*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.