*Originally posted on Cap'n Pete's Blog.
Most of us are not improving the psychomotor skills of our students all that much, and we’re grading them based more on their home life than growth in physical education. “Wait, what did Ginicola just say?” Yes, it’s true, I contend that we’re assessing the values parents place on movement and physical activity as opposed to skills that students develop in P.E. class. Now, before you pull out the pitchforks, give me a chance to explain. I wrote this blog knowing that it might be controversial, but I feel it’s important to discuss what we know about skill acquisition and proficiency, and what’s really being learned in an average P.E. class.
I’ve had a nagging suspicion for years that my impact on student skills was minimal. It started with fitness testing. I’ve collected fitness scores for 20 years and have come to realize that improvements only happened if students took responsibility for their own fitness at home. If a student can do a couple more push-ups at the end of the year, it’s more likely a result of their bodies developing or joining sports and other activities than practicing 20 of them once a week in physical education. Don’t get me wrong, learning proper technique and form during class helps, but the impact is likely minimal. I became aware that evaluating teachers and students on fitness test results was invalid and unreliable after getting involved on social media.
A large part of the reason why fitness testing shouldn’t be used for grades or teacher evaluation is because so many of us only see our students once or twice a week for 40-50 minutes. As we know from decades of research, unless kids are active four or more days a week, there will be limited improvement in their fitness levels. And yet so many teachers use fitness test data for their SLOs (student learning objectives) and evaluations. Even the Cooper Institute, creator of the popular FitnessGram assessment, has a position statement against grading students and evaluating teachers based on the results. Now, if you’re lucky enough to see your students four to five days a week, then this blog might not fully apply to you. Unless, however, you see 75-100 students per class. I’d wager that the limited personal contact time you’d have with each student in that situation would also hinder their progress.
Let’s move on to what I see as the real controversy surrounding our programs. If you agree with the fitness testing issue, then does that not also apply to all other physical skills and grade level outcomes? Based on various studies and findings (resources linked below), it takes anywhere from 10-40 hours to reach proficiency with a skill. For purposes of this blog, let’s go with 15 hours. If it takes 15 hours of practice to grow from beginner to proficient in a skill, and we see students for 30 hours a year, doesn’t that mean we could only ever get our students proficient in two psychomotor skills per year? That’s abysmal considering SHAPE America has around 30 elementary psychomotor grade level outcomes for students in any given grade. Would any physical educator teach only two skills the entire year? That would be mind-numbingly boring for both the teacher and students. However, with the average curriculum only covering a specific skill for two to four lessons each year, we’re not giving students anywhere near enough time to make adequate gains in proficiency. In fact, they’re barely going to improve in those one to two hours of practice, yet we grade them on growth.
What are we to do? Should we continue on the same path, or rethink our mission? Now, admittedly, many of the grades K-2 grade level outcomes are something I do feel we can have a big impact on, mostly because they are either simple exposure (Taps a ball using the inside of the foot, sending it forward - S1.E18.K) or displaying a few critical elements (Strikes a ball off a tee or cone with a bat, using correct grip and side orientation/proper body orientation - S1.E25.2). These are easier to assess. But the upper elementary GLO’s often require a higher level of achievement, and therefore more practice hours, to be rated as proficient. As example is going from hitting a ball off a T-base in grade 2 to “Strikes a pitched ball with a bat using a mature pattern - S1.E25.5a.” in grade 5. That’s not usually something the average child will be proficient at in 1 hour of exposure per year.
Here’s the part that really made me reflect on my P.E. program focus: If we assess students on psychomotor skills, but don’t see them enough to really impact their growth, aren’t we really grading them on socioeconomic status and whatever activities their parents allow in their lives? Would the typical inner-city student score well on a basketball skills assessment regardless of attending physical education? Now, what if we assessed their short or long handle racquet or golf skills instead? What about the opportunities a more affluent district would offer? Those children are much more likely to be exposed to different sports and activities often unavailable to impoverished students. I’m generalizing of course, but these are roadblocks for many students that need to be considered.
To top it all off, there are other variables in the mix. Many students do get exposure outside of our class, so they may not come to use as true beginners. However, any gains they get throughout the year is more likely from an after-school program than our class. While it’s true that students see us for multiple years, they should be working on different progressions of skills every grade. This means that 10-15 new hours of practice might be needed from year to year, with students falling further behind. Another issue that might exist is that those skills potentially degrade if the practice is only once a week for 45 minutes, with time off between holidays and summer. Unless they are practicing the skills at home, there’s a lot of downtime between contacts for us. That might cause the 15 hours to increase to 20+ due to infrequency. Add to that each individual student requiring more or less time.
So where does this leave us? What is our purpose? Should we focus less on unpacking standards and just go with the common “busy, happy, good” class structure? My answer is a hearty “no.” I’ve come to the realization that the greatest gift I could give my students was exposure to many different movement experiences so they could see all the possibilities for their active futures. I had to find a balance between grading the standards and giving students many meaningful and diverse opportunities to explore the possibilities. One theme that pops up a lot on Twitter is that the standards are only a guideline. They exist to inform our program; not dictate everything we should cover. My goal is to help students discover what makes them happy. We work on skills from the standards like everyone else, but I give them a choice and voice in equipment and their personal goal as often as I can. If we’re working on striking skills, I offer different sizes of paddles, racquets, noodles, or even their hands as options. I let them choose the ball type…small, big, low bounce, high bounce. Do they want to work alone, with partners, or small groups? I facilitate the beginnings of their physical literacy journey. I do not dictate everything. With 30 contact hours a year, I accept the limits of my situation and make the best of it. I let students figure out what they need as best I can. I love this graphic from George Couros:
What about grading? I have no choice but to deal with a standards-based report card, however, I rely more on self-assessment than teacher-assessment. I gather a lot of data from Plickers magnets (search for #plagnets) in my class, but more to inform me and my students as to where they are on their skill journey, and less about report cards. In my experience, content knowledge seems to get picked up rather quickly, so I’m less concerned over cognitive and affective skills/outcomes than psychomotor-based. Given that, what does my class look like? It really changes all the time as I constantly reflect on lessons and experiences, and what the learners in front of me need. I focus on giving them the chance to find success every week, even if that looks different from student to student. Why? Because in the end, the way they perceive their abilities is a powerful motivator that determines whether or not they continue being active in the future. Grading students poorly on skills they can’t possibly improve in our limited class time creates an aversion to movement. I choose to be an enabler, not a deterrent. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on this.
I have to start by sharing that I lost an amazing former student in Sandy Hook years ago, Vicki Soto. She was a teacher at the school, and gave her life to protect students. It happened 30 minutes from where I teach. So believe me, I have been impacted by gun violence more than many others. I'm a military veteran, and have seen awful things during war.
So why am I tell you all this? Well, I recently shared an activity that I created related to the mega-popular video game Fortnite. It was a throwing activity, where students threw different types of balls (representing the weapons in the game) at bowling pins (the character or avatar). They worked cooperatively, grabbing different resources (cones, buckets, foam bricks) to build a fort around their pin for protection. They had to grab a bandage if their pin fell to get back in the game, grab a potion if they wanted to fix their fort, and a chug juice potion to be able to do both simultaneously. I needed to create display signs for the game, so I fervently went to work with Google image searches and the Comic Life publisher program. I shared my creation that night and got a lot of push-back from my social media PLN (professional learning network). What caused this you may ask? I mean, the basic “throwing at bowling pins” idea is a classic game system, so what made this so controversial? It was that I put in some pictures of guns, a shotgun, assault rifle, and rocket launcher from Fortnite. Needless to say, it became a 300+ notification, 10+ direct message night for me!
I ended up reflecting on the input and toning it down since I share my creations with the community, and if it was that offensive, then I wanted to make sure more students had a chance to play it. So I took out the gun signs and instead had displays that said “attack item 1, 2, 3, and 4.” This made most folks happy, but there were still quite a few who felt like I was the devil for promoting a violent and disturbing game. Have we become too sensitive? Are violent video games truly evil? Was I wrong by using Fortnite as a theme, regardless of having guns in the game or not? Turns out, most of the available research backs up my beliefs. While there are quite a few psychologists who feel that violent video games are bad for kids, there’s a ton of research showing the opposite. In fact, some actual benefits have been shown!
A lot of research is also starting to show that eliminating toy guns and aggressive play in kids is causing social consequences. Children are not learning how to control real-life impulses, and what appropriate levels of contact are in sports and other areas. Many studies have shown that fathers wrestling with their kids teaches them self-control and restraint.
Here's an article covering why kids should be playing with toy guns: slate.com
Let’s dive into some actual science instead of fear mongering and opinion! One 2014 study carried out by Christopher J. Ferguson, Professor of Psychology at Stetson University, Florida, found video game consumption was in fact associated with a decline in youth violence rates. They actually help reduce stress and anger as opposed to causing it.
In another study, University of Oxford researchers found that poor behavior could be linked to an excess in time spent playing video games, but not the types of games that were being played.
From the article: “We also know that the risks attached to game-playing are small. A range of other factors in a child’s life will have a much heavier influence on their behavior.” In other words, like anything else, too much of a good thing is bad for us. Parents need to set limits, and make sure they are involved in their kids’ lives, and monitor what they’re doing.
A longitudinal study conducted in the Netherlands followed almost 200 kids who were exposed to a violent game at age nine, then tracked their behavior, and concluded that violent video games do not increase aggression in kids.
This article, entitled: “Here's Why Your Kid Won't Stop Playing Fortnite (And How it Could Actually be a Good Thing),” discusses all the benefits that gaming has been shown to give children.
From the article: “According to a study published in the American Journal of Play, action video games are particularly good for learning because they promote perception, attention and cognition. Another published in Molecular Psychiatry found that playing video games increases gray matter in brain areas responsible for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance. And according to research published in The Journal of Neuroscience, playing a complex 3D video game can stimulate the brain's hippocampus, resulting in improved memory.”
Here’s an interesting title from the NYPost with research conducted by the popular TV show Vice: “Why violent video games are good for kids.”
“According to research cited by Vice, not only do violent games help users skirt violent behavior, but the games can actually have beneficial effects. A study conducted in 2014, at Stetson University in Florida, shows that the playing of death-bloated video-games actually caused real-life violence to decrease. Vice speculates that the pixelated mayhem gives gamers an outlet for their aggression, or [keeps] potentially violent people safely at home.”
So, after quite a bit of research, I am very confident that violent video games have no negative impact on children. And while I completely understand and respect the sensitive nature of guns and violence in our culture, I'm pushing back because I know that we're doing more harm than good by making everything so taboo and mysterious for kids. My 'Fort Busters' game was a huge success, with students asking if we could play it again next week, and a record week of almost no behavior issues. I met my students where their motivation lies, and it paid off in huge dividends. Students even reported playing outside at home, creating games like the one I shared with them in class. Think about that...they got home and wanted to play outside instead of the video game itself.
In the end, we all have to do what's right based on our culture and personal beliefs. I took out the name and gun images for the game, but students still knew it was based on Fortnite, and I'm fine with that. They know I play the game, as do most of their parents. It's a non-issue for me.