This post is a personal reflection on Meaningful PE (MPE). MPE is a pedagogical approach to PE instruction designed with the aim of helping teachers to explicitly prioritise meaningful experiences for students. This is an attempt to update and clarify some of my own thinking (which is incomplete).
One of the questions that always comes up when speaking to other PE Professionals about MPE is “What is the most important feature?” A few years ago I would have said with certainty it was motor competence. The perception of competence drives confidence, motivation and sustained engagement with an activity. Now I’m not so sure. My stock answer is ‘it depends‘ on the teacher’s personal beliefs, the context, the activity and the young person’s current relationship to movement.
In a paper published this month, ‘It’s how PE should be!’: Classroom teachers’ experiences of implementing Meaningful Physical Education, Beni and colleagues report back on the feedback of primary classroom teachers experience of implementing MPE in their classrooms. The results found 5 pedagogical principles that the teachers recommended for use in their classrooms to support students’ experiences. It is the first principle of implementing the features of MPE that is the focus of this post.
The teachers in the study found that the implementation of the features were flexible and adaptable to their context, therefore helping to make sense to them and their pupils. This aligns to my own practice in using the features and with what I observe with other teachers attempts. This means that there are a number of potential approaches that a teacher can use to implement the features. I shall attempt to explain three – 1) The checklist, 2) The equaliser and 3) The relational.
The checklist approach
This is where the features of MPE are used as a critical tool to get things right. When planning, teaching or reflecting on that process the features are ticked-off to ensure that they are all present and that the experience of PE is as meaningful as it can be. Box ticking approaches have a bad reputation, especially in teaching, and for good reason as it is prescriptive and narrows our practice. In this case it can also limit exploring what a meaningful experience might entail as the teacher might not accept anything beyond the identified features. However, for the novice user of MPE, a checklist approach might provide an accessible and easy way to implement the features into their curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. The question “What is the most important feature?” comes from the checklist approach as we are looking to put our list in an order of priority. This isn’t a bad thing, but its not the real strength of the features of MPE.
The equaliser approach
The move from a priority checklist, to prioritising certain features for a certain lesson, series of lessons or an activity is the equaliser approach. This approach is more flexible and is about being responsive to what is happening within and between lessons. It also sees the features as connected rather than isolated. For example fun can be enhanced by focusing on getting the challenge level right and providing choices for the students to select their own level of challenge (with the teacher support that process). By attending to the moment the teacher can then begin to amplify or dampen certain features to facilitate more meaningful experiences. This responsive approach can lead to an awareness where new meanings may be unearthed and shared.
The relational approach
Whilst I have seen evidence of the checklist and equaliser approaches in implementing the features of MPE, the relational approach is purely speculative and has emerged through dialogue, reading and reflection. Every single one of us has a relationship with movement and that relationship is dynamic and contextual. The features become a starting point to understand our relationship with PE, culturally relevant forms of movement such as sport and even our own bodies when moving. By better understanding where our students are, by supporting them to understand where they are, we can then better plan for meaningful experiences to encourage an ongoing positive relationship.
Three years ago I wrote a blog post called Towards the Deep End, which asked the question do we teach for joy and delight in PE? It provides a good analogy for the relational approach. The student at on the side of the pool (1) may have no prior relationship with swimming or may even have had negative or harmful experiences linked to movement. They could be your anxious non-swimmer. The student at the deep end (4) has a deep and meaningful relationship with either swimming or movement in general. This could be your county swimmer or the child who is privileged to have a pool in their back garden. In a Year 7 PE class you will have these extremes of relationship with movement and everything in between.
The graphic at the top of this post, not only adds some new features into MPE, but attempts to reconsider them in terms of an individual’s relationship with movement. The surface features are potentially ones you may want to prioritise when students have no or a poor relationship with movement. For the student at the side of the pool (1) we may want to prioritise the features of fun and immediate success in swimming in an attempt to get them into the pool and to see swimming as an activity they might enjoy a relationship with. For the student at the deep end (4) their relationship is already established, so much so it may be part of their identity. Not only do they engage in the activity of swimming but they consider themselves a swimmer – it is a way of being for them. This means we can prioritise alternative features – such as developing their craft of swimming. What may be meaningful for student 1 may not be meaningful for student 4 and vice-versa. This is because each person’s relationship with movement is individual and we need to be aware of this when emphasising certain features. For someone who has a deep relationship with movement they might find a negative experience meaningful, but another who has had a poor relationship would only experience harm from that same experience.
The relational approach can use the features of MPE to facilitate conversations with students about their past, present and future relationships with movement. This insight can then better inform our use of MPE, by highlighting appropriate features, planning for them within lessons and looking to explore them and alternative features as their relationship deepens.
The objective in MPE isn’t to develop the competence required to get all young people to the deep end, it is to help them become more aware and attuned to finding personally significant relationships with PE, with their bodies and with culturally significant forms of movement. That requires us to start with where they are at and either amplify or dampen certain features in an attempt to build a positive, enduring and meaningful relationship with movement that enriches their lives.