I recently had the pleasure of delivering the opening keynotes to the South Australian HPE Conference and then the Central Queensland HPE Conference. Both conference organising committees asked me to be provocative and challenging as well as providing suggestions to move the practice of school PE forward. While thinking about this challenge I was reminded of something former ACHPERAustralia NED Jeff Emmel wrote about PE in the 1979 ACHPER International Conference Proceedings; 'The questions we must not be afraid to ask ourselves are, 'Is our influence any more noteworthy now than say 10 years ago? Is our service improving?'
In 1981 Howard Mutton, the then PE Curriculum and Policy Officer in South Australia, concluded to The Committee of Enquiry into Physical Education and Sport in South Australian Schools that "vague notions of playing games and sports are no longer adequate attitudes towards PE". Thirty+ years on, has school PE progressed beyond "vague notions of playing games and sport"? One might argue that curriculum documents have articulated a more educational basis for physical education than previous conceptions of physical training, and that since the shift from curricula ground in a "teacher objectives" approach to articulation of student learning outcomes and competence, or standards based curriculum, that education in, through and about movement Arnold, 1979) is more obvious to teachers. Curriculum documents now promote learning in PE as rich, meaningful and holistic experiences grounded in cognitive complexities developing through a coherently progressive framework from Foundation to Year 10. However, it is PE teachers that design and enact teaching and determine the student classroom experience and the learning that occurs. It is as John Hattie suggests, what teachers know, do and care about which is powerful in the learning equation. The challenge to improve PE is thus not one of developing new curriculum documents, it is the challenge to change teacher thinking about PE.
History has shown that new curriculum documents are of themselves not sufficient to bring about change in PE teacher practice; hence the persistence of what Metzler (2011) called "the physical education method". Brooker & Clennett (2006) suggested that new curricula frequently "limps along in the shadow of old knowledge and past practice", the new curricula marginalised in the curriculum making process.
I suggested at conference the challenge to improve is the challenge for PE teachers to be pedagogical and content experts. I suggested this as expert teachers are more likely to challenge students to master than to perform, to engage rather than participate, and to set challenging goals rather than encouraging students to "have a go" or "do your best". PE teachers must be able to clearly define their program outcomes and how the program outcomes are measured, and PE teachers must be willing to be held accountable for student learning as all teachers are. This will require a shift from the "thinness" of many "typical" PE programs designed for breadth of experience through multi-activity programs providing little more in program outcomes than coverage of a long list of activities, with ambitions for students to have fun and find something they enjoy. There is no evidence that this "typical" multi-activity program impacts physical activity participation or health outcomes for the majority of students (Green, 2014).
The pedagogy of performance conformity and uniformity of adherence to replication of pre-determined movement techniques may just provide students with the understanding of what they can't do rather than what is possible (O'Connor, 2006) because students never spend enough time on anything to achieve competence, let alone mastery. The multi-activity curriculum program may serve little more than (pre-existing) ability identification.
The PE learning environment should set high expectations for student learning and PE teachers should teach for understanding and skill development. Competence begets confidence and the choices to be active. Skill development takes time and requires quality instruction. Volume and quality of "practice" are central determinants in achieving mastery of game and movement skills. Lets do the maths. The NSW FMS literature suggested it takes up to 600 minutes to achieve competency of one FMS. Competency usually being 3 out of 5 trials of an FMS are successful; so competency is 60% effectiveness. Mastery is therefore much higher. So in 9-10 hours of distributed practice a novice might learn to competency one FMS skill. You have to ask the question, how much longer must it take to achieve mastery of the more complex and complicated to perform sport specific skills of any one sport? How many sports could a novice "learn" to tactical and technical competency in a semester? During the 6 years of primary school? During the 5 years of secondary school? Especially if there is no curricular coherence from one unit of work to the next.
The challenge seems to be that less is more when it comes to aiming for learning anything substantially or with any "depth" in PE. Covering less but in more detail, linking themes and concepts and principles of play across units of work horizontally through the year and vertically through the year levels so students are challenged towards ever increasing levels of performance achievement and understanding would seem to be more educationally defensible than the persistent multi-activity program model.
One curriculum model consistent with this direction is the Sport Education model. It has been shown to offer the development of social skill learning in addition to movement skill learning. It has been shown to be preferred by girls, lower-skilled students and students that are "non-particpators" in typical PE. Research suggests high levels of student engagement, and the "pedagogical toolkit" of Sport Education has been successfully applied to outdoor and adventure activities, gymnastics, swimming and athletics. The Sport Education curriculum model incorporates TGfU-Game Sense pedagogy to achieve game competency objectives, and co-operative learning pedagogies in the interdependent small-group or team affiliation aspect of the model. However, research suggests the Sport Education model is not one used by a majority of PE teachers in Australia for a more educationally rich and rigorous PE in the games and sport component of the PE program.
"Are we improving?" is not a question about the curriculum document, but a question about the design and enactment of physical EDUCATION and therefore, a question about the efficacy of PE teachers. A typical PE program sequentially marching through content chronologically has been criticised and questioned and yet persists as the normative program model. And yet, it seems that Mulder was right, "the truth is out there" as there is in the literature since 1994 twenty years of accumulated research evidence of another curriculum model, Sport Eduction, with better "educative" credentials than the multi-activity program model.
Vague notions of playing games and sports are no longer adequate attitudes towards PE. Vague notions of playing games and sports in the belief that students might find something they enjoy if the program covers enough activities, and that the student might be motivated sufficiently to take to it as a regular mode of physical activity accumulation, have not been adequate attitudes towards PE programming for a long time...so why do they persist?