as it is easy to insert the language of the researcher to move the process along. The role of the researcher here is to assist in finding descriptors that adequately represent the thoughts of the participants. This is done by using a series of questions to tease out what the participant really means but without inserting actual word and phrases. In common with the Canadian study, the grids represented a ‘thinking map’ and were constructed in exactly the same way by participants interacting with software as in the Canadian study. Again as with the Canadian study, the grids were the focus of the subsequent learning conversations.    


The grid engages participants on subjective interpretations about their experiences of teaching that frames their forms of teaching knowledge. These interpretations supply rich texts that have multiple meanings. These are likely to be located in a range of social contexts and relations. It is at the interview or conversational stage, that these meanings can be explored further.


Personal construct theory as a change agent

Personal construct psychology provides a way for students to see things differently (Rossi 1997) or to use Kelly's language to make 'alternative constructions'. The therapeutic qualities of the theory and the attendant methods potentially provide a way for a dialogical construction of knowledge to be developed that can contribute to a broader view of physical education pedagogy than the persistent discourse of performance (Tinning 1991). However, this does not come easily and in the process there must be something of a dialogical irritant, something that causes participants to think again, for the participants to look back on pedagogical action in order to see it differently. In both studies referred to here, the participants explained their repertory grids then engaged in a field experience where they taught physical education, then returned to campus to conduct further repertory grid sessions, or to re-rate and explain their revised grids. In the case of the Australian study, this process was repeated several times over a three and a half-year period. For the purposes of this paper two case abridged stories are now provided to illustrate this process. We are mindful that to draw from the entire data set of both studies would be inappropriate as the corpus of conversational data alone would expand the paper several fold. Rather we have selected cases that in our view typify the possibilities for change available through this process. We acknowledge that not all of the participants changed either to this extent or in the same direction.


John’s story

John was a participant in the Canadian study and the following excerpts are based initially on the grid shown in Figure 2. In the first interview John’s outlook on teaching PE could be described as traditional, focusing on knowing the curriculum content and being respected as an athlete and a healthy role model.  In his first grid John was negative about all but a few of his past teachers, as can be seen in Figure 2 with his very negative rating for most of his least effective teachers. John’s initial bipolar constructs were very tightly clustered. However, in conversation he felt they associated to the themes of the teacher being ‘friendly’ (as in knowing students as people), ‘modeling a love for what he was doing’ and ‘able to operate clearly with high expectations.’  These themes became John’s thought objects for reflexive thinking about teaching.  For example, John said about one teacher, ‘he just commanded respect in the way he need discipline...he moved among the class, like he also knew what was going on with various students.  He was really accessible outside of class.’  The reason John thought he was generally negative to his past teachers, especially the ineffective teachers was because, as he explained, ‘comparing them on harsh-strict and friendly, if they come out as harsh-strict they seem to be 5 on everything else.’  For John, the friendliness of a teacher seemed to be a crucial factor in making demanding a positive attribute of a teacher.


For John, ineffective teachers ‘had knowledge but they did not know how to get it out.’  Students did not generally respect these teachers. John felt they did not like him.  As he said, ‘I was kind of boisterous, like I had high energy or whatever.  They liked those that were quiet.’  John described these teachers as unclear, not structured and easily irritated.  To John these ineffective teachers lacked a sense of friendliness and were often harsh and strict.


It was noticeable in John’s first interview that he often used words such as ‘demanding’, ‘intense’, ‘command’ and ‘be an example’ around his notion of an effective teacher.  These words seem to be associated with John’s experience of being coached basketball at a high standard.  John was an elite athlete in the university athletic system.  There was a sense of a no-nonsense drill-sergeant image of a teacher-as-coach in John’s description of effective teachers underlining the military legacy within physical education teaching and sports coaching.   As John said, if you did wrong an effective teacher would ‘put you on the spot’, ‘talk down to you’ and ‘berate you.’ This harsh treatment of students was acceptable to John because as he explained  ‘a lot of kids are bums, in terms of being lazy ... perception that they do not have to do any work.’ As Gore (1990) has noted about PE teachers, John’s sense of students in a PE class was very much constructed from a sense of himself as a teenage athlete.


In the second interview after John had completed his field experience he re-rated his original grid. John rated his past teachers more positively, especially his ineffective teachers.  His teaching experience had made John focus upon more of the positive aspects of his past teachers as he was ‘seeing the difficulty of being a teacher.’  John also realized that more teachers were friendly to other students in a class, but in the first interview he had focused on those teachers that were particularly friendly to him.  This change of outlook represented John becoming aware of the complexity of teaching, an awareness that made him see differently the role of a teacher.


During the university teacher preparation course John had become attracted to conceptual ideas for teaching that were child-centred and highly structured. In his field experience, John struggled with his personal inability to teach in the more conceptual way he had developed during the teacher preparation course. He felt frustrated by the clear, directing type of teaching that he had described as effective in his repertory grid analysis.  John’s thought objects – ‘friendly’, ‘love of subject matter’ and ‘clear, high expectations’, did not guide him towards becoming an effective teacher. His love for sport and his high expectations with clear demands did not help him teach. As he said about his teaching experience, ‘I have not got the patience to just keep the kids going because I have such high expectations.’  John felt that all he was expected to do in the school was ‘keep the kids occupied.’  John, simply by being energetic and friendly achieved this expectation but as he said, ‘it was extremely boring.’  John seemed to be suggesting that he did not want to just keep his students ‘busy, happy and good’ the common intent noted by Dodds and Placek, (1988) but in his field experience that was all that was expected. As John explained, he wanted a sense of ‘balance’ between a teacher’s expectations and what students can do.


In John’s first class back in his PETE course after the practicum he announced that he wanted to quit teaching.   The whole class was shocked and concerned.  John explained, ‘I just was too similar all the time.  I would be just counting the days until I am done.  I do not think that is good.’


At the end of his PETE course John created another repertory grid with new constructs.  This grid involved a slightly new combination of descriptors that, although still focused on the teacher being friendly and demanding, exhibited a sense of ‘challenging’ which related more to what students had to work with rather than what the teacher demanded.


In this final grid John was generally positive to his past teachers.  He felt this was because of his greater focus upon teachers being friendly.  His new grid on effectiveness in teaching produced two significant new bipolar constructs (fun - no fun and developing - grounded) which led to the two new thought objects of the ‘teacher developing’ and ‘students having fun from challenge’. John maintained a focus on the thought object – ‘teacher being friendly'.  These thought objects illuminated why John was very negative towards his field experience. John made the following comments about his lessons being boring (not fun) and his fear of not developing as a teacher:


I felt that some of the classes were boring because of the way I taught them.  Command style.  Tell them to do this, tell them to do that, and then we can play a game after.  Like I hated it.  I just hated it, but I still did it...It is so boring doing the skills.  If I teach them that way I will be bored in two months I will not ever change.  I just know that.  I will just go through the motions; I will get my pay-check and have summers off.  But I will hate going to work every day.


John felt that most of the teachers with whom he was working on his field experience and all of his ineffective teachers tended to be stuck, grounded in a sort of rut.  As he explained, ‘when you get into schools you get kind of stuck in your ways.’  John observed that most of the teachers he knew,


have all been around, they seem to be doing the same thing all the time.  I think they adapt their classrooms, but I don't see their system of teaching changing...Kind of use the same lessons, the same mode of instruction year in year out...Same teaching, go and do it.


John’s inability to teach in ways that he had become attracted to during the physical education teacher preparation course at the university frustrated him.  Co-operating teachers in the school rating him as a very good teacher compounded this frustration.  It was suggested to John that ‘the kids were entertained’ by him.  John agreed saying, ‘that is what I was supposed to do.’  Tinning, Kirk and Evans (1993), drawing from the work of Postman (1985), have also indicated that pedagogy, particularly in physical education, is often regarded as a form of entertainment.  It is not difficult to see why John might view teaching physical education in this way. He regarded what went on in his physical education lessons as frivolous. He felt that he was unable to move beyond a 'happy and good' mentality of pedagogy. Hence he came to see  his pedagogical work in physical education as purely a control mechanism. In other words, the militaristic traditions of physical education immersed as they are, in behaviour management and discipline seemed for John, still to hold an important place in school life. As far as he could see, he was keeping children entertained and exercised so that the 'real work' of school could be attended to in the classroom.


In John’s second interview he did not make reference to ‘demand’ or ‘clear.’  The act of teaching was now described by John using structural types of words such as ‘grounded’, ‘established,’ ‘developed’, ‘stuck’, ‘pushing’, and ‘prodding’.  There seemed to be a static nature to this structure that made teaching unattractive to John.  He did not know how to change the structure in order to know teaching in a different way.  It was noticeable that John's accounts lacked a sense of students.  He appeared to find it difficult to get friendly with students in a way that allowed him to have a sense of them as people. 


John’s alternative sense of teaching 

Due to unusual circumstances John had to complete his fourth week of the practicum after he had returned to the university and engaged in the group discussions and repertory grid analysis. When he returned to campus the second time John indicated how he had attempted to implement a running pace-judgment lesson rather than a 'first across the line' running activity.  In this lesson, rather than seeing who gets the best time to run a course, John was interested to see who could get the closest to their estimated time for running a given distance. In this activity, students kept running the course trying to get closer to a time estimated time they chose for each run. John regarded the purposes of this lesson to be more educationally defensible. He felt that the lesson provided students some (albeit limited) choice about lesson content, that the task involved opportunities to analyze the activity and think about how to solve the problem within it. John said:


I used it as a warm-up; it was an eighty-minute lesson.  I set the task and the students got the idea; all but one ran off as fast as they could.  One student realized that he did not have to run.  He walked, I laughed, everybody laughed, and then they realized they had a real choice.  The walker found that his time was over a minute out.  The rest started exploring the time with different pace running, but if they went too slow then they were normally a lot out (sic).  It was really good, got them all thinking as well as running.  They ran for twenty minutes.


This one experience gave John a sense of hope that he could change the static (structurally rigid) way he had come to know teaching, to a dynamic structure that perhaps embodied a more emancipatory form of pedagogy.


Two terms later John read his case study.  By this time he had completed his final field experience. A third interview with him was undertaken and transcribed.  This happened almost a year after the teacher preparation course and the initial interview. John was asked what he thought of teaching.  He was far happier than before.  He had managed to teach beyond the command and practice styles of teaching identified by Mosston and Ashworth (1986).  Moreover, he found that he was able to take these ideas into his other teaching area of mathematics.


His work in the pace-judgement lesson in PE was closer to how John felt he wanted to teach. He wanted his pupils to find learning interesting, to work intensely and to become more independent. John’s three new thought objects which emerged from a further conversational session (‘teacher developing’, ‘students having fun from challenge’ and ‘teacher being friendly’) seemed to frame these two stories. 


John now seemed to be developing, as a teacher who was able to interact with students and, in a fun way, was able to challenge them. John now seemed to find it comfortable to teach beyond command and practice styles and to move towards what Mosston and Ashworth (1986) describe as the 'discovery threshold'. John believed this to be more worthwhile, more fulfilling professionally and more educationally defensible.


Throughout this final interview there was, what John described as a 'contact', more of a feel sense to John’s metaphorical language for teaching. John's structure of teaching was ‘expanding’, ‘connecting’ and ‘touching’, as he was able to engage with students.  John felt he was able to ‘deal well in terms of classroom management’ because he could ‘feel in control’, but was frustrated by the diversity of abilities in a classroom. This awareness of students allowed John to move beyond a static structure for teaching to a process, that to use John’s language, ‘students direct’.


At the end of the third interview John revealed that during the course and the practicum: ‘The grid did not work for me, I just did it because you were my Prof. After I had read the case study I totally saw how I was developing. [It was] Really helpful to show where I am going.’  The repertory grid process and the conversations seemed to help John generate Kelly’s (1955) alternative constructions for teaching. Such alternative ways of seeing teaching allowed John to try different ways of teaching that involved students taking more initiative to direct their own learning.  As John said about the repertory grid process and his curriculum and instruction courses:


[They] moved me beyond just one approach [to teaching]...forced me to think about it.  And then actually proved it to me I guess.  In every other class I was kind of sitting there saying, no that way is stupid, I will stick to my way.


The PCT process seemed to have contributed to John’s insights as he reflexively constructed his personal pedagogy.


Carrie’s story

Carrie was a participant in the Australian study and her story is based on figures three, four and five. These are called 'display grids' in repertory grid parlance. For Carrie and the other participants in the Australian study, these 'display grids' were used as the principal stimulus for the conversations that followed. A display grid shows the 'elements' identified within the context and how these were rated on each construct pole (the figures in the grid) on a 1-5 scale. This process for grid generation is exactly the same as in the Canadian study.


It was apparent in the conversations with Carrie that her principal professional concern was for learning rather than teaching. This is not to say that she felt no affiliation or attachment to the whole notion of teaching, simply that, for her, professional knowledge in teaching was heavily influenced, even governed by an understanding of learning. Carrie’s notion of learning was not some broad generic process but an intimate understanding of individuals which she described as being at the heart of her first grid. She identified this through one of her elements, which she called 'a knowledge of children'.  Carrie suggested that the constructs for the first grid were based around something she continually emphasized, ‘you've got to know how they learn.’




Throughout first grid and in the subsequent conversation Carrie frequently referred to the ‘child's input’ or 'input of the child’.  This was explored further in the conversational stage as she also made frequent references ‘putting across’ (information).  She recognised this dichotomy, and tried to clarify her position:


Well with children, you’re not just going to sit there and teach at them all the time and never listen to what they're saying...fair enough you may be putting it across to them but are they understanding if they are not allowed to put in their own bit?


Early in the process, Carrie was asked about what she had identified as ‘teachers' knowledge’ in her first grid.  Here Carrie was vague, uncertain and almost non-committal. For Carrie, teachers’ knowledge almost remained beyond description. However, implicit in her difficulty was the profound importance it has for teachers' work and the necessity for all teachers to learn how to somehow appropriate such knowledge. These early characterisations of knowledge were central to Carrie's concept of teachers' work but as a form of knowledge it was virtually intangible.


After Carrie had completed her first practicum experience, she participated in another repgrid session .  In this second grid and subsequent conversation Carrie had become more confident about the nature of teacher knowledge.  However, she continued to frame it around the social domain of teachers' work. She was now prepared to talk about teacher sensitivity as a form of knowledge:


Teachers need to have a sensitivity I guess towards the kids and know what people hold as being valuable, sort of creating an equal sort of area where all children can have a go, not just the ones that are good at sport. [Emphasis added]






What was perhaps surprising, given the context of the repgrid session was that in both the first and second grids, physical education as a concept was conspicuous by its absence. In the conversation after the first grid, it did not appear until the researcher brought it into the discussion. Knowledge for teaching physical education across both conversations, was identified by Carrie as a broad knowledge of sports and movement techniques. Some basic anatomy and physiology were also identified as being necessary for teaching physical education but interestingly not for performance reasons but for safety and health related exercise reasons.  She continued to cling to an almost invisible aura that represented some mystical force that teachers have and ‘kind of develop’ (her words).  In both grids, however, Carrie challenged sport as knowledge for physical education in schools.  She indicated that she had done little dance or gymnastics at school and she felt this to be a severe shortcoming in her own physical education. The model that she had experienced was a sport participation based predominantly on team games; a model still prevalent in Australian schools today. In her view, such a model was neither educationally defensible nor developmentally sound. To return to her first conversation for example, she argued:


I think’s more of a get out and let’s have a game rather than let’s develop some skills...let’s all get in and we will have one or two lessons on how to play the game and then we spend the next six weeks playing the game.  Whether you’ve actually learned anything or not and the people who are good at it take the ball and sort of dominate the lesson while the others take a back seat.


Carrie seemed to feel strongly about this and in her post grid conversation she emphasised that physical education should be more than just sport and certainly should involve a far wider range of movement experiences with a broader range of outcomes that might go beyond simply performance.  As she said:


A lot of people don’t spend the time with the poorer students, they keep with the top students and push them further and further because they know they are going to achieve a result. I think it's more important to give them … um … a lot of schools for example don't do movement education or gymnastics.


Carrie’s perception of this occurrence was that rightly or wrongly (wrongly in her view), it is the ‘natural thing’ and that pedagogical practice in physical education was dominated by this natural order.  As both conversations developed it became clear that such an emphasis on performance was in her view a limited approach to physical education and that all children should be entitled to an educational program not just or uniquely, a sport program framed by performance (Tinning 1991). 


The appropriation of teacher knowledge for physical education and the location of this appropriation were addressed through a series of questions in the second and third conversations and it became apparent that Carrie valued the practicum highly. Carrie believed that it is a vital opportunity to test her own theories and practice some techniques and methods or as she said ‘to try out some things.’  She did not regard the practicum as an opportunity to replicate the practice of others regardless of how good or otherwise that practice might be. Carrie further argued that the theory work in her course, whilst not unrelated to practice, was really quite different from it.  Carrie ascribed significant worth to such theoretical work suggesting it did in fact ‘back up’ field based work and she dismissed the idea that anyone with an adequate subject matter knowledge base could necessarily teach physical education well. Again Carrie emphasized that in order to teach, ‘you had to know something about how to learn.’  Further to this, and apparent in grid two and the second learning conversation, Carrie felt that all of her theoretical work in physical education would inform her day to day practice in some way.  It emerged from the conversations that some of the theoretical course work remained at an abstract for her, particularly for instance in motor learning. She refused, however, to dismiss it as irrelevant (as some of her peers had already done). She also offered an interesting social slant on movement sciences. She indicated that movement sciences would help her see the worth in each learner regarding what they might be expected to accomplish and what might be viewed as 'achievement' for each child.


By grid three and the ensuing conversation it was apparent that Carrie had re-ordered her narrative (Giddens 1984, 1991) or, to use the language of Kelly (1955), had re-construed her ideas about becoming a teacher. This was represented by a move from surviving in the academy (and the requirements of a teacher education program) to a more highly developed concern for and commitment to children. However, whilst it was apparent that she had gained more security as a teacher, her anxiety had persisted within physical education.  From this point of view, there was an odd paradox in that her teacher knowledge was more secure and yet her confidence in her own knowledge to be a PE teacher was very low. So much so that she considered opting not to apply for a PE position but rather seek entry to the profession as a generalist primary school teacher, an action she eventually took.




In the final interview, completed after the conclusion of her course but without producing a further grid, Carrie developed her line of thinking of the child being at the centre of the teaching process and learning process. She suggested that for a long time it was an aspiration.  What emerged as we concluded our time together was that this aspiration had moved into her teacher knowledge.


Carrie drew from a range of personal experience to broaden her knowledge. What was interesting is that she called on that experience not in a ‘do as was done to me’ way as described by Lortie (1975). What she did in fact do, was draw from what she saw as the negative perspectives of her experience as a way not to conduct professional practice and as examples of the things that she might like to change. 


As was indicated earlier, Carrie’s main anxiety was that she felt that she did not have enough ‘knowledge’ of sports and games which she saw as the genuine subject matter content for physical education, even though elsewhere she indicated that physical education should be more than this. In this regard, a socially constructed form of knowledge influenced her. Gergen (1991) suggests that such knowledge forms part of a 'community of agreement', and there is a strong community belief in and commitment to such knowledge being true. Carrie further felt that there is a demarcation of knowledge in physical education and that knowledge of games and sport is the knowledge she needs to teach physical education and other knowledge e.g. kinesiology etc, is purely for one's personal development even though its practical relevance remained rather abstract. She emphasized though that such knowledge would eventually help her develop professionally, thereby confirming her earlier contention that it did have some value with regard to teaching physical education. To reinforce her view, she argued:


I don’t know like I have just finished saying that the theory is important and necessary, but I guess you’d come across PE majors that would say if we hadn’t done all that theory we could have learned more about the games and sports and so that we could teach them and that is going back again to that the subject matter is just sports and we don’t worry about any thing else ... I mean  if  I say I can’t do it, I don’t know what to do … you sort of feel really inadequate like it is your fault ... I suppose it could happen with anything … I’ve  either done it or I haven’t and I am not saying that I am not willing to learn once I get out I don’t expect to finish here and that’s it


She also suggested that knowledge is something that is a constant - in other words everybody more or less acquires the same knowledge or at least has the opportunity to do so through teacher education course work. The knowledge however, is interpreted through the lens of belief. When asked about the convergence of knowledge and belief that was apparent from her grid, she said:


Whether it was me or Joe Blow down the road that knowledge base isn’t going to change.  Whereas when looking at the belief that is a really personal thing ... I might believe something to be really important like being sensitive to students’ needs - like one of my priorities … but for someone else it might be winning the game is the main thing....whereas that  knowledge base is pretty well stable -it is the same for everyone.



It appeared that Carrie was seeing knowledge as having a personal dimension. Moreover, she was (and still is, now into her career) working out a ‘personal pedagogy’ which appears to be developing through her becoming what Tinning, Kirk, and Evans (1993) call an 'educational craftsperson'. She was also of the view that not only does a teacher have to work at new pedagogy - but so do children. Therefore, she saw it as part of her pedagogical practice to educate the pupils in alternative ways of working so that different pedagogies can prevail in her teaching environment.  As she said:


One strategy that you know might work really well for someone won’t work for someone else, I was at Curzon School (local school) for one of my pracs and I was really worried because we had 53 kids in the class there grades 3,4, 5 and there were physically impaired children in there was really scary and I thought what am I going to do and I tried one thing and then something else until I found something suitable for those kids in that context.


Here Carrie emphasized the need to try things out akin to the 'extended professional'  described by Tinning et all (1993) . Though Carrie again did not dismiss theoretical work she emphasized the need to learn from experience.  As she said:


So you have got all those different strategies and I think you need to develop … you learn what is good for you ... I have to use some other method and those are things that you learn through experience, what works for you but it is also what works for the kids.


It is important to note that Carrie eventually came to view knowledge for teaching as a dynamic phenomenon, something that is tried, reworked and tried again. She considered knowledge for teaching as not a lifelong endowment but a shifting, evolving, and growing part of a teacher’s career.  This is something she has taken into her career with her.


Some final thoughts

What emerges from both studies referred to here is that personal construct theory in general and the repertory grid in particular seem to be able to provide a way for pre-service teachers to articulate their own theories about what it is to be a teacher.  Also, what emerges from both studies is personal knowledge that underpins teacher action, is itself distilled from various professional and contextual knowledge sources. The ‘reflective space’ (Rossi 1997) created by the grid is important in that there is a genuine attempt by the researcher (or therapist) to give voice to the participant. 


The learning conversations enable the grid analysis to provide a comprehensive picture of a PETE student’s development.  In this sense, the therapeutic aspects of Kelly’s theory come to the fore.  The participants in both of these studies were ‘scientists’ in Kellyan terms. In this respect, research of this nature takes on a praxis quality (see Lather 1986) and both researcher and participant can come to know through a dialogical process. The computerized grid elicitation provides a technology that can overcome some of the post-structural concerns about ownership of knowledge, voice and single theory teacher development and teacher action. Using this process, students who seek to become physical education teachers are able to forge a teacher self-identity through the knowledge that they themselves construct. This construction process is in a framework that allows them to develop within a context but based on their personal beliefs and professional understandings. Such a flexible framework legitimates a plurality in teacher development that can inspire the beginning teacher.  


The dialogical processes and the reflective space created by the technology mean that participants have opportunities to reflexively re-order their narratives in light of new experience (Giddens 1984, 1991). In this process, participants’ evolving thought objects are not static but are flexible and can be made to suit the contours of their personal development, challenged by contextual demands, in a way that perhaps other methods fail to do. Drawing on Vygotsky (1978), the phenomena of teacher knowledge can therefore be studied in a socio-cultural milieu as a process in motion and change.


The re-construed sense of teacher, professional knowledge and personal belief which has occurred in the studies discussed here are consistent with Kelly’s (1955) assertion that we can transform the most obvious of occurrences, we simply need to be inventive enough to see such occurrences differently.  The case studies here illustrate that this can be a lengthy process and one that does not necessarily lead to the same degree of change in all persons. At the same time however, these studies indicate that the person-as-scientist metaphor can hold even in these post modern times of what Gergen (1991) calls saturation where the self is ‘saturated’ by the sheer complexity of the social milieu in which persons exist. Moreover, truth itself is an unruly concept that requires constant pursuit. The importance therefore of teacher education to be a reflexive project cannot be overstated. The reflexivity inherent within the methods of PCT potentially provided the impetus for teaching to be conducted as a reflexive project by the participants of these two projects.





The authors would like to thank the three anonymous referees for their helpful comments and insights.


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Figure 1: An example of John creating the bi-polar construct “Intensity, prepared demanding – No knowledge ill-prepared”


Figure 2: A repertory grid analyzed by the RepGrid 2 software package






Figure 3: Carrie's First Grid







Figure 4: Carrie's Second Grid







Figure 5: Carrie's Third Grid