Student Learning in Physical Education: The Minimum Six

Overview

My grandkids have learned to read. They enjoy trying to solve math problems. But when I ask them what they have learned in physical education their answers are opaque. Mostly they tell me what they are doing in P.E.

In this short piece, I am suggesting that physical education teachers, and programs, should be able to describe at least some of what their students have actually learned in their classes. And the kids they are teaching should be able to show you what they have learned.

Physical education programs have a wide variability in the time allotted for classes, from a few days a year, to daily. Classes are also taught by specialists who have majored in physical education, and also by coaches and fitness specialists and classroom teachers.

For these reasons it’s much harder to state exactly what students should be learning in physical education. But even if they only have physical education a short amount of time in a year they should be LEARNING something!

Because of the limited amount of time assigned to physical education and the range of teacher expertise I am suggesting a minimum of what students might be expected to learn in and through physical education. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for teachers to list a minimum of six motor skills, physical fitness accomplishments or concepts that their students have learned—and that their students can demonstrate when asked.

Introduction

The other day I asked a few physical elementary school physical education teachers what I thought was a simple question I phrased it like this:

“Assume that you have a K-5 physical education program that meets once or twice a week. Also assume that some of the children were in your program for five or six years and you taught them every year. Here is the question: “What have those children learned?”. 

As you might imagine the responses were varied. Most described what the students “did” in physical education, not what they learned. Others gave vague answers that were hard to understand. So that got me to thinking. Shouldn’t physical education teachers be able to clearly state what their students have actually learned in their classes?

A teacher might derive his or her answers from national or state standards or the district curriculum. Reading teachers can state exactly what their students are learning. Math teachers can state exactly what their students are learning. And it is easy to verify what their students are learning. It seems to me that physical educators should be able to state exactly what their students are learning—and it can be verified by simply asking their students!

Obviously the same idea applies to middle and high school physical education teachers. While the time spent will be different, along with the content, it seems realistic for them to tell you what their students have learned—not just what they have done.

Six Caveats

These learning statements should be easy to understand—for the students, parents and administrators. They should be straightforward, not fuzzy or subject to interpretation. Below I give six examples. (You probably want to see the examples now. Go ahead. But then please come back and read the five caveats that follow).

Caveat #1: The skills/competencies you select are meant to be learned by the time students leave your program, i.e. they are not based on grade level but what students are actually learning in your program. Some students will have learned your minimum six by 3rd grade, others will take longer. But hopefully by the time they finish your program most will have learned your minimum six—and a lot more.

Caveat #2: The six examples below represent a few of the skills and concepts typically taught in elementary school physical education. These are just examples. If you want to have an interesting discussion with your colleagues on Friday night after work, perhaps over beverages, compare your minimum six with their minimum six. My hunch is that there may not be a lot of agreement-but the discussion will certainly be interesting. It will be even more interesting if there are middle and high school physical educators involved in your Friday night “meeting”.

Caveat #3: These are minimums. I think every physical education program should be able to describe at least six “things” their students are learning. This applies to one day a week program and also programs taught by classroom teachers. Programs that meet two, or more days a week, it seems to me will have way more than six.

Caveat #4: The examples of what we want (expect) students to learn should be easy to understand—for the students, their parents, classroom teachers and administrators. While I understand the importance of having national and state standards—our profession needs them—many of the statements in our national and state standards are vague and subject to interpretation. Here is an example from our national grade level competencies that is hard to understand for kids, most likely their parents and maybe even teachers. “Combines traveling with the manipulative skills of dribbling, throwing, catching and striking in teacher and/ or student-designed small-sided practice-task environments.” (S1.E26.4). While statements like this one may have some value for curriculum planning it’s hard to see how this would be understood by kids.

Caveat #5: The skills/competencies we want students to learn should be linked to national/state standards or a district curriculum– and have the potential to be used for a lifetime AND have physical activity benefits.

I really like yo-yo’s. I was pretty good at “yo-yoing” at one point in my life. While it’s cool to have yo-yo skills there are other far more important skills, as contained in our national and state standards, that we should be teaching in our physical education classes if we are attempting to provide kids with a movement foundation to enjoy and benefit from a lifetime of physical activity.

Caveat #6: I am not suggesting that the examples below are intended as a way to grade students in physical education. Rather they are intended to remind students, parents and others what students can (are) learning in physical education. If a teacher wanted to use examples like these to grade students I would hope that they would assess student progress over a period of years. For example, in 2nd grade they might assess students on their ability to jump a self-turned rope five times in a row without a miss. Then the criterion could be increased from year to year until, by the 5th grade, the challenge was to jump a self-turned rope for 45 seconds without a miss.

Minimum Six Examples

So those are my six caveats. If you haven’t read them already, here are my six examples of what we might expect students to learn in a physical education program.

1. Jump a self-turned rope for 45 seconds without stopping.

2. Throw and catch a ball with a partner 30 times in a row from a distance of 25 feet.

3. Stand in a hoop and strike a ball with a paddle (racket) for one minute without a miss.

4. Demonstrate five cues that skilled throwers use when they want to throw a ball a long distance (or hard).

5. Maintain balance on one foot for 60 seconds.

6. Hold a basic plank for one minute (push up position without moving the chest to the floor).

These examples meet my criteria—easy for kids, parents and others to understand; derived from national and state standards; and achievable over a period of five or six years.

Conclusion

Let me finish these thoughts by emphasizing that having six minimal competencies does not mean a teacher has a good, or quality, physical education program. It does, mean however, that kids, parents and administrators are able to know, and observe, what students are learning in physical education. If, and when, physical educators start doing this it will be good for everyone involved—and especially our profession. So, what are your minimum six?

Let’s get the PE community involved! We want to hear from you and your colleagues. Share your Minimum Six on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #PEMinimumSix. 

PE Minimum Six

NOTE: This essay was previously published on “PLAY-LEARN-SHARE: The S&S Worldwide Blog” and is republished on PHE America with permission. Click here to go to the original posting. Readers are encouraged to post their own thoughts and comments below or on the S&S Blog.

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2 Comments
  1. Good read George. I had to chuckle because more than 20 years ago I produced a video entitled “Assessing learning in physical education.” In the opening scene we portrayed a school board member asking a physical education teacher “What is it that students learn in physical education?” The teacher awkwardly tries to respond by listing all of the activities he teaches before the board member interrupts and says something to the effect of “Yes, we know what games and sports you teach but what is it that students in physical education actually LEARN?” The board member continues to note that in other content areas what’s learned is widely understood but not so in physical education. From what you write it appears the profession has not made much progress over the past couple of decades.

  2. Our district picks a skill for each grade level to focus on for the year. I’m beginning to feel like I’d rather pick 6 focus skills and increase the minimal standard each year for each grade level. I think this would improve everyone’s overall competency in all areas.

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