What does success look like in Physical Education?

Perhaps why there are misconceptions about Physical Education is because we can’t universally agree on what success looks like in our subject. It is an area of constant discussion within my department, and an area I still haven’t got clear in my mind.

Let me start by expressing what my personal view of success in PE looks like. A student achieving in PE leaves school with the competence, knowledge and understanding to stay healthy and fit. That they are also intrinsically motivated to find a way of being active that they can enjoy and maintain in their everyday life. If I can manage that then I think that is a job well done. However there are some major issues with what this view of success looks like. How can I be sure that a student, either during or after they have left school, is being active and is trying to lead a healthy lifestyle? Is this view of success even feasible and measurable? Perhaps because this outcome is so difficult to monitor and assess we look at different ways of measuring success within Physical Education. Sporting team results, observation of highly skilled performance,  examination results and data from fitness testing. We can’t seem to live without some form of measurement of progress, so when we try to weigh those, do we move away from our overall aim?

School Sports Results – producing winning school sports teams and representative sports performers have for a long time been a indicator of a successful PE provision. It certainly was for me as a child and continues to be an idea still promoted by policy makers. The recent OFSTED paper ‘Going the Extra Mile‘ highlighted that state schools should be doing more to match their independent counterparts. Whilst I love competition, school sports teams and winning, this overemphasis can have an impact on the provision of physical education and does that meet the overall aim?

High levels of performance of skilled movements – of course we need to improve the skill level of our students. It builds confidence and competence in movement which will hopefully have a positive effect on them being active. However there has been an over-emphasis on high levels of skilled performance. Before level descriptors departed we were asking our students to achieve a level of skill in activities that may have been unachievable for all. I’d question how many PE teachers could perform in gymnastics, swimming, basketball, table tennis etc consistently with control, fluency and precision? Not I, but does that mean I can’t be physically active and healthy? A debate we often have in our department is about the outstanding sportsman. Let’s say a national level footballer. Does this mean that he is an exceptional student within physical education? I don’t have an easy answer to that. Exceptional skill performance is easy to see and measure but are all students able to achieve this? If not should we make that the focus of success within PE?

Examination results – This along with success at competitive sport is one that SLT seems to think makes a successful PE Department. I do enjoy teaching examination PE, due to the different challenge it gives me as a teacher and that it is one way my academic colleagues view my subject with some level of parity to their own. However its focus on theory and skill based criteria in sports doesn’t, in my mind, match what success is in physical education. Even more so with the higher theoretical weighting that will come with the future examination reforms in 2016. Again it is an easy way to gain data, to show progress and demonstrate success within our subject, but if it isn’t promoting the overall aim should it be given a priority?

Fitness Testing – probably the most seductive of all the ways to measure success. It gives you cold hard data, you can see improvement and you can test all areas of skill and health related fitness. What better way is there to demonstrate progress and success of physical education? There is very little evidence that regular fitness testing has any real impact in promoting health and physical activity. Loughborough University feels it ‘may well represent a misdirected effort in the promotion of healthy lifestyles and physical activity, and that PE time could therefore be better spent.’ As teachers of physical education can we consistently implement valid and reliable provision of fitness testing within our curriculum and can we be fully sure that the results will enhance motivation to stay fit and healthy? The linking of achievement within physical education to fitness goals could seriously undermine students confidence, especially when effort has been put in.

Physical Education has the potential to make a difference to all our students development physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. To promote an intrinsic motivation to be physically active and understand why it is important to remain healthy for life. That they have the knowledge and confidence to make personal choices on their lifestyle and have a clear understanding of outcomes of those choices. That they regularly set, review and refine personal targets for having an active and healthy lifestyle.

What do we really want to achieve and what does success look like? Our aims have to be something that all students can achieve. If not, then will they be motivated to lead active and healthy lives? At least in Physical Education that is not examined we do not have to be judged on outcomes, especially now level descriptors are a thing of the past. We can can focus on the process far more than our academic colleagues, as we are not under the same scrutiny. If we can involve students in the process, reflecting and taking responsibility for their actions and personal improvement, we may be able to achieve the ultimate aim of a lifetime of activity and health. Through dialogue and verbal feedback we can spend our time asking students to compare previous performance to current performance and also how they can plan to improve. This I believe would have a far more positive effect than grading, comparing to norms and asking them to reach a certain criteria. Having those conversations and asking them to take responsibility for their actions mimics what we want them to do later in life. To reflect on their own health and wellbeing and find solutions to maintain or improve them when required.

Any real judgement of success in physical education must be linked to it’s aims, not driven by how easy it is to collect evidence or data. Having an overall aim of a student engaging in lifelong physical activity and health is admittedly difficult to measure, but does this mean we should not try to find a solution? I do not currently have the answer to that conundrum. Perhaps my views are misplaced. Trying to quantify success in a subject that has no real measurable outcomes but is a constant process is fraught with difficulty and confusion. I would however rather spend the time that we currently do, gaining evidence on sports, fitness, skill level and use it to speak individually with our students and help them understand the impact of the choices they make. To do that we require nothing other than observing our students and speaking to them. They will give us all the information we require to see if they are successful. Having support, trust and some autonomy from SLT to give us the room to explore what success in our subject really looks like and what is the best way to monitor and report on it would be a massive step forward.

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23 thoughts on “What does success look like in Physical Education?

  1. I really like the this, can totally sympathise with you. Doing a PE degree at University meant we discussed this often and the importance of being competent at sports and developing a lifelong passion does not always seem to be present in schools. A really interesting read!

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    1. I think it is an area for debate and will constantly be. Sport in my mind has been the big driver in PE because of its place for developing character for 100s of years within Public Schools. In fact I would say the belief that for many sport is PE may be one of the key difficulties in kind consensus. I love sport, I think it has a part to play in Physical Education but it can not be the driver or what success is if we want every one to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing. I’m sure this topic will be continued to debated long after I finish teaching as well…

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    1. Morning Osama. Thanks for commenting. Just because I blog, doesn’t mean I have any real answers. I do it when I have something in my head for a long time and the only way to get it out is to write my thoughts down. Usually after that happens I have a lot more questions myself. If you have any thoughts and advice I would be happy to hear.

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  2. “To reflect on their own health and wellbeing and find solutions to maintain or improve them when required.”

    One of my favourite lines in this post. You continue to challenge perceptions and leave us readers with more questions than answers – a sign of a quality blog! 😉

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    1. Hi Paul. Thanks for commenting. I generally write these blogs to bring some clarity and coherence to the thoughts in my mind. However after i’ve finished writing I also have more questions than answers. Success in PE is so wrapped up in its aims, which is why we have no real consensus. Until we have that rectified it will be difficult to find any sort of answer.

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  3. I believe creating success in physical education is one of the most important aspects to a program. However, I do think it looks different at different grade levels. At the secondary level, I believe physical education is more sports driven. I have found that creating challenges at different skill levels and providing proper assessments is vital to a successful program. For example, when I teach a sport skill such as volleyball passing I give students a task sheet. On the task sheet there are different challenges to complete. Once we get into authentic games, I like to grade skills by use of a rubric. I was tired of being a glorified referee. There is no perfect way to teach physical education. That is one thing I love about it! We are allowed to use our creative brains, push the limit and come up with new ideas. That is why it is so fun to collaborate with other P.E. teachers. We all have different strengths and ideas.

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    1. Hi Garry. I absolutely agree. I ran an ‘old boys’ rugby 7s charity competition last year. 120 boys came to play, all who I had taught and coached, all still playing rugby. That is what success looks like for me. The question then is how can I extend that to all students, including those who dislike sport.

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  4. Such a great read and I also agree it poses many more questions. This debate often makes me feel frustrated as I never feel like I can have the answer or clarity of the best way forward. May I ask what assessment process you follow at the moment since levels have become extinct?

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  5. Excellent blog! Although several have commented that it leaves more questions than answers, I think it is important that PE practitioners feel confident in establishing their own informed answers. (How they become ‘informed’ might be an interesting question). If practitioners are not confident in identifying their own construction of PE, how can they say that they are actually physically educating their pupils? How will they know whether it is physical education they are delivering? A lack of confidence in the practitioner’s conviction around the aims and purpose of PE leads to ontological insecurity – not a great basis to build a PE programme on. Obviously there are constraints around constructing a PE curriculum, but being able to identify its purpose (and how it aligns within a purpose of education) is surely one of the most important and fundamental aspects of the practitioner’s role.

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  6. I totally agree with your personal definition of success – the hard part like you said is discerning what things should take top priority in our programs in order to achieve that outcome. The way I view fitness testing is simply an avenue through which I can hopefully teach the kids at my school the importance of measuring where they are currently in order to set goals for improvement. I always tell my kids, it’s not for a grade, it’s not for a workout, it’s simply some information for them to use to improve their health and wellness. Thanks for the thoughtful post, definitely some great points and an importance discussion.

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    1. Hi Ben. Thanks for your response. I believe that fitness testing has a place within the curriculum, especially for older pupils, but not not necessarily as a way for them to judge success within the subject or their own journey. As you say, if you appropriately it can be a wonderful educational tool, to give context and deeper understanding to health and skill related components of fitness they may want to develop or take responsibility for outside of the classroom.

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  7. Every PE program is going to be different in every school and this leaves this discussion wide open. I personally believe that success has to firstly come from the program provided for the students, secondly from the teaching involved with the program and thirdly the success of your students within this program.

    Your perception of these three can vary depending on the expectations of the school but I think more importantly the expectations your school has for success in PE at your school. We all know that sometimes PE can be disregarded as a subject by some. I still hear it at times in my school when teachers think anyone can teach PE. They don’t really know what our subject involves.

    A successful program should allow students to experience a broad range of activities which allows success for every student. Basically a physical education program is not a ‘Sports’ program. I fully believe when vertically articulating your program a variety of activities should be included as part of your program. In MYP Physical and Health Education at our school we try to do this. Of course we are not perfect but we fully believe we are trying to provide variety for our students using our facilities and faculty the best way we can.

    Physical Education practitioners should be competent in a range of activities. When employing our latest PE teachers for this academic year it was important that they not only had the passion to teach but the experience and willingness to teach a diverse curriculum. We not only teach practically but we also include health lessons in our curriculum. Our teachers need to embody the philosophy of the IB MYP curriculum and it’s expectations fully before embarking on teaching physical education.

    Standards within your curriculum provided you with benchmarks. Assessments then provide you with a way of discovering how your students can reach these standards that your have set. It is essential for you to find different ways to assess your students so they have an opportunity to show you what they can do. Students should always be aware of what is expected of them and how they can achieve success. They should be provided with opportunities to test their knowledge and skills and reflect on their performance. Sufficient feedback should be given after every assessment and students given a chance to understand where they need to improve.

    All students can find success in physical education if they are provided with the correct tools to work with. As I said above, I think these tools are a good curriculum, good teaching and successful assessment.

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    1. Hi Dominique. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. It is much appreciated.

      I wholeheartedly agree with you that any judgement regarding success should be closely related to our aims for physical education. That as teachers of physical education it should be our responsibility to reflect, discuss, shape and implement a curriculum of PE that provides success for every pupil. You put the success of pupils within the programme we offer as third, I would say that this must be our priority and at the heart of what we do. The success of every individual pupil should be something we should expect and deliver on. If we do not, then perhaps we need to reconsider what we have to do differently to ensure that success and modify and refine our provision and practice accordingly.

      The outcomes for physical literacy by Margret Whitehead give an excellent framework on which I believe we can build pupil success in PE:

      · The development of physical competence

      · The confident participation of a wide variety of purposeful physical pursuits

      · Effective interaction in a wide variety of situations and environments

      · The development of self-confidence and self esteem

      · Sensitive integration with others

      · Knowledge and understanding of the importance of physical activity in maintaining health

      · The commitment to participate in a range of purposeful physical pursuits

      · The ability to reflect realistically on personal strengths and to select appropriate purposeful physical activities in which to take part in both in and outside of the curriculum

      · An appreciation of the value of purposeful physical pursuits in their potential to enhance the quality of life

      I feel these outcomes are interrelated and have the potential for all pupils within PE to be successful and grow. The next question would be how to deliver these outcomes within the curriculum.

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  8. Great piece! I think as PE teachers we can only ensure our students enjoy learning PE. Anything that’s fun makes an impression and stays with them for life, don’t you think? Of course, we can’t really measure this immediately. That’s the great conflict – does testing really measure what our students know and that they understand?

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    1. Hi Angelina. I do think testing has it’s place within education, especially for helping to learn knowledge. Fitness testing I think needs to be handle carefully. Poorly delivered it can have hugely negative effects on pupils engaging within lessons or being motivated outside of school. The criteria for success within PE should be clearly understood as the experience of personal achievement to each and every individual pupil. That it is about their best, performing their best, improving their best and being their best. If we take the time to get to know our pupils within the physical environment then they should give us all we need to make those judgements with them.

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  9. Great read and great comments. Thank you. Personally, I believe that the title “physical education” does not do the subject justice at all. It is more than a “physical” subject. Not to set us apart, but this subject is the only subject that includes all 3 learning domains: social/affective, psychomotor AND cognitive. I think a more appropriate title would be “wellness” or “movement and wellness.”

    But with that aside, I also believe that there may be a solution to this assessment problem within PE. Many times we talk about quantitative data as a staple for assessment. However, I believe that focus groups that are geared towards interviewing a population of students in order to obtain QUALITATIVE data allows us to understand the direct perceptions of students. And IF and only IF, the goal is for students to intrinsically develop a life-long fitness aspect then focus groups have the ability to create a moderately accurate understanding if we are meeting that goal. Obviously this type of study is a little more time consuming and we would not need be able to interview each and every student, but it is plausible. I am currently in the process of conducting a focus group at the school I teach. Let me know what you think.

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    1. Hi Alex. What you are doing sounds very interesting with the gathering of Qualitative data for assessment purposes within PE. Do you have any further info/reading/examples of practice you could share with me?

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