4 domains of learning in Physical Education – Refined 


Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 19.08.39

18 months on from my initial post about the different domains of learning in PE and my thinking on them has been refined. I am aware that once you accept a ‘theory’ and then use it to make decisions it becomes difficult to find fault and challenge it. It can lead to ‘theory blindness’, meaning discovering its flaws becomes exceptionally hard work. Even more so when your job is relentless and gives little time for collaboration and deep reflection. Perhaps I should have been more critical before using this idea to shape my judgement and decision making within PE?  Testing and experimenting with it though has been helpful. As long as I do not only look for evidence to prove it’s usefulness.

Let me recap my current thinking about learning domains with PE. There are four; the physical, the cognitive, the social and the affective. The latter three are not to replace learning in the physical domain, but to support it. We are teachers of Physical Education and therefore the physical domain must remain our focus, but an overt focus on the physical without connection to the other three is flawed, in my opinion, as much as spending time on the latter three without any tangible improvement in the physical. There have been many issues with using this theory as a basis for decision making regarding to learning outcomes, assessment, teaching approaches etc within PE. One of the key ones for me has been a lack of understanding from students. Without a common language which both teachers and students comprehend, it becomes very difficult to hold any dialogue. The terms cognitive and affective have easily caused the most problems. Without clarity of meaning it therefore becomes difficult for teaching and learning to occur within these domains.

Therefore the learning domains have been refined as:


Developing movement competency (Physical Domain)

This for me is the heart of PE and the potential yardstick to measure ourselves. I believe the best thing we can do as PE teachers to develop children’s confidence in moving is to develop their movement competence. Developing movement competency must be a focus of every lesson within PE and this can be done through three main ways; purposeful preparation, play and practice. Purposeful play has now become the start and end point for all lessons, no matter what activity. Either through games or movement puzzles. Play in PE is a perfect way for students to learn about movement, themselves and each other. However play is not enough. Some students need extra support to engage in play, meaning we have to move to purposeful preparation. Some students want to develop their play further and they require purposeful practice. There is a delicate balanced reciprocity between play, preparation and practice that requires a PE teacher to make good judgements for their students based on what they observe during lessons. This is something I need to improve upon.

Understanding the benefits of movement (Cognitive Domain)

Knowledge is an essential part of Physical Education, but I have concerns. There tends to be a worrying trend to justify our subject in the curriculum based on the acquisition of propositional knowledge. The difficulty comes from justifying time spent in pure theoretical study as opposed to reflecting and discussing their practical experience of movement. I find much more value in getting students to reflect on movement or their practice of movement. If we are to have a focus on propositional knowledge then I think the focus should be on the value and positive effects of movement in their lives. When I ask my Year 7 students this question not many give a deeper answer than to say ‘keep fit’ or ‘be healthy’. Perhaps they should before we start trying to teach them facts needed for GCSE PE.

Building a community of movement  (Social Domain)

How students interact with each other in PE has a massive impact on developing movement competency. The way they speak to each other, listen to each other and physically respond to each other can affect their motivation and willingness to move. It is a key factor in loss and risk aversion.  Just putting them into pairs, groups or teams is not enough to help develop their social skills, they need to be explicitly taught. Routines and structures based on Cooperative Learning are slowly beginning to have a positive impact on building a community that is supportive and encouraging of movement, no matter what its level or quality. Learning teams which ‘sink or swim together’ followed by group processing focused around the four learning domains have a positive impact on how students interact with each other in lessons. Creating an environment where individuals are willing to ‘have a go’ with the knowledge that they will be aided and reassured by the peers in their community is essential for movement competency to develop.

Establishing the behaviours of movement (Affective Domain)

By far the most difficult to understand and get right. Essentially these are the students motivations and feelings. So how how does teaching and learning occur this domain? Currently for me it is only through observing their behaviours, making them aware of their behaviours and getting them to reflect on their behaviours. This is far from perfect, but I have seen glimpses of improvement. Especially around the behaviours of focus and attention when playing, preparing or practicing. Making them aware that attention is an important aspect of learning, highlighting when they lose focus or distracted and then ask them to come up with strategies in their learning teams on how to improve this is gradually beginning to work. It becomes a comparison between how they were and how they are now with time to reflect on that progress and plan for the future. However I feel there is potential to perhaps explicitly teaching affective strategies such as positive self talk, visualisation, realistic self analysis and goal setting that would have great benefit for establishing the behaviours of movement.

The final difficulty I had was there seemed to be a lack of connection between all four learning domains for the student. I believe there should be an interplay between all four domains, not seen as separate individual areas for learning. Asking students to try to finding personal meaning in movement is beginning to bring them all together. This is done through our narrative assessment system where the teacher and the student co-construct targets based on their interests and thoughts on movement. For those who have found no meaning in movement it is the start of a dialogue which helps them explore why, then allows them to connect their thinking to the activities they are involved in. Those who have found meaning in movement are challenged to think more deeply about those reasons and see if they hold up when challenged.

As always your thoughts, feedback and critique would be most welcome.

28 thoughts on “4 domains of learning in Physical Education – Refined 

  1. Hi Sporticus,

    Just thought I would elaborate on my tweet in response to the cognitive domain. Cognitive learning should be the explicit learning that emerges from the other three domains, as well perhaps as learning about movement (physiology, biomech, anatomy… and this should be introduced early on but not dominate). So if I ask a question about any of the other domains and I get a thoughtful articulated response (written, verbal, physical…) – then it is being cognitively processed and rationalised. This should go well beyond a simple regurgitation of benefits of movement. Sometimes we need to learn about movement as risky, costly, utility, transport, exclusionary, or as a form of social disruption to fully appreciate it and understand it. We spend a lot of time in PE class talking about risk, danger and injury in relation to movement. “Hold the equipment still, wait until I have given you instruction, don’t climb above this height, follow this rule, why have I asked you to be still when the whistle blows, we aren’t ready to play the full game yet”, this is about learning movement restraint and understanding that sometimes movement can have negative consequences.

    We can learn that movement that is beneficial for some might not be beneficial for others. For example, when the boys hog the sports oval or bball courts at lunch time. When we skate on roads that are busy or sidewalks that have pedestrians there are broader social consequences that aren’t beneficial to all. If movement was always beneficial we wouldn’t be governed about when, where, what type of movement we could do. Does your school limit games like British Bulldog? Full tackling in combative sports? Does it allow running in the corridor? Can you bomb people in the pool? Can you climb all the trees in the school grounds? Can you run around in class? We can learn that movement can be exclusionary, that competition has losers and certain bodies are privileged in certain movements. We can learn that movement creates tribes, teams and that sports and games can negatively impact people. We can learn that people in particular areas benefit less from movement than others and that movement is not equal for all.

    Discussing what movement gets acknowledged, prioritised, promoted – what movements don’t is a wider cognitive appreciation with more of a social justice critical lens than just a focus on benefits. Benefits can also be delayed or not immediately obvious. Asking someone to move because you will prevent heart disease is a kind of pointless endeavour. Movement can feel uncomfortable, hard, tiring, challenging, frustrating, uncoordinated and these aren’t readily recognised as benefits. But these things can be appreciated for what they are and should be understood alongside benefits. For me benefits are one part of what makes movement meaningful. Meaning is cognitively constructed by articulating, discussing, making explicit the other three domains and they are more than just benefits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Justen.

      Thank you for the comment. It has really helped with my thinking.

      There seems to be a trend, at least in the UK, to justify PE on the grounds on the acquisition of factual knowledge. Probably because of the shift in GCSE PE (examined PE) focus from practical to theory. This means that many decisions within PE are being driven by qualification. The way I have described it is very narrow and only knowledge of the benefits of movement should be taught. I meant that should be a minimum. On reflection an understanding of the nature of movement (taking in both beneficial and negative outcomes) that support the development of movement competence would be a better ideal to have, especially if it empowered children’s decision making. Has there been much written on propositional knowledge within a PE curriculum and what should and even shouldn’t be covered? I don’t feel it is a topic that is discussed enough, probably in the assumption that more knowledge is a better thing.


  2. Thank you, once again you’ve stimulated thought. I wonder if there might be more however than understanding the benefits of movement and having it more simply ‘understanding movement’. Such things I might include here are understanding the physical skills (sometimes called fitness components), the interplay between them (e.G how speed affects accuracy, strengths role in power output) and understanding how our bodies access and can be trained in these, identifying (practically) where these occur in our program and reflecting on ourselves as a performer in this domain.


    1. Hi James. Thank you for the comment. Others have made the same point as you that understanding the benefits of movement narrows the focus and therefore possible discussion and learning that could occur. Such as not all movement is always positive, for example movement can increase the chance of injury through playing a sport like rugby. Your point about the interplay between the components of fitness is an interesting one and not something I have thought about before. How would you go about approaching this through PE? Your recent blogging has also got me thinking as well, especially about the primacy that movement should have in the curriculum.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good stuff! I was taught 3 domains (Physical, Affective and Cognitive) I like how you split up the Social/Affective – I agree it’s the hardest to get right in teaching, but in my opinion the most important and probably the most valuable for general success in life.


    1. Hi Ben. I think the problem comes when we view them as separate and isolated areas to teach and learn in. The more and more I use this model as a way of defining my teaching and the children’s learning within PE the more I seem them as interacted and interdependent. Sometimes the lack of learning within the physical may be due to weaknesses in the physical, but more often on not its in another domain. Whilst I think it makes teaching PE more complex, it also in my mind simplifies it as I’m looking for patterns beyond the physical that may give me information on how to better develop the physical.


    1. That is worth celebrating… but sport is just one avenue for movement. In what ways did you celebrate movement in non-sporting contexts?


    1. Hi Bongani, that is a good question. My focus is always around the social side of movement, not necessarily how that might make them more social in other areas of their life. However I suppose there could be some transfer, but for me that might just be a byproduct of good quality PE. What do you think?


  4. Thank you for your post, and for inspiring the interesting comments in response. Having taught PE for 30 years I am well aware of my own journey in this area. I certainly do feel that I have come full circle in the subject, but do feel that I know are more in tune with a student centered focus. Although I appreciate the various thoughts on the role that each domain plays in physical education, I am also aware that we are perhaps overthinking the whole concept. I do accept that there are times to move and times when not to, but ultimately the central overriding purpose of PE is to inspire students to embrace a love and appreciation for the role that movement needs to play in their daily lives. The cognitive and affective domains are surely reflected in this end product. If the end product is there, then the cognitive and affective domains are implicit. What is the point of assessing cognitive and affective domains in isolation that then reflect grades? Without detracting from the hugely important job we do, if students are moving outside of school then our programs are successful – as are they as students!


    1. We don’t grade PE in our school. Haven’t for about 6 years. The assessment mentioned are co-constructed learning targets in areas pupils would like improve upon. Whilst I appreciate that cognitive and affective benefits are achieved through movement they are also learning domains within movement, for example a child becomes aware that they struggle to emotionally control themselves when playing sport and would like help to self regulate. It is a way of structuring the curriculum, beyond the technical, but I take your point about making them isolated when we are all complex bio-pyscho-social entities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.