The words below from Martin Luther King sit on a plaque next to my desk. They serve as a reminder to me to continue to move when things get tough. They also remind me that first steps are just the beginning. Finally, they remind me that my battles are insignificant next to his and I should have the courage to keep going and do better. 

“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just to take the first step”

Advocating change in physical education is the easy step. Anyone can do it. Articulating and enacting what that change is the challenging part. Take all those who have advocating for new version of physical education. Consider, for example, Dave Bunker and Rod Thorpe or Daryl Siedentop. These are individuals who not only believed in an idea, in a new way of teaching physical education, but who also took the time to articulate it in a form I would recognise as a pedagogical model. Difficult. Yes. But was that the hardest part? No. I don’t think it was.

The hardest part, I suspect, was proposing an alternative and then seeing nothing happen. It was waiting for a trickle of interest to emerge and then waiting patiently for the trickle to turn into a modicum of momentum. It was hearing people describe your idea as an innovation for 30 or 40 years. It was hearing about how bad physical education was when you felt you had a better alternative: an alternative that addressed many of the criticisms being thrown at physical education. 

They call it a life’s work and I guess it is. Multiple lives work in the case of meaningful physical education. The ideas that sit at the heart of this week’s paper first emerged in the work of Eleanor Metheny in the 1960s. They were then taken on by Scott Kretchmar in the 00’s and now by Déirdre, Tim and Mary. They have sat as good ideas for so long and now they are being enacted. 

A book on a shelf is inert. It may attract dust, but it does little more. The words are inert, and the ideas silenced. It is only by picking up the book and breathing life into those ideas – metaphorically of course – that these ideas live and form an alternative future for physical education. People will doubt your actions and will have their own ideas of what the future of PE might look like. That’s OK. You will doubt your actions. That’s OK. What is important is we are imagining how things can be better. Without the courage to pick up the challenge and make our ideas live can we be said to be doing something to improve the future. Like the athlete standing at the bottom of the staircase in the picture above, everything is potential. The hard work comes with the first step. 

Yes. It. Is. Hard. Work. It is the hardest part. And. Yes. You’ll stumble. But remember the words of Martin Luther King. Take that first step and don’t worry about the whole staircase. 

The Paper

Ní Chróinín, Fletcher and O’Sullivan explore the pedagogical principles of learning to teach meaningful physical education as teacher educators. While I acknowledge this aim, I have read this paper with teacher rather than teacher educator in mind. As such I have tried to re-imagine their idea and have considered how a teacher might refine their own practice to make their pedagogy meaningful. In doing so, I acknowledge that I may have skewed or misrepresented the original intentions and findings of the paper. I hope the authors will forgive any unintentional mistakes. 

The paper was built on three premises. 1. Change is evidence-based (teachers and teacher educators want to know what’s worked elsewhere so they can judge the potential impact); 2. New ways of teaching are needed if teachers are going to better respond to the needs of 21st Century learners; and 3. Direction is needed to help teachers and teacher educators “enact a wider vision for school-based physical education.”

The foundation of these arguments came for the realisation that despite 50 years of research into physical education we remain critical of the efforts of both teachers and teacher educators alike. It’s either not as good as it used to be (with five days a week for four years to learn all the skills inherent in physical education) or it needs to change rapidly (why are we still using a multi-activity, sport technique-based approach). While “a dose of revolution” has been regularly called for, physical education continues to have limited impact on the lives of young people and the adults they become. 

So why is this paper different?

I feel it’s different because the authors took more than two years to document and consider the ways in which they taught meaningful physical education to pre-service teachers on two teacher education programmes (one in Ireland and one in Canada). In doing so they developed five pedagogical principles they termed “Learning About Meaningful Physical Education” (or LAMPE). This articulation of MPE is not a presentation of the approach (aside: I nearly wrote model there Tim) but is an attempt to help the field to understand how to teach pre-service teachers about MPE. My aim isn’t, however, to explain this process to teacher educators but to assume that we won’t all me lucky enough to have Déirdre, Tim or Mary come and teach us about MPE (especially if we are already teaching is schools) – so what follows in the remains of this blog is an attempt to help teachers teach themselves. 

Ní Chróinín and colleagues share five pedagogical principles that guided their use of MPE. I have tried to articulate them here in an effort to ‘bring them to life’ for teachers:

1.    Explicitly prioritise meaningful participation – In order to teach meaningfully the priory in our teaching must be meaning. We need to be explicit in linking our work to “students personal experiences.” Further, we need to “provide [both] a range of experiences in movement and [a range of experiences] in interpreting the meaning of those experiences.” For Déirdre and Tim this meant trying to “shamelessly and enthusiastically…foster physical activity experiences that are special, memorable, and personal.” 

2.    Model pedagogies is that support meaningful participation – LAMPE requires teachers to pay attention to the particular relationships they foster with their students and ensure that student choice and decision-making are embedded in their teaching. Déirdre and Tim sought to be ‘intentional and ever-present.’ Being intentional meant the open articulation of why they were seeking to emphasise meaning while being ever-present required consistency in tone, style of presentation and body language. For example, the act of telling was replaced by a desire for students to interpret meaning for themselves and for them to develop self-referenced goals.  

3.    Support engagement with features of meaningful participation as a learner – Drawing on the words of Kretchmar (2008), the authors reminded us that “joy specifically, and meaning in general, are most easily nurtured in connection with things that are already important, familiar, and understood.” Consequently, we need to encourage students to “engage in personally meaningful experiences in our classes.” This means articulating our intentions to our students and explaining why our actions are intended to promote meaningful physical education. 

4.    Frame learning activities using features of meaningful participation (social interaction, challenge, learning, fun, delight) – Social interactions were foregrounded, and friendships and social interactions were seen as a priority in learning. Challenge was about trying to get things just right (not too hard and not too easy). This meant challenging aspects of physical education that included elimination and, instead, foster inclusivity. Learning was positioned as a goal. It was not just an outcome of the lesson but a focus. It wasn’t limited to the physical but was explored across the domains and it was assessed through strategies such as “draw and write, mapping, journals, storytelling, think-aloud, vignette.” Fun involved the exploration of what made people want to be involved and what made them happy. Delight, while a challenged for Déirdre and Tim, was eventually seen in the connection between school-based physical education and out of school physical activity experienced.  

5.    Support reflection on meaningfulness of physical education experiences – The importance of reflection was seen in the enhancement of personal meaning. When students are asked to question what they have done they are better able to articulate the value (or lack of value) they took from an activity or a lesson. This takes planned questions and is personally challenging for both students and teachers. How do you tell your teacher that a lesson was meaningless? How do you react as a teacher when a student expresses such a feeling? 

The bottom-line, for me, is this is very new teaching. This represents long-term pedagogical change and while the authors focus on pre-service teachers there are lessons to be learnt for the profession. Changing our own approach to teaching takes years and we need to be able to articulate this journey to our students. I’ve written this before – and it forms the centre of what I do – but we have to remember that not only are we learning to teach in a new way, but students are learning to learn in a new way. That means we need to express personal meaning to our students and invite them into the change process. Like us they don’t need to see the whole staircase but it’s best if we tell them there is a climb ahead.

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 Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe 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.


Ní Chróinín, D., Fletcher, T., & O’Sullivan, M. (2018) Pedagogical principles of learning to teach meaningful physical education, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23:2, 117-133, [Open Access]