The flaw of linearity within PE

In my first year of teaching I had a pupil named Laurence in my Year 9 PE class. Laurence was a tall, awkward and sensitive child. Teaching Laurence was always a challenge for me, not just because I was an NQT. He arrived part way through Year 8 and I was told he struggled to break into friendship groups. His previous experiences of PE, sport and physical actvity were not happy ones. I was informed by the colleague who had taught him the year before that he had tried hard to breakdown some of the social and psychological barriers that Laurence had put up, in the hope to help him better access PE. He felt that there had been some progress and Laurence was in a better position then when he had first joined the school.

However over the summer holidays Laurence had grown almost a foot and now towered over most of his peers and myself. During the first term we looked to continue his physical education through swimming, health related fitness, badminton and basketball. His ‘new’ body clearly frustrated him. It didn’t allow him to do the things he could previously, he told me. Especially in basketball, an activity he had begun to previously enjoy. His co-ordination and timing were off. He looked clumsy when running. His strength hadn’t developed inline with the size of his body. He began to slowly lose the small amount of confidence he had through that first term, even through my enthusiastic support and encouragement. When it came to assessment time, I destroyed that confidence. As a newly qualified teacher of PE, I followed the departments assessment policy to the letter. I gave him a grade worse than what he had received at the end of Year 8. Laurence found this tough to take, but it wasn’t the killer blow. It was the expectation of progress that myself, my colleagues and the school had drummed into the pupils. That ALL pupils should make EXPECTED progress (it doesn’t help that the targets set were based on KS 2 Maths and English scores). That time spent in a subject was equal to learning in that subject. Laurence had worked hard, put time and effort in and hadn’t made the progress expected of himself and his peers. It crushed him.

At every school I have worked at this is the expectation for progress in PE:
  Perhaps we have been fooled by the seductive improvement in performance we can observe within a really great lesson we have taught, but then this fails to capture the true dynamics of change in learning over a longer and sustained period. The expectation for learning within PE is like a slow steady walk up a hill with the ultimate prize in reaching the top to survey the beautiful vista the height will afford. In reality it is like trying to navigate a labyrinth with its short cuts, cul-de-sacs, plateaus, jumps, dips, traps, progressions and dead-ends. The aim isn’t to escape the labyrinth, it is to make sense, value and enjoy the journey through it.

Does our expectation of linearity in Physical Education, of linear development, of linear progress and of linear learning, come from the belief that each of the children we teach are linear systems? If we do believe this, then we may make some dangerous assumptions:

1. That cause and effect is proportional. That the changes in a child’s physical attributes, technical ability and competency, knowledge and understanding and essential behaviours to value and take responsibility for movement are directly proportial to the amount of time spent in PE.

2. That a single cause has only a single effect. That when we try to teach a child something in PE, and they are successful in learning it, it will have no impact (change, progression, regression) on anything else they may have already learnt previously.

3. That the changing of constraints has no impact on learning. That if we manipulate the environment or task, such as space; time, players or equipment then this doesn’t impact the learning of our pupils.

4. That variability is undesirable. That the right technique for one child, must be the right technique for every child. That variability in movement needs to be reduced as it equates to inconsistency of performance.

Learning in PE is not typically a linear process. Learning will be individual to the learner, due to the many changes they will go through, especially though puberty. The concept of progress in PE linked to a belief in linear learning is something that has sat uncomfortably with me for many years. It wasn’t something I experienced as a child, it isn’t something that I observe as a teacher.

The assumption of linear learning has an impact on our teaching approaches and expectations within PE. These can lead to quite negative conclusions about a child, that can inversely influence their motivation and development as well as their willingness to engage in physical activity beyond the classroom. The belief that Laurence was a linear system, that just through time spent in PE with teacher input, he would make the desired progress inline with every other child in the year I believe is flawed and needs to be questioned, especially when as a subject we are forced to fit into a reporting and assessment system designed for other subjects. That belief does not see Laurence, or any other child we teach, for the complex biological, psychological and social individuals they are . Understanding that complexity, and viewing each child in PE as a unique nonlinear indvidual, we as teachers can seek to provide a more supportive and developmental learning environment. That we can begin to try to implement practices and teaching methods that support this idea and challenge the ones that don’t.

18 thoughts on “The flaw of linearity within PE

  1. Really enjoyed this & have had to argue this concept to our deputy head who struggles to understand why progress isn’t in a best fit straight line. Try to use example of boys who maybe in y7 are average size and therefore get heavily involved in rugby (a big sport for us) over time they get less involved in game situations because of their lack of size. Conversely we have the late bloomers who with increased size have increased confidence. Neithers progress line would be anywhere near a straight line.


    1. We had the chance when levels went to design something fit for purpose in curriculum PE. I feel that chance has slipped by, only for something poor, to be replaced with something worse and linked to tracking and monitoring for GCSE PE.


  2. Nice.
    Same applies to all hierarchical models (think triangles, pyramids), developmental models (growth, percentiles), and a bunch of other models including chronological age for education. The assumption that grading should be based upon progression in a narrow set of physical performance markers ( skill, fitness) was a big issue here and reinforced hopelessness. It shows that assessment in HPE does not lend itself well to national competency standards, or even those within a year level at a particular school. Assessment, like curriculum and pedagogy needs to be responsive to the individual and individually negotiated. Good reflection.


    1. It is something as department we are exploring through the implementation of an ipsative style of assessment. This is built on the idea that a life of physical activity and health is a journey, and that being in touch with your body and understanding it, you can make informed decisions on what to do and make improvements in areas you want to. I have no idea whether this might be the right approach, but the pupils seem to be embracing it.


  3. This is such valuable thinking. Even after 20 years of teaching elementary PE I feel I can safely say that linearity in learning and performance is the exception, not the norm. While I believe that I have grown and developed as a teacher, linear would be the least applicable descriptor of my individual path. And yet, through policy, curricula, assessment and reporting structures we behave as if the opposite were true. This is where I am often reminded that those who spend the most time in creating the textbooks, frameworks and procedures for our work are often those who have progressively removed themselves further and further away from classrooms, from real live students and teachers and the day to day confusion that makes up a school year. The disconnect calls to mind the distinction between what Susan Scott calls “official truths” and “ground truths” (Fierce Conversations). In this case, linearity = official, labyrinth-like = ground.
    Excellent post!


    1. Hi Sherri. Thank you for your comment. I have yet to read Susan Scott’s Fierce Conversations, but I have watched her Ted Talk on ‘radical transparency’ and find myself agreeing with her message. I’m sure if we were to all draw a graph of our performance as a teacher over our career, from start to current point, I doubt it would look very linear at all. Yet we have this expectation that complex individuals, going through puberty, in a dynamic subject like physical education, will learn and progress linearly. In the UK the decision to do away with ‘levels’ and therefore levels of progress was decided a few years ago. We had a chance as a profession to be brave and design something that suited subjects and children. However we have replaced one form of levels with another and the expectation of linear progress is still there. The only reason I have been given for this, is that it has to fit a whole school system of reporting. I just don’t understand why that is the case.

      Liked by 1 person

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