My personal professional development focus this year is to try make my lessons more meaningful. Why? Partly because I believe the comfort and security the modern world provides us often strips meaning from movement and partly because negative experiences of movement at school can shape life style choices later on in life. To better attend to providing more meaningful moments within lessons I created a set of guiding principles to help my in-the moment decision making and used the five features of meaningful physical education as a sound equaliser.
Learning about meaningful PE have taken my metaphor about the equaliser and have written it up as a pedagogical case study. Reading it and comparing to my practice at the moment has helped me reflect on how my thinking has developed. I still see the five features of meaningful PE (fun, challenge, motor competence, social interaction and personally relevant learning) used as equaliser where decision making in lessons can either amplify or dampen a feature to make the experience more meaningful. However there are two key differences in my current thinking compared to when I originally wrote the article.
1. The features are highly interrelated.
I initially saw the features as linear and independent, having no impact on each other. Only influencing the overall meaning that pupils experienced in the lesson. If a lesson wasn’t fun all I had to do was bump up the fun. If the lesson was too challenging all I had to do was decrease the challenge. Pretty simple. Well sometimes, but not often. The more I have used my guiding principles and the equaliser metaphor to assist my decision making within lessons, the more I realise that the features are not linear and independent, but are highly interdependent and interrelated.
A clear example of this happened in a recent parkour lesson. When in conversation with pupils during the lesson they told me they did not find the activity personally relevant. In response to that I decided to stop and through think, pair and share explored how it might be personally relevant to their lives beyond the school gates. This did not have the desired impact, all it did was further highlight how the activity was not important to them. The next lesson I allowed the class to create their own parkour challenges. By allowing the children a say in the design of the challenge they immediately found it more personally relevant due to discussing what capabilities they wanted to develop, how they might be link to things they do outside of school and socially interacting with others to create a challenge (a ability that lots of video games allow them them to have).
Finding relevance in the learning wasn’t found by amplifying how it might be personally relevant, but allowing them a say in designing the challenge. I’ve seen other examples of this at play, not through good decision making, but out of my mistakes. Perceived motor competence wasn’t enhanced by mass practice of technique, but due to positive social interactions of the peer group. Fun wasn’t improved by adding more play to the lesson, but by thinking hard about the composition of the groups. The level of challenge wasn’t improved by making it easier but by explicitly focusing on improving the way children socially interact with each other during it. Making meaningful experiences are not as simple as seeing which feature needs to be manipulated and then having a bank of ideas on how to go about that (although that is a good start), but being attentive to how other features might amplify or dampen the one needed to be enhanced.
2. Being aware of meaningless and harm.
I initially thought that the manipulation of the features of meaningful PE would make the experience of a lesson either more meaningful or less meaningful. That there would always be meaning present, that it would just be easier or harder for children to find depending on my expertise to be attentive flexible and adapt the features within lessons. However I’m finding this not to be true and I’m now seeing meaningful experiences within lessons on a continuum with meaning in the middle and meaningless and harm at either end. Meaningless experiences are ones that we engage in, but offer nothing more than occupying our time. Harmful experiences are ones that have the opposite impact of meaningful ones, with children disengaging with movement and the many benefits it brings. I have found both can be achieved in two ways, but I’m sure there are many more that I have not been so attentive to. Firstly by solely focusing on one feature and ramping it up so much it drowns all the others out. An example of this in my rugby coaching was when I became so focused getting a set piece move perfect (motor competence) I almost put a player off coming back again for good. Secondly by ignoring a feature all together. An athletics lesson lesson was not fun at all it was devoid of any meaning for the children.
The major challenge of teaching in ways that promote meaningful experiences is that I don’t know how to do it. It places a heavy emphasis on being adaptable and flexible. On being reflective, especially within lessons, to make thoughtful decisions about which feature or features that are needed to be amplified or dampened. It requires constant vigilance, not just of in creating meaning through expert negotiation of the person, task and environment through the features but also being ambushed by previous versions of myself. However I’m going to keep sticking with it as I believe for the children I have in front of me, meaningful experiences might not be sufficient for provision of quality PE but they are certainly a necessary component in the modern world.