After being a part of the standards-based revolution in education for years, specifically physical education, I felt like it was time to share my thoughts. There are similar concepts under different titles such as competency-based, mastery-based, proficiency-based, etc. But what’s in a name, right? It all boils down to the same system of achievement for students and teachers. I’ve discovered through many online conversations with some of our most well-studied professionals that the available research literature indicates that the most impactful class culture for future outcomes in active lifestyles is mastery-oriented and helps students develop both perceived and actual self-efficacy of movement competence.
With that information, it seems that a balance must be struck between actual competence and self-perceived. Students do need some evidence-based information as to where they stand with the learning, but at the same time, future participation in physical activity is also largely determined by how people feel about their abilities, regardless of the stone-cold truth. If People feel good about their skills, even if the view is somewhat inflated, they’re much more likely to continue applying them in the future by joining groups, leagues, schools, or even individual pursuits. People are motivated to do what they think they’re good at. Makes sense, right?
Standards-based grading (SGB) in powerful in that it allows for more targeted interventions for individual learners. Our learning time in schools is limited, and spending as much time as possible in a productive way matters, and so it’s much more efficient when we know exactly what a student knows and can do. SBG also allows education teams to find lapses in instruction. If most students are not achieving based on the current instruction, standards-based systems help this become known faster than non-SBG ones. But on the flip side, I know for many students the SBG ratings reinforces the perspective that “I’m just a two and always going to be a two.” At least in a traditional A-F grading system, they’d only see four or five “low scores” on the report card as opposed to pages upon pages of them. The twenty or more low marks they get on an SBG report card just feels a whole lot worse to them than a few C grades. I see this with my oldest child at home. It’s a small but relevant gripe.
My first big issue with standards-based grading is that it tends to push educators and students away from freedom, creativity and individuality and might even end with some loss of unique knowledge not attached to the specific learner targets. If it’s not in the standards, many teachers won’t cover it. SBG removes the incentive to teach anything other than those standards that are graded. Some of the most fun and wacky activities may be lost forever if we focus solely on standardized outcomes or goals. Look at the SHAPE America grade level outcomes (GLOs), where standards are broken down into such detail that specific movements are assessed. With such specificity, there’s not always a lot of room left for individuality, learning that’s meaningful to local culture, or other tangents. And let’s not forget the vast differences in facilities, schedules, equipment options, class sizes, and a host of other variables that exist. Standards and a plethora of variables don’t always co-exist peacefully.
I appreciate the SHAPE GLOs in giving us a place to work from so we have an idea of what students should know before they leave each grade. However, it does come at a price and conflicts with what we know of human development. There is, after all, a variance of two to three years in physical and mental maturity in children. What that means is that any given 10-year-old can be anywhere from 7-13 with regards to physical and mental development. We all see it daily. Does it make sense to have them feel inadequate or inferior for not being proficient when the standard may not be appropriate for them in the first place? Sure, maybe a typical 10-year-old should be able to do X, Y and Z, but how many of them are typical? Individualization is lost. They are either good enough at a standard or they are not. And let’s not forget that the standards are based on grade levels, not age, so this variance is even worse! A fourth grader could be eight to ten years old. Factor in the + or – two to three years and…well, you get the idea.
This type of mindset all begins with baby milestones. Parents get freaked out if their child isn’t talking or walking by a certain age. Sure, it makes sense to be aware in case of delays that need interventions, but most of the time each child is simply on their own timeline. They may walk at 10 months or 14. In the end they both acquire the skill when they need it, right? SBG tells children they need to be on the same timeline as everyone else or they are behind in development. What a sad message that no doubt had long-lasting consequences on the hearts and minds of future movers! With all that in mind, I wish more folks would understand that the GLOs are better used as a guidepost instead of a hardcoded learning doctrine. And if it’s not in the standards, is it worth teaching? If not, says who? And from what culture or perspective?
I’ve read a few blogs or articles on meaningful SBG in physical education (or education in general). Many of them have almost no discussion of self-perceived versus actual competence balance. The focus is on what a teacher or standard says they’re good at (which already dismisses the knowledge we have on maturity variance), regardless of how humanely that information is shared with students, and never really gives importance to the idea of letting kids feel, in their own hearts and minds, that they’re good at something from their own perspective. I’m not arguing against the importance of kids focusing on learning goals, but does such an information-heavy system of rubrics really motivate students to move for the rest of their lives (which is arguably our biggest goal)? Can it be tamed a bit and share space with more student-perceived success stemming from less standards-based criteria?
What I’m saying is that a SBG system of information can create a student experience of losing self-perceived competence, which can make or break a future of movement outcomes. I believe we need a better balance, letting students have more individualized input on their learning targets (if a child is in third grade, does that mean they can’t find more meaning or validity in second grade outcomes?), but with us as facilitators so they don’t get too far off course. Sure, there will be extremes with a few students being lazy or wanting the easy way out, but in my decades of experience, lower motivation comes from standards being too hard, not because there’s too much choice or voice. And who knows, starting with targets more valid for their personal maturity might lead to faster growth with each smaller success, snowballing into a mountain of momentum that may have been halted or slowed under strict SBG-focused systems.
My second issue with SBG has been covered in a blog I wrote about grading for Pete Charrette’s (Cap'n Pete) site last year. On top of the physical and mental maturity variances, students also come to us with wildly different experiences with skills, many of which can be attributed to how involved their parents are in pushing organized sports and athletic experiences, which often comes down to socio-economic status and other related factors. Basketball skill assessment data in an inner-city school would be vastly better than, say, lacrosse skills (which is typically more prominent in wealthier districts), without any physical education lessons at all. This socio-economic disparity is happening in our classrooms every single day, basically an achievement system based on whether parents are great at giving their kids movement experiences at home.
A daily math or writing class can change student outcomes regardless of parents, but when you see your students three times a month on average, well, parents and home life determine success far more than time spent with us. This means that we have far less impact on growth than we believe, and I suspect most of the pre and post-assessment data showing big growth is due to factors such as eight months of maturity in-between assessments plus possible sand-bagging pre-assessment scores. The available research points to anywhere from 10-20 hours to gain proficiency in a skill ,and factoring in that every student comes to us from a different starting point, how much growth comes from the physical education experience if we see students 20-40 hours a year? Which two to five skills would we need to focus on all year in pursuit of standards-based proficiency?
My third issue is not specific to SBG, but it does tend to follow teachers who focus on a specific unit or sport to work on a standard or skill instead of a broad spectrum of experiences. Let’s look at hand striking or volleying skills. It’s far easier to show growth through pre and post-assessing skills tied to a single sport or activity than it is to expose students to multiple ways to use the same skills. I believe helping students discover multiple games, sports or activities that apply a skill or standard gives them a better chance at future participation. Many teachers will run a 4-6-week volleyball unit, and that’s pretty much the only way their students will work on hand volleying or striking all year.
The issue with this is that only a small percentage of students will play volleyball, and the teacher is determining that a single sport is all their students should know or experience (often because they coach or play the sport and are comfortable with it), whereas exposing them to multiple possibilities is better at future-proofing. What will a larger number of students need in their futures? Focusing on gaining some proficiency in volleyball, or having been exposed to a little bit of everything they may come across in their lives, like spikeball, tableball, 2 or 4-square (or 9-square in the air), wall/hand ball, and other selections? Since proficiency is not really a possibility given how little I see students, I choose to give them different experiences and discoveries. I’m not sure it would change all that much even if I doubled my contact time with them. Fill that tool-belt with a few key items for specific jobs, or many different options for most jobs?
My fourth and final issue with SBG is the loss of joy as a focus. I'm not saying it's gone, but it often feels as if we try to coerce students into finding joy through what we need them to learn, instead of letting their individuality, our local culture, or other factors also have importance. Sure, like most, I'm an advocate for finding power standards that most students should experience, but we also need to figure out how to reach students at their needs or interests as well. Physical education is a wounded animal, vying for relevance and respect as part of the education umbrella after years of abuse, and as such I feel we are hyper-focusing on standards, rigor, assessment, and eking out the most data possible. We need to loosen our grip a little on the student experience and let them have a little more say in their learning. We should not try to be like other subjects beyond what we need to survive or keep our jobs. There needs to be a balance for the sake of kids and their active futures.
After all that, what does my teaching look like? I essentially have students run through self-guided or paced progressions in many lessons, collecting data with Plickers magnets (#plagnets), but with choice of challenge level (ball/equipment type, how many successes are needed each level, distance, etc.). They check their own skills in a more individualized way, which frees me up to help those falling behind the rest of the class. Athletes or those with specific skills on a topic can choose more challenging material, lesser skilled can simplify as needed, and this leads to better self-perceived confidence, which in turn leads to higher future participation rates. It’s a constant balancing act of collecting learning data while being true to the needs of children.
The message I really want to portray here is that unless we are very careful, SBG done well is still *grading* and can result in a fixed learner mindset. Let students experience self-perceived competence as often as possible. We’re trying to grow participation in lifelong movement, not just create elite athletes, and solely relying on the adults in the room to tell them whether they are finding success takes away some of their autonomy or self-purpose.
Would love to hear your thoughts here or on Twitter!
I got involved in a Twitter discussion yesterday over instant activity resources that I love to create for folks. The main gist was about whether instant activities should be a part of physical education classes, and it inspired a researcher to blog about it, so I wanted to respond. It gave me reason to pause as it wasn’t a topic I’ve had anyone question before. Does this also apply to Minute-To-Win-It challenges?
Let’s start by acknowledging that, without a doubt, we need research to help move our profession forward, and reflection is important for my own practice and pedagogy. That said, I feel like academics who are not in the trenches (or used to be years ago) sometimes forget that there can be a disconnect between research or textbook methodology and the actual art of teaching young children. Getting students to engage is physical activity can be challenging, and inspiring them to participate can be quite an artform in and of itself. Instant activities have always helped me bridge the gap, giving students a fun way to acclimate into moving after a week of sitting on a couch playing video games, especially if you’re like the many P.E. teachers who only see their students once a week (even twice).
Instant activities also provide another much-needed service. Many of us teach back to back classes, with grade levels changes each time, requiring adjustment of our equipment (unless you are someone who teachers 1st grade the same lesson as the 4th grade coming in right after them, but that’s a whole other conversation). Instant activities allow us some breathing room to move equipment around as needed, plus adjust to a whole new set of grade level outcomes, standards, learning targets, and students with individual needs, IEPs, 504s, behavior plans, medical notes, parent notes…all to be digested within minutes.
Instant activities also allow us to showcase the plethora of health-related fitness options with a fun catalyst, giving it a positive association, all while integrating SEL interactions and learning, again, showing students that they can exercise together and add elements like gamification and randomness to make it more fun. To the point about seeing kids once a week, when in that situation, you need to rely on them wanting to be active on their own. I feel that teaching concepts like health and fitness-related skills can be boring for children, but it’s important content they will need growing up and into adulthood. Now add some friends, dice, RPS, spinners, or cone-flipping to the mix, and students will be far more engaged as the learning of bodyweight exercise options becomes more tolerable, if not even joyous to many. There’s a reason gamified fitness apps have been created, even for adults. Zombies Run or Pokémon Go got millions of people moving for fun.
And by golly, instant activities bring joy to most kids (nothing is 100% in this world). It doesn’t take research to see the positive experience kids have while doing instant activities at the beginning of class, especially after being stuck in seats for hours (flexible seating and movement breaks help, but many classroom teachers still fight this over lack of control). I’ve even surveys them using Plickers magnets (plagnets) about how they feel before and after these activities, with positive results.
I’m going to respond to some major points that Dr. Justen O’Connor brought up in his blog, linked at the bottom. His is a solid read that will inspire reflection, but I feel it came from a purely philosophical perspective, and as someone who uses these activities daily with students in real-time, I wanted to share my views.
Is it about providing enough PA to make a meaningful contribution to overall fitness?
I feel the question is missing the point entirely. With weekly 40-minute lessons, instant activities allow teachers to showcase the hundreds of health-related fitness component exercises that students could use in their active futures. They learn that there are more than push-ups to help build arm, chest and shoulder muscles (which the fitness test doesn’t do justice to). And with activities that connect exercise to an outcome such as rolling dice, spinners, finger counting, RPS, hula hoop spinning, and others, it all shows children that exercise can be gamified or connected to joyous moments. When kids flip cones to land upright, they will have a different perspective or mindset when doing the exercise connected to how many successful flips they get. Now try the activity I just described, and then ask them to just simply try different exercises without something fun being connected. Moans, groans and angry faces abound. There’s something exciting about randomness or mystery (adults love gambling and game shows for a reason), and many of these instant activities offer that element of gamification.
With once a week classes, we will never get kids proficient in many skills, especially if you believe the research showing it can take anywhere from 10-20 hours (yes, students come to us at different levels, but it doesn’t matter, how much growth will there be seeing them 3-4 times a month?). I feel we need to expose children to as many different ideas as we can and hope that some of them stick for an active future. It’s not about how many push-ups students can do, unless you see them 3-5x a week, at which point you can influence growth. But for the rest of us, should we not show children all the options available simply because they won’t gain enough muscle or reps?
Is it teaching them about how to do fitness exercises? We don’t go to a gym and use an exercise randomizer.
I beg to differ. I’ve never gone to a fitness class where I knew the routine. It’s always random choreography from the instructor, which is part of the fun. Sure, if you go to lift weights, you no doubt have a routine set, but I liken instant activities more to fitness classes rather than weight training, especially given the social interactions and lots of movement. While I won’t argue that an instant activity shouldn’t be connected to a concept or idea, that’s up to each teacher to apply to their culture. In creating the instant activity resources, I share out via social media and my website, I see it as offering the P.E. world a tool to use. It’s up to each educator to figure out how to use it for their situations. There are so many different variables and needs around the world that I personally just let the tool be generic in nature, therefore it can be applied to almost any situation or need. If you’re doing underhand tossing that day, flipping is a good lead-up even though most kids don’t step with the opposite foot to flip (though some do). It helps teach force, distance, rotation, energy, trial-by-error, and other physics-based ideas.
So, are they embodying movement here?
This quote from Dr. O’Connor did get a chuckle out of me: “If you walk around at lunchtime, recess or after school and come across pockets of kids flipping a cone and launching into pushups, you know you are onto something.”
That was a cute statement, however, come on now, if that’s the bar for what’s worthy of our time, I should be teaching nothing but Fortnite dances, basketball shooting and sitting on bleachers. Creating a positive association between fitness & joy opens minds to the possibilities for their active futures. I believe the biggest issue here is that because an instant activity tool/resource is shared but doesn’t explicitly state how to facilitate meaningful connections for students, then the tool isn’t worthy of our time. Again, I leave it up to each teacher to use the tool as they need for their culture, and discussions like the one we had can help folks reflect on how to best implement them. Should there be discussion before or after? Absolutely! Anything we do in class should have some “why” that we share with our students. I often even offer choice of activity, or at least choice of equipment or fitness done within the activity when possible.
Are they learning social skills?
I use instant activities (IA’s from here on out) to enhance many social skills. I even have some specifically designed for understanding facial expressions. They can also build on greetings and thanks (shaking hands, fist bumps, high fives, etc), sportsmanship, look the classmates in the eyes, and simply working together on a task. It doesn’t have to be deep to be beneficial. I don’t usually do IA’s to increase accountable talk. I save that for discussions around the main lesson focus. IA’s are also a great way for students to work with a bunch of different peers, breaking through some awkwardness. If you tell them they need a new partner each time, it pushes them out of their comfort zone while still allowing them to find those they feel more connected to.
Again, in creating activity resources, I leave it up to teachers to apply it to their culture and needs. By not adding in specific ways to increase the learning, can some teachers do the bare minimum? Sure, but I think that applies to any teacher resource. I like to focus my time and energy on getting the most done in the least amount of time, and trust that teachers will apply it the best they can. I’m in my 22nd year, and still adjusting activities used for decades as I reflect on my teaching.
Is it just a ‘starter’ and we shouldn’t be concerned with it?
When I read statements such as “It's only for five-seven minutes, who cares?” it immediately feels disingenuous because it assumes someone who does IA’s doesn’t care about those 5 minutes of learning. If that were true, they’d just have kids run laps or doing push-ups to a whistle or cadence. As a resource creator, I certainly care enough to go to the lengths of creating activities that bring joy to children, and sharing them out.
To close this out, I want to share that practically every major physical education resource (at least based around the United States) shares instant activities as good practice for lessons. Be it SHAPE America, OPENPhysed.org/US Games, PE Central, Gopher, Flaghouse, and even most of the well-known P.E. teachers in our field share out instant activities all the time in workshops and on social media. Are they all wrong, or do some researchers simply miss the mark with regards to what instant activities bring to physical education?
Does every single second we spend with students need to be connected to a single main target objective, or can positive outcomes happen from joyous instant activities that help us build relationships and connections with their world? By offering them the chance to flip cones while exercising, does that bring more meaning and joy than ensuring that each IA is directly connected to the lesson focus? I’d love to see research that shows it’s detrimental to teach children that exercise can be connected to other fun ideas, even with random results. There’s a reason why so many apps have been created like Zombies Run, Pokémon Go, Nike + Run, Fitbit. Gamified fitness is so much more tolerable, perhaps even joyous enough, to promote continued participation…
Here’s the link to Dr. O'Connor's blog, which does bring up some valid points that we should reflect on.