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How has physical education changed?

Some would argue that it hasn’t while others would say that it has changed fundamentally. I guess it depends ‘from which angle you look.’ Pedagogical (and anecdotally) the answers would be it doesn’t appear to have changed noticeably. Indeed many of my own observations and those of colleagues who visit schools would suggest that the teacher is firm ensconced at the heart of the classroom and deliberately misquote John Dewey he or she is the sun around which the machinations of education revolve. The teacher/instructor led class who are trained from an early age to stand in queues and do only what hey are told (much in the same way as Pavlov Dogs) seems to be a feature of the current day (and I deliberately avoid the use of the word modern in that sentence). 

However, what is done in the name of physical education has changed considerably. The military drill of the late 19th century has been replaced in turn by gymnastics and then games. Yet the focus on games hasn’t notably changed for 50 years or more. So perhaps we are closer the 19th century that the 21st century? If so where did all the good teachers go? Well they are still here. When I talk to my students about their school physical education experiences they wax lyrical about the wonderful jobs that their teachers did and how they inspired them to be involved in sport for the foreseeable future. Yet the voices we don’t hear are perhaps the ones we need t hear. What about those who don’t follow a career in sport or aspire to be physical education teachers or coaches? We need to hear from them. So what does/did physical education mean to them? A quick search on twitter for “physical education” will bring up a lot of advocacy (from teachers) and lot of advertising (of books and jobs) and a lot of unhappy people (it makes sober reading).

This means, for me, that we need to take back the gyms and the play fields for the kids and ensure, above all, that we help create in them a love of moving. This means giving them a choice and ripping up the ‘rulebook’ when it comes to physical education. We need to recapture the term and make it mean something special to everyone (or a close to everyone as we can manage).

Let me know your thoughts.


(Blog 4 in my 30-day blogging challenge)

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On Wednesday 16 May at 10:06 Jeremy House said
Thank you of the blog. I think that this line of consideration is EXACTLY what we need to be asking ourselves as physical education practitioners. The opinion piece written below highlights my thoughts and thinking as extending from the 'new directions' post which I added last year (I have removed this post now as the body of what I have written has been engulfed in what follows). The article is deliberately provocative and open to rebuttal which is exactly what I hope it stimulates. Enjoy. “I can’t do PE today Sir” Please find herein my resignation as Teacher of Physical Education and Health. I must do this as I can no longer bare to be associated with the failing expectations, unfounded claims and misunderstood modes of operating stemming from ‘PhysEd’s’ historical insecurities. Founded in its military roots ‘Physical Education’ as we know it today has come a long way in schools in no particular direction. The rationalization for Physical Education is vast and varied among experts and yet largely misunderstood among many education faculty. This is problematic on many levels as programs fail to deliver quality in any of their intended outcomes as they cannot clearly define or agree upon what those might be. Preventing obesity epidemics, teaching skills, teaching sports, teaching fitness, teaching health, teaching anatomical and physiological concepts, providing new experiences, team building, developing positive body image, and the list goes on. The unfortunate resultant of such ambiguous intentions is often ‘busy, happy, good’ teaching and assumptions that students absorb such things by sheer virtue of their presence, yet conveniently ignores to student specific experience effect. Then, adding a level of complication to it in a Band-Aid style approach to ‘improving academic rigor’ (massaging our self importance), we overlay complex matrixes and rubrics of developmental progression with language few students could understand which at the end of the day are equally as subjective as it began and often detract from other ideologies. Fundamental to ensuring that our children benefit from all the goodwill positivity associated with current physical education paradigms is providing clarity for teachers and students about outcomes relevant to the needs of Generation Z. Given this context, it is understandable, that we have reached this point where as a subject area we have transitioned through so numerous manifestations and justifications of our existence that we lose touch with the fundamental goodness of what we do. Whilst we are being frank I shall pen some of my concerns for hope they may stimulate consideration great enough to overcome the current moment of inertia. Physical Education as Sport This popular (narrow bits and pieces) understanding of physical education is common among schools, teachers, students and parents in at least some form or other across the globe. A typical program based in this tradition would most likely have the following assumptions underpinning it. 1. Students love sport and it is easy to organize. If it is fun the students will keep doing it. 2. We should provide students with a variety of sports so they have a diverse range of experiences and they will develop skills they will choose to use in later life. 3. Students can learn team work, leadership and cooperation through participation in sports (they are ‘character building’) Pedagogical frameworks associated with this view may be Game Sense, SEPEP, TGFU or FMS. The program is likely to be broken up into blocks of weeks in which sports are due to be completed (3-5 week blocks are typical). Assessment could range from effort grades to skill assessments, rules tests to teams-man type interpersonal qualities. Competition may or may not be present or may exist in modified forms. The pedagogical and educational shortcomings of such an approach are numerous and without going to far I shall discuss. 1. If Sport is being taught as a discrete area of learning (in the typical 4 week cycle rotation) it is a) almost certain that some kids will love the sport and some will hate it, those that hate it will learn nothing other than to wait for the next rotation for a more favorable sport, and b) it would be very difficult to attribute any value add as a result of the learning based on assessment after potentially only 3-6 hours of instruction. Effectively what is assessed is the students prior skill in the sport – nothing to do with you or your teaching! 2. If the focus is on TGFU or Game Sense this certainly has its place. Particularly if your entire class has a generally high capacity for movement already and they are at a relatively similar stage of development. TGFU and Game Sense is almost impossible to differentiate for students of varying learning/developmental needs (most ‘physical education’ classes I have ever taught). 3. The sports field is a dynamic environment physically, socially and emotionally. Thus various aspects of social and emotional development (or lack of in some instances) are apparent in our classes. This is not well encompassed by our title “Physical Education’ although you might argue this is only semantics. SEPEP type competitions aim to harness this by incorporating real life tasks into the sports/PE classroom. Thus assessment usually focuses on the non-physical aspects of participation which to me seems to be rather bizarre! Would a mathematics teacher assess the non-mathematical aspects of their students behavior? 4. Programs that are based on Fundamental Motor Skills are close but 1 big step too far forward. Throw and Catch, Forehand and Backhand Strike, Kick, these are all physical skills that a student could use to perform in a sporting context. The logic is clear to follow. My contention with this is that some students have not mastered control, stability, strength and power in their bodies sufficient to perform these skills. Thus the net result of learning is “I am not good at sport” (this is particularly likely without sufficient focus on psychological wellbeing and growth mindset discussed later). Physical Education as ‘War on Obesity’ This also popular (ill-considered and ambitious) understanding of physical education can also be readily found in off the shelf physical education programs. A typical program based in this tradition would most likely have the following assumptions underpinning it. 1. Our population is suffering record levels of lifestyle disease and we need to teach our students to love exercise to prevent it (never mind the other variables – processed foods, access to and utilization of technology and transport, societal expectation of work and socioeconomic disparity to name a few). 2. If we are going to be successful at this, we need to measure where our students are at – Fitness testing. Although the alarmist approach has no doubt gained mileage for the inclusion of physical education in national curriculums around the world one mustn’t think to long about it realize it is rested on some seriously shaky foundations. Three questions - rhetoric in nature – spring immediately to my mind. 1. Is it not a physiological impossibility to improve fitness or make significant impact in 2 hours a week? 2. Would it not be unlikely, given the various other factors contributing to current trends in lifestyle disease that 2 hours per week of physical education will have any impact on this? 3. Is there any research to suggest that this is working? Given this I feel that the types of classes which might stem from this way of thinking probably serve our students actual human development (maybe character development as well) to some extent. I state this based on the aforementioned statement with regard to FMS jumping the developmental gun. However tend to think that any positive impact of this approach would be rather more by chance that good design. Physical Education as producing a “life long love of activity” This relatively recent evolution in some physical education programs and teacher training programs makes predictable yet illogical inferences about the fore mentioned modes of instruction to arrive at a program underpinned by the following assumptions. 1. Students are being disengaged by over-emphasis on sports or activities like fitness testing which elicit (in poor environments) comparison or allow for public failure. 2. If we teach students activities they will be able to succeeded in that they will be able to ‘play for life’ such as bocce’, Golf, Lawn Bowls, Croquet they will have no PE related insecurities and be happy and healthy long into their 80s. This is the equivalent of deciding in grade 8 that we will not worry about algebra and trigonometry because students weren’t enjoying it (probably because we tried all the other models and discouraged them or we failed at our most basic purpose, human development) and we will just do addition each week because when the kids are 80 they will still be able to do addition. To use another analogy. If you are a formula 1 driver you don’t modify your car to go slower because it is difficult to control on the road, you work on your handling! In essence, if students are disengaging we should look at our practice and at the class atmosphere we create. It is more than likely that the very students that are not engaged in your class do not relate to the teaching and learning outcomes you are challenging them with, If they fall into one of the categories I have mentioned above, I must say, neither can I. Of course many programs will ‘cleverly’ combine elements of each of these through their progression throughout a year or progression over a number of years. Which certainly adds variety however I doubt suffices a single intended outcome. What do these three approaches have in common? None of them consider the student as central to the curriculum development. If you ask yourself what is it that students need from our subject (not how can we justify our time in a crowded curriculum) the answer quickly becomes much clearer clear. I believe, our profession is suffering identity crisis. Are physical Educators sports coaches, personal trainers, weight loss consultants, life coaches or referee/umpires? If we can’t work this out then what hope do our students have? Sadly at the moment, physical education is white bread. We have processed and processed the goodness out of it so far that it is easy to swallow but of very little value to humans. “Health is boring Sir” If you are lucky enough to be teaching ‘health’ regularly as part of your program that is great but I am afraid this to requires a serious reconsideration. Typical ‘Health’ or ‘PHSE’ curriculums generally take one of three forms and are, in my experience, rarely taught by trained health teachers. Health a series of Warnings This is the most prevalent model for health education I have encountered and presents as more of a check list than a living and breathing curriculum that can really be bitten into by students. The assumptions underpinning this are as follows: 1. If we teach students about some of the many dangers in the world they will be less likely to encounter them. To pick a ‘health’ curriculum up off the shelf you would probably not be surprised to find units on smoking, sexual health, nutrition, alcohol, illicit drugs, risk taking, and so on. From the perspective of the student the blow by blow break down of their learning is; don’t smoke; don’t have unsafe sex; don’t eat junk food; don’t drink alcohol; don take drugs; and don’t get in cars with strangers. If the student can remember something about nicotine and broncoli; abstinance and contraception; saturated fats; standard drinks and liver cirrhosis; stimulants and depressants; and classification of risk; then they will likely pass with flying colors. This, unfortunately has next to nothing to do with the actual health behaviors they will practice either in the short or long term. Sadly some governments auditing bodies often mandate these kinds of prescriptive lists, locking teachers into current modes of poor practice. Is there any research to suggest this is an effective model? Health behaviour change and human psychology 101 would suggest not. Health as Physical Education Theory This is common of programs, especially those where the physical education trained teacher (not a health major) is allocated to teach health. It is a comfortable option and natural step from the field to the classroom. Assumptions underpinning this mode of health teaching are as follows: 1. Students need to understand their bodies to be able to look after them well. Teachers opting to use their time in ‘health’ to teach students the muscular and skeletal systems, digestive system, cardio-respiratory system are not teaching ‘health’ or PHSE, they are teaching Science. Please don’t get me wrong, I think that this is fantastic knowledge for students to have and valuable learning but lets be honest, it is not really health. Health as the ‘dumping ground’ What tends to happen, especially what there is nobody championing its cause is that all manner of things can end up in the time allocated for health. Some examples which linger in my recent memory are ‘driver training’ and ‘financial education’. Again, this is useful information but hardly has anything to do with the construction of health (you could argue otherwise depending on your definition of health which I shall address later, however if we set the Socratic argument aside and ask ourselves – what are the students real needs? We get closer to the point) So having said all this I do not think all hope is lost. Merely we need to refocus our energies into education strategies for our students that are meaningful! This means human development from the inside out - Human development of the body, the mind and the spirit. In this way we cut away all of the noise and can focus on what is at the heart of our professional endeavor. To help young people reach their genetic potential by developing the physical and psychological processes that contribute to their flourishing. The outside in approach, in which the student is exposed to a range of things and experiences in sequence, regardless of the students point of need is clearly failing (and if not failing then wasting everybody’s time at the very least). Thus, what follows is a proposal for a large scale occupational shift in paradigm from physical education and health to Movement, Science & Wellbeing for the good of future generations and no lesser, our own professional integrity and workplace satisfaction. MOVEMENT – SCIENCE - WELLBEING To achieve this I propose the MSW model, developed and implemented at St Gilgen International School 2011. Movement, Science, Wellbeing – These are the fundamental interrelated strands of contemporary physical education required for the 21st century. The move away from the term ‘Physical Education’ is a small yet important step. There are a number of key reasons for this, firstly, its history as alluded to above means there are many connotations, stigmas and expectations attached to it which stifle meaningful change. Secondly, and most importantly, the term ‘physical education’ is limited as the body (the physical) is inextricably linked to the mind and spirit and thus to isolate is a major underestimation of the link between the three and detracts from deeper understanding. So why Movement, Science and Wellbeing? Movement nurtures an understanding that our bodies were designed to move and that our physical capabilities are never fixed (at any stage of the lifespan), rather they reflect our historical, and recent affinity for the particular movement. It also understands that performance of any physical activity or movement requires attention on control, stability, strength and finally power in physical development (the core is central to all movement). To achieve this we have reduced the 11 or more components of fitness into what we term the 5 Fundamental Movement Capacities. 1. Coordinated Movement 2. Speed (Agility & Reaction time) 3. Balance and Bodily Awareness (Proprioception) 4. Dynamic Stability 5. Core Strength These FMCs are present in almost every athletic pursuit and thus it follows that if we can train the human capacity for movement the human can apply these to any activity of their choosing with greater success. We consider this to be human development focused and an inside out approach in that we begin from considering the students present capacity for movement rather than the sport, skill or other externality and thus effort and improvement is supported and praised rather than level or ability in a narrow context. Students also feel meaningful and tangible results as they use these capacities every day, not only when they are engaged in a sporting context. Movement is not independent of thinking and feeling and thus it is through the vehicle of movement that many of the wellbeing concepts discussed below are taught and understood. Given this, one major emphasis is placed on self reflection and evaluation thus that the learner can identify their experience of development and achievement rather than being independently judged on the outcome only. This allows for personal and social growth regardless of the degree of physical development as students reflect on their own modes of thinking and behaving that may have contributed to (or limited) their progress. One last assumption we make about students in physical spaces is that they like to be challenged and they like to work hard. When the environment created is one of growth not assessment, students will flourish regardless of their physical start point. Science is the academic strand of MSW and encompasses Exercise, Sport and Health Sciences. It has theoretical components yet is be practically rooted in inquiry to stimulate student engagement. Concepts including physiology (from systems to adaptations), nutrition (for health and performance), biomechanics (physiological principals and movement analysis) are covered and can be framed and understood within the context of the movement and wellbeing strands. Simple concepts and anatomy are taught in the movement strand and higher-level science is elective and assessable to IBDP level. The wellbeing strand takes a holistic view of the construction, maintenance and pursuit of happiness and wellness. Potentially referred to as health or PHSE under older models wellbeing infers more than clinical constructions of health as freedom from disease of illness. The wellbeing strand is based on the positive psychology and the building of personal capabilities and thinking and relating skills which can be applied in any context rather than context or situation specific knowledge which may or may not be relevant at the time in which it is required. Our program borrows largely on the work of Dr Martin Seligman and his PERMA model for human flourishing as applied to and through movement. 1. Positive Emotion 2. Engagement 3. Positive Relationships 4. Meaning & Purpose 5. Accomplishment Again we consider this a far more student centered approach to developing psychological fitness of our students as it is the discussion and personal reflection that are central to the learning and developmental process rather than the ‘what we think you need to know’ approach. This is not to say that traditional ‘health’ concepts are not covered or that meaningful learning in these domains is absent. Moreover they are understood through the context of empowerment and behavior rather than as a deficit in knowing. Mindfulness is a central theme of wellbeing because we cannot hope to understand ourselves, or the world around us without first being able to fully experience it in the present moment. Assessment is based on student reflection, self-evaluation and engagement. Again, this allows the student to operate at a cognitive, emotional and spiritual level that is equal to their point of development and reflective readiness. Progression is not linear and there are no benchmarks it is the human experience of life that is the fruit of this labor. Three points are worth noting here • Wellbeing is nurtured, not drilled (coaching conversations philosophy are utilized as a mode of interaction). • There are many paths to wellbeing, none more worthy than any another. Each of us is already on a path. • Open-mindedness, non-judgment, introspection, awareness are the 4 pillars of wellbeing education. In summary three key conceptual steps have taken place in the construction of the new curriculum. 1. Science is removed and isolated – reserved for those with interest and passion in studying it. 2. A conscious shift from old ‘physical education’ to ‘movement’ = away from fundamental motor skill focus and toward ‘fundamental movement capacity’ 3. Integration of positive psychology into movement for the construction of wellbeing = an inside out approach. My intention in writing is to begin the paradigm shift and improve the experience of ‘physical education’ for all concerned. To highlight an alternative mode of operating that has the potential (and early indications in a developing program) to help our students truly flourish!

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