October 17, 2013

Re-thinking inquiry-based practice in physical education

While conventional education is often criticized for either segmenting learning into smaller pieces without ever giving kids the whole picture, or for letting kids read all about something without ever having an opportunity to engage in the process or "play the whole game" as Harvard School of Education Professor writes in his book Making Learning Whole, physical education does not often suffer the same criticisms.  Kids play the whole game all the time - PE teachers might argue, whether it be basketball, volleyball, baseball, badminton or floor hockey.

My challenge to "traditional" PE programs however, would be that the games they are playing are the wrong ones. If the purpose of "playing the whole game" is that students are able to engage in real work
in a way that deepens a specific set of competencies or understandings, then the first question needs to be what general and essential skills and understandings do we want students to gain. One glance at the Alberta Education Phys Ed Curriculum was enough to make it clear that the refinement of an overhand serve in volleyball is neither a key competency, nor a specified curricular outcome. In fact, there are no sport-specific outcomes to be found anywhere in the entire document because physical education in Alberta is not intended to develop nationally-ranked athletes but rather to provide students with the necessary skills (both physical and social/emotional), understanding, and intrinsic motivation to remain active and healthy for the rest of their lives.

In June of last year I sat down with a copy of the curriculum to read through it and to attempt to make it understandable for our 600 students from Grades 4 - 9. What resulted, was a significantly condensed 4-page document (included below) that we printed and posted on the wall inside and just outside the gymnasium at the school. With this vision for PE visible, we began this school year by inviting students to engage in a conversation about the purpose of physical education, the definition of and importance of physical literacy rather than sport specific development. As part of the conversation, we were also able to connect the curriculum to student observations on the differences between youth and adult engagement in physical activity and to Canada Sport for Life research and the Long-term Athlete Development Model.

The curriculum re-write and resulting conversations helped us define physical literacy as a group and visualize different aspects of the PE curriculum more clearly. We envisioned a PE framework as consisting of four key areas:

Skill Acquisition: Consisting of the types of skills that are transferable from individual to team sports and throughout a range of environments. Insists that students take on the challenge of acquiring skills outside of their range of experience or expertise.

Understanding Health Benefits: Essentially - an introduction to exercise physiology. Developing the requisite knowledge and skills that allow us to make decisions about how to analyze, evaluate and develop strategies, ideas or approaches to optimizing health through physical activity.

Interacting with Others: How to be a part of a team; to lead, to follow, to assess your strengths and those of others' around you and develop the skills necessary to engage collaboratively in working towards a goal.

Assume Responsibility: Basically, inquire into intrinsic motivation and personal responsibility.

We concluded that in physical education, the real work might be the work of an athlete in training - but the real work might also be the work of a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a coach, a team member or an average adult with a busy schedule struggling to balance their daily demands with maintaining physical fitness.

With this in mind, we designed a much broader and more permissive introductory unit in physical education. The vision was that the unit would provide students with an opportunity to personalize an inquiry into the training of a particular aspect of physical fitness while gaining an understanding of principals of effective training and assessment over a 3-week period. Students were limited to the development of one component of fitness - assessment was carefully guided with the younger grades while older students had the option of determining how best to test what they were training, provided it was consistent from week to week. Students had access to a range of equipment and both teachers were actively involved in providing feedback and suggestions for training as well as modelling various activities throughout the duration of the inquiry. In general, we found that while the unit required more of students on a daily basis (research, planning, reflection) an overwhelming number invested wholeheartedly in their program design noting that they found particular value in being provided with opportunity for adding their own voice to the structure and assessment of their program.

We managed to capture elements of the process through video and have included a general overview below. We would definitely welcome further thoughts or questions in order to continue to engage in conversations about the possibilities or limitations of inquiry-based practice in physical education. More than anything I am grateful to inquiry-based pedagogy for the opportunity to be conscious and careful about how I design learning experiences for students.

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