Primary (Elementary) Physical Education - What is the point?

There was a conversation on Twitter about primary (elementary) school physical education. Essentially, the first Tweet asked: If competency in a movement form (like an overarm throw) performed in a closed activity (a non opposed drill) takes up to 60 hours of deliberate engagement to achieve, and I get 40 lessons a year of 30-45 minutes, what's the point _ I can't deliver on movement competency learning in that time? A lot of time in Australia and other countries this situation arises as the 'specialist' PE teacher has a class for one of the class teacher non instruction lessons - the time when the class teacher gets to do marking, planning, or parent follow-ups. The other non instruction lessons might be taken up by a specialist language teacher, or music teacher, or art teacher. That is because primary schools are staffed on a generalist teacher model where the class teacher delivers the majority of the curriculum to their class. That means in a lot of schools, physical education falls to the responsibility of the class teacher if there is not a specialist PE teacher to take the class. Where there is a specialist PE teacher, the class teacher may be inclined to think 'that subject is ticked-off' and not provide any additional explicit teaching of physical education.

In many countries, children are not moving into adolescence with the coordination and control of fundamental (or general) movement competence that underpin the perceived and actual self efficacy in movement choice. I have blogged about this situation before (see here) and the need for PE teachers to become more activist about the status of PE in primary (elementary) schools. If you are interested in this state of play of global assessment of primary school movement competence, Stephen Harvey and I did a review of movement competency research from 1997-2017 published here open access.

People familiar with my work will know I fall under the education side of physical education. If the answer to the question posed by the teacher in my opening paragraph is: 'at least you are giving them the opportunity to recreate and have some fun with movement', which is how some people responded, then I think great, the school can save a lot of money and get rid of the PE teacher and hire a physical activity provider, as they are paid less than a PE teacher (at least that is the case in Australia). However, if the school will not provide the physical education teacher with adequate time to deliver on the physical education curriculum mandates (such as developing movement competence: and time recommendations generally fall between the 120-180 minutes a week range) then I like Dick Telford's concept of the (minimum) ideal week (see here for Dick Telford's research)-
1x60 minute PE lesson with the PE teacher
1x60 minute PE lesson/week with the class teacher
3x15 minute (in addition to recess and lunch) physical activity breaks/week (i.e. a PA break on the days when there is no PE, ideally connected with the movement focus of the PE lessons)

One of the first study's I undertook as as an academic was to look at the perception of primary school pre-service teachers to physical education. I was given the core topic in Health and Physical Education for the primary school Bachelor of Education. Primary school pre-service teachers have to do curriculum studies in all learning areas as they teach across the curriculum. That first year, I was 'rocked back on my heels' by the number of people who didn't want to be there as they had such poor memories of their physical education (a situation that persists in this topic to this day). My study found a discontinuity between the pre-service teachers perception of their work as physical education teachers and their experiences in school settings. If you are interested in the study, the paper is available here The program I suggested at the time (see the figure below) involved the lesson/s with the PE teacher being supported by 'dailyPE' physical activity episodes with the class teacher.

The point here is, if we want the class teacher delivering physical education we need to convince them of the value of doing so when faced with the 'crowded curriculum' dilemma and pressures to go narrow but deep on literacy and numeracy. If primary school pre-service teachers commence study to prepare them to teach the physical education curriculum negatively predisposed to the idea of physical education then those of us who deliver this preparation have a challenge in changing attitudes as well as teaching the pedagogical and content knowledge. Better yet, would be those pre-service teachers arriving eager to learn to teach physical education as they remembered their school physical education fondly.

However, there is also another concern. A colleague of mine who works in sport rang the other day as he had just delivered into a primary school generalist program and he was surprised at the low level of movement ability of many of the pre-service teachers. In one way, this shouldn't be a surprise as these are the young adults of the generation identified ten and more years ago as many not reaching adolescence with coordination and control of fundamental (or general) movement skills. This situation might seem to support the call by some for specialist PE teachers in primary schools as the default staffing situation rather than the school choice situation (see here for an example of this argument). However, then we are back to the situation of ensuring the specialist PE teacher has sufficient school curriculum time to deliver a physical education curriculum that enables young people to progress in movement competence and confidence.


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