Physical Education (PE) is a highly contested and low consensus subject. You can see daily evidence of this on social media with the sharing and discussion of the many ways in which PE can be approached. Which means of PE is best? Is it models-based practice, or Meaningful PE, or a conceptual curriculum or a whole host of other approaches? Asking which approach is best only adds to the confusion. PE Teachers and PE Departments can attempt to cut through this confusion in three steps:
- Step 1 clarify the aims before deliberating the means
- Step 2 prioritise your aims
- Step 3 align your means to your aims
Aims before means
PE is the chameleon of school subjects, changing its appearance to suit what is considered important and relevant at the time. Fight obesity? PE can do that. Improve students character and behaviour? PE can do that? Develop competitive excellence for sport (and therefore for life)? PE can do that. Develop life long physical activity habits? PE can do that. No wonder we are a subject where pupils’ misunderstand its relevance in their education and lives. PE must be clear about its aims in such a way that there is a shared language and vision that is understood by the whole school community. We are unable to have a serious and considered debate about the means of PE and their effectiveness until the aims of PE have been clarified.
Prioritise your aims
My own personal preference with aims for a PE curriculum is to only have one, as this reduces confusion and increases the likelihood of achieving it. However this might not be an option, for example the current National Curriculum in England for PE (NCPE) has four broad aims:
- develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities
- are physically active for sustained periods of time
- engage in competitive sports and activities
- lead healthy, active lives
When trying to meet multiple aims like in the NCPE then it would be wise to prioritise one over the others. Trying to meet multiple aims reduces the chances of any of them being met well. Establishing a priority helps to inform and guide professional judgement and decision making. Kretchmar (2008) provides a logical rationale for why that is the case. When PE tries to serve multiple aims all at once issues of curriculum alignment, pedagogical achievement and instructional ambiguity occur. Curriculum alignment issues arise as different aims are founded on different logics. The logics of physical activity for sustained period of time is increased heart rates, sweating and continuous movement for all in the class. The logics of engaging in competitive sports is action and perception, knowledge of rules, principles of play and the solving of problems individually and collectively. Pedagogical achievement is linked to what success looks like for each of those aims. Success for leading an active lifestyle can look very different to success in competitive sport. Finally trying to serve multiple aims means students receive mixed messages, leading to a ‘harmful ambiguous brand of PE‘ and contributing to its lack of relevance in their lives.
Whilst the aims of NCPE are not completely exclusive as they may contribute to one another priorities must be made. A PE curriculum that prioritises excellence in competitive sport will look and feel very different to one which prioritises healthy and active lives. If your curriculum has multiple aims be clear about which one is your priority as this will help with your assessment and decision making.
Alignment of Aims and Means
An often quoted maxim in PE is that ‘the how matters more than the what’. For part of my career I certainly believed that, but now what matters for me is alignment. The who informs the why, and the why guides the what and the how. Pill (2007) offers PE teachers a framework for curriculum planning that can bring about alignment by shifting the focus from being content focused (the what) or pedagogical focused (the how) to a developmental focus. Starting from clarifying the wider purpose of education, then aligning with the aims of PE and then to the what’s and how’s that meet those aims by informing the task and activities within lessons. It would be well worth a PE Department’s time at the beginning of the academic year to go through this process and then revisiting periodically as a means of curriculum development and alignment.
There will always be discussion about the means of PE, and which are better. Much of the confusion that those discussions generate can be negated by first deliberating about its aims and priorities, and then coming to a shared agreement and understanding. If there is no chance at either a global or national agreement then that responsibility must be a local one, which honours and meets the needs of your students in your school community.
Kretchmar, R. S. (2008). The increasing utility of elementary school physical education: A mixed blessing and unique challenge. The Elementary School Journal, 108(3), 161-170.
Pill, S. (2007). Physical education-what’s in a name?: A Praxis model for holistic learning in physical education. ACHPER Australia Healthy Lifestyles Journal, 54(1), 5-10.