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“Start of level five…beep, beep, beeeeeeeep”

The previous blog sought to look beyond the apparent importance of techniques in physical education and club sports and argued that, as practitioners, we needed a fuller understanding of what makes up a game. In short, it suggested that we needed to understand the interplay of competition and cooperation and the interactions that occur between teams, groups of players, and individual players (often simultaneously) and how these, and not just skills, influence how students learn about games and gameplay.

This week’s blog explores the notion of health-related exercise (HRE) in education and argues that we have taken a sport-based and not a health-based approach to HRE, to date, in schools. In this way we have positioned performance above participation and prioritised ‘the moment’ of activity over the potential of lifetime engagement. Until we move from the ‘here and now’ of sports and start to build for the future then HRE will continue to be seen as a supplement rather than the mainstay of school physical education.


Volume 4: The curriculum and the subject matter of physical education

Paper 81:

Harris, J. (2005/2012). Health-related exercise and physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 178-199) London: Routledge.


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

The irony, for me at least, is that I grew up as teacher during the advent of the national curriculum in the UK and yet I don’t seem to have been affected by it as much as I should. Well, that’s not quite true but when I consider my teaching of health-related exercise (or the lack of it) I seem to have either been oblivious to the need for it or made a decision (conscious or otherwise) to avoid teaching my students about it.

To be honest – and looking back from a safe distance – I think it scared me a little (just like dance did, although not to the same degree). I think it sacred me because I didn’t know very much about it. My first degree had focused primarily on psychology and sociology and the biomechanics and physiology side of my sports studies course had been dropped as soon as possible. Couple that with my own struggles with maintaining peak fitness (I wasn’t the most dedicated exerciser as a player as I really just liked playing– one of my downfalls I suppose) and health-related exercise didn’t have great appeal to me.

As the title of this week’s blog suggests the bleep test (or multiple level fitness test) was something that I recall, to this day, with dread. To me it was a way of proving what I already knew, and what everyone else apparently already knew, i.e. that I was one of the least ‘fit’ of the players in my position. Neither that knowledge, nor the test, ever motivated me to do better but instead simply served as something to get through. I had other attributes as a player but the bleep test just served to highlight my weaknesses. As a player I was never taught the thinking behind doing the test, nor the reasons why it was being used, I was simply told to do it. In some respects I think I wanted to avoid those same feelings for my students, while in others I was worried that my own ignorance would lead me to the position where I would simply request my students to do it.

As I developed as a teacher and the word ‘pedagogy’ started to mean something to me I started to question our (as a department) collective approach to health-related exercise. Put simply we used to spend the coldest weeks of the year making the kids run the cross county (because the pitches were frozen and we couldn’t do rugby) and used to set up a fitness circuit in the gymnasium (when it was raining) for a whole year group to run and in which titles such ‘king of the gym’ and ‘iron man’ were awarded to the fittest and ‘most improved’ and ‘trier’ to those who were expected to do poorly but who surprised us as members of staff. Both of these sessions were predominantly weather dependent and not learning driven, and they focused on the students’ doing (at our request) and not understanding (for the student’s own development) exercise.

Towards the end of my teaching career I started to change these institutionalised approaches to health-related exercise. For example, we looked at different strategies for cross-country. We explored pacing and interval work and the idea of run-walking as we tried to help the students to understand not only that being active was good and being inactive was bad but also why and perhaps most importantly what they could do about it. They were no longer judged (by me at least) by their time and finishing position but by their knowledge, understanding and personal development.

I have no idea what happened to those steps forwards when I left the school but I suspect that they vanished from the programme (as most of my work did) and that ‘king of the gym’ has since been reinstated. I guess I can’t take responsibility for that but I can take responsibility for what happened on my ‘shift’ and try and help the teachers that I work with not to make the same mistakes as me. If PE has a role to play in health then we need to think less about sport, fitness and performance and think more about health, activity and participation. My curriculum didn’t encourage health but fitness (in fact it overtly rewarded it) and I didn’t see myself as being part of the long-term health of my students. I don’t think I was alone in this (or indeed I don’t think I’m a standalone or even minority case) but that’s in the past. The question is “what can we collectively and individual do to make sure my example is not the norm?”


The Paper 

Harris sets out to review the field of health-related exercise (HRE) and uncover the enduring themes and up-to-date issues that relate to this field. She begins by offering two definitions of HRE, one from a general standpoint and another related to education. Both, in my mind, allow us (as a subject) to position our expectations and ourselves when it comes to HRE. With regards to the general definition Harris suggests “HRE is activity associated with health enhancement and disease prevention.” To me this is a ‘doing’ definition and stands in contrast to the educational definition, which suggests that HRE relates to the “teaching of knowledge, understanding, physical competence and behavioural skills, and the creation of positive attitudes and confidence associated with current and lifelong physical activity.”

My reading of this – and the rest of the chapter – is that schools generally, and PE specifically, have taken on a perspective and attitude towards HRE that is focused on ‘activity’ and not ‘knowledge and understanding.’ To me this means that we have focused on being an active subject in which students move around rather than a subject that helps to create a ‘positive attitude and [the] confidence [to be involved] in current and lifelong physical activity.” As my example above indicates (and as Harris suggests) physical education has adopted a narrow interpretation of HRE that has led to a number of undesirable practices (to be discussed later but refer to king of the gym).

At the heart of Harris’s chapter is the question “is health a driver for physical education?” and through a review of the field (albeit predominantly from a UK perspective) she seeks to answer that question. She argues that while health drove PE in the early part of the 20th Century this aim has since been overtaken by other objectives; chiefly skill development. However, this seems to be a big oversight as school is positioned as “an appropriate setting for the promotion of health-related learning and behaviours, not least because there is the potential for sustained exposure to an environment which can positively influence the behaviour of almost all children for about 40-45 per cent of their waking time.” That said PE itself only accounts for less that 2 per cent and as such must consider itself as a vehicle for change and not the opportunity itself. In other words it needs to be a ‘learning’ and not just a ‘doing’ part of students’ HRE education.

Behind the concern for the form that HRE takes in schools is an on going concern about teachers “relatively limited knowledge and understanding of the area.” HRE is not well taught in schools, universities, or in professional development situations and as such teachers are required to get by on what they know or can glean from other sources. While some of this learning might come from governmental initiatives and the publication (both commercial and otherwise) of resources there is little understanding of how teachers access this information. Furthermore, while much “formal and semi-official government rhetoric” positions schools as important places for students to learn about health there is little connection made between children’s preferences for lifestyle, recreational and non-competitive activities over the government’s drive for competitive school sport.

Harris suggests that some teachers are guilty of forcing some students into “hard, uncomfortable exercise, such as arduous cross-country running and fitness testing, at the expense of developing understanding and physical and behavioural skills and enhanced attitudes through positive activity promotion.” School is often seen as the place to exercise and fails to acknowledge where young peoples activity might occur. We need to develop a better understanding of the range of settings and the relative modes and times that young people exercise (i.e. active transport, informal play, formal sports and active jobs) and position PE as a facilitator and catalyst for enhancing these activities across the life course.

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

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

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve 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? If you want to do something or are looking for help then 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.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor and Routledge (part of the Taylor and Francis group) for donating a copy of the Physical Education: Major themes in education series. Their respective help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.

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On Friday 22 August at 20:59 Alex Beckey said
Its a coincidence you posted this paper, as this is what my head of PE and I discussed for almost 4 hours today instead of getting our admin done of the new term. We agreed that the main purpose we would want from our curriculum of PE is to ensure ‘that every students has the theoretical knowledge and practical understanding on why and how they should live an active and healthy lifestyle.’ Our desire is that that any student who leaves our school in Year 11 or Year 13 knows how to stay fit and healthy in a variety and a combination of ways; skill related exercise, health related exercise and a healthy and balance diet. We also want them to know the benefits of a healthy and active lifestyle and also the potential and associated risks if the don’t follow one and those associated with smoking, drinking and drug taking. We do not want them to leave school ignorant. We do not want them to say 20 years down the line ‘nobody told me this would happen if i didn’t live a healthy and active lifestyle.’ It isn’t enough for children to do the exercise, they need to understand the reasons behind it and what are the positives and negatives of doing it. School shouldn’t be the place where children exercise, it should be the place where they learn how and why they should exercise. The doing is an added bonus! I’d hope my approach and the rest of my departments over the course of their education at my school actively encourages them to lead an active life after school, but sometimes you can lead a horse to water but you can’t get them to exercise. There are obviously other outcomes we would like to provide students involved in Physical Education at my school, but we feel they must come secondary to basic knowledge and understanding of a healthy and lifestyle. However some must be addressed to achieve my main purpose. They are: 1. Develop Physical Literacy. This is a term that has been derided by other staff outside of the PE Dept, but we think it suits our needs and the students understanding of what we are trying to achieve. We see Physical Literacy as a way of developing the competence in a range of movements. Those basic fundamental movements are what deeper technical skills are based on, and without them children lack the confidence to move and to try new things or to put them in an environment of competition. This is incredibly important for our school. When I took over the department 5 years ago I brought in baseline assessment, to give us a rough idea of where primary school has got them. We tests aerobic fitness and resilience in the Coopers Test (this is explained to them as a test of aerobic fitness, and strong indicator of health and that the result isn’t what matters, but the improvements they make over their time at school. We shall also teach them many ways of how they can improve this aspect of health as well as the others). Strength Test, Flexibility Test, a Creativity Test through Gymnastics, basic fundamental skills tests of passing, catching, throwing, kicking and striking and to see what they are like in an invasion game (Gaelic Football so it is new to all students). In the 5 years our average intake scores have gone down across the board in the tests. Coopers Test has dropped. Over 50% of an intake year cannot hold their own body weight or perform a forward roll. Throwing, catching and kicking test results have gone down and finally the number of non-swimmers has increased on average from 1 per class to 6 per class. This year I was staggered when I found out only 4 out of 112 boys had ever touched a rugby ball in their life. 2. Find an activity they enjoy and engage with it in someway outside of the classroom. This links very much to what I think is the main outcome of PE should be. It will encourage participation and an active lifestyle and all the health benefits associated (and social and academic benefits if the research is right). However it will ensure that pupils continue to keep active and healthy in a way they enjoy when they leave school. In a time of PRP, leaving GCSE, BTEC and A-Level results aside, I think PE teachers should be judge on the number of students who leave them and are active throughout their lives. Therefore we think a curriculum should be much more focused on breath then depth. We need to give students a range of activities, not just the traditional British Sports of rugby, football and cricket (which I personally love). Wrestling, Lacrosse, Dance (yes Ken Robinson, Dance!), Gymnastics, Swimming, Waterpolo, Athletics, Yoga, Pilates, Judo, Circuit Training, Basketball, Badminton, Tennis, Korfball, Dodgeball. I still believe that having a full range of activities will develop these fundamental motor skills that are important for confidence and competence. I will continue to believe that until someone can show me evidence that specialising in sport ensures participation in a long, healthy and active lifestyle. We also need to ensure that they get the chance to experience these sports in a range of roles, not just as a performer which is why Sport Education and Sports Leaders need to be considered. 3. Develop ‘soft skills’, ‘Building Learning Power’, ‘the other half’ or whatever you want to call it. Leadership, communication, resilience both mental and physical, observation, feedback, working as an individual, working as a team, planning, reflection. The list can go on. Without doubt that if approached in the right way Physical Education can help develop some or all of these skills. For our students who are cerebral, highly academic and live most of the time in their heads and for top grades these skills are essential. Don’t get me wrong. The purpose of education is to develop the intellect, however I believe the brain and the body are not two separate entities. They work best together as one and we need to look after both. I believe PE can assist the brain and help develop the intellect through developing physical and social skills of a student. The next stage I suppose is to develop a curriculum that allows the delivery of all those outcomes for our students. We would also like to develop a curriculum that allows some choice and flexibility as our students get older. That thought process will be the next step.
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On Saturday 23 August at 18:22 Jo Bailey said
I was part of the first cohort in my school to take GCSE PE - we covered training principles, adaptations to exercise, basic physiology,training types, personal exercise planning, and much more. To me this has always been the missing piece in terms of general physical education. What I learned in GCSE PE gave such a foundation through which to understand how my body responded to exercise and what I could expect should I follow a training program over time - knowledge that every student should know, not just those who opt for examination PE. Post university I went onto teach A level PE, in particular the acquisition of skill and sports psychology. Again I thought that this was knowledge everyone should have - if I know how I learn, the phases of learning, and the basic of skill acquisition surely this will benefit me as a performer, at whatever level. Understanding that there are diminishing returns to excessive training or how arousal and anxiety affect performance help me. Here's an example - racket sports are not really my forte. However, because of my understanding of skill, movement forms, biomechanics etc I am capable of playing tennis, badminton and other games at an acceptable level. I feel competent enough to hold my own from a lifetime activity standpoint. This extra knowledge was the missing puzzle piece for me. While I am not suggesting that everyone should have an A level PE background, there are elements that all students should learn that I believe will help them in the pursuit of a healthy, active lifestyle. No matter what activity you are delivering, without a WHY the learning process is not complete.
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On Thursday 28 August at 14:24 Mark Bowler said
Great blog Ash - such an important area for practitioners to discuss and get right! I am lucky enough, over the last 3 years, to be part of a small team of staff involved in developing a new pedagogical model for Health-Based Physical Education (HBPE). This model, we hope, will provide great support for teachers in helping young people to achieve it's major goal of "valuing a physically active life". We hope it can develop the same level of success as other pedagogical models such as Teaching Games for Understanding, Sport Education and Cooperative Learning (to name a few). However, I am adamant that a "fitness" focus, to develop "health" is NOT the way to do it. I have spoken with hundreds of pre-service and qualified teachers over the years who say that the raison detre of our subject is to ensure our young people leave school with the knowledge, skills and understanding to be physically active. Firstly, therefore, focusing on fitness will NOT be likely to promote a love, or even an understanding, of physical activity. Fitness does not equal health and it certainly doesn't equal physical activity - all of the research states that these terms are too often inter-changed, but that there is very little correlation between them. The profession needs to understand and make a decision on what forms their HBPE/HRE should take and what it's goals are. Once the goals are decided, a suitable framework of activities can be planned. However, in my experience, many schools select the activities before a discussion is had concerning what the outcomes/goals of the unit of work are! For example, if a school wishes young people to learn about components of fitness and how to improve them, then an appropriate experience involving fitness testing along with appropriate time spent discussing what fitness scores mean and how to improve them using a variety of methods and principles may be beneficial. However, this must be process-, target- and individual-focussed. However, if in fact, a school wishes to promote greater levels of physical activity, there are certainly more appropriate ways to do this. Despite this, all of Jo Harris' (and her colleagues) recent research says that Health in PE (whatever it's prime goal) is dominated by a sport-emphasised and fitness-oriented culture. DISCLAIMER: I am not against promoting fitness, developing an understanding of how to improve your own levels and working towards improved levels in Physical Education. However, fitness gains take a substantial time - more than most school's 4-6 weeks units of work. Instead, particularly before young people reach GCSE/A Level age (14/16), myself and colleagues are suggesting one way that schools could help to achieve their goal of increasing their student's physical activity levels (and staff and parents) is to focus on the principle of 'Valuing' (as mentioned earlier). Without valuing physical activity, an individual is very unlikely to possess the intrinsic motivation to maintain an active lifestyle beyond the school gates. Furthermore, they are even less likely to demonstrate the required level of commitment necessary to improve specific components of fitness. We are just trying to finalise our HBPE model framework, which we hope to publish in the near future - However, in really simple terms, it's focus is on promoting intrinsic motivation to be physically active through the application of self-determination theory's 3 key elements of autonomy, competence and relatedness. HBPE lessons will display these 3 principles to create a needs-supportive environment. Activities are likely to include those not experienced within the rest of the PE curriculum, be appropriate to pursue throughout life and have health-promotion as a core goal. Typical teacher behaviours will include promoting a love and enthusiasm for physical activity, setting activity challenges within and beyond the lesson, developing young people to become movement promoters with their friends an family and supporting a good knowledge base around physical activity participation (benefits/barriers/how and where to participate etc). Students are most likely to engage in physical activity if they have a level of autonomy/choice in decisions and activities in lessons. They will be more motivated if they are involved in setting and monitoring their own targets. Finally, a "buddy" or "team" approach to physical activity will help to maintain enjoyment and physical activity adherence. Whilst notably brief, we have strong evidence to suggest that HBPE could be a great way of promoting a love of physical activity in the future. I'd appreciate your comments - positive or negative on the ideas noted here! What do you think? Are you already doing this? Why/why not? What other ideas could be applied to your programmes to promote physical activity and health in young people?
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On Thursday 28 August at 17:31 Dylan Blain said
Thanks once more for the blog Ash, always keeps me thinking! When teaching secondary PE I always saw focused Health Related Exercise units as a great way of trying to get pupils to become lifelong participants in Physical Activity. The delivery of lifetime exercise activities around the learning of many aspects related to health and exercise are a must for all schools. As Jo suggests, I used to deliver many of the elements from the GCSE syllabus at KS 3, finding pupils could coped and enjoyed undertaking this work. Some pupils would use it to help them develop towards sporting ambitions they had e.g the different types of training. However it was the fact that it provided an inclusive and extremely worthwhile experience for all students that led to us focussing on a major initiative within health, fitness and well-being (as it's currently called on the Welsh curriculum). We redeveloped an existing facility and devised programmes of study focused on developing lifelong participants in physical activity. As is suggested here, this is an ambitious aim and I like Mark & his colleagues suggestion that 'valuing the physically active life' could be the aim for health based activities in PE. Similar to Mark, we used the self determination theory as the cornerstone to our programmes. The programmes aim to satisfy needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness in order to develop autonomous forms of motivation towards physical activity. Also, as Alex mentioned, we aim to support pupils in their Physical Literacy journeys and as suggested have fundamental movements embedded within our programmes. I'm just on the verge of formally starting research on this area and so all comments here are extremely interesting and thought provoking. Look forward to following this discussion.

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