Preliminary Principles of Meaningful Physical Education in Schools

Based on several pilot projects where we have experimented with pedagogies to support meaningful physical education, we have developed the following principles and ideas that might shape an approach to Meaningful PE. We are keen to point out that we don’t feel these are set in stone in any way: one of the main points of doing this work is to try them out so they can be refined based on teachers’ and students’ experiences and responses.

  • Ideas about meaningful PE align with social constructivist theories of learning, where learning is viewed as a social process grounded in active inquiry and exploration, with learners making sense of knowledge through reconciling new experiences with those from the past. Teachers and students should work together, sharing responsibility for choosing the content of PE. For example, outcomes from our pilot research lead us to recommend that teachers shift from the authoritarian role of “instructor” to a more liberal role of “activity broker” by providing students with autonomy in their learning (Beni, et al., 2018). This follows Kretchmar’s (2006) argument that teachers should help students discover their “personal playgrounds” through providing opportunities for deep play (extended engagement encounters) in learning environments conducive to exploration and experimentation. This means that the Meaningful PE is not limited to, for example, games content: it is appropriate across all PE subject matter (games, dance, gymnastics, aquatics) and can be linked to the particular outcomes and expectations described in official curriculum documents across a variety of contexts.
  • The features of meaningful PE identified in our major review of literature (Beni, et al., 2017) guide teachers’ decisions about planning and instruction: (1) social interaction, (2) optimal level of challenge, (3) fun, (4) improving motor competence, (5) personally relevant learning, and (6) delight. Tasks are selected and/or designed based on their potential to help students engage with or experience the features of meaningful PE. From our pilot research, we recommend that the features be thought of as integrated rather than as a checklist.
  • Teachers employ strategies that support students in exercising autonomy. For example, students collaborate with teachers to make decisions about the type and nature of tasks they will engage in (and for how long). Pilot testing showed that students highly valued experiences where they felt supported in making autonomous decisions about how they engaged with PE content, including: selecting specific tasks based on personal level of interest or challenge; contributing to group composition decisions; modifying tasks to tailor the level of challenge to individual skill levels, and; identifying tasks to be assessed in culminating activities (Ní Chróinín, et al., 2018). When students are allowed more control of their own PE experience it allows them to carry out activities they find meaningful in their own right, and engage with tasks that have relevance for their lived realities.
  • Students are encouraged to identify short- and long-term goals for their learning. Pilot testing showed that goal-setting facilitates personally relevant learning for students where they can identify ways to transfer learning to their lives outside of school.
  • Teachers engage students in reflective processes (e.g., journalling, probing questions) during and after PE lessons. Reflections allow students to identify the nature and extent of the meaning they make in PE and make sense of their experiences (O’Connor, 2018), while also serving as an assessment tool for teachers. Students who participated in pilot testing described the public posting of the features of meaningful PE (e.g., on a poster) as being particularly helpful to identify how they made meaning in PE.

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