Considering the active school through systems thinking and complexity

Fox (1996) described the Active School as aware of the need to promote physical activity for all children. The Active School constantly considers strategies to get students moving and strategies to maximise opportunities to impact students desire to both be active and knowledge about physical activity. The Active School is therefore more than a label or an intention. It is a school where all associated with the school are exploring opportunities for students to be active while at school; both during curriculum time and in the span of hours of the school day that takes in time in the yard before classes start, and time after classes where school sport and club activities occur (Cale, 1997).

The Active School involves a comprehensive and integrated whole of school philosophy to improving students levels of physical activity, and associated with that, students health and well-being. In my early days as an academic, I proposed a 5 point plan for schools to create the physically active school, summarised in this ASCD blog (the complete article can be downloaded from my site here ). Recently I had a discussion with a physical educator working in a context where physical educations curriculum time was not assured. This conversation had me recently thinking again about the challenges of promoting not just the value of physical education as a curriculum entitlement for all children within the compulsory ages of schooling (which is it is in Australia, but is not in all countries) and more broadly, how to promote the Active School (which is a concept we teach in our primary teaching degree core topic on HPE). Promotion of school attainment of the Active School is as important as it has ever been, with research indicating that globally, children's movement competence and physical activity levels continue to decline. The only setting where we can ensure all children are movement educated and offered the opportunity to be physically active is the school.

The past couple of years, I have been supporting a research higher degree student undertake a project using systems thinking and complexity theory to explain a network connectivity analysis. Schools are a network of individuals. From a systems perspective, the development of a school as an Active School requires deliberate simultaneous attention on these individuals at the personal, professional, procedural, and policy level. It is the inter-relationships developed within and between these levels that are associated with the patterns of behaviour that become the Active School.

The system productivity (in this example, the product being the Active School) is a function of member interactions generating valued, sometimes known but yet to be revealed, sometimes new or unpredictable, results which would otherwise not be possible in the specific actions of individuals (Plsek & Wilson, 2001). Therefore, from a systems perspective, the Active School is not a fixed 'thing' or an assumed 'statement', as individuals actions are interconnected and therefore, effect each other, and they are subject to change. The Active School considered as a dynamic system, is continually adapting and therefore evolving as a consequence of the system interactions. There may be a set of shared 'rules', expressed as understandings, principles, or beliefs, however the dynamic interplay of members is actually what shapes the 'whole' system and gives the system its 'life'. The Active School therefore cannot be anticipated by a label, a badge,or a compliance checklist. It can only be known through constant observation and experience.

From a systems thinking perspective, a school shifts to an Active School by interventions in its existing system to force change in the system dynamics, that are context specific: that is, particular to the school. In other words, there can be no 'one way' to be an Active School, as every school is unique as a consequence of its individual members and the interactions that emerge. It can therefore be argued that system (school) change that results in the Active School requires context sensitive selection, recombination and reconfiguration, and application of information, produced from the interactions between members of the system. Efficient knowledge exchange is therefore crucial in the system (the school) using internal and external stimulus to create a new system state (Foster-Fishman, Nowell & Yang, 2007), which in the context of this discussion, the new state of the system being the Active School.

This systems perspective of complexity provides a lens into why school physical education and physical activity initiatives offered on the energy of a highly motivated and energetic physical educator, or an external consultant, do not sustain themselves when that individuals energy and motivation is withdrawn from the system. It also explains why the truly Active School is difficult to obtain, and why highly selective recruitment of members to the system is often necessary in order to create the human 'infrastructure' for the required flow of information that sustains the Active School.

The need for change from the typical 'physical education method' (Metzler, 2011) or 'traditional' approach (Kirk, 2010) is a constant theme since the mid-1960s in the socio-critical physical education literature. Considering the concept of 'change', systems modelling and network analysis might provide insights enabling a better match between the focus and intent of change discourse in physical education and the localised complexity within which it is embedded.


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