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“PE is something to get through”: If it ain’t broke then why do so many kids not like it?

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored the idea that we need to look forwards at what physical education, indeed education, ought to be. In other words, how can we envision a future for physical education that surpasses the norm and places it at the heart of the lives of young people, their families and their communities. It challenges us to think of the networks in which we engage and to acknowledge the values that such ‘communities’ hold and champion. In doing we are asked to consider how we might be catalyst for change.In the discussions around the blog a new way of teaching physical education was championed. A blurring of the subject boundaries to include transdisciplinary skills, a change in the learning environment and students views of sport and physical activity, an acknowledgement that there is not one possible future but thousands, and a focus on basic motor skills were all suggested focuses for a ‘new’ physical education.

In this week’s blog we explore a twenty-year old argument that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach to programming in physical education. It is a call that takes little account of the thousands of kids who leave school every year with no intention of going near a gymnasium ever again in their lives. Drawing on the ten ‘rules’ of changing practice in schools and applying them to Physical Education Larry Locke investigates the enablers and constraints of change and, in an argument that holds as true today, asks physical educators to consider what their kids are telling them: maybe not with their voices but certainly with their feet.

Paper 13:

Locke, L.F. (1992/2012). Changing secondary school physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 211-224) London: Routledge.

My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

The biggest, strongest, scariest and most personal message to emerge from this paper was the notion that the blame for programme ineffectiveness in physical education is often laid at other people’s feet. “I have no support”, “my colleagues prefer to roll out the ball”, “the administrators and school leaders are happy with the status quo” are familiar responses when asked about change. Yet, little headline space is given to the meaning and value that students assign to the subject. I have, as recently as yesterday, had the pleasure - and regret - to read through the transcripts from a number of interviews that I did with my former students two years after I left secondary school teaching. I would suggest that I had a positive impact and was able to change some people’s opinions of PE and yet some of their descriptions of “games lessons” in particular leave me wishing I could have my time again, whilst knowing what I know now.

The ignorance I had in regards to the consequences of my actions and my skewed belief that what I was doing was right, are scuppered by comments that “games was something to get through”. Ouch. And yet I know that there were many obstacles that I encountered in the way to change. I tried to think and act outside of the box but there are expectations around what happens in school (as I write about in depth here). I also know that it took me seven years of battling for change that allowed me to achieve a unit of work so far out of left field that it would see the kids investing their own games. Finally, as the interviews tell me, my efforts were wasted. My replacement was a “roll out the baller” (ROBer) of the first order and I left no lasting legacy in the school or made any change to the department’s approach to teaching physical education. Does that mean that I was wrong to try? In last week’s blog I suggested that we needed to ask some ‘ought’ questions i.e. what ought physical education be and do? A difficult idea but I guess that by asking our students what it ought not to be would be as good a step forwards as our own imaginings. Would it be such a bad thing if students got to choose the activity they engaged in and the teacher who taught them? Do we have to have a PE kit that determines the doers and non-doers? Do we have to have units that run only for half a term or for a semester? If you have a strong reaction to these suggests can you identify why? I once suggested that kids who had PE before break could come to school in their kit and change into their uniform at break, those who had it after break could change at break and lunchtime respectively, and those who had it in the afternoon could change at lunch and go home in their kit. This would stop the huge amounts of time lost in the changing rooms before and after lessons. However, no one would endorse this. Why? “Because we’ve never done that before...” What would PE be like if we did things we’ve never done before?

The Paper

Locke (1992), in his consideration of secondary school physical education and the possibility of change, suggests that there was increasing evidence that many programmes fail to achieve their objectives. He subsequently asked if the dominant model of PE was broken, and if it was broken did it need fixing or rebuilding from the ground up? Yet, “broken” is not an easy analogy to use in any school programme because some bits work in some schools and for some students but this is not consistent across multiple contexts. In other cases some teachers ‘work” while others are “broken”. Furthermore, “broken” is subjective and while to one parent it might be the antithesis of what PE should be, for another it might be “bang on the money”. Indeed to you, as a physical educator or a coach, it might look fine and it is just the actions of others that make it less than what it might be. Locke suggested that any notion of “broken” had to be held up against thousands upon thousands of school programmes. Some of these are valued by everyone and achieve all their aims, while others do more harm than good and are not well regarded even by those who are required to staff them.

In parallel to some of the arguments already made in this major themes blog (see Hoffman for example), Locke suggests that change is inevitable. However, he asks if teachers, students, teacher educators and/or parents will play any part (active or otherwise) in the direction of nature of these changes. Currently (and this seems the same to me now in 2013 as it did to Locke in 1992), physical education is a site that endures (a) high levels of student alienation, (b) programme marginalisation in school curriculum and (b) deep and destructive role conflicts within those who teach. These are “brokes” that Locke felt were not easily repaired and therefore perhaps it is better to start from scratch?

One of the most telling suggestions made by Locke in his paper is that “in an intolerable number of instances, and in intolerable ways, physical education classes do not achieve their objectives. In the most profound sense of what we mean by the word education, they do not work.” Locke argued that students are learning to: dislike physical activity play; to disrespect physical education teachers; and devalue their own capacity to learn movement skills. However, he also suggests that some of the blame must lie with the “programmatic lemon” that many schools have inherited or been sold. The dominant model of PE simply isn’t capable of achieving its objectives. So what does he suggest instead? How can change be wrought? He suggests ten ways of looking at differently at change:

1. Top down doesn’t work - Mandates from on high (be it school boards or education departments) can be avoided, delayed, blunted and undercut as it is the local conditions that determine outcomes.

2. Teachers do change - many teachers devise new ways to teach, create new units and new assessment tools but with the lemon that they have it is hard to be address the fundamental problems as alienation, for example, still occurs.

3. Groups of teachers can engender change - by working in groups credible and practical outcomes can be achieved.

4. Just remove barriers - Is everything sacrosanct? If some things cannot be changed then it is harder to take meaningful steps forwards.

5. Plan before acting - assessment of the current situation is important but big changes take time and influenced as much by what can be changed as what cannot. Coming with possible solutions is better than being faced with obdurate problems.

6. Get commitment first - getting people to believe in an idea if the first step but this means that ‘we’ need to know that really work - change is after all a process and not an event.

7. Throw money at it - if something is poorly resourced then it is unlikely to succeed. As “time is money” then other investment besides hard cash is also need.

8. Keep it tight in focus and small in scope - change comes down to a narrow focus at the level of practice but it needs to be embedded in the organisational structure of the school and become immune to changes in other areas such as personnel, facilities, class composition etc.

9. Do it yourself - insiders are more effective than outsiders who are often just visitors who are gone before the difficulties emerge.

10. Success breeds success - On seeing success stakeholders what more of it. However, changes are often abandoned after two or three years and the process of change is ongoing.

I leave you to consider if these would be your top ten things of how to change? Or does one stand out as being a way forward? Indeed is something missing?


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

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On Saturday 30 March at 20:10 PEandME said
I currently teach at an international school in the UAE and am fortunate to work with both primary and secondary students as we are a through school. The motivation levels of year 1 students compared to year 9 students is worlds apart. If I could bottle that enthusiasm and sell it I would be a rich man! They love everything about PE from simple tasks as making shapes of letters and numbers (something I learned during micro-teaching, simple yet effective and cross-curricular) to competitive sports days (run by our GCSE students or Sports Leaders). Even though we create a fun environment, there is always a key aspect we focus on. A the moment we are having a big push on motor skills. As movement is at the centre of most young children's lives, I feel within primary PE we must get this right from the start. The joy of effective movement is one we cannot deny these young people. As it is done in a fun environment it makes for great learning and development. If I asked these students how many enjoyed PE I can imagine the score would be extremely high. If I did the same with students in year 9 and then especially in year 11 i feel the score would be much lower. So where is it all going so wrong? What can we do in 2013 to change these disaffected digitally native students who are very different to those students of 20 or 30 years ago? Horses for courses! Is the PE curriculum we offer today suitable for today's environment. As PE teachers have we evolved into our environment effectively and made PE still something for many just to get through? As I have mentioned previously I really think we have to consider the types of PE teachers working in our departments. I work in a department with extremely hard working and dedicated PE teachers who genuinely believe in their disciplines. Some of us in the department have had to battle it out in interviews to get this type of position, often with over 100 applicants applying. The reason they have got the job has nothing to do with their degree grades or whether or not they can recite the national curriculum back to front. It's about them as positive and enthusiastic people and their passion for PE. In our department we all work towards a common goal, getting our students to develop in a fun yet competitive environment. Making sure that there is an end product, that lifelong learning takes place. I think this needs to be at the forefront of PE. That we work within the grounds of the national curriculum but making sure it does not completely govern our every move. Lessons should not take 20 minutes to get going! The environment needs to be right so that it has an overall impact on their lives. Not just for the moment but also for the future. But it takes a certain kind of teacher to do this. One that is a great role model, that sets the standard and truly believes in lifelong learning. Im lucky to work in a department full of them. They always find solutions not problems. They are the first ones in and the last ones out, but never do it for recognition. They just do it. I genuinely feel that if we had more optimistic PE teachers who are in it for the right reason PE will not be just something students want to get through more something they want to get to. But this needs to start at the foundation of education. There is not enough PE specialists in UK primary schools and I think we are starting to notice it In the UK I was often shocked by the volume of students who could not do the basics at the start of year 7. There were clear issues in both motor and psychological skills. Both can and must be taught at primary level otherwise we loose valuable months after the transition from year 6 into year 7 takes place. I think it is also key that PE departments have an effective link with their feeder primary schools, not just one that looks good on paper when OFSTED come round. There are so many missed opportunities with GCSE PE and sports leaders going into these schools and coaching. Use it to the secondary schools advantage within PE and develop a better understanding of the students that are about to come up. In most cases when students do come up they get such a shock. As PE teachers do we understand what they do in primary PE? If we take a moment and think back to our own experience of moving to secondary school from primary we need to appreciate that this is quite a stressful time for many. Therefore in PE we need to make sure what we are doing in year 7 flows with what they have done in primary, continuity within education is highly underrated! So what do we do in lessons? Dr Ash, I think the fact that you continued to battle on for 7 years to see your unit of work take effect is great. Lets have a curriculum that is 'far out of left field', that students talk about when they leave school and that might inspire them to continue sports throughout their life. In 2010 I battled to get 2k of funding to set up boxercise. The support was not always there and a got a few digs from the old school, but I was determined to make it happen. This was eventually included into our curriculum and when observed in a boxercise lesson was given an outstanding (even with the Rocky soundtrack blasting out!). Last week our students were involved in a fitness class as part of our activity week. Running around with huge ropes, pushing tractor wheels and throwing tennis balls as far as you could, simple but effective and fun (but again what helped was the positivity of the teacher leading it!). What would PE be like it we did things we never done before? For one the several students who joined a boxing club may have never discovered their talents. And yes we might save some time in the changing rooms which means more time active. I think the PE kit idea is a great one. And on that note maybe departments could think about what the kits look like, make them interesting so that the students want to wear them. When I worked in the States for 2 years students would always turn up to soccer practice wearing their high school PE shirts, hoodies and bags. The kids were so proud of where they played their school sport (scholarship program in the states is definitely a debate for another time!). In my previous school I tired to get a deal with Nike to do a low price on our PE kits. I worked with them for several months trying to develop a link receiving free items for staff and discounted kit for our football teams, however we were never able to get students full PE kits made by them. Part of the reasons was because we also had a local dealer who sold all our normal PE kits to students and if we stopped using them it would have caused a few upsets (but sometimes you need to upset the apple cart). Interesting what Locke says about PE classes are not achieving their objectives. After the new PE curriculum came in many of my colleagues at the time, including myself, we're often unsure about what our objectives were and if we had said them right. We we often concerned about whether or not we had covered enough of the key processes, if the lesson was differentiated in the right way (full levels or sub-levels) and if we had discussed the students target grades and actual grades enough. We really did spend more time telling students what they were doing than them doing it. We were not giving students a positive experience in PE, we were simply ticking boxes (cognitive dissonance can be very dangerous with passionate professionals and can sometimes make them re-value what they are actually doing). Lockes 10 ways of change are a breath of fresh air. I particularly like the idea of planning before acting (5). On many occasions I have seen departments make knee jerk reactions or jump on band wagons. We definitely need to think what is right for a particular PE department and implement the idea effectively. I think with such ideas that although the buck stops with the HOD or Director of Sport, they need to be discussed as a group. PE departments all need to be reading from the same page. I also liked the idea of tight in focus and small in scope (8). Sometimes it might be the little things that need changing that can make all the difference. Best advice my previous head gave me was to always focus on the small details. Thanks for another great blog. Cheers from @PEandME
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On Sunday 31 March at 07:50 Brendan Jones said
I have to admit I'm of the opposite view @PEandME. I've always been a big picture person. If you can see where you want to go from where you are now, it tends to be easier to make the broad pedagogical brush strokes that paint the path between the two. Focusing too early on the fine details gets you lost in minutiae, losing track of what you tried to do in the first place. If PDHPE were doing it's job, then the rising rates of obesity would be balanced by quality, focused and relevant strategies in schools that have effect. If we're honest with ourselves, most of us know that isn't happening. For a variety of reasons, change can be stymied at the classroom, faculty, school or systemic level. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" probably translates in many cases to "I don't know how to start". Start a movement in your own classroom - take risks with learning, transfer some power to the kids, stand up for your instincts on what good learning looks like. You'll probably find that the broken things list starts to lengthen. Ask for help, share ideas, band together with like minded #pegeeks - and head off to the workshop.
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On Sunday 31 March at 09:35 andy vasily said
Good topic of discussion. I agree with Brendan in the sense that a movement must be started in your own classroom first. We all come from different backgrounds and have different visions. Provided that your vision is one that empowers students to strive to be the best that they can be and offers them with as many genuine and authentic learning engagements possible, how could this be a wrong approach? Defining exactly your vision and making the necessary steps to move consistently in that direction is critical. So many of us bring very unique skill sets to the table as educators. In my opinion, we need to learn from one another, continue to share on an ongoing basis and to seek feedback from our colleagues and, most importantly, the biggest stakeholders, our students. How can we effectively solicit feedback from our students and use this feedback to better our practice? The way that I will address this is by having a group of high schoolers from my school, interview a number of students in my elementary PE program and put together a video that summarizes their learning in my upcoming Athletics unit. I have no idea which students will be interviewed and I want it this way. I think that watching a video at the end of the unit of my students describing their learning journey will provide me with excellent feedback about my own teaching and what is needed in order to become a better educator. Regardless of macro or micro, we need to always strive to improve our own teaching practice and, as Brendan says, there are loads of ways to do this: ask for help, share ideas, connect with like minded practitioners, and seek out workshops.

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