The role of challenge in meaningful physical education – Part 1

Students in physical education have frequently reported a desire to engage in activities that provide adequate levels of challenge. Meaningful challenges in physical education have even been cited by some secondary school physical education students as a main reason for their continued participation in physical activity, as well as the cause for their increased engagement (Gillison, Sebire, and Standage, 2012). Appropriately challenging activities are those that are difficult or challenging enough to promote learning and the achievement of objectives, and yet are not so difficult or challenging that success is beyond the individual’s reach. We refer to this as “just right” challenge.

Some students have expressed a desire for greater levels of challenge in physical education because they often feel bored by a lack of challenge in many of their activities (Dyson, 1995; Rikard & Banville, 2006). And yet for other students, activities that are perceived to be too challenging may cause a lack of motivation in physical education (Carlson, 1995). So how do physical education teachers provide an adequate level of challenge for each individual student?

Some students have suggested that challenges are more meaningful when they are given the opportunity to set and achieve personal targets/objectives (Gillison, Sebire, and Standage, 2012); goal setting may be one way to help students achieve personally meaningful challenges. Some models that include small group learning where group goals can be set can also help in this regard (such as Cooperative Learning, Sport Education, or Game-Centred Approaches). Furthermore, some researchers have suggested allowing students to take an active role in their learning by allowing them to choose their own level of challenge. Dyson (1995) found that when students were able to take ownership of what they were trying to achieve, their experiences were more meaningful. Although allowing choice may be a way for the teacher to individualize challenge level for twenty-plus students simultaneously, a degree of developmental appropriateness is recommended. Some students may be altogether amotivated to challenge themselves at all while others may have unrealistic perspectives of what may or may not constitute an adequate level of challenge. Thus allowing students to choose their level of challenge should not be apart from teacher input and guidelines.

One aspect of challenge that our pre-service physical education students mention time and again is competition. We consider the role of competition in providing appropriate challenge in physical education in our next post.

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