What are our responsibilities in pushing quality physical education forward?
Creating engaged learners doesn't always imply that we need to give our students total freedom over their learning journeys. There must be a firm structure in place that often times requires a teacher directed approach in order to help our students find their own level of success in PE. I get all that, but at what point does control and compliance become a disservice to our students?
Even though teacher direction and control is an important, how do we know whether or not we've crossed the line? These are important questions to think about as you read this blog post. A friend of mine, whom I shall call Teacher X needs some advice. Teacher X has taught internationally for many years, but has recently returned to their home country. They found work, back home, continuing to teach PE in a public school .
Teacher X had been quite used to an inquiry-based approach to education at their previous international placements and was looking forward to bringing this type of teaching style into their new school. Teacher X is one of a handful of teachers in their PE department. A few weeks back, I received an email from Teacher X explaining that they were very frustrated with what they had seen in their first few months of teaching at this school. They saw that the physical education program was being delivered in a way that allowed zero choice to students. Despite students being clearly disengaged, they are forced to take part in teacher led activities that are extremely traditional in nature. Lots of waiting around for turns and lots of situations where the athletes are the only ones to excel in the class while all of the others (the majority) are pushed aside wondering, "What is the point, why should I try?".
I offered Teacher X some advice, but received another email a few days later explaining a new situation that had taken place earlier that week. In Teacher X's own words:
Traditionally everyone at this school must compete in the events selected by the teachers in the Athletics unit because that's the way it has always been done. So, today's situation was bound to happen sooner or later. There was lots of complaining from my middle school class. When required to sprint 200m and be timed, some students only jogged or walked, very resistant to being told that they had to do it. One girl who had to run the 1500m stood at the start line, arms folded and refused to move saying, "You can't make me do something I don't want to do".
I totally understand why the students rebelled. There was no engagement, no questions, no focus, just a 'This is what you must do" mentality from the teachers. The students have obviously been a part of a control and compliance type learning environment for years at this school in PE. At a time when middle schoolers should be embracing being healthy and active, they obviously do not see the relevance in why they should put forth effort in PE. They do not see the point in being active because their voice and what they want doesn't matter at all. There is a lot of disengagement in this program. I don't know what to do to begin changing this.
I thought long and hard about the way I should respond to Teacher X's last email to me. What I decided to do was to explain Teacher X's situation to my grade 5 students. I read the email to the students in three separate grade 5 PE classes. I then had each class do a 3-minute 'Walk & Talk' sharing their ideas and answers with one another about what Teacher X should do.
I asked them what advice that they would give the PE teachers in the school that Teacher X now works at. My students never surprise me with the answers that they give. Little people can give solid advice to big people!! Here is what they had to say:
"Those students should be allowed to choose what events that they have to do. I mean....they should have to do some events for sure, but they should be able to choose. Maybe this way, they will want to do it."
"The PE teachers at that school should include other fun types of running, jumping, and throwing games and activities NOT just serious competition."
"The PE teachers should show interesting videos like Mr. Andy does. Maybe the videos will inspire them to want to do more running, jumping, and throwing events. Maybe the students will understand that it is about doing their best and not competing against or comparing themselves to others."
"The students should be able to work on teams and maybe make practice and training plans together. They should have to do something, but maybe working with their friends and supporting one another might help."
"The students shouldn't be forced to do anything. They should have to do something, but maybe the PE teachers can listen to what they want more. "
Most of the student answers from across the three grade 5 classes were similar to the statements above. I emailed Teacher X back to say that I had taken some time to think about how to respond and decided to let my students share their ideas and that I would share their responses in a blog post. I'm sending Teacher X the link to this blog post once I publish it. The ideas that my students came up with are exactly what I probably would've told Teacher X. I would also tell them that as difficult as it is, it is important to try to have continued, ongoing discussions with their colleagues to try to gain an understanding of why they teach the way that they do. Perhaps small changes over time may become possible.
I no longer get frustrated or upset when I hear of these situations happening. Instead, I place responsibility on my own shoulders to continue to make small, micro-improvements in my own teaching and sharing my practice with others. Just as I share my own good teaching practice, there are loads of excellent PE teachers doing the same on social media. When we focus on what we can control and share our good practice with regularity, our impact and reach will continue to spread. Our message about quality physical education will begin to reach those who are in charge of making very important decisions about how PE is implemented and delivered in different districts and regions across the world. Change is a slow process, but we all have a voice in making a long term difference in the way our profession is perceived.
My advice is to SHARE, SHARE, and continue to SHARE your excellent practice. When sharing on Twitter, use hashtags outside of PE itself to help spread what quality #physed is all about. The more you share, the more impact and reach you will have. We want more and more administrators and policy makers to see the important role that PE plays in a curriculum.
Is PE broken? Yes, I do believe it is in many schools around the world. PE does need fixing. I certainly don't blame only the teachers themselves as it is ultimately administration that must step in and come up with a better way to evaluate teacher effectiveness. And these administrators must take the time to find out what quality physical education is all about. They must see it in action to know exactly what it looks and feels like.
To end this blog post, I want to draw attention to a great post that my friend, Adam Howell, wrote last week. It's totally worth the read as it emphasizes the need for total overhaul in the way teacher evaluation is being done in physical education. I encourage you to read Adam's post and to add your own thoughts in the comment box of his blog post.