Reframing a quality physical education experience
Over the past several months, I've been thinking much more deeply about the building blocks necessary in a quality physical education program. Without question, there are several fundamental building blocks that must be present in order to create meaningful experiences in physical education. Voice and choice must be a part of any program in order to better engage students.
However, having said this, there is a huge difference between choice that has no constraints and purposeful choice that is rooted within the parameters of the unit being explored in PE. I’m all about voice and choice, but having clear and specific outcomes in place when providing students with opportunities to choose what they want to work on.
The purpose of this blog post is to dive into 2 key features that I believe are critically important in a quality physical education experience. But, before getting into these 2 features, I’d like to emphasize that it is a deep belief of mine that motor competence is an important part of all learning in PE. Students need opportunities to develop important skills related physical activity and sport.
There are some who believe that motor competence is where everything begins and once the students begin to develop their motor competence in different areas, they become more confident. Confident students will be more engaged in PE and be willing to take the risks necessary to try new things in order to fully participate in the program. I understand that some teachers value placing motor competence front and center in their programs, but to me I place personal relevance and challenge at the core of a physical education experience.
If we are to intrinsically motivate students to want to be physically active and engaged in sport, we must make everything we do in physical education personally relevant to them. Every single student needs an entry point into their movement experience. As renowned educational researcher, Ron Ritchhart, says, we must create opportunities for all students to have an entry point into their learning whether it be a low entry point or a high ceiling entry point.
Much of my recent thinking has been shaped by the work of Dr. Tim Fletcher, Dr. Déirdre Ní Chróinín, Professor Mary O’Sullivan, doctoral student Stephanie Beni, Dr. Doug Gleddie, and Ciara Griffin and their Meaningful PE model which emphasizes 5 key features to a quality physical education experience: Fun, Motor Competence, Social Interaction, Personal Relevance and Challenge.
I’ll be working closely with the Meaningful PE researchers over the next several months, sharing the work that our PE team is focused on here at Gardens Elementary School in Saudi Arabia, especially in regards to the features of challenge and personal relevance. The number one goal in our PE program is to make strong connections to community and to offer every opportunity possible for students to connect all learning in PE to what is available to them in our community in regards to being physically active.
In this blog post, I want to share examples of how we are unpacking the features of challenge and personal relevance in our program and provide specific strategies that I have been working on implementing at our school in order to go much deeper into the importance of challenge.
Our Challenge Continuum
In order to help students develop a deeper understanding of the importance of continually challenging themselves in regards to their own learning and growth, I brought an idea forward to the teachers that I coach at my school. The idea was to create a challenge continuum that really unpacks what challenge means and what challenge feels like.
We started with a 10-point scale with 1 on the scale representing ‘super easy’ for them and 10 being impossible for them. We are trying get the students to understanding that the ‘just right’ challenge zone is somewhere between a 6-8 out of 10. As I’m also coaching one of our grade 5 classroom teachers, we are using the challenge continuum in his class. His students are getting double exposure to the challenge continuum as they are using it in their classroom and in PE, therefore the same language is being used in regards to unpacking challenge.
The main idea behind it is that the students can self-assess themselves in relation to how challenging something is for them and that they can clearly communicate this to the teacher. This information is so important for the teacher to know as they can help to guide them toward finding ‘just right’ challenges in all subject areas. We are using the challenge continuum mostly in math and PE right now. As they get more used to using this challenge continuum, we can go deeper into the concept of challenge and the role it plays in their learning and growth.
The grade 5 students are more than halfway through their first unit of the year which is a cycling unit. As we first introduced the students to the challenge continuum in their math class, the next step was to use it in PE as well.
As an opener in this unit, we wanted to get the students to discuss what they find challenging about riding their bicycles in and around our community at KAUST. As you can see from the visual below, the students identified several things that they find very challenging to them. Getting students to dig into what challenges them at the start of the unit allowed us to create opportunities to find the right entry point into their learning related to cycling.
I created a visual to be used in the second class of the unit that would begin to address the feature of ‘challenge’ and for the students to use a simple colored dot strategy to self-assess how challenging each area on the visual is for them. This allowed us to determine the best entry point for them.
During the second and third classes of the unit, the students were asked to work on each of the areas identified on the visual and to self-assess themselves using colored dots. As you can see in the visual, we used green, yellow, and red dots. Green represents ‘easy’, yellow represents ‘challenging’ and red represents ‘impossible’ for them at this point. When self-assessing, the students also wrote their name on the dot. As you can see, there was a wide variety of responses from the students and the information gathered from this assessment was highly valuable to us as we taught the unit.
As we worked our way through the unit, we have included cycling excursions in our community with the most recent class focused on riding on different terrains (cement, rock, grass, and sand) and we even had a group of student tackle the challenge of riding out into a desert area close to the school. It was quite cool seeing the challenges that they came up with in the desert challenge. They were racing against each other, riding up and down sand slopes and playing follow the leader on their bikes.
At the end of this class, another assessment that we used was getting the students to identify how hard the class was for them. This required having three different coloured cards ready to go (green yellow and red). At the end of the class, the students simply chose the card that best represented how difficult the class was for them. They held the card in plain view and using their fingers, showed what number best represented how challenging it was for them. As you can see in the photo below, the students ranked the level of difficulty very differently.
Some were a yellow 5 which means that it was starting to be a challenge for them. As seen in the photo, one student assessed the level of challenge being a yellow 9 which means that he found it almost too challenging. In watching this boy cycle in the desert, he was indeed having difficulty but did not give up. You can also see a few green assessments in the photo. A green 4 means that it was easy for them but was approaching the challenge zone. Taking a group photo allowed us to see where each student was at and to ensure some of them either backed off a bit from making it too challenging or increased the level of challenge the following class.
The title of this blog post is ‘Finding the Beauty in Challenge and Personal Relevance. It is so important for us, in our program, to make all learning related to physical activity and sport very relevant to each student. In helping students to make strong connections to what’s on offer in our community in regards to being physically active, we are hoping it has a lasting impact on them and helps to intrinsically motivate them to be as physically active as possible when not in PE or in school.
We have already seen the impact of this unit on some of the grade 5 students. There are quite a few who have told us that they went back to the desert area to cycle around on the sand and to create their own adventure cycling course. They’ll be teaching it to the rest of the class next week.
Personal relevance and challenge are so closely aligned in our program and it is our belief that motor competence is a natural by-product of the process and learning and growth we are hoping to deepen throughout this school year. If kids are intrinsically motivated to be physically active and can find the right entry point to suit their level of ability, great things can be accomplished. Stay tuned for further blog posts that provide more insight into our PE program at Gardens Elementary School. Thanks for reading!!
KAUST Faculty, Pedagogical Coach. Presenter & Workshop Leader.IB Educator. #RunYourLife podcast host.