Physical Education is resistant to change, or so it is said. A raft of government policies, National Curriculums and reports from interested stakeholders haven’t been able to overcome the comfort that has been created by a multi-activity sports technique focus approach. It is estimated that around 70% of change initiatives fail to achieve their planned outcomes, and I believe that is probably higher within PE. However change is possible, but its not going to come solely from a top-down approach which dictates what needs to be done. Real enduing change has to be local, honouring the needs of the community and involving them in the process, driven by PE Teachers and schools who are tired of the status-quo. I have been fortunate to be involved in a number of change projects, either as PE Teacher, HoD or critical friend. Some have been successful, others less so, but all have been learning experiences:
Know your who
Don’t make assumptions about your school community. Without knowing who your school community is, what they think is going well, not so well and what their needs might be, any change is unlikely to succeed. You need to start with where people are at, not where you wish to be. Change is deeply connected to the culture and values of an organisation, therefore the probability of success will be higher if there is understanding of the unique circumstances of your school.
Clarify your why
Change won’t occur in easy linear steps, there is no perfect roadmap. A shared and co-created vision, which provides a direction of travel, can help to get buy in from your whole school community. It provides a shared language and intention to bring people together and work with each other. The language used to covey this can both enable and limit what can be done, which it turn influences motivation, sense making and commitment.
Get cover from above
Of all the many people you need to get on board to increase the probability of successful change, it is the Headteacher. Without their understanding and support, you will not be given the key resources (time, money, support) that are needed. Take the time to speak to them in advance, that they fully understand the rationale for change, as they will be critical to success.
There is a temptation to change everything, all at once. This just isn’t possible on top of a full-time and demanding job, often resulting in withdrawal, burnout and failure. It is best to act with small changes, and then learn like mad from them. Pilots are a great way to do this – trial something with a class over a unit of work, then share with colleagues for them to also have a go with their classes. Collaborate together and analyse what happened and why, and if there is success then start with Year 7 to roll things out more comprehensively, but be prepared to learn and refine for the following Year 7.
Create ‘safe to fail’ spaces
Change is uncomfortable for all involved and there will be mistakes made. It is necessary to create a place where people can speak informally, openly and freely about them. If not then they will be hidden or excuses will be made, and neither of these things are helpful for successful change which requires learning from them. Change requires being able to explain, explore and discuss the mistakes and problems no one wishes to acknowledges.
Include the children
Any changes that affect the children should involve the children. Not just because they are excellent sounding boards, and can provide useful feedback and insightful ideas, but it is their right. If decisions are being made that impact of them, then they should have a voice within those decisions and those who make the decisions should explain what is happening and why it has happened. Your students are an essential contributor to successful change and it needs to be done with them and not to them.
Make ‘critical friends‘
Change can’t be done by yourself, as you will miss things. Go outside the school and get a critical and objective view. Bring in different knowledge, perspectives and questions. My best experience was working with a university department around developing models based practice, but you could also work with a teaching school or another PE department. If you find the right critical friends, they can act as advocates, renew your energy and provide feedback that will be essential to successful change.
Change is an ongoing process
My experiences of change in PE have led me to believe that it isn’t a one off event, but an emergent and constantly evolving process. Change isn’t achieved with the writing of a new departmental policy or hand book, but through a commitment to returning to the whys, whats and hows of the subject on a regular bases. It requires all who are involved to look closely at what is happening, have candid conversations and make sense before creating concrete actions on what to do next.
Enduring change takes time and effort
Time has to be made for reading, discussion and uncomfortable debate. I found having time set aside for departmental meetings and specific departmental professional linked to the change helpful in facilitating this. One of the key reasons change is effortful is that it isn’t really about changing paperwork or policy but often about the changing of people’s values and behaviours and these take time, especially as we are creatures who prefer comfort.
There is no copy and paste approach to change.
Your curriculum, pedagogy and assessment has to meet the needs of your specific cohort of children, whilst navigating the unique constraints of your school’s circumstances and wider community. There is no universal remedy to curriculum change, so do not be seduced by what is popular. Be wary of ready made solutions that do not fit to your context and the unintended issues that could be caused by forcing them to fit. If you are going to embark on curriculum change it needs to serve your community first and foremost.