For many students, the Spartathlon (a triathlon) is the highlight of their Grade 5 year (10-11 year olds). In this years rendition, students had the opportunity to kayak, bike and run around our school campus. When it comes to traditionally competitive events such as this, I believe there are often conflicting narratives between what teacher's tell students is important, and what we show them is important through our actions (or at least there has been such a conflict in my practice).
One on one hand, a teacher may emphasize the importance of the process. Teachers may tell students that the event is an opportunity to challenge themselves and may insist they set goals of a finish time they would like to achieve. They may encourage students on the importance of doing their personal best and not comparing themselves to others. Through these discussions, teacher's aim to help students understand the value of being persistent towards their goals, celebrate the process and define success for themselves. However, when it comes time to conclude the event, what we often see celebrated is not the process, and not individual success (despite advocating for its importance in the lessons leading up to the event). Instead, what we often see celebrated is elite performance, where results from first to last are posted and students who finish in the top 3 of their gender are awarded medals, while those who may have put forth just as much effort (or even more) to achieve their goals, receive limited recognition.
For the 10th annual Spartathlon, we wanted to (or were at least willing to) experiment with a way to negotiate these seemingly conflicting narratives and ensure that what we value about Physical Education is evidenced in both ours words and actions. Below I will attempt to articulate how we aimed to apply the Meaningful Physical Education framework to this end.
PROVOCATION: The provocation for the event was the story of Team Hoyt, a father-son duo who have completed a number of Ironman Triathlons together. Rick (the son), was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and unable to walk on his own, but that didn't stop them. After watching this video as a class we had a number of discussions related to personal definitions of success, approaches to challenges, motivations that are bigger than winning or losing, the limits (or lack there of) of human determination etc. Credit to Andy Vasily for this one way back in 2014 APPEC in Hong Kong.
LESSON STRUCTURE: Our unit leading up to the event lasted about 5 weeks (18 lessons) with the lessons divided into 3 broad categories.
In recognizing that our students have a wide range of abilities and experiences we wanted to be able to provide students with the opportunity to create an experience that was going to be meaningful to them. After students had practiced each of the disciplines about ½ way through the unit, we provided students with two primary choices listed below. I believe these represent the choices that individuals often make (formally or informally) when signing up for any sort of race event outside of school.
Distance Choice (Challenge) - Students had the option to complete a ‘single’ (400m Kayak, 1km Run, 2km Bike) or a ‘double’ where students would complete two laps / double the distance of each discipline. We were clear with students that there would be no special recognition for completing a double, and encouraged them to think about which format would be a just-right challenge for them.
Partnership Choice (Social Interaction) - Students had the option of completing either the double or single event with a partner. As a partnership they were required to start each discipline together and cross the finish line together. We had a great discussion on how having a partner may influence participation in the event. Some students gravitated towards a partnership and recognized the positive influence having a partner can have on motivation. There were a couple pairings who weren’t necessarily friends before the event, that chose to work together for that reason. However, there were also students who preferred not to have the responsibility of encouraging someone else, and preferred to work towards their goals on their own.
PERSONAL RELEVANCE (GOAL ORIENTATION)
After students had made choices, they set individual goals (or a goal with their partner). We didn’t insist that they needed to be time-based but rather asked students simply what success would look like for them. Some students' goals were related to a single discipline, such as 'kayaking with confidence', while other students wanted to focus on maintaining a consistent pace by not stopping. Some wanted to spend as little time as possible in the transitions, while others did set a time frame (e.g. between 40-60 minutes) of when they would like to finish the event. As a connection to the Team Hoyt provocation, some students dedicated their run to family members.
Students had the last couple of weeks leading up to the event to train in the discipline they chose. As teachers we supported students with technical feedback (e.g. gear shifting on hills) and for many, how to pace themselves on the run. On the day of the event, students wore a race bib that had their goal displayed on the bottom. At the concluding ceremony, the students name and their goal were announced to the parents and other students in attendance before they were presented with a medal and then took a picture on the finishers podium.
A few days following the event, students were asked to reflect on their experience. We asked them what emotions they associated with the event, and how they felt about their performance. The large majority of students had a positive association with the experience, words such as ‘pride’ and ‘good’ were often used to describe performance. Some students felt that they didn’t do as good as they could have, but nonetheless had fun along the way. Others expressed they felt very tired but were satisfied that they did their best. When asked how we might improve the Spartathlon next year, only one student asked for the event to return to its competitive ranking format.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE RESULTS…
While the priority of both our words and actions was celebrating achievement of individual goals. We acknowledge that some students may be motivated by the rank and order of competition and for them, the emotions of winning and losing may contribute to a meaningful experience. With that in mind, after sharing their feelings of pride and exhaustion, we discussed with them how (if at all) the results of the event would change that? Students then received their certificate which included their times in each discipline (not a ranking), and we informed students of the fastest individual in each discipline. While I don't wish to suggest that the simple gesture of announcing fastest times equates to a meaningful experience for our most competitive students, but it was our way of honoring those students without doing harm to the experience of others.
When we decided to move forward with this plan there were certainly skeptics (ourselves included) and a couple parents (of the more talented students) questioned why there were not going to be placings announced, and maybe an eye roll over another ‘everyone gets medal’ event. However, this was out-weighed by the number of parents and students who appreciated the positive impact the new format had. What I observed as students crossed the finish line were exhausted smiles. If you asked me to pinpoint a moment this year where students expressed joy - I would say for many this was it. While there was certainly a nervous energy for some, there was no observable performance anxiety or fear of becoming last. I witnessed students who I hadn’t expected to, really push and challenge themselves. I witnessed students form new friendships through unlikely partnerships, and genuinely support and cheer for one another. No social comparison of “I was faster than you” or “I did a double and you only did a single” was overheard, and for these reasons alone - it was a worthwhile experiment.
I am fortunate to be the 'blogger' of our ES PE team and am incredibly privileged to work with two outstanding educators; Laura Boudens and Michelle Bartoshyk who have been vulnerable, thoughtful and willing to take risks as we attempt to move towards a more meaningful ES PE program. Without them, none of these events would be possible.
In addition, school alumni Kiyan Sunderji (shown below), who has completed a number of triathlons and an Ironman came to visit the G5 classes and talk to students about tips and tricks for transitions, positive self-talk during times of self-doubt and nutrition strategies. A student asked Kiyan about his ranking in his events, to which Kiyan responded "I have no idea", describing how it was about doing his personal best which helped drive home the focus of the unit/event.