The physical and beyond.

What are the educational outcomes of PE? Is it solely about the physical, or should we have a wider set of learning outcomes for our subject? When I asked other PE teachers to describe their best student there was a range of answers, however the physical outcomes were distinctly missing and this made me worry that perhaps as PE teachers we didn’t value the development of movement competency.

In the paper The educational benefits claimed for physical education and school sport: an academic review Richard Bailey et al (2009) divides the the potential benefits of PE and School Sport (PESS) into four distinct categories: the physical, the social, the affective and the cognitive. The authors conclude by asking which ones should PESS be accountable for and called for researchers, practioners and policy makers to work together to agree what benefits could be substantiated, supported and focussed upon. Taking the benefits promoted, we can transfer them to domains of learning within Physical Education. Both David Kirk in Chapter 9 in Debates in Physical Education and the Educational Value and Models-Based Practice in Physical Education and Ashley Casey with Vicky Goodyear in Can Cooperative Learning Achieve the Four Learning Outcomes of Physical Education? A Review of Literature position these four learning domains as the ‘legitimate learning outcomes of Physical Education’. Even Margret Whitehead’s current definition of Physical Literacy sees learning as beyond the physical: ‘Physical literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.’

I have adopted this idea, due to its potential but mainly for its inclusivity, basing my departments current assessment without levels structure on these four learning outcomes. This post is exploring in further detail what I understand them to mean.

The Physical

For me without doubt the most important outcome within PE. At its most basic level this is improvement of movement competency. It is central to our subject that we help our students master a range of movement capacities. In this domain I would see learning of movement patterns, more complex sports skills and also the improvement of components of health such as cardio-vascular endurance and skill related fitness such as balance. Competency and perceived competency are the drivers of engagement of physical activity beyond the school gates and is something we should all aspire to improving in our PE programmes. The question I always ask myself is whether we have the time to do so and if we can what are the essential movement skills we need to teach students to ensure they leave school prepared ready to take responsibility and seek out new challenges for their own physical activity?

The Cognitive

Richard Bailey et al (2009) talk about cognitive benefits of Physical Education as the potential improvement to academic achievement. I have changed this to mean knowledge and understanding. Basics of anatomy, physiology, methods of training, short term and long term benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle. Knowledge that children need to ensure they understand why and how to take responsibility for purposeful physical activity for the rest of their lives. Included in this domain are rules, tactics, choreography and planning and designing solutions to problems presented with in class. These two areas can be summed up as understanding the nature of movement and the understanding of the benefit of movement.  I have recently started to think perhaps I should also add ‘learning to learn’ to this domain, and spend some time teaching students about theories of learning within Physical Education, so they can take responsibility themselves outside of school.

The Affective

This is the motivation, confidence and commitment towards engaging in physical activity. The International Physical Literacy Association promote the affective, the physical and the cognitive domains and all are equally important. Each is essential to realise progress on an individual physical literacy journey. However they give particular attention to the affective domain as ‘Physical competence without the motivation to maintain activity would not seem to encourage continued participation.’. This domain has been difficult to teach in the traditional sense. In practice I have tried to create a classroom environment where students are willing to have a go and feel safe to take risks, then discuss with them their feelings and emotions, to make them more self aware. The work of Dave Collins and colleagues on Psychological Characteristics of Developing Excellence may offer practical solutions to help develop learning in this domain. Could the explicit teaching of skills such as goal setting, realistic evaluation and self regulation help improve a students motivation, confidence and commitment? Work done in Scottish primary schools on this suggests that it might be part of the answer. However I don’t think it is the complete answer. Part of our role is to help our students find joy, meaning or (my preferred term) value in movement. By unlocking this unique value in each of our students could be the biggest motivator of all.

The Social

Physical Literacy does not see this as a separate element, but for my context it is hugely important. Many students come to my school unable to treat each other well, especially within Physical Education. They also lack the basics interpersonal and social skills to help create an environment of trust and risk taking. Just putting students in groups or teams does not necessarily improve these skills. As Ben Dyson and Ashley Casey state in their new book Cooperative Learning in Physical education and Physical Activity ‘that is important to explicitly teach rather than simply assume that students can develop appropriate social skills’. The environment the students create for each other is just as important for learning in PE as the environment the teacher creates for the class. Making the development of basic social skills such as listening, shared decision making, leading and encouraging other a priority is essential within PE if the learning in other domains is to occur.

At the beginning of this post I questioned why PE teachers, when describing their best students, didn’t mention any learning from the physical domain. Perhaps it isn’t as simple as not valuing it. That for physical improvements to occur learning must also be made in the affective, cognitive and social domains as well. This would see these learning domains not as separate entities from each other but interconnected with learning in one impacting the learning in others. That our students, like ourselves, are complex Biological-Pyschological-Social individuals and that we need to take that into account when teaching them Physical Education, even if for me, the physical must be the key area of learning within our subject.

11 thoughts on “The physical and beyond.

  1. Every time I read one of your posts which takes current research and considers it within your specific context, I feel grateful for your willingness to do this work. I cannot claim that I would be one to readily seek out the research on my own. What you offer here is a both useful synthesis and reflective unpacking of the terminology. I see a need for all of these and recognize their interconnectedness in my students’ behaviors and responses. One of the reasons that i appreciate teaching at the elementary level has to do with the transparency of these goals. Helping them learn to move better, more effectively, to achieve their desired physical results as well as emphasizing the need to respect the self and others in the process. Add to these the development of a robust movement vocabulary and the capacity to self-regulate emotions – these are all essential components and no lesson can take place without the 4 areas you describe coming into play. Perhaps the struggles we face in this has to do with how we formulate and demonstrate these intentions in our planning and execution. Thanks for the fresh food for thought.


    1. I think you hit the nail on the head. Most of my posts are philosophical pieces about movement and physical education. This in my mind is far easier to write about that the practice of implementing that philosophy into practice through teaching, learning and curriculum content. However by reexamining my philosophical purpose I can see if I truly believe that and if so ask better questions and make more informed decisions on my practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m interested to know why “value” in movement is your preferred term, rather than “joy” or “meaning”. I can see that all of them are important, but what does “value” capture for you?


    1. Hi Fiona, I think that might need a full blog post to explore and explain, but in essence I view the term ‘value’ as it is meant in ethics. The degree of importance in helping determine an individual actions in the pursuit of a good life. It can be broad enough to include social values and narrow enough to include personal values. Those values can also be transmitted to others through the culture and I see movement as being important to a community. My colleagues feel the term ‘value’ is a little soulless, especially for children, perhaps ‘meaning’ would be better?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done….

    I have always struggled with the term “PHYSICAL,” and have wondered if we should refer instead to “MOVEMENT.”

    As far as fitness goes, especially using an example like cardiovascular endurance or even body composition, should we refer to those as “physical?” Could they also be considered biological/physiological, or maybe even biophysical, psychobiological, neuroanatomical, etc.? All sorts of factors influence the “physical.” There is a whole lot of overlap between what we traditionally call body/mind/spirit, or physical/mental/emotional, as you alluded to at the end of your article.

    I think this is why I prefer “movement” as a focus, rather than “physical.” We really can’t impact the “physical” as much as we think we do, yet we can definitely impact “movement.”

    I would also like to suggest one more component to add to your 4: the “critical” piece. Perhaps it belongs in the “Cognitive” component, but I wanted to be sure it gets a mention, as it is often overlooked. By “critical,” I mean taking an approach that examines the power relations within the class or movement culture, acknowledging the political dimensions of PhysEd and Health (addressing inequality and the marginalised), and teaching students to QUESTION, rather than to simply comply and obey whomever presents themselves as an authority within the field (health, sport, nutrition, etc.).

    Good stuff and thanks for the piece!


    1. As I continue my career I seem to be drawn back to the philosophy of Peter Arnold in his book Meaning in Movement, Sport and Physical Education. In the final chapter of his book he writes about the three dimensions of the concepts of movement that could underpin physical education as a subject:

      Education about movement
      Education through movement
      Education in movement

      Arnold states that these dimensions of movement are not mutually exclusive, in fact on the contrary, they are overlapping and interdependent. That by building a PE curriculum around these three dimensions of movement, PE is no longer a means to serve purposes extrinsic to itself, but entered into for its own sake to experience the intrinsic worth and value of movement. A philosophy I would further like to understand and put into practice.


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