Five years ago my wife and I moved into a new house. It was first time construction for us and turned out a pretty intense experience. Fortunately, when we started two years earlier we knew what we wanted the finished house to look like. Together, we sketched out a design. We then got our doodles translated into construction blueprints and hired a contractor. We chose a builder after looking at projects he’d previously completed. The homes were attractive, beautifully built, and he convinced us that he could translate our vision into reality.
Turns out we were right. We love where we now live and guests routinely compliment us on the beautiful wooden cathedral ceiling, open floor plan, unobstructed mountain and water views, and the house’s overall appearance. To date, no one has yet commented on how well our home meets the latest ISO or ICC construction standards. Now obviously, it’s important to know and follow proper building standards. Our construction crew impressed us with their skills, knowledge, and professionalism. As the house evolved it was obvious to us they weren’t just making up the various steps, but knew and were following some sort of building standards. We weren’t much interested in knowing or checking these standards but noticed that from time-to-time someone else would.
Foundation checks, framing checks, plumbing checks, electrical checks and so on followed the site, drawing, engineering, and other approvals. Now I’m not a builder, but I imagine this heavily checkered list was intended to ensure the builders followed best practices and met national construction standards: Presumably all with our best interests as future home owners in mind. And following proper building protocol was mostly a good thing, except of course when a particular standard was prescribed, yet made no sense in our situation. In construction as in other life areas, it turns out sticking stubbornly to standards isn’t always the perfect solution.
Fortunately, most of the time our contractor was very accommodating. My wife’s vigilant oversight (I called her the “snooperviser” because of her almost every day presence on the worksite) caught several blueprint errors even though they had been “standards approved” by officialdom. If followed, the house would not have turned out as nice. Visitors might have wondered why windows or doorways weren’t so thoughtfully aligned or sized to provide the best views of water and mountains. From time-to-time, even the work crew would suggest doing things differently. They knew that what was important to us was the outcome. Yes, they were trying to do things the right way, but what they were most obviously proud of was the final result of their efforts.
And so it is with standards everywhere. Sure it is important to be safe. And carefully considered standards provide guidelines for action: What to do and how to do it. But standards are not outcomes for everyone. Technical talk among professionals might well focus on standards and best practices – all of which evolve and change over time with experience. Professional discussion and debate about how’s and what’s might be engaging for doers but they’re irrelevant and uninspiring to consumers. In fact I’d suggest they are an attention-numbing turn off.
Just as I wanted an attractive and functional new house from my builder, the outcomes parents want from their physical educators are simple: Kids who are healthy and turned-on to being physically active. Parents don’t much care how physical educators get kids to embrace active lifestyles: ‘Just do it’ is successful teaching for parents, policy-makers, and the public in general. Think about it. Unless it’s something we are personally involved in, we care only about outcomes not process. When we take our cars to be fixed who cares how the mechanic does it? Does anyone really want to know what the dentist does and how she does it when filling a cavity? When we have a problem that needs solving, finding someone capable of solving the problem is enough. It’s all we need. A successful outcome leaves us happy and more often than not, enthusiastic, supportive return customers.
Today, the nation faces an ever-worsening physical inactivity crisis. The negative physical, emotional, social, and intellectual consequences are well documented. In response, over the past decade dozens of national, state, and local groups have sprung up to get kids healthier and more active. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation alone has dedicated a billion dollars seeking solutions (almost none to us!). Countless other philanthropic groups continue to channel funding and resources to support to those responding to this challenge. Remarkably, this depressing youth scenario has for several years unexpectedly presented physical educators with an incredible opportunity. Sadly, to date as a profession of an estimated quarter million practitioners we have mostly failed to effectively respond.
SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong commitment – to get 50 million school attending students physically active and healthy (through teaching skills, knowledge, and such like) – is an effort to right physical education’s rudderless teaching ship that struggles to survive the sea of confused communication. As former President Bill Clinton’s election advisers discovered back in the ‘90s, success depends on messaging. “It’s the economy stupid” famously gave focus to Clinton’s campaign and got him elected. It proved to be THE single and targeted message that resonated with voters (Don’t be surprised to see today’s presidential candidates soon pare their messaging to something similarly simple).
Today, THE message to get public support for physical educators and physical education is that WE are the nation’s solution to the physical inactivity crisis and its debilitating health consequences. What we do and how we do it – whether it is through standards-based teaching, developing physical literacy, or whatever – is for internal discussion among teaching professionals. Getting the public to support us is about talking their language not ours. And as is patently obvious by public discourse and following the money, if we can learn anything from past political history, “it’s kids, health, and physical activity stupid” is the targeted message that urgently needs to become physical education’s call to action.