Getting Educated About Physical Education

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(Photo by Kapungo)

This summer, I took a class all about physical education. The course is taught by Mike Perez, an athlete, a coach, and a teacher with decades of experience, and the current head of West Valley College’s Athletics Program. So far it’s one of the most interesting and inspiring classes I’ve ever taken. Even if you’re not planning on entering the field–and especially if you are–you have take this class. Every day is a bit like The Last Lecture. I sure wish I took this course earlier in life and sure am glad I’ve had the chance to take it now.

Fixing Common Problems in PE

There’s quite a lot that goes into a good physical education program that we, and perhaps our PE teachers, have taken for granted. Some of it is glaringly obvious: for example, how important is it to let kids choose teams? Were you ever the last kid chosen? Do you remember how that felt? If you weren’t, what did you think the kids that were felt like? It takes a few minutes, no seconds, for the teacher to split the class up into teams and this saves a lot of the kids from a lot of anxiety.

Another major problem were teachers who just rolled the ball. “Here’s the ball, go play.” In a way it gives some freedom, but on the other hand, how many of the kids participate? Do the kids that need PE most get involved? This was the number one problem I heard when interviewing about the subject. Physical education should help develop cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills. While gameplay is important, a good educator should take the time to help his students improve, try new things, and build healthy habits for life. There are actually some well developed frameworks and motivational climate considerations that go into making a truly effective class. Take a look at this instructional environments article from The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance.

The article highlights the importance of creating an environment where the aim is mastery (personal improvement, building a solid foundation, working together to figure out tasks) versus one of competitive performance (where students compete for class standing). It also provides guidance in creating this motivational climate and evaluating the results of the lesson. The idea is that by setting up the lesson in a way that lets students measure themselves by their own improvements and mastering of tasks, far more students take part, enjoy, and benefit from the activity. In fact the focus on mastery over performance isn’t just for beginners, but applies to the most elite levels of competition, where mastery enables top athletes to keep competing and improving. This very much parallels Josh Waitzkin‘s ideas in The Art of Learning. If a focus on personal improvement is more beneficial to the awkward kid in the corner and the top athlete in the class, shouldn’t that be the focus instead of endless competitions? Our teacher sums this up as “quality of effort” and “process versus product.” The process is what real physical education is all about.

It’s great to see that perhaps the two top problems in physical education are so quickly highlighted and addressed in courses aimed at future PE teachers and that a focus on personal improvement for each student is underscored as a goal so early in the teacher development framework.

Making PE More Relevant

I must give credit to my schools, because many of my friends still bowl and play soccer, badminton, and basketball. Many were happy that at least for a fraction of the school day, they got a chance to play the sports they watch on TV. Although, I think most of these sports were more developed in after-school sports and junior leagues than in physical education classes themselves. For me, high jump, shotput, discus, wrestling, football, and badminton were new and I would never have tried them were it not for my school’s PE and sports programs. I’m sure it was that way for many other students as well.

Personally, I always liked PE. I was never a top athlete, but I liked my PE classes and did all sorts of afterschool sports. Looking back now, I’m grateful for the experiences and especially some of the teaching I received from my coaches. However, after taking this class, I see how much more is possible in a PE class. Did any of you have classes with obstacle courses? How about activity stations that let you choose skills? Think of playing baseball in PE, how many students are actually physically active and for what portion of the time? Did any of you have classes where you could try dancing salsa or hip hop instead of square dancing? Did anyone have yoga, pilates, martial arts, or the activities you participate in now? Today, my three top physical activities are house dance, yoga, and running. The first two were never even mentioned in my PE classes and I think running could have been presented in a far more fun and inspiring way (although, perhaps I wasn’t ready for Murakami back then). These, and many similar activities are far more inclusive, active and beneficial for students, and may help start these healthy activities earlier on in life and from what I see, physical education training programs realize this, and are helping today’s gym classes become more relevant.

Today’s Physcial Educators

Today’s physical education teacher training, covers a wide range of fields, including philosophy and history, to psychology and biomechanics and motor learning and development, to sports management, motivation, coaching, and educational theory and practice. It takes just as much care and ability to prepare a good PE lesson as it does to prepare a math or language arts one, and often the PE teacher must prepare this lesson for a far larger size class. Physical education teachers also get trained to help students build lifelong healthy habits. Perhaps it’s a bit easier at a college level, where most of the students are eager to learn and an instructor can just focus on her discipline, but I’ve been truly blown away by the level of teaching skills I’ve seen from both my yoga teacher and from Mike. It’s unfortunate some folks don’t give physical education the credit it’s due, especially with today’s problems of obesity.

Demand More

Next time your kid comes home, ask them what they did in PE? When you have back to school night, ask the PE teacher about his philosophy on the topic. (Really!) You will be pleasantly surprised. If you know someone who coaches or runs a class, ask them about their objectives, methods, and goals. You’ll see there’s a great depth and value in what they’re doing. If you don’t see it, you should demand more, their teachers sure do.

How About You?

Have you had an awesome PE or fitness experience? Have most of yours just faded away? Was there a coach or teacher that had a major impact on your life? Was there one you wish you never had? Please comment. I’d love to hear about it.

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