Facilitating meaningful experiences for students is not without challenge. While it is perhaps simple enough to understand that the features of meaningful physical education; challenge, social interaction, enjoyment, personal relevance and social interaction are influential in the way students experience PE and thus, deserving of prioritisation, it is the different ways in which students interact with those features wherein lies the challenge. Some students will prefer social settings with their friends, while others may prefer new social situations to work with new people. A challenge that is optimal some students may be too easy or too hard for others. What one student mind find interesting and fun, others find boring and irrelevant. Accounting for the diversity of student preference and experience, while rewarding, can be difficult in terms of pedagogy.
Fortunately, Ní Chróinín, Fletcher and O'Sullivan (2021), outlined two key pedagogical principles that support the prioritiziation of meaningful experiences; democratic and reflective practice. Democratic practice generally refers to students having a sense of autonomy in their learning whereas reflective practice a tool for students to make sense of their experience and inform future directions. While the purpose of this blog is to explore primarily democratic structures, it is important to note that these two principles do not exist in isolation. Rather, they exist in lockstep with one another in a form of democratic and reflective 'coupling', where democratic practice allows students to direct their experience reflective practice allows students to evaluate their experience.
Implementing democratic principles doesn't necessarily alleviate the challenge of teaching for meaning in PE. Differentiating instruction and activities becomes increasingly difficult as interests broaden, goals narrow, and perhaps class size increase. However, when I speak with teachers about democratic practice, a common assumption emerges; that the choice of activity is the only / most impactful way to offer choice. While that may be a great way to build democratic practice into a PE program, it is not necessarily logistically feasible in many school contexts. Fortunately, that is not the only form of choice that we may offer students.
The purpose of this blog is to try and categorize / visualize different ways that students might be offered choice in PE. Many of the diagrams below will start with the concept or learning outcome as the first step in instructional design. This is a product of my own teaching context in the International Baccalaureate curriculum which is concept / inquiry-based. While not all curriculums are structured in this way, a conceptual approach to learning does align itself with effective implementation of democratic practice (in my opinion, at least). For example, Nathan Horne's (@PEnathan) inquiry based unit titled 'What Moves You?' , which focuses on a connection to physical activity (as Nathan describes here) opens the door to a number of exploratory and democratic possibilities. If you're interested in learning more about concept-based teaching as it relates to meaningful PE, Lee Sullivan's book Is Physical Education in Crisis? is a great place to start.
Note on Assessment - Assessment plays an important role in a child's education. For the purpose of this blog, assessment is shown primarily in the structures below as Assessment Of Learning or summative assessment occurring at the end of a period of learning. The exclusion of formative, assessment FOR or AS learning is not meant to diminish their importance, as both play a key role in determining the types of choices that may matter most to students. The exclusion of the role of formative assessment in the diagrams is only meant to avoid muddling the diagrams and focus more explicitly on the types of choices that we may offer students.
Students have agency in choosing what they wish to learn or experience. In some contexts, this can be viewed as a choice of module or activity, where the learning outcomes are specific to the choice. Democratic practice occurs early in the learning process, often before an exploration.
Example: Intentionally timetabling two classes of the same grade level (or similar) together to allow students to choose from two different activities offered by two different teachers.
Students have agency in choosing the medium (or activity) through which they will explore the given concept of learning outcome. After an initial sampling of a variety of activities that connect to the concept of learning outcome, students might choose which one they would like to go deeper into. The chosen activity will be the activity through which they will demonstrate their understanding of the concept or achievement of a learning outcome.
For very valid reasons, teachers often select an activity through/in which learning will be demonstrated. A democratic approach to process gives learners agency in designing elements of the process / progression within the given medium/activity. The sub-categories listed below are influenced by the paper by Stefanou et al (2004) although specific mention of how they may manifest in a PE setting were not discussed.
Applying the MPE Framework to the Grade 5 Spartathlon In this unit, students participate in an adventure triathlon in which they choose the distances they wish to run and whether or not they wish to do so SOLO or with a partner.
Learning to Love Running - In this LAMPE Pedagogical Case Study, the teacher allows students to make choices between different forms of running (obstacle, short & fast, long & slow etc.). For more case studies visit the LAMPE website here.
Meaningful Experiences on a Bike - In this unit, Andy Vasily (@andyvasily) & co. set the learning outcome as exploring challenge on a bike, through on going reflection / self-assessment students identified goal areas and were empowered to pursue them.
What other forms of democratic practice might be utilized?
DEMOCRATIC CURRICULUM DESIGN - Every year teachers make decisions about learning is to be included in the scheme of work for that school year. To what extent do students have a voice in that design? To what extent are the activities that are relevant to students prevalent in their PE experience? How do we gather student voice to ensure that they are?
DEMOCRATIC DURATION - In most contexts, teaching and learning occur in discrete blocks of time, 8 lessons for this, 5 weeks for that and so on. While the duration of units can be dedicated by a number of factors (e.g. facility schedule, weather, etc.) is there opportunity to structure units in a way with a more flexible start and end time, so students have a voice in when it is they may wish to progress from one unit to the next?
DEMOCRATIC LEARNING OUTCOMES - Much of what is written above has been written with the identification of the desired learning outcome or concept as the primary step in instructional design. However, we know that there are a variety of learning outcomes that can be addressed through a single activity. To what extent is it possible in your curriculum for students to determine the learning they wish to demonstrate in the given activity. In this example, the teacher might select football as the chosen activity but provides students choice on whether they wish to focus on developing character, strategic or skill-related outcomes through their participation.
DEMOCRATIC PRODUCT - As mentioned in the introduction, the role that assessment plays in the learning process is not fully represented in this blog. A democratic approach to summative assessment would give agency in what they would produce to demonstrate their learning (which may be connected with the above on a democratic approach to learning outcomes). Perhaps in reflective tasks, this could be providing students options over the questions prompts they respond to or allowing a personal response to subject matter. In our departments self-study, we identified that in our movement composition units some students associated performing in front of peers with a negative PE experience (while others, whom likely more confident, found it positive). Is a live class performance, the only product that students can create to demonstrate learning in movement composition?
Can multiple forms of choice be offered?
In her blog posts (Part 1 & Part 2) Mel Hamada (@mjhamada) & colleagues expertly apply multiple layers of democratic practice in an Individual Pursuits unit. Her department chose to explore the concept of challenge with her students and provided students with a choice of medium (activity) through which challenge could be explored (XC Running, Dance, Gymnastics and Rock Climbing). After students selected their activity, Mel continued to implement democratic practice by orienting her teaching towards student goals with a number of process-related choices.
What about 'free choice'?
At times, offering free choice, semi or unstructured play opportunities for students it is a great way to engage students in your PE program. At my current school, we would offer free choice days; choosing different equipment and environments to our K-Grade 3 students where the focus was primarily on the inclusion of others in play opportunities. However, assuming students always know what is in their best interests and thus allowing students to only pursue movement opportunities that they already previously enjoy would perhaps result in a fairly limited Physical Education experience (Tinning, 2010, p.45). In addition, when participation becomes too unguided, the environment may become educationally irrelevant as increases in motivation do not necessarily result in increased learning (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008).
In summary, this has been an attempt to categorize the ways in which we might implement democratic practice in Physical Education. While the visuals make sense for me, I am sure there are other ways to visualize choice and likely my understanding with continue to evolve over time and this post will be a site of continued revision. I feel it is also important to reiterate the importance of the coupling that occurs with reflective practice in this process and that the choices we provide students should be connected to the desired learning outcome and/or conceptual understandings and perhaps not just choice for the sake of choice. What choices do students value the most? To work towards their goals? To choose the activities / mediums they participate in? Is an area of continued interest for myself.
Déirdre Ní Chróinín, Tim Fletcher & Mary O’Sullivan (2018) Pedagogical principles of learning to teach meaningful physical education, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23:2, 117-133, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2017.1342789
Patall, E. A., Cooper H., & Civey-Robinson, J. (2008). The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes : A Meta-Analysis of Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin, (2), 270.
Stefanou, C. R., Perencevich, K. C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. C. (2004). Supporting Autonomy in the Classroom: Ways Teachers Encourage Decision Making and Ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97–110.
Tinning, R. (2010). Pedagogy and Human Movement: Theory, Practice, Research. New York, NY: Routledge.