What does success look like in Physical Education? @ImSporticus

success in pe

What does success look like in Physical Education?

by @ImSporticus

Perhaps why there are misconceptions about Physical Education is because we can’t universally agree on what success looks like in our subject. It is an area of constant discussion within my department, and an area I still haven’t got clear in my mind.

Let me start by expressing what my personal view of success in PE looks like. A student achieving in PE leaves school with the competence, knowledge and understanding to stay healthy and fit. That they are also intrinsically motivated to find a way of being active that they can enjoy and maintain in their everyday life. If I can manage that then I think that is a job well done. However there are some major issues with what this view of success looks like. How can I be sure that a student, either during or after they have left school, is being active and is trying to lead a healthy lifestyle? Is this view of success even feasible and measurable? Perhaps because this outcome is so difficult to monitor and assess we look at different ways of measuring success within Physical Education. Sporting team results, observation of highly skilled performance,  examination results and data from fitness testing. We can’t seem to live without some form of measurement of progress, so when we try to weigh those, do we move away from our overall aim?

School Sports Results – producing winning school sports teams and representative sports performers have for a long time been a indicator of a successful PE provision. It certainly was for me as a child and continues to be an idea still promoted by policy makers. The recent OFSTED paper ‘Going the Extra Mile‘ highlighted that state schools should be doing more to match their independent counterparts. Whilst I love competition, school sports teams and winning, this overemphasis can have an impact on the provision of physical education and does that meet the overall aim?

High levels of performance of skilled movements – of course we need to improve the skill level of our students. It builds confidence and competence in movement which will hopefully have a positive effect on them being active. However there has been an over-emphasis on high levels of skilled performance. Before level descriptors departed we were asking our students to achieve a level of skill in activities that may have been unachievable for all. I’d question how many PE teachers could perform in gymnastics, swimming, basketball, table tennis etc consistently with control, fluency and precision? Not I, but does that mean I can’t be physically active and healthy? A debate we often have in our department is about the outstanding sportsman. Let’s say a national level footballer. Does this mean that he is an exceptional student within physical education? I don’t have an easy answer to that. Exceptional skill performance is easy to see and measure but are all students able to achieve this? If not should we make that the focus of success within PE?

Examination results – This along with success at competitive sport is one that SLT seems to think makes a successful PE Department. I do enjoy teaching examination PE, due to the different challenge it gives me as a teacher and that it is one way my academic colleagues view my subject with some level of parity to their own. However its focus on theory and skill based criteria in sports doesn’t, in my mind, match what success is in physical education. Even more so with the higher theoretical weighting that will come with the future examination reforms in 2016. Again it is an easy way to gain data, to show progress and demonstrate success within our subject, but if it isn’t promoting the overall aim should it be given a priority?

Fitness Testing – probably the most seductive of all the ways to measure success. It gives you cold hard data, you can see improvement and you can test all areas of skill and health related fitness. What better way is there to demonstrate progress and success of physical education? There is very little evidence that regular fitness testing has any real impact in promoting health and physical activity. Loughborough University feels it ‘may well represent a misdirected effort in the promotion of healthy lifestyles and physical activity, and that PE time could therefore be better spent.’ As teachers of physical education can we consistently implement valid and reliable provision of fitness testing within our curriculum and can we be fully sure that the results will enhance motivation to stay fit and healthy? The linking of achievement within physical education to fitness goals could seriously undermine students confidence, especially when effort has been put in.

Physical Education has the potential to make a difference to all our students development physically, mentally, emotionally and socially. To promote an intrinsic motivation to be physically active and understand why it is important to remain healthy for life. That they have the knowledge and confidence to make personal choices on their lifestyle and have a clear understanding of outcomes of those choices. That they regularly set, review and refine personal targets for having an active and healthy lifestyle.

What do we really want to achieve and what does success look like? Our aims have to be something that all students can achieve. If not, then will they be motivated to lead active and healthy lives? At least in Physical Education that is not examined we do not have to be judged on outcomes, especially now level descriptors are a thing of the past. We can can focus on the process far more than our academic colleagues, as we are not under the same scrutiny. If we can involve students in the process, reflecting and taking responsibility for their actions and personal improvement, we may be able to achieve the ultimate aim of a lifetime of activity and health. Through dialogue and verbal feedback we can spend our time asking students to compare previous performance to current performance and also how they can plan to improve. This I believe would have a far more positive effect than grading, comparing to norms and asking them to reach a certain criteria. Having those conversations and asking them to take responsibility for their actions mimics what we want them to do later in life. To reflect on their own health and wellbeing and find solutions to maintain or improve them when required.

Any real judgement of success in physical education must be linked to it’s aims, not driven by how easy it is to collect evidence or data. Having an overall aim of a student engaging in lifelong physical activity and health is admittedly difficult to measure, but does this mean we should not try to find a solution? I do not currently have the answer to that conundrum. Perhaps my views are misplaced. Trying to quantify success in a subject that has no real measurable outcomes but is a constant process is fraught with difficulty and confusion. I would however rather spend the time that we currently do, gaining evidence on sports, fitness, skill level and use it to speak individually with our students and help them understand the impact of the choices they make. To do that we require nothing other than observing our students and speaking to them. They will give us all the information we require to see if they are successful. Having support, trust and some autonomy from SLT to give us the room to explore what success in our subject really looks like and what is the best way to monitor and report on it would be a massive step forward.


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Written by ImSporticus
On the first day in my current school I sat down next to a colleague and began to introduce myself as the new Teacher of PE. She kindly smiled at me, pointed to the opposite side of the common room, and said sweetly ‘I know. The shallow side is over there.’ I’ve been drowning ever since.

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