Is a ‘pedagogy of meaning’ the answer to negative experiences of PE?

“How good it would be to lead more of those who seek our help to experience movement in such delightful and meaningful ways that they too will know what activity is like when it can hardly be avoided.” Scott Kretchmar

A child’s experiences of physical education in the present may influence their movement behaviours in the future.

In 2014 the University of Birmingham started the BIG PE Conversation looking at young adults experience of PE and how it impacted on their decision making when it came to physical activity. 1800 people’s responses found that 37% of women and 26% of men rarely or never enjoyed PE and that influenced their current lifestyle choices when it came to movement.

Matt Ladwig and colleagues have recently produced a similar piece of research “My Best Memory Is When I Was Done with It”: PE Memories Are Associated with Adult Sedentary Behavior on the association of experiences within PE and adult sedentary behaviour. ‘Negative experiences, especially those with a strong ego-related emotional component, are typically more salient than memories for positive experiences when engaging in decision making‘ suggests that it isn’t just the learning intentions we need to attend to, but how and why those learning intentions are delivered. In “I just remember rugby”: re-membering physical education as more than a sport, Ash Casey makes a comparable point –  ‘When boys recall memories of PE that move away from the cultural norms of playing or the multi-activity discourse and move towards an educative discourse where the ‘how’ and ‘why’ replace the ‘what,’ then re-membering becomes richer.

There are many more examples of how experiences of PE shape our future movement behaviours, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. In Ticked, Conflicted and (eventually) MotivatedDoug Gleddie responds to the research on negative experiences in PE and suggests there we are getting better, but we have to pay greater attention to the experiences we create within our classrooms if we are to move our subject and profession forward. But how? ‘A pedagogy of meaning’ might be the answer.

If PE is to matter to the children we teach, then it needs to be more than just a cognitive, technical or fitness as outcome approach. As Justen O’Connor writes in his recent article Exploring a pedagogy for meaning-making in physical education – we need to move the more subjective experiences of movement to a more central part of our curriculum. Not in opposition to knowledge, techniques, tactics and physical fitness as outcomes, but as a way of complimenting them. This is how we develop a ‘pedagogy of meaning’ and perhaps start to overcome the negative experiences we create within PE. Ladwig talking about memories in a recent Global Physed Voxer podcast suggests that self regulation of pleasure should be a goal of PE:

“Making it a goal among educators to teach kids to regulate themselves. If you expect to have all children to have the same positive experiences for going for a mile run for example, is not a realistic expectation. Maybe one of the better approaches here is to allow kids to self regulate to maintain pleasure. Some kids may derive pleasure from going all out on that run. There maybe kids who want to jog at a leisurely pace and there maybe kids who derive the most pleasure from walking. The crux is to allow kids seek out pleasure and avoid pain and to create these situations that accumulate over time, so when you are an adult and when you are coming down to the decision to move or to sit and to watch TV, which are both pleasant activities, the association you have between movement and pleasure is stronger than the association between watching TV and pleasure. That’s the real challenge.”

The work by Fletcher, Beni, O’Sullivan, Ní Chróinín and other colleagues offer a holistic framework to PE teachers who want to explore implementing a more meaningful experience within lessons. Based on the work of Scott Kretchmar they posit that a meaningful physical activity experience tends to compromise one or more of the following features; fun, social interaction, challenge, motor competence, and personally relevant learning. By attending to these features during the lesson, one can either amplify or dampen individual or multiple features to ensure the experience becomes more meaningful, or even allow the children themselves a sense of agency and take control over some of the features, such as the level of challenge. By using the features as guiding principles it can focus our planning, assessment, observations, reflections on our own teaching and in the moment decision making. This is why I think a pedagogy of meaning is emergent, adaptive and transformative. There is so much information to attend to within lessons, by making the features explicit we can focus our decisions and interactions on the experiences, and as Tim Fletcher says in a recent podcast “look to manipulate or modify a situation that meets the needs of a very diverse group of learners.

A pedagogy of meaning asks us, as the teacher, to have well thought out answers for the question: “why do we have to do this?” If we want to educate children for a lifetime of physical activity we have a responsibility to choose tasks that children find relevant, challenging, appropriately developmental, socially engaging and worthy of their time. More importantly though it helps us to be attentive to the experiences we are creating, not just the curriculum we are teaching. By helping children better understand what makes their experiences of movement, both in the past and present meaningful to them, we might be able to offer an improved springboard to future movement. There is evolutionary potential in the present moment, but only if both teachers and children fully attend to it.  Ultimately we want children who move in PE, to become adults who freely and habitually engage in movement to make a distinctive contribution to their wider flourishing. Whilst promoting meaningful experiences (in all its many forms) might not solve all our problems, it certainly can serve as a valuable ally in promoting persistence in movement.

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