Making the abstract concrete.

PE positions developing children’s behaviours as either one of its main outcomes or as a means to achieving other valuable aims. Either way PE openly promotes itself as ‘the’ subject that can enhance grit, or resilience, or cooperation or any number of ‘education through movement’ outcomes. A 2016 Brookings Report categorises these into 4 domains of behaviour: social skills, self-management, academic soft skills, and approaches to learning. The main point they make that is important for PE teachers is that if we want to help children learn and develop these behaviours then we need to provide them examples of low-abstraction behaviours which are specific, contextual and socially observable rather than high-abstraction behaviours which are broad and context free.

Take “resilience” for example – what does it mean? Would this be the same for a Year 7 and a Year 11 class doing the same activity? Would this be the same for a Year 7 class doing different tasks such as facing a fast bowler in cricket and completing a 1500m in athletics? We need to make the abstractness of “resilience” or any other learning through movement outcome into something much more concrete for children. Collins and MacNamara (2018) offer a simple process which can be adapted for PE to do this. If we want to help children learn these ‘champion behaviours’ then we need to help them understand exactly what they entail and what they should be doing to demonstrate them.

The process in the graphic above can be completed by the teacher before and presented to the children within lessons, or even better it can be co-created with them as this shares the ownership with them. Now either way this may take up some valuable lesson time, but the benefits of getting this right far out weigh the negatives. Concrete and clearly defined behaviours develops a shared language and frame of reference for everyone in the PE class. This offers many advantages, such as being able to model, to praise and to provide feedback on these behaviours. However the biggest advantage by far is that it allows children to begin to self-regulate their own and others behaviour, through carefully scaffolded self and peer assessment. Getting children to take responsibility for their own and each others behaviour, in a kind and understanding manner, is essential in creating a safe and positive environment in which to learn and develop.

The simplest way I have found to do this is to ask “What does this look and sound like?” For example when teaching Year 7 Rugby it was highlighted by a group in the class that they were not enjoying the experience. When we discussed why the key reason was that those who had not played the game before were not treated well by those with previous playing experience. I asked everyone “what does supporting others look and sound like to you when playing rugby?” In the graphic below was their answer, which allowed it to become a focus of the teaching and learning process.

This process doesn’t have to just be for PE lessons, but also extra-curricular activities and school sport. When running a Year 9 basketball club I asked what was the key behaviour they wanted to develop and be a part of the selection process for teams. The squad agreed that the number one behaviour for them was commitment to training, which leads to the question “what does commitment to training look and sound like to you in this team?” In the graphic below was the squad’s answer and this became a key focus on improvement throughout the season.

Even with the two examples provided there is some vagueness which need to be explored and further defined – what does ‘work hard at all activities‘ actually mean? It isn’t perfect, but it is a start for discussion and over the course of a unit of work, academic year or sports season the agreed observable behaviours can be returned to and refined by the group. Behaviours look different at different ages, across different contexts and in different activities, always depending on the specific tasks and challenges that the children are given. If PE (and school sport) is for education through movement, either as an outcome itself or as a means to support further outcomes, then we need to move from high abstractions to simple concrete behaviours. It needs to be kept simple, understood by all and close to what is happening in the context of the classroom rather than to some vague generalisation or social media buzzword. It is only when this is done consistently well, that we may begin to teach appropriate skills and strategies to support and enhance them.


Arnold, P. J. (1988). Education, movement, and the curriculum. Falmer Press.

Collins, D., & MacNamara, A. (2018). Talent development: A practitioner guide. Routledge.

Whitehurst, G. J. R. (2016). Grading soft skills: The Brookings Soft Skills Report Card.

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