Explicit Teaching for Learning in Physical Education: Some thoughts

Explicit Teaching for Learning in Physical Education: Some thoughts

Discovery learning, exploratory learning, and guided discovery are approaches commonly referred to as being constructivist in nature. It implies the learner is not an empty vessel and has the capacity to construct knowledge with some support, through guided experiences and challenges. Mayer (2004) concluded that pure discovery learning, i.e. constructive education, is less effective than more teacher-directed educational methods. The main argument is that there is too much cognitive overload for beginner learners to successfully and efficiently negotiate this form of learning and they don't have the precursor knowledge or skills (ie research skills) to be able to construct deep understandings.

Explicit learning or teaching, according to Hughes et al. (2017) involves the following:
  • Teachers tell students, explicitly,what they will be learning, and discuss how it relates to other content, why it is important and where they will use it.
  • Considers the prerequisite skills and background knowledge needed to learn
  • Breaks down (segmenting/chunking) complex tasks and strategies into smaller, more “manageable” units of instruction.“Chunks” are taught separately, in a logical sequence, to reduce cognitive complexity and load.
  • Students provided clear, concise, and consistent descriptions and demonstrations of how the skill or strategy is performed.
  • Sequences skills from easy ones to harder ones to complex.
  • Uses a faded feedback approach where after a new skill or strategy has been modeled, the teacher provides initial practice opportunities and promotes student accuracy and confidence by using appropriate levels of guidance or scaffolding through use of prompts (physical, visual, and/or verbal). The level or strength of prompts is gradually withdrawn as students continue to demonstrate accuracy and understanding.
  • Involves frequent feedback early in learning and student responses are elicited to increase learner attention and engagement, as well as providing teachers with information about how well students are understanding/performing
  • Independent practice activities follow a lesson and are critical for retaining and generalizing new skills and knowledge, and are most effective when created and completed in a deliberate and purposeful manner
  • Focuses on critical content
As a whole and on the surface much of this is hard to argue with. Indeed the research says it works and works well in many learning contexts. I like the idea of being transparent in teaching. Whilst I think of myself as constructivist, I recognise that I have had a lifetime of experience and a collection of tools at my disposal from which I can construct new meaning and understandings. We often make assumptions about the capacity of learners to reflect deeply, to research and to construct new knowledge. Learners only know what they know and if they don’t have a good understanding of foundational concepts or the tools to adequately research those concepts, or the capacity to combine abstract ideas, then they can spend a lot of class time spinning their wheels and not moving forwards. So independent student centred teaching and learning approaches are I think awesome, but I qualify that with... once the requisite skills and knowledge have been developed.

I also think there are too many times where we make the mistake of hiding the learning intention, the learning process/steps and and we wait for it to happen in some sort of “ta-daa” moment at the end. Lazy teaching can be excused as discovery learning and as long as they are having fun they must be learning something.

Being explicit, clear and transparent doesn’t preclude other goals or experiences from happening or moments of spontaneity, creation etc. It shouldn’t preclude student voice - you can co-construct the explicit learning intention with your learners - what do they want to learn in, through or about? You can let them decide how they will optimally challenge themselves towards this goal through providing differentiation (choice) within your learning activities. You can also have two learning intentions and two different approaches going at once. One might be a rather concrete learning intention ‘about’ movement (describe and apply the concept of ‘impulse’ during catching and throwing, demonstrating what balancing the space looks like in offence), another learning intention ‘in’ movement, maybe to do with feelings or expression or asking the learners to describe what they felt changed as a result of the lesson, and both would require different pedagogical approaches.

Why I like the idea of being explicit and transparent, is that it sharpens the pencil and makes us really, really think about what we are going to be doing and why. We have a very limited time to get some learning happening and how we use that time is crucial. So for me, being explicit helps to push us beyond the “roll out the ball” and see what happens model that I still see a lot of (busy, happy, good). It moves us beyond the random “shake the phone and out pops a warm up game” approach. It pushes us to do more than get a HR up for 50% of the lesson with no other obvious learning focus. It makes us consider what the learning goals are and what these would look like if they were to be successfully achieved. It gives the learner a clear picture of the intent of the time they are investing and the consequences of their effort (providing these are meaningful learning intentions and providing they have guidance to get there), then having this clarity can reduce uncertainty, frustration and add to meaningful engagement through adding purpose (what is the point of this? Why are we doing this? How will it impact me and my lifelong learning?). It also makes us consider how we measure learning, how we use this to give quality feedback to learners, and how we think about difference (differentiation). Finally, it gives us permission to reward effort.

A grey area for me is not about explicitly stating the learning intentions or outcomes, that should happen. Rather it is the kind of pedagogy we adopt during the teaching of a motor skill (note I am not talking about meaning making, emotion, social interaction skills here, or even concrete knowledge about movement). For me there remains confusion and apparent contradiction between motor learning and control theory, particularly around constraints-based approaches and non-linear learning, and the more concrete and arguably linear models put forward by numeracy and literacy experts that deal primarily in the cognitive and not bodily spaces. I am not convinced that the explicit and direct instruction brigade have overcome the mind-body dualism issue, nor do they really have to when focusing on beginners solving math problems or how to use a comma. In this context, often the answer is correct or it isn’t and there are demonstrably more efficient ways to get to that answer (models of success). My particular concern with the earlier description of explicit teaching sits with the elements that push for chunking of skills and sequencing their learning linearly.

Motor control people like Renshaw, et al. (2009) advocate, “key concepts such as the mutuality of the performer and environment, the tight coupling of perception and action, and the nonlinear nature of systems that are made up of many interacting component parts that move between phases of stability and instability via processes of self organisation under constraints” (p.119). Handford et al. (1997) advocated for a more ’hands off’ approach to coaching using the environment and the task as teacher. Both suggest 'discovery learning' as the go to pedagogy. This grates up against what Kirshner and colleagues (2006, 2013) profess ‘works’ for learners as they argue strongly against experiential, discovery, inquiry-based teaching approaches. Whilst I don’t think Kirshner and colleagues don't always appreciate the nuance of the different learning styles they critique, their points are worth listening to and rationalising.

So what for learning a motor skill. Motor learning I don't think can be spelled out as a linear progression from one point to another. Indeed development can be a process of moving two steps forward and one back as the body, when challenged to adapt, looks to self-organise back into what it was comfortable with. This makes planning learning progressions and developing success models complicated. It could be that success at the end of a class is that someone looks more uncoordinated as they transition from a previously stable but inefficient movement, towards an unstable but more efficient movement. Perhaps what Kirshner and others are missing by ignoring the body is the role multiple constraints play in learning, including the body. Form and structure of the individual, their emotions knowledge, feelings, cognitions, goals, growth and socio-cultural context, all interact with the environment and the learning task and each continuously influences the other (Renshaw, et al. 2009). This is a lot more stuff to coordinate than solving a math puzzle on a page.

So for me, to rationalise what an explicit approach for motor learning would involve, I will start by saying what it isn’t and then what it could look like:
  • It isn’t decomposing the motor skill into manageable components and practicing these in isolation with direct instruction and feedback on each component. Explicit teaching instead would involve simplifying the task, but retaining its interlinked features (perception-action, inter-joint couplings) and context.
  • Explicit teaching in motor learning wouldn’t present a model of success that is a one size fits all perfect (or even elite) model of performance. Rather, success for motor learning is the attainment of a permanent behaviour change to achieve more consistent movement outcomes under increasingly more complicated constraints. So the models of success we provide for motor learning should only be a general guide with some core features. The success model provided should be qualified so that there is flexibility and adaptability so that learners can generate a movement solution that is unique to suit the personal, task and environmental constraints. I don’t like the concrete staged FMS drawings of the child stepping in opposition as a model of success because it is reductionist. One thing I never understand is when teachers set an explicit goal of teaching the FMS overarm throw (side on stance, hip shoulder rotation, follow through) and then play a bunch of small sided passing games in confined spaces that never ever require any of these components to be elicited. Worse, is when they assess them as deficient using a static success model. Generally the most efficient movement in these types of games is an underarm front on pass with enough joints only to get the job done. So a core feature of any ‘success model’ we provide at the start of the class for a motor skill, should highlight flexibility, variability and adaptability and be suited to the context. The explicit video model we set up on the i-Pad, presents a range of success models where no two throws, jumps, hits, etc.. are the same, but they showcase adaptability/efficiency and convey a successful idea of what learning will lead to and look like.
  • Explicit teaching in motor learning is definitely not ‘free play’ and ‘exploration’ with a few questions thrown in along the way. Explicit teaching in motor learning requires the teacher to deliberately facilitate new movement solutions by purposely “…designing learning environments that provide controlled boundaries of exploration in dynamic settings through the provision…” of well thought out and relevant task constraints, and this should be shared with the learner (Renshaw, et al, 2009). Both the learner and the teacher have an idea of what they are trying to achieve and we can use a questioning approach to operationalise or facilitate this. Feedback can come from the environment or the teacher but it is directing the learner towards a more efficient movement form.
  • Explicit teaching in motor learning should not involve the teacher saying something every 5 seconds. Explicit teaching arguably is advocated as a teacher centred pedagogy, particularly as argued by Kirshner and colleagues (2014) who state:
“…that learners do not have or do not know how to utilize appropriate strategies when they are left to themselves to manage their learning environment…learners often misregulate their learning, exerting control in a misguided or counterproductive fashion…[they don’t have]…the necessary standards upon which to judge their learning…[nor the]…necessary knowledge to monitor their own state in comparison with the standards, and/or…change their current state when their behavior falls short of the standards…learners often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them” (p.177).

By giving full learner control, Krishner suggests learners continue to practice tasks they like or are already proficient in. I call for compromise here and for the use of multiple pedagogical styles employed to suit the particular learner at a particular time, not one style for all. My rule of thumb is that the teacher attempts to understand how the learner is progressing and intervenes when the learner appears to be operating outside of a suitable search parameter (Bandwidth) linked to the task. This will happen more frequently early in learning and fade as the learner progresses. In other words, when the learner is spinning their wheels, provide some specific feedback (change constraints -enviro, demonstrate or give specific verbal feedback). When it is really clear some simple instruction/feedback will have an immediate and positive impact on performance, give that instruction, the learner likely does not have the luxury of 300 practice trials to work it out for themselves. If there is a particular trick that through experience you know works, then share it, that is what you are there for. If the learner asks for help/feedback, then give it. If the learner is searching, experimenting, and progressing, let them go but keep checking in. If the whole group don't seem to understand what the focus is, pull them up and make it clear. Time is a crucial constraint here and efficiency should be a focus.
    Whilst the teacher, in consultation with the learner decide what is meaningful, the learner should also be able to adjust, change, challenge themselves in this setting as they know their limits, they are tuned into what optimally challenges them and they should be in on the ‘meta-language’ of motor learning to become independent learners. If they aren’t doing this, and many won’t, help them to. This is a form of ‘shared control’. Shared control could involve the teacher or coach undertaking some co-negotiation of meaningful learning intentions with learners, remembering the learner isn't likely across curriculum or big picture goals. Then the teacher selects a small subset of learning tasks to achieve this intention from all possible learning tasks, that suit the needs of the learner (differentiation). The requisite knowledge, understandings or skills are scaffolded. So in a nutshell, we aren’t using one approach, but as Mosston says, we are dropping in and out all of the time across different approaches for different learners at different times to suit different needs.

    Finally and perhaps too simplistically - if I am teaching about some concrete knowledge 'about' movement, ie. a biomechanical concept say, my go to is going to be explicit. When it comes to the affective, embodied objectives of PE, again, once we have scaffolded and modelled a language and approaches for articulating feelings in movement, then we can definitely do the student centred exploration/discovery of this so they can continue to construct and share their meaning in ways that are meaningful to them. What the research shows us is explicit pedagogies work in many learning contexts and often more effectively than discovery approaches. How they work in motor learning needs some more consideration.

    Handford, C.H., K. Davids, S. Bennett, and C. Button. 1997. Skill acquisition in sport: Some
    applications of an evolving practice ecology. Journal of Sports Sciences 15: 621–40.

    Hughes, C. A., Morris, J. R., Therrien, W. J. and Benson, S. K. (2017), Explicit Instruction: Historical and Contemporary Contexts. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 32: 140–148. doi:10.1111/ldrp.12142

    Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer (2013) Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education, Educational Psychologist, 48:3, 169-183, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

    Ian Renshaw , Jia Yi Chow , Keith Davids & John Hammond (2010) A constraints-led perspective to understanding skill acquisition and game play: a basis for integration of motor learning theory and physical education praxis?, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 15:2, 117-137, DOI: 10.1080/17408980902791586

    Times when you wont hit a 50% physical activity target in a PE class

    Don't get me wrong, I am a big fan of keeping young people moving in PE classes. In our curriculum we talk about 'valuing movement' as a key proposition underpinning PE and I firmly support this. But when you have limited time to make a difference to a young person's movement, sometimes it is better to sacrifice the minimal time you have face to face to greatly expand their opportunities for movement before, during (recess, lunch) and after school. There are times when it might be more worthy to focus the time you have in PE developing knowledge, skills, dispositions, understandings, concepts, motivations and resources students could draw upon to enhance their access to movement across their lifetime. Here are just a few examples of when you might not hit a 50% physical activity target in a PE class.
    • When you have the students conduct an environmental audit of PA resources in their community that enable or hinder them to engage in physical activity before and after school. When they take pictures, do plans, create solutions, ..., ..., learn about risk. When they are learning to construct an argument for PA, when they are presenting solutions to enhance PA. I had grade six kids get almost $1,000,000 worth of infrastructure built in their local community to support their capacity to walk to school by involving young people in policy formation. They also identified bullying hotspots that made them not want to walk to school. This collectively had a massive impact on movement not just for them but for their community and they learnt stuff. We did some walking around, but a lot of discussion and planning.
    • When you are cognitively, vividly and emotionally tapping into embodied concepts of what movement means to you, why its important, how it makes you feel, notions of joy. This could happen straight after a PE activity session which might have meant something to some of the kids. But you can also do this in a darkened classroom, a spotlight on a narrator talking about their deep connection to surfing and the surge of the water. Getting young people to reflect deeply about movement experiences they have had anywhere, anytime, reconnects them to movement in their place, on their terms. I spent a double period with students where we listened to powerful narratives, did vivid expressive recall (smells, sounds, feelings), produced verbal and written work and presented a combined wordle poster representing this work and their joy of movement. It was a very powerful lesson that set up the next eight weeks and we didn't do any physical activity. I would do this any day instead of hitting a 50% PA target.
    • When you have students work on getting loose parts for their school playground (Brendon Hyndman) as a student-directed strategy to provide a variety of play options and choices for students to ensure playground boredom is prevented.
    • When you get students to map the social spaces of the playground and talk about their own social rules of engagement in these spaces. Research suggest these could be powerful moderators of movement that teachers know absolutely nothing about.
    • When you spend a class to develop a gender neutral movement friendly uniform policy (getting this through would have far greater impact on PA than any PE class could). When you also spend a class developing similar student led action on:
      • Accessing the usually locked gymnasium before school, during lunch.
      • Rostering the basketball courts for different age groups/genders
      • Painting lines for downball, wallball, and other courts
      • Changing the before school Athletics Squad Training to a Social Jogging Club
      • Transforming the school cross country event to a school fun run event
    • When they deconstruct the various social, environmental inequalities that impact PA and undertake a critical awakening about who gets access to movement and how in your community. Sometimes raising a critical consciousness about movement is far more important educationally than sustaining a 50% PA target.
    • When they spend the lesson making connections with local sporting groups, listening to historical accounts of games, researching different games, being culturally enlightened about indigenous games.
    • When they are learning the bones in the body or creating a model for how the lungs work. When they build a muscle model out of clay. When they do an experiment with equations to measure the optimal angle of release (my daughter did this in year 8). 
    • When they are learning about relaxation, the importance of sleep, nutrition, hydration...
    • When it is the first week of a Sport Education sequence of units.
    • When they conduct their own motor learning study using a novel mirror tracing task to explore concepts of feedback and practice. My son did this in year 8.
    • When they are co-constructing the next 8 PE lessons as a planning team. Designing assessments, developing goals, establishing different levels for targeted learning.
    • When they are designing a community PA website that highlights opportunities for young people's PA in the local community. When they are annotating activity places on Google Maps.
    • When they are debating concussion rules in sport. 
    • When they are researching gender inequality, drivers of female dropout in local sport and suggesting alternative frames.
    • When they are planning how they would facilitate an 'informal sporting group'. What rules would they have, who would they let in and why, what would everyone have to wear, what risk management issues would there be, what social media would you use?
    • It's getting late and I haven't touched on broader concepts linked to mental health, bullying, social networking...
    Bottom line is that having a target to achieve at least 50% moving time is a worthy pedagogical goal for a movement focused lesson, not a national requirement for all PE classes. We have to get away from this idea that every last ounce of PE time should be spent doing movement to young people in the hope it is going to save them, when movement is a complex, multidimensional socio-ecological phenomenon that will always circumvent how much PA happens in 120 mins a week. Just think about this logically. 50% of hardly anything won't do anything unless you address the rest of the stuff. How are you going to address the rest of the stuff. By educating a generation of future decision makers about the value of movement, about inequality of movement, about access to movement, about policy, infrastructure, connectivity, funding, resources...

    Almost every intervention that tries to change people by targeting them to move ultimately fails. 30 years of PA research tells us this doesn't work and yet we persist in viewing PE as the last place and only place we can ensure PA will happen. We silo it from the rest of the world and set about righting the wrongs by rolling up our sleeves and naively think we are making a difference, one fitbit step at a time. The one thing we do have is education, if we transform education into intervention then we have potentially lost the one thing we know increases access to physical activity. How are we preparing these young people to advocate for their own and others physical activity as part of their everyday lives, in ways that are lifelong and lifewide (beyond the walls of the PE gym)?

    image: Wikimedia Creative Commons licence; File:Children playing jump rope.jpg 

    The case for differentiation in PE

    I have been doing some reading on assessment, difference and differentiation lately. I have come to the conclusion that one of the biggest struggles confronting PE and schooling more broadly is the 'myth of homogeneity by virtue of chronological age' (Tomlinson, et. al., 2003, p.119).  I have previously said we should always start with the learner when considering curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. How ready are they to learn, what are their interests and what are their predispositions for learning? But when we start with the learner, we are often overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of the individuals that stand before us.

    Within any one PE class, we can be confronted with students that are highly advanced and skilled in a range of movements, that are good all-rounders or indeed, finely tuned specialists; students from cultural backgrounds that greatly value sport and competition and those from cultures that shun sport for other priorities; students that have had fewer available resources to participate in movement, others who have had every opportunity; students from very different economic backgrounds; students that conform to gender roles or who reject the stereotypical norm; students who match closely the standard grade level template and students who sit on the fringe. Even in apparently heterogenous undergrad PE teacher classes, the differences and diversity is still evident.

    The question then becomes: How does the teacher provide high quality learning in PE, given the demographic realities that confront them? Heterogenous forms of instruction based upon chronological age is society's chosen preference because it addresses equity opportunities. We rightly prefer not to separate people into pre-defined silos and siphon them off to get different forms of education. Yet equity can only become a reality when the instruction students receive maximises their opportunity for learning (Tomlinson, et. al., 2003). Differentiation has been put forward as a necessary response to the reality that diverse learners present. According to Tomlinson (2001), differentiation is the modification of teaching and learning routines to address a broad range of learners’ readiness levels, interests, and modes of learning. In PE particularly, it is worth encouraging teachers to consider proactively modifying curricula as well as teaching methods, activities, resources, products and assessment to meet these diverse needs.

    To kick this off, we might firstly need a re-prioritising of movement curriculum to cater for learners whose interests lie beyond traditional games and sports. There have been repeated calls for more holistic, innovative and individually based movement opportunities. For many whose PE teachers continually 'rolled out the ball', PE at best has been looked upon with indifference, at worst with hostility. Research continues to show us that many of those who enjoy physical activity outside of school remain dismissive of PE and question its purpose. Teachers "...who recognise the often different aspirations and motivations amongst their pupils, and who listen to their pupils, are more likely to be successful than those who subscribe to hierarchical, discipline-based relationships and traditional curricula and pedagogies" (Flintoff & Scraton, 2001).

    I used the term re-prioritising earlier because I am cautious of continually expanding the breadth of what is covered in PE at the cost of deep learning and time to learn. Sampling a bit of this and a bit of that in the hope it will spark an interest is in my opinion a futile approach driven by hope. On the bright side, many teaching approaches in PE are now opening up to more diverse experiences and ways for students to contribute and learn in through and about movement. Even within traditional motor skill, games and sporting classes, more opportunities for individuals to negotiate their experience in meaningful ways are emerging.

    In addition to thinking about the ways teachers enact curriculum, differentiation asks teachers to make fundamental changes to the way they plan, teach and assess. Many teachers rightly support the idea that the young people they work with are diverse individuals with unique needs, yet many good teachers struggle to adjust their approach to cater for this diversity. Whilst all students who bring their uniform are included in whole-class activities, these activities will frequently build towards an all in, two sided game. Some effort is made to support the outliers with positive reinforcement, higher duties, lower expectations or by building relationships. Rules like, 'you have to pass it to a girl before you can score', 'everyone has to touch the ball first', and making those who have played before ' throw with their non-preferred' hand are well intended but often do more harm than good. What is really needed according to Tomlinson (2003), is more resisted by teachers. That is modifying long-term goals, changing their instructional practices, reconsidering rules and equipment and making fundamental changes to the way they assess. This resistance often comes from not wanting to give anyone special treatment, to provide an unfair advantage or to measure people differently on standards. This resistance then means unique individuals are being taught as if they were identical.

    This is the part where we embrace difference and see it as an opportunity, as a strength. If we start to view the young people we work with as uniquely different then it begins to challenge this need to conform to a stereotypical norm. It gives permission for people to work at their point of optimal challenge and it opens up opportunities to have varied experiences of what a game of say volleyball is (highly competitive game, social outing, creative activity).

    Vygotsky called it the zone of proximal development (ZPD, ie. not too boring or easy, not too hard, with scaffolding support I can do it); complexity theory calls it 'the edge of chaos' at ambiguous boundaries; brain researchers call it 'moderate or optimal challenge'; psychologists might refer to it as a 'mastery motivational climate'; Mosston might refer to it as a point along the slanted rope; Csikszentmihalyi might call it being in a 'flow state'. Whatever you call it is quite compelling that we learn best when material is presented just in advance of our current mastery level. Making minor modifications to a whole class activity for many won't be enough to achieve this.

    My Rule of 3 (or 4) for PE - it's not a real rule

    One of the problems with differentiation is that most teachers think they are already doing it, when at best they are making minor and occasional modifications. If I was to really over simplify this just so we can quickly sort out what this might look like in practice, you can apply the Rule of Three for PE. In classrooms, tests of ZPD typically generate clusters of 3 to 4 groups of students. This might be a good place for us to start. So if you have at least 3 different levels of a learning goal (think SOLO), from 3 different domains (tactical, motor, social, emotional, physical), 3 similar looking playing spaces with 3 similar but different challenges within the game going on, 3 different time lines for moving to the next element, 3 different types of equipment to choose from, 3 different ways to treat a rule, 3 different ways to ask a question, 3 ways to assess learning, you have students working in groups of 3 (or 4) for most of the lesson... etc. then you are probably doing some form of differentiation in PE. If everything you do works towards one all in activity and one rubric for assessment at the mean, despite all the modifications, it probably isn't differentiated.

    Optimal Challenge Tips

    Give choice at optimal challenge for the:
    speed of the activity; type of equipment; size of pitch; distances covered; complexity of rules; different foci (affective, physical, social, cognitive); no's in groups (keep them small)...

    Also think of using gamification for small sided games. Those in the game who are progressing complete 'level ups'. These could progressively focus on bringing teammates into the game.

    To Stream or not to Stream

    I don't think there is a place for streaming by ability or gender or anything else in PE. I don't think we need to 'set' students in concrete ways. I don't even think we should use the word 'ability' when describing different learning foci, perhaps 'challenge points' is a good alternative. It is more about adopting a growth mindset at an appropriate level of optimal challenge that recognises and celebrates difference and the capacity to learn with application. We should have in-common student experiences around the key knowledge, understandings and skills as well as allowing students to work in small groups to adapt at their level. These groupings should be purposeful with some individual choice with tasks designed to draw on the strengths of members at appropriate levels of challenge. These groupings should be negotiated and there should be fluidity including movement within (increasing challenge) and across groups (migration)

    Still confused, take a look at Mosston's Inclusion Style.

    Flintoff, A., & Scraton, S. (2001). Stepping into active leisure? Young women's perceptions of active lifestyles and their experiences of school physical education. Sport, education and society6(1), 5-21.

    Image: Creative Commons licence: Free photo, Emoticons Smilies Masks Diversity Different Human

    Why a focus on the model in models based PE teaching might not be enough

    The following is a direct adaptation from: Bransford, Brown & Cocking, (2000, pp.12-13), Learning: From speculation to science. I have pretty much kept this verbatim, but changed it from a classroom to a PE context. Worth thinking about.

    Imagine three PE teachers whose practices affect whether students learn to take control of their own learning. Teacher A’s goal is to get the students to produce work (motor skill and or fitness); this is accomplished by supervising and overseeing the quantity and quality of the work done by the students. The focus is on activities, which could be anything from old-style partner drill and skill learning to the trendiest of digital apps. Teacher B assumes responsibility for what the students are learning as they carry out their activities. Teacher C does this as well, but with the added objective of continually turning more of the learning process over to the students.

    Walking into a classroom, you cannot immediately tell these three kinds of teachers apart. One of the things you might see is the students working in groups to produce a novel game. The teacher is likely to be found going from group to group, checking how things are going and responding to requests. Over the course of a few days, however, differences between Teacher A and Teacher B would become evident. Teacher A’s focus is entirely on the production process producing a refined product—whether the students are engaged, whether everyone is getting fair treatment, and whether they turn out a good piece of work (busy, happy, good). Teacher B attends to all of this as well, but Teacher B is also attending to what the students are learning from the experience and is taking steps to ensure that the students are processing content and not just dealing with the end game itself.

    To see a difference between Teachers B and C, however, you might need to go back into the history of the games making unit. What brought it about in the first place? Was it conceived from the start as a learning activity, or did it emerge from the students’ own knowledge building efforts?

    In one striking example of a Teacher C classroom, the students had been studying the history and culture of games (including indigenous cultures) and their links to lifelong activity and had learned so much from their participating, reading and observation that they wanted to share it with the rest of the school; the production of their own game (with corresponding background sheet) came about to achieve that purpose.

    The differences in what might seem to be the same learning activity are thus quite profound. In Teacher A’s classroom, the students are learning something of games making, but the focus on the game itself may very well be getting in the way of learning anything else. In Teacher B’s classroom, the teacher is working to ensure that the original educational purposes of the activity are met, that it does not deteriorate into a mere round robin tournament with a winner and a loser. In Teacher C’s classroom, the games making is continuous with and a direct outgrowth of the learning that is embodied in the production of the game. The greater part of Teacher C’s work has been done before the idea of a making a game even comes up, and it remains only to help the students keep sight of their purposes as they carry out the project. These hypothetical teachers—A, B, and C—are abstract models that of course fit real teachers only partly, and more on some days than others. Nevertheless, they provide important glimpses of connections between goals for learning and teaching practices that can affect students’ abilities to accomplish these goals.

    Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). Chapter 1. Learning: From speculation to science, in. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition: National Academies Press (p. 12-13).

    Image Source: Creative Commons, Wikimedia Commons. File: SLNSW 13771, Eight year old boys and girls in a circle learning to dance.

    Why do an all in school cross country run?

    Let me paint the picture. Typical large suburban secondary school (7th / 8th grade), a whole year level taken out of class to the start line of the School Cross Country, the finish line banner looks resplendent and the time keeper is in place. It all starts and the focused few take off quickly in search of their moment of triumph. Following is a small but determined group of "refuse to walkers" giving it their best effort. Then the long stream of students who sit firmly in the middle of the population curve doing enough not to be last, not to stand out, but quite realistic about the limits of their own bodily capacity and the discomfort this running thing causes. Most end up walking before too long.

    Further back, a resolute bunch of antagonists, protesters and recalcitrants, refusing to bow to the pre-run pleas of "just do your best". Many commit to making the circuit into a casual conversation. One carries a large branch from a tree claiming he is in a relay race.

    As a casual observer, I find myself asking the following questions: For what purpose are we doing this? Tradition? History? Culture? Because we always have done it this way? How is someone who hasn't had a lifetime of progressive and positive exposure to physical activity suddenly going to be motivated to do physical activity by a one off cross country event?  What sustainable productive outcomes does such an activity have that warrants so much time and effort to be invested in it?

    Is a competition model for movement that has little relevance to most of these kids the best model to get kids moving? They already learnt about their capacities in the numerous beep tests and cross countries from primary school. They know their limits and possibilities and are likely not looking for further public tests of these. If the purpose is to select a cross country team, why make it compulsory for everyone? Can't this be organised for anyone who finds joy in running hard for three kilometers against the clock and is keen to test themselves against others? To give you an idea of actual numbers the non-compulsory year nine cross country comprised 12 boys and less females. So the cross country activity, as a school sporting event, has genuine appeal for <10% of students. The other 90% chose to go to period two English.

    Is then the purpose to expose a whole bunch of kids to physical activity that they may otherwise have not had the opportunity to do? Is it to inspire them, to show them what they have been missing out on? I would again challenge this thinking. You have to ask yourself is this a sustainable and practical model? Will using up an hour of learning time herding a bunch of kids around a large track they otherwise would never walk on, actually make any difference to their short or long term health? Will it inspire them to take up walking or running? I doubt it. Changing the school uniform away from restrictive dresses and giving every student a bouncy rubber ball would might have a far greater impact on movement.

    When we walk, jog or run for leisure or utility there is always a bigger purpose to it. It is not contrived, we aren't rounded up and herded to a start line. Running to compete is often way way down the pecking order for most. For some it releases stress or is restorative, for others it is social connection and a sense of belonging, for some it is about balancing physical or mental health, for some it is about experiencing or connecting to the outdoors, and the most common reason is because they have to get somewhere (shopping, school, work, public transport). That is there is a bigger purpose. In the school cross country scenario, where are they supposed to be walking or jogging to? It was clear the finish line was always going to be a timestamped judgement about their ability (or lack thereof) with little reward for any effort they put in or any purpose other than to complete a set distance for a given time. That is not the real reason why we run, jog, exercise or even walk. Given this event will do nothing to change their social-ecologies, it is extremely unlikely that at year 8 this will lead to any shift in behaviour. I don't really buy the fresh air and exercise rationale because of the investment in time and energy and the potential for that time to be used in more purposeful ways.

    Finally, I wonder why some of the kids chose, walk slowly, muck about at the back of the group despite all the encouragement they were getting around the circuit. Reminds me of the monkeys in the zoo tossing their crap at the crowd come to gawk at them. Perhaps they were feeling judged and this was their way of protesting the imposition of physical activity. Maybe they didn't want to parade through a crowd of people encouraging their lack of ability. Maybe they found the whole encouragement thing quite condescending?

    I realised I probably shouldn't leave this hanging. My thinking was, that if the school was willing to invest this much time and energy into a competitive physical activity, what alternatives could you imagine? Sticking with the running theme for now, we could do worse than to look at what seems to be working for a lot of people (mostly middle class people) in broader society. The informal 'fun run' event (cycle, swim, walk...) might be a good place to start. What do they do to appeal to a wide cross section of society? Multiple entry options (serious, challenge, team, fundraiser) create multiple reasons for joining in, teams events create opportunities that individuals couldn't achieve on their own and create a sense of community and belonging. A PA pumping out some tunes to give a sense of festivity. It is something the whole school could get behind. The serious kids still get to compete. Tie this event into upcoming community events and encourage the students to enter their team in one of these linking it to lifelong PA. Might be a good conclusion to a Sport Ed unit focused on community PA participation.

    * Image: You can't keep a good Celtic down... Creative Commons attribution.
    Assessment and evidence of impact in Physical Education

    Assessment and evidence of impact in Physical Education

    StateLibQld 1 100348

    In a recent Twitter exchange a few of us were exploring questions like:

    How do we evidence what we do in PE?
    What does evidence based practice look like in PE?
    Can assessment serve as evidence of impact?

    Starting with the last question first, I believe that when we implement quality assessment that accounts for learning, we are indeed collecting evidence of our impact. Providing we have some clarity as to the purpose of our lesson/s and there is alignment between curriculum (what we teach), pedagogy (how we teach) and assessment (how we evidence learning) then this should give a perfectly reasonable account of our impact.

    So what is meant by 'quality' assessment? What counts as quality assessment?

    Some might argue that validity, reliability and even generalisability are soooo important when it comes to assessment. If your intent is to impress policy makers about the efficacy of physical education, then you might do well to align with applied or summative forms of evaluation, where you can generalise to a population with scientific rigour. If your intent is to solve immediate problems as quickly as possible, then what matters most is how those immediately involved (your students) feel about the process and the feasibility of the results. Both of these approaches provide legitimate forms of evaluation, but the way they deal with threats to internal and external validity and challenges of academic rigor are not equally applied.

    According to Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000), the format of standardized tests can encourage measurement of factual knowledge rather than conceptual understanding. These tests however are strong in objectivity. Measuring depth of understanding is important, however doing so can pose challenges for objectivity. There appears to be a trade-off between assessing depth and assessing objectively.

    Michael Patton, the author of one of the most well used qualitative research texts going around, suggests to start from a point of scientific rigor is to miss the point completely. He suggests purpose is everything. Patton argues that despite numerous threats to internal and external validity and any apparent weaknesses in evaluation design, evaluations that provide the relevant information to make a decision that needs to be made in ways that are meaningful and credible to the primary intended users are perfectly legitimate. Purpose according to Patton, is the controlling force in research that drives decisions about design, measurement, analysis and reporting. Validity and reliability are secondary considerations that depend on the intended purpose. There are no perfect evaluation designs and trade-offs are always present.

    To give an example here, the multi-stage fitness test (a test that requires maximum effort), might be a scientifically robust and in certain contexts, a valid and reliable measure of endurance capacity (fitness) for participation in competitive team or individual sports. The GPAI might accurately account for game performance behaviors that demonstrate tactical understandings. But do these robust measures always provide important and meaningful information about an immediate problem for all participants, including those for whom competition or performance is not a vested interest? When considering these as viable assessment tools, how well they help meet the purpose of the lesson, unit, sequence and inevitably the learner's learning is paramount.

    According to Patton, universities traditionally most value the scientific attributes and academic rigour of basic or applied research (valid, reliable, generalisable), with little status given to formative or action research. In the 'real-world', including the world of teaching, solving problems in a timely way that is meaningful to the subject, more often than not takes priority. Recent policy shifts are starting to put a sharper focus on more 'scientifically rigorous' ways for teachers to evaluate their impact. Valid and reliable tests that can demonstrate 'effect size' are all the rage.

    Consequently, I argue that teachers will need to be familiar with concepts of assessment that cover the more applied measures we are increasingly associating with global testing like NAPLAN, PISA or whole school or class level measures of impact via, for example, calculating effect-size using a standardised measure. Whilst PE has historically dodged this bullet due to the difficulties associated with measuring the subject's purpose, it is unlikely to remain immune.

    On the other hand, there also needs to be an increasing emphasis on the everyday practical action-based and formative forms of assessment where "people with problems attribute the greatest significance to evaluations that help them solve their problems in a timely way" (Patton, 2002). A while back I wrote a blog about ways we can open up assessment in PE. You can read it by clicking here.

    I argue in this current piece, that in the face of increasing pressure to focus on more applied (academically rigorous) ways to evidence our practice, we need to push back, resist and sustain an 'evidence' base of impact that remains legitimate and meaningful to those we are assessing. For PE teachers, who are in the business of fostering a lifelong learning of movement, standardised testing is extremely challenging and the more 'scientifically robust' measures are of movement and experience, the more instrumental, mechanical and removed from purpose they begin to appear (at least to me).

    I implore PE teachers to approach the everyday practice of assessment as being driven by efficiency, consistency and fit for purpose. On occasion, we may need to calculate an effect size using standardised measures/tests with demonstrated high levels of validity, reliability and generalisability (be aware of the time cost here). But this should not be at the expense of drawing on a range of tools that evidence your impact in ways that are efficient, accessible and meaningful for the young people we work with. Equally important, measuring impact on learning should be co-constructed with all stakeholders, especially the learners as part of the learning experience.

    So in the face of increasing pressure to provide the standardised mean difference between a pre and a post test, don't right off the work samples, reflections, practical performances, group presentations, group and class discussions, quick responses to questions, observations of students working, or in-class tasks as methods to evidence learning (impact) linked clearly to the purpose of the lesson. These are your bread and butter and remain perfectly legitimate.

    Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition: National Academies Press.

    Why I Don't Like Fitness Testing in School PE

    One of the big issues I have with fitness testing in schools, particularly in the F-10 curriculum, is that you will frequently see an approach that is flawed. This approach will encompass some form of mass fitness testing where all students together (or in significant groups), undertake a series of fitness tests that cover a wide variety of fitness components at the same time. What you won’t often find however, is any real semblance of an educational purpose attached to it. The results may be collated for reporting or comparison, fleetingly noted by the student at the time and ultimately filed away in some folder, perhaps to check in 16 weeks or 6 months time for 'improvement' (or is that growth). Aside from having their fitness uncomfortably and publicly rated by their peers during the testing process, generally the student will not be given the opportunity to explore the results in depth or do anything in particular about them. Instead the box is ticked and we move onto the next topic (not that you could do much about strength, power, agility, CV fitness, speed, phosphate recovery or flexibility all at once anyway).

    Aside from the fact that PE is not elite sport, even if it was, no elite sport would ever apply this approach because it simply isn’t useful or valid. Usain Bolt could care less what level he gets to in the YoYo or MSFT, Eliza McCartney isn’t interested in her ability to dodge sideways in and out of cones and Mo Farah would not even bother turning up to check his 20m speed. If it isn't relevant to Usain Bolt, an elite athlete, why should it be relevant to any student in your class? Testing only becomes meaningful when it bounces off opportunities to learn how to develop the things that have been tested (learning), when it is aligned with a purpose (curriculum) and most importantly, when it is anchored in the lived experience of the learner (relevant).

    If you think you have to fitness test because it is what the curriculum states, then think again. Any rationale for this approach does not exist in policy, at least within Australian curriculum documents (senior secondary excluded). You will find nowhere references to the multi-stage fitness test, vertical jump test or agility tests. What you will find is references to:
    Understanding movement: Design, implement and evaluate personalised plans for improving or maintaining their own and others’ physical activity and fitness levels (ACARA, 2016).
    Now this may involve some form of evaluation for that personalised plan, but note how this is personal and purposeful (providing it was student led) and likely focused. Definitely a different kettle of fish to lining up 20 students for a mass beep test to be done annually with little to no follow up. Or worse, with the results plastered on gym wall for all to see. Or worse, public league tables that rank people or schools as 'motivation'. Evaluation can take many forms and we don’t have to defer to the ‘scientific’ fitness test to know if something worked. When was the last time you, as an adult, sorted out a VO2 max test to work out how your program was tracking? I can't give them away to friends for free. If you are inclined to defer to science, than be warned, fitness tests may not accurately provide a good picture of young people’s fitness. Indeed, they might be providing misleading measures of biological age and sociological/ psychological disposition (motivation, efficacy, access) (see Naughton, Carlson & Greene, 2006).

    Naughton, Carlson and Greene (2006) remind us that:
    Determining the most effective ways to counteract the epidemic of childhood obesity should not include fitness testing of children in schools. Overweight and obese, unskilled, and unmotivated children can tell you before they start (if they agree to start) how poorly they will score on fitness tests. There is an urgent need to promote positive and habitual experiences in physical activity...rather than subjecting young people to a succession of antiethical fitness tests that are more likely to turn many children ‘‘off’’ rather than ‘‘on’’ to activity. Large-scale fitness testing in schools appears to be the antithesis of population health promotion policies...If children do not view fitness testing as fun or the educational component linking individual performance results with a need to engage in physical activity is inadequate, then why is fitness testing commonplace in primary schools today? (p.44)
    These authors challenge the validity, meaningfulness and relevance of fitness testing young people and list a host of factors likely to influence results.

    In addition, Alfrey and Gard (2014) note:
    Whilst arguments certainly exist for using fitness testing as a context for HPE learning (Keating, Silverman, & Kulinna, 2002), there are obvious dangers in pedagogies that are heavily individualistic (Cale, Harris, & Chen, 2012; Garrett & Wrench, 2008; Sykes & McPhail, 2008; Zanker & Gard, 2008). While some young people may enjoy fitness testing, Evans, Rich, Davies, and Allwood (2008, p. 147) argue that an emphasis on fitness and performance within HPE can result in ‘a cocktail of high performance mixed with body-centred pathology codes [which] may have deeply damaging consequences for students’ identity, their education and health’. Hopple and Graham (1995) pointed out in one of the few empirical studies of student’s attitudes towards fitness testing, even if not obviously damaged by the experience, it is not always clear what, if anything, students actually learn from the process. (p.6)
    The good news is, is that according to Alfrey and Gard (2014), there are plenty of teachers out there who are now starting to challenge the idea of blanket fitness testing in schools. They attest that despite the widespread reality of fitness testing and its misguided links to a health education, many PE teachers are beginning to have serious misgivings about the practice and are unconvinced as to the rationale for why they do it. The more teachers are willing to confidently challenge the validity, efficacy and appropriateness of blanket testing without purpose, the more we can get on with really supporting young people to pursue fulfilling movement experiences. This may include learning about fitness testing and even undertaking fitness testing, but in purposeful, meaningful and student-centred ways that build on strengths and provide real opportunities for development.

    Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2016). The Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education Foundations-Year 10. Retrieved from http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/download/f10

    Alfrey, L., & Gard, M. (2014). A crack where the light gets in: a study of Health and Physical Education teachers' perspectives on fitness testing as a context for learning about health. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 5(1), 3-18. doi: 10.1080/18377122.2014.867790

    Naughton, G. A., Carlson, J. S., & Greene, D. A. (2006). A challenge to fitness testing in primary schools. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 9, 40—45.