What is “personally relevant learning” in PE?

Personally relevant learning: Helping children make connections between PE and other pursuits outside of school is important in promoting children’s ongoing commitment to an active lifestyle…” Fletcher, T., Chróinín, D. N., Gleddie, D., & Beni, S. (Eds.). (2021). Meaningful Physical Education: An Approach for Teaching and Learning. Routledge.

Meaningful Physical Education (MPE) is both a vision for PE and framework for pedagogical decision making which I continue to advocate for. When trying to explain the critical features of MPE to pre-service and in-service teachers each comes with their own misconceptions that must be tackled:

  • A misconception that fun is both a necessary and sufficient condition for a meaningful experience all on its own.
  • A misconception that motor competence is accurately replicating isolated sports techniques.
  • A misconception that positive social interaction will naturally occur by putting children into groups.
  • A misconception that it is always the teachers responsibility to set the level of challenge.
  • A misconception that personally relevant learning is equated to letting children do what they want.

It is this last misconception that I wish to tackle in this post. I see personally relevant learning as having a tripartite structure made up of i) children knowing what they are learning, ii) children having choice within their learning and iii) children making links with what they are learning to their lives beyond PE. In a recent blog post, PE Teachers Laura Boudens, Michelle Bartoshyk and Ty Riddick share their excellent MPE informed Cross Country Unit of Work. I will be using their unit of work to exemplify these three components and provide practical examples of personally relevant learning in PE.

Children knowing what they are learning

This is more than just telling children the learning objective of the lesson, although that is a good starting place. When PE teachers are able to clearly articulate the goal of the lesson, children are better able to understand what they are expected to learn. The reverse is also true and that when objectives are not clarified, children struggle to articulate what they are doing, which contributes to the view that PE is a break from learning. However more than the sharing of lesson objectives, it is linking of those objectives to the wider learning intention of the unit of work and to the aim of the curriculum itself. This means that there is a continuation towards something purposeful, rather than a series of separate and unconnected lessons. The sharing of a coherent wider aim of curriculum PE, that links to a good life beyond school, provides children a greater chance of seeing the relevance of what they are learning in PE. In my experience, whilst the learning objective of the lesson doesn’t need to be communicated every single lesson the learning intention of the unit and the curriculum does, as a constant reminder of what they are working towards and how it might enrich their lives.

Example from Cross Country Unit of Work

The unit of work is developing the theme of ‘Who We Are’ which links to personhood. It is important for children and young people that they can make sense about what they would like their lives to be, who they want to be and how they would like to achieve this. These are matters of real significance for all of us. The relationship we have with movement and nature provides an opportunity to reflect on these questions which are of more relevance for more children than competing in a cross country run and posting their places and positions on a leader board.

Children having choice within their learning

Human nature means we tend to view things through binaries. With regards to choice it is either students having complete freedom to choose whatever they want to do or having no say whatsoever. Personally relevant learning requires a more nuanced position and deliberately planning about which elements the children in your class have choice over. The easiest way to do this is in the task design and the teaching style. For example Mosston’s slanted rope theory which led to the formation of the inclusion style of teaching, requires the teacher to provide multiple entry and exit points in the tasks and requires the children to select which level is most appropriate through ongoing self assessment about their capability. However an element of choice can be offered in many ways, such as which group they are in or deciding the learning domain or outcome through goal setting. An element of choice can enhance the relevance of what children are learning.

Example from Cross Country Unit of Work

The Choice Board is a wonderful example of providing structured choice. The children in this unit of work can decide what activity they do, the level of challenge they do it at and who they would do it with. The choice is also scaffolded. At the beginning of the unit they aren’t overloaded with too much choice, but as it continues and their confidence and competence grows, so does the level of their choice. Finally what is really good practice about this, it isn’t just about choice, but having the children to think about and articulate why the are making those choices.

Children making links with what they are learning to their lives beyond PE

Reflection is a fundamental pedagogical principle that supports the prioritisation of meaningful experiences and it is especially important for the feature of personally relevant learning. Children, through guided reflections by their teachers, can begin to make explicit links to what they are learning and how that may contribute to what they find meaningful beyond the classroom. To assist in this process PE Teachers can do work in the moments between the moments of teaching to find out what their students find relevant in their lives out of PE lessons and beyond school. This is especially important to do with the children who are not mini versions of yourself. Examples of these in-between moments are on the walk to the sports hall or field, in the playground, or in the dinner queue. These are perfect times to engage in a dialogue to find out more about the children you teach, which will allow you to better facilitate this focused reflection on making links.

Example from Cross Country Unit of Work

Although there is ongoing reflection throughout the unit, which is a key feature of MPE, there is also a final ‘gallery walk’ reflection. This reflection provides the children with a range of stimuli and information to elicit a deeper reflection and state who they think they are when they participate in physical activity in the outdoors. It also provides the teachers a richer insight to their children, who they are and their relationship with movement, which can only enhance professional judgement and decision making with regards to PE in the future.

Concluding thoughts

If we want to make PE more personally relevant for children, it isn’t about allowing them to do whatever they want, but supporting them to make sense of its place in and beyond school. We need to make PE porous so what we are doing with them in the gym, hall or on the sports field seeps out into their everyday lives. This requires a commitment to reflection on and articulating what they are learning, why this learning might be important, and how this learning may enrich their lives both in the present moment and for the future.

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