The following article comes from trainee P.E teacher Joe Griffiths, who shares how his experience teaching in Cape Town led him to discover the three pillars for effective learning.

Whilst I acknowledge I am very much at the beginning of my teaching career (I am a current PGCE PE trainee teacher), and in particular, positioned in a somewhat challenging period of time to achieve QTS and apply for my first teaching post, I hope to bestow three simple characteristics of expert teaching I learned in my position as teaching intern at a school in Cape Town, South Africa.

Most mornings started the same: coffee, boerewors and sunscreen. That being said, as I reflect upon my experience, it was anything but monotonous. Looking back, moreover, going forward, I learned three simple characteristics of expert teaching: active learning, student-centred learning, and meaningful learning.

Active learning

By becoming active participants in the classroom, students build knowledge through their own experiences. Active learning can include any activity that encourages students to take an active role in the learning process.

I was fortunate to observe a year 7 Maths class, two or three weeks into my teaching practice. Unknowingly, this would be my first experience of active learning. As I (traditionally) anticipated, the class started inside the classroom. Yet, by the end of the class, you wouldn’t be foolish to suggest it was breaktime. The class had transitioned from inside the classroom, to outside on the school playing field.

Learning outside the classroom can have an impact on areas of the curriculum as diverse as imaginative writing, or in the context of a year 7 Maths class, the language of algebra.

National Space Centre family trip

Albeit, the climate of South Africa favours the Southern Hemisphere’s subtropical zone, however, active learning isn’t necessarily learning outside. By providing learning environments, opportunities, interactions, tasks and instruction, deeper levels of understanding become more possible.

I recently taught the structure and functions of the musculoskeletal system to a year 10 GCSE PE class. I had planned a carousel of learning activities, including a ‘muscles of the body’ pinboard, ‘structure of a synovial joint’ jenga, ‘types of freely movable joints’ snakes and ladders, and ‘functions of the skeleton’ wheel of fortune. Learning activities aside, I was surprised to see the barriers to student engagement somewhat disappear. There was no lack of understanding (providing the learning objectives and instructions are coherent), there was no space restrictions and there was no inaccessibility. It made the time and effort spent planning the learning activities all the more worthwhile.

Student-Centred Learning

As a result of the shift towards a 21st century approach to pedagogy, the development of a student-centred approach to teaching and learning is considered to be superior than that of a teacher-centred approach.

Student-centred learning, in my opinion, involves four very different but interlinked characteristics. Students taking active responsibility for their learning; students taking proactive organisation of their learning; students constructing independent knowledge and teachers acting as facilitators. In a student-centred approach to learning, students are at the centre of education. They are active participants in their own learning process.

Whilst observing an Afrikaans lesson, the teacher, unintentionally, shared the following; “A student may opt to take the bus to school. They are in control of their ticket, their seat, and when to get off the bus. Alternatively, they may opt to walk, cycle, heck they might even swim! They are responsible for arriving at school on time.”

Perhaps, in the above context, South Africa is most appropriate for a student-centred approach to teaching and learning. Students come from different backgrounds, both cultural and educational. Students may view things differently and respond to situations unexpectedly.

That being said, of those teachers who opt to teach abroad, most are able to share their positive energy, drive and determination to leave a lasting impression.

Meaningful Learning

Above all, I learnt students learn best when learning is meaningful. This type of learning stays with students for life, not just 30 minutes. When learning is meaningful, students become fully engaged in the learning process.

No person better understood the term meaningful learning than that of my good friend and English teacher. English aside, this teacher is a fantastic endurance athlete. He has competed in a number of full, trail and ultra-endurance marathons, notably the Comrades Marathon. The Comrades Marathon is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race, approximately 89 kilometres, which is run annually in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

Perhaps, it is because of these arduous physiological and psychological endurance contests, that this teacher is particularly favoured among colleagues and students. Nearly all of his lessons, in some shape or form, are interlinked with his joy and passion for long-distance running.

As part of the GCSE PE specification, students should be taught specific training techniques, in particular high altitude training as a form of aerobic training. I have been fortunate enough to climb Mount Meru, Africa’s fifth highest mountain. Whilst teaching high altitude training, alongside the subject content, I shared my own experience of climbing the mountain.

The result? 60 minutes of engagement, or to be specific, 4565 metres of meaningful learning.

Going forward (and hopefully achieving my first teaching post!), I am excited to instil those three simple, but very effective, characteristics of expert teaching.


Joe Griffiths

Joe is a current Secondary PGCE PE trainee teacher who was recently awarded the degree of BSc with First Class Honours. He has been fortunate to teach across a range of primary and secondary community, international and independent schools in both the UK and South Africa.

Upon graduating in June 2020, Joe will be seeking NQT status, with the intention to study an MA in Development Education and Global Learning.

Overall he advocates for providing opportunities to support pupils to shape the development and trajectories of their peers, whilst participating in a wide range of co-curricular activities.

Follow Joe on Twitter – @MrJRGriffiths1.