Old wine in new bottles: a response to claims that teaching games for understanding was not developed as a theoretically based pedagogical framework

Stephen Harvey, Shane Pill, Len Almond

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

43 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Teaching games for understanding (TGfU) has stimulated so much attention, research and debate since the 1980s that it is easy for its origins to become refracted and misunderstood. For example, in a recent edition of the Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy journal there was paper arguing a constraints-led approach (CLA) as distinctive from TGfU, where TGfU was positioned as merely an operational model without an initial underpinning theory. Purpose: In this paper, we draw on historical records of existing literature and the memory of one the founders of TGfU to explore the various theoretical contributions to TGfU during its foundational years, which included the work of Bruner on guided discovery, and others (i.e. Stenhouse, Suits). Findings: First, we clarify that TGfU was not developed by Thorpe and Bunker, it was developed by what we refer to as a ‘games team.’ Second, we argue that although in practice TGfU and a CLA may look alike, epistemologically they rest on very different theoretical foundations. From its inception, the epistemological development of TGfU has been from an educative perspective rather than sport science/skill acquisition like that of a CLA. Not only have these competing epistemological/theoretical descriptions led to tensions between education and sport science in the physical education and sport coaching research and literature, they also cause confusion for the practitioner. It is however, inappropriate to privilege one fields’ theoretical discourse or to create a ‘verses’ mentality to theoretical descriptions of what to the practitioner appear essentially the same pedagogical actions (Stolz, S., and S. Pill, 2014. “Teaching Games and Sport for Understanding: Exploring and Reconsidering Its Relevance in Physical Education.” European Physical Education Review 20 (1): 36–71). Notwithstanding these different epistemological foundations, we go on to ask for caution in the messages that are sent to practitioners using game-centered approaches (GCAs) such as TGfU or the CLA that simply manipulating constraints and letting the ‘game be the teacher’ is a sufficient condition for learning to occur. Conclusions: The theoretical development of TGfU overviewed in this paper provides a historical record of several perspectives similar to the CLA–such as modifying game constraints, representation of the full game form in designer games, etc. which may render any ‘new’ GCA that has these features such as the CLA as ‘old wine in new bottles.’ We contend that the major differential in the work of TGfU and CLA authors is TGfU’s emergence from the educative perspective rather than the field of sport science/skill acquisition. From its inception, the interpretation of TGfU has been through the prism of discovery learning. It was only in the 1990s that physical education pedagogues ascribed TGfU to a constructivist approach. We believe the historical insights offered in this paper are critical to physical educators’ understanding of the theoretical development of TGfU as a pedagogical approach to games teaching/coaching.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)166-180
Number of pages15
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number2
Early online date2017
Publication statusPublished - 4 Mar 2018


  • constraints-led approach
  • discovery learning
  • Pedagogy


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