If you were to go for a walk around the city, town, or village that you teach in, looking at both outdoor and indoor options for being physically active in that community, what would you see? Taking it one step further, if you were to create a map of this community that identifies possibilities for being physically active, what would this potential map look like? How many indoor facilities would be on this map? What types of activities would these indoor facilities offer people to help them to engage in physical activity? What kind of outdoor public space exists that also promotes physical activity for people of all ages? How would this map change depending upon the seasons that your community experiences each year?
When brainstorming the different types of physical activity available to the people in your community, don’t only think about things that gets the heart pumping away at maximum heart rate zones. Any 'getting up and moving’ type activities work in this case, regardless of which zone their heart rate is in.
In defining why physical education is an important part of a student’s experience in school, it is essential to consider the realities that exist for young people to take action in their own lives, within their own communities, to live a physically active life and to find joy through movement. Designing specific physical education experiences takes on a much deeper significance when we take into account the actual options available for physical activity to students within the communities in which they live. As educators, we need to be acutely aware of what these possibilities are in order to maximize opportunities for our students to take legitimate action in their own lives to be as physically active as possible.
Does this mean that students shouldn’t be given a multitude of other experiences related to sport, fitness, and exercise even if these activities may not be accessible to them within their community? Not at all. Every single student deserves the chance to explore all of these areas, especially if it helps to build upon and develop physical literacy as they journey through school. However, we must be willing to take a hard look at our programs and our own teaching beliefs about what we feel the students should be able to know and do if we are to give them every opportunity possible to succeed and to embrace being physically active for life.
This requires finding an extremely fine balance as educators in regards to the true and authentic needs of our learners and our own stances and beliefs on what is important to teach. It is essential to evaluate our own stance on health, fitness, and physical activity and to truly assess whether or not we are bringing certain biases into our teaching, expecting that our students learn in ways that we learn best and engage in activities that we feel are best for them.
As well, there will always be the ongoing demand that we need to address and assess specific student learning outcomes put into place by our school, district, state, or province. This puts additional pressure on teachers to define how best to navigate their students toward continued growth in these learning areas which requires even more of a fine balance.
In finding this balance, we need to be extremely aware of multiple factors, but most importantly take a realistic look at what we teach and how we deliver these learning experiences, especially in regards to actual opportunities for physical activity within the communities that our students live.
Let’s take a look at some potential teaching scenarios below and assess to what extent the educators described are providing learning experiences that can help students to take initiative to be physically active in their own communities outside of their schools. Without question there could be an endless number of scenarios, but I only wanted to describe a few to help think about the fine balance that is needed to inspire students to embrace being physically active for life in ways that are most accessible to them outside of school.
Teacher A is extremely passionate about fitness in their own personal life. They regularly workout, run, and are always active. They believe in being fit for life and keep a careful record of their own physical activity, as well as their nutritional habits and diet.
Most people would agree that this type of lifestyle is inspiring and without question an extremely important one in regards to being healthy in both mind and body. I wholeheartedly agree that maintaining a healthy lifestyle through exercise and fitness is critically important to our well-being. I also think that it is critical to help our young learners understand the value and importance of being fit and healthy.
However, in saying this, if my physical education classes are set up in a way that pushes endless amounts of fitness related activities on my students, am I working to engage all of my students in a manner that will help them to choose to be physically active outside of my PE program? Could my program be too fitness focused and dependent upon ensuring my students are maxing out heart rate levels through exercise the majority of class? Have I sought feedback from the students to see to what extent they are enjoying this experience and whether or not it is inspiring them to be physically active outside of PE?
Teacher B is a naturally gifted athlete who has always played some form of competitive sport throughout their childhood and into adolescence. They starred on numerous sports teams in high school and may have even played high level sport in university and beyond. Teacher B coaches multiple sports in the after school program, but they have that one sport that is their speciality in which they are the star coach in their school and have helped many students to develop a passion for this sport.
Teachers like this are an asset to any school as they have a depth of knowledge about sport that is critical to help students potentially develop a love of sport as well. As we know, sport is a fantastic way for young people to remain active and take initiative in their own lives by joining various sports teams that are on offer in their school.
I’m not sure what current statistics are, but from what I understand, participation in team sport drops significantly at the age of 12-13 years old, especially for girls. The majority of students do not take part in team sport after this age. I’m NOT saying that since this is the case, we should not be teaching team sport in PE. Not at all. I’m only wondering if some of our PE programs are too sport focused, especially in communities where these sports are not an option to students outside of the walls of their schools. Exploring these sports and learning about them is a noble pursuit, but is there the balance needed to reflect relevant life choices outside of school for these students to be active?
Teacher C is an all-rounder. They enjoy sport and being physically active. They exercise with regularity and seek physical activity whenever possible. They have never mastered any particular area but generally enjoy movement. They believe in offering their students the widest range possible in regards to physical activity. Their units are much shorter, sometimes only 2-3 weeks in length before moving on to another area of physical activity to explore and dabble in. The students experience such a maximum range of activity that there will no doubt be an area that they find great interest in throughout the school year.
However, much of what is done in Teacher C’s program isn’t as relevant as it could be as many of the activities and units in PE do not reflect choices for physical activity in the community outside of school. As well, there is no real depth to any of the learning taking place, but more of an exploration of physical activity at the surface level.
I could go on describing lots of different scenarios related to what teachers choose to teach and how they deliver this learning. In describing the above scenarios, I certainly don’t mean to hack on teachers and imply that they are selfishly absorbed in their own interests and do not take into consideration the needs of their students. I write this post to get all teachers thinking about the importance of being aware that we must always keep in mind’s eye those who we teach in an effort to help empower them to make relevant choices to be physically active for life. There is no doubt that good teaching is about finding that fine balance and it really is a constant juggling act if we are to maximize the impact that we have on our students.
Although I played high level competitive sport for many years, I find myself to have been more like Teacher C in my past teaching. I felt the need to allow tons of experimentation, tinkering, and exploration of lots of different activities related to sport and fitness. To me it was more important to give them loads of choice, but over the years, I found that this wasn't always meeting the true needs that they had as they tried to make sense of physical activity and the role that it played in their lives.
I certainly didn't make it as meaningful or relevant as I could have, ensuring that it connected to their real lives outside of school. It was a huge lesson for me to understand this and although there is no perfectly constructed PE program in any school, I do believe that more careful thought should go into how we design learning in our subject area.
Whenever and wherever possible, we need to make authentic links and connections back to the community in which our students live, in regards to the types of physical activities (indoor and outdoor) they have accessible to them. In doing so, I believe that we may have a greater impact on helping them to take action in their own lives outside of school and to embrace physical activity and the joys it brings to their lives. Maybe it's just a pipe dream of mine, but I truly believe in this approach to PE.
How can we better align our curriculum to make more meaningful connections to the communities in which young people live in regards to realistic options for them to be physically active?
How can we become more self-aware of our own teaching style and the specific stances we hold on physical activity, health, and fitness and assess whether or not our approach is empowering or disempowering our students?
To what extent do we address the need for students to take action to be physically active outside of PE?
Would love to hear your thoughts and to thank Aaron Beighle for our continued discussions behind the scenes in addressing different topics related to this blog post.
Thanks for reading.
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.