Best Bets in PE

…those who want to improve their practice but think that educational research is a waste of time are likely to get nowhere because, unless they are very lucky, they will spend time improving aspects of their practice that do not benefit their students.” William (2016)

How do we improve the quality of teaching in PE and in so doing improve both student learning and the student experience? The answer for me is to be practice focused whilst being evidence informed:

Practice FocusedEvidence Informed
Purpose of CurriculumTheory and Research
Content of CurriculumMy own experience of teaching
Teaching of CurriculumSubjective Data
Assessment of CurriculumObjective Data

A key part of being evidenced informed is understanding and drawing upon research to enhance teaching. Research should help teachers understand practice rather than dictate practice to them. The complexities of the classroom are too much for that and also PE teachers are the experts of their own classes. However research can identify ‘best bets‘ for improving teaching and learning – these being where to invest time and energy in an already busy and demanding job.

What are some of the current ‘best bets‘ we have in PE based on research and evidence? The recent Ofsted Research Review (2022) highlights a number of key explicit teaching strategies – instruction, demonstration, feedback and practice. To these I would also add questioning and formative feedback. These are the staples that all PE teachers need to enhance their practice, but what about approaches that enhance the learning within a specific domain within the PE context? In the pursuit of enhancing student learning where should PE Departments who are committed to self improvement invest their time and effort?

What drives quality PE?

A recent systematic review and meta analysis by Dudley and colleagues (2022) may offer some further guidance for ‘best bets‘ in PE. The aim of their study was to “capture and evaluate the impact of all published PE classes, instructional designs, and interventions on students’ psychomotor, cognitive, affective, and social outcomes” as ‘quality PE‘ can act as a mechanism for development across a number of important learning domains.

Psychomotor Domain

There were 51 studies which looked at PE intervention strategies that sought to improve outcomes within the psychomotor domain. The average psychomotor domain effect size was 0.52 therefore ‘best bets‘ need to be above this hinge point. Fitness-based/infused PE models (0.56), Games-based and Teaching Games for Understanding approaches (0.58), Mastery and TARGET PE models (0.73) and Sport Education Model (0.61) PE interventions had a higher average effect score on psychomotor learning and development outcomes (such as gross motor skill, motor competence and fundamental movement skill acquisition).

Cognitive Domain

There were 37 studies employing 39 PE intervention strategies that sought to improve outcomes within the cognitive domain with an average domain effect size of 0.17. Games-based approaches (0.38) was the only PE intervention that had a higher average effect score on cognitive learning and development outcomes (such as executive function, memory, attention and academic scores).

Social Domain

There were 25 studies employing 29 PE intervention strategies that sought to improve outcomes within the social domain, with an average domain effect size of 0.32. Cooperative-learning strategies (0.42) was the only PE intervention that had a higher average effect score on cognitive learning and development outcomes (such as prosocial behaviour, teamwork, cooperation, social competence and self control).

Affective Domain

There were 69 studies that looked at PE intervention strategies that sought to improve outcomes within the affective domain. The average domain effect size of all these studies combined was 0.47. Mastery and TARGET PE models (0.54), interventions based on autonomy support, student choice, or Self Determination Theory (0.74) and practices incorporating key elements of Sport Education (0.67) PE interventions had a higher average effect score on affective learning and development outcomes (such as motivation, self-esteem, self-efficacy, enjoyment and self-regulation).

There are three PE pedagogical interventions that had effect sizes consistently above the domain average in more than one learning domain. These were Games-based pedagogies (cognitive and psychomotor domains), Mastery Teaching/TARGET interventions (psychomotor and affective domains) and Sport Education interventions (psychomotor and affective learning domains). The authors of the study suggest that this is good evidence that physical activity alone will not drive sufficient learning and development of children within PE. That improving the learning of children within PE requires a ‘deliberate intervention‘ that is intentionally designed and implemented to achieve certain key outcomes.

Limitations of meta-analysis

Dudley and colleagues raise a number of limitations with their study which PE teachers need to take on board, which also requires further engagement with the literature.

  • The meta-analysis did not investigate the intensity and duration of each of the interventions and therefore it isn’t just what the intervention is but also how it is implemented that has a positive impact on the outcome.
  • The meta-analysis only looked at a single point of data (last assessment) and therefore not the changes that might occur over time, which might be relevant.
  • The meta-analysis had to standerdised the outcomes, even though different constructs and instruments of measure were used within the individual studies, which is a common flaw of meta-anlaysis use in education.
  • Finally future research in this area is needed to “identify whether these strategies are consistent across years of schooling (pre, primary, and secondary) and whether there are critical points in student development where they achieve optimal effect.”

A meta-analysis should be used starting point, a source of evidence (but not the only one) to inform development and where to invest your time and effort. It still requires engagement with the primary research to be used in a nuanced way that fits the context of each and every PE Department. (For further a critical analysis of the issues and use of meta-analysis in education Rob Coe has a 2 part blog that is a good introduction Part 1 and Part 2).

Best bets in PE?

As Dylan Wiliam (2016) states “in education, just about everything works somewhere and nothing works everywhere” and this is confirmed in PE by Dudley and colleagues study – most of the interventions had a positive effect on student learning. Research does not and should not provide the PE teacher a ready made silver bullet to implement and improve their practice, also the best evidence we have today is certainly likely to change in the future. However it can identify certain directions of travel which are more beneficial to explore further and experiment with applying to each school’s individual context. Teacher improvement should focus on what will have the greatest impact and the evidence offered from Dudley and colleagues study provide a number of ‘best bets‘ (strategies whose affect sizes are higher than the domain average) for PE Departments to explore in pursuit of enhancing their teaching and quality of student learning in PE.

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