There is no doubt that Physical Education has many aims and employs a variety of different practices in order to achieve those aims. Regardless of the the approach, I believe PE still has 3 broad outcomes (pictured below) of which the greatest outcome is a participant becoming motivated to pursue physical activity in their own lives across the lifespan. I think that many teachers probably believe in some iteration of this, but often teachers (myself included) can also forget that the opposite can also occur. We want to believe that PE is good for all students and lean on the health benefits or more recently the enhancement of academic performance to advocate for its importance. While there is certainly merit to those arguments, we often conveniently ignore PE's potential to cause harm. Earlier in my career, I've been guilty of stating "they will eventually find an activity they enjoy" (as part of a multi-activity approach) or nodded in agreement when someone states that PE is just "not student X's thing". If you would like read more about do no harm mindests check out Alex Beckey's (@ImSporticus) blog here
To understand more about how students experience our PE classes, last year, we collected survey data from our MS students that asked them questions related to their experiences in PE the past semester. Many of the questions were connected specifically to the features of the meaningful physical education (MPE) framework. You can read more about how this data provided evidence for a meaningful PE approach here. Two of the questions asked students to describe a positive and negative experience in PE during the past semester, with a final question asking students to generally summarize their PE experience as being generally; very positive, somewhat positive, neutral, somewhat negative or very negative.
As you can see above, the sources of the negative experiences (based on the frequency of mention) amongst our Junior High / Middle school students seemed to arise primarily from Cross Country running and Gymnastics units. Our revised approach to a Trail Running / Challenge unit (né Cross Country) can be found here.
It has since come time for us to revisit our Gymnastics unit to see if we can facilitate a more positive student experience. In the survey, students indicated that a lack of relevance and having to display their performance in front of others were the most common reasons for a negative experience. It is important to note that our curriculum (MYP) requires students to complete a movement composition piece each year, so avoidance is not an option! We begun by asking the question of "why", why do we want students to participate in gymnastics? Not surprisingly, it was not because of our own aspirations to have an Olympic gymnast represent our school. Rather, gymnastics is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate creativity and improve our general movement capabilities. If that is the 'why', then certainly there are more activities that meet that criteria that just gymnastics. With that in mind, we wanted to focus on three different activities, to explore how performers can apply relationship concepts (matching/contrasting, with obstacles, with implements) to create an aesthetic performance. The purpose of exploring a concept, is that it lends itself to multiple forms of expression. Students would sample each activity before making a choice of which they would use to create an aesthetic performance.
During that period of sampling, I was particularly interested in students perceptions related to dance. In our Semester 2 data collection, students also had fairly negative perceptions towards dance (as I write that sentence, it occurs to me that combining students two least favourite units into one might not result in the desired outcome....).
After an introductory lesson on dancing, each student was given an equalizer reflection (credit: @ImSporticus). After explaining how the equalizer works, I asked students to fill it out for their favourite activity, rating it on each feature of MPE. After that, I asked students to repear that process and fill it out for dance in a different colour. If the favourite activity and dance were the same (I had a hunch it would not be), then they would just make a note. Some examples below:
Not surprisingly, no students indicated that dance was there favourite activty to do, with the exceptions of one student who preferred a different style of dance. As a follow up question, students compared the two activities and were asked "Which feature has the biggest gap between your favourite activity and dance?" Interestingly
The strategies that the class came up with were very different. Class A ended up deciding that they wanted to build confidence and continue to practice 'Cadillac Ranch', but were going to approach it with a different mindset and focus on connecting with friends rather than worrying about how they might look. Class B tried to enhance fun by creating dances that represented their favourite activity. Some students performed dances with hockey sticks, where they incorporated 'the Michigan', while others focused on creating a line dance to a Taylor Swift song.
After exploring additional activities (free-running & x-disc), students made a selection of which one they would like to emphasize in creating an aesthetic routine in which application of relationship concepts, complexity and flow were the common criteria. Below are a couple videos of students practicing some of the activities. Rather than insisting on a live student performance, students had the option to perform or submit a video. As we had several options, with students rehearsing different skills, students never seemed to notice whether anyone was watching or not.
At the conclusion of the unit, we repeated the same questionnaire we repeated the previous year. While all the data will be analyzed at another point in time, the first question I looked at was students general perceptions of PE this semester (with a revised approach to both Cross Country Running and Gymnastics). In the graphs below we see a significant reduction in the reporting of negative PE experiences of last years Grade 8 students from semester 1, 2022 (left) to the current years Grade 8 students in semester 1, 2023 (right).
Whereas the graph above shows the differences between students in the same grade level in two different school years - the graph below shows the self-reported experiences of the same group students, when they were in Grade 7 the previous year ('same', is used loosely as there is changing enrolment). In Grade 7 students, also would have participated in running and gymnastics units. Again, with a greater emphasis on the MPE framwork, we observe a noticeable decline in the reporting of negative experiences
The goal of the MPE framework is to empower students to take responsibility for engaging in physical activity outside of the school gates. With that in mind, has this revised approach to a movement composition achieved that aim? Well, I did not receive any Christmas cards from the local parkour, gymnastics or dance studios - so perhaps not! In terms of the data, the amount of students reporting an at least somewhat positive PE experience has remained consistent when comparing Grade 7 to Grade 8 data of the 'same' group of students. However, as Alex Beckey cites in his blog post (linked in the opening paragraph), a negative experience may be more powerful than a good one (Baumeister et al, 2001). While this approach (alongside others applied this semester) may not have led student to the 'peak' of physical education, at the very least, it has perhaps prevented students from a detrimental experience that may otherwise dissuade them from participation. 'Raising the floor' of our physical education program, where a neutral (and perhaps one day, a 'somewhat positive') is the bare minimum of student experiences, seems like a worthwhile endeavour, and the MPE framework has certainly been useful in that regard.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is Stronger than Good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.113