The Why, What, and How of Meaningful Physical Education

The cover of a book entitled Meaningful Physical Education – An Approach for Teaching and Learning

Tim Fletcher, Déirdre Ní Chróinín, Doug Gleddie, and Stephanie Beni

We have recently published a book, titled: Meaningful Physical Education: An Approach for Teaching and Learning, which is part of the Routledge Focus on Sport Pedagogy series. We provide an outline of the Meaningful PE approach and several teachers and teacher educators (including several from Ontario) explain how they have implemented the approach in their classrooms. In this post for OASPHE, we wanted to share a brief summary of the first chapter, ‘The why, what, and how of Meaningful Physical Education’. We are cross-posting this (if that is even a thing!) on the Meaningful PE blog, where we provide a lot of other ideas about Meaningful PE.

In the first chapter of the book, we outline the main theoretical and pedagogical foundations of the Meaningful PE approach. Since writing the chapter we have added some other thoughts about this in a recent open access publication in the journal Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, which is titled: ‘Pedagogical principles for prioritizing meaningful physical education: Conceptual and practical considerations’. Interested readers can find more detail about the approach in that article.

Why Meaningful PE?

We agree with Kretchmar (2008) who suggests that when meaningfulness is prioritized, students’ experiences in physical education have the potential to enrich the quality of their lives. In this way, meaningful physical education places the quality and personal significance of students’ experiences at the forefront of a teacher’s pedagogical decision-making. A consideration of why to use Meaningful PE begins with questioning one’s overarching vision or philosophy for teaching. For us, prioritizing meaningful experiences is crucial if we want children to experience some of the things in and about movement culture that have been and are so central to the quality of our own lives. We want children to walk through the doors of a gym or dance studio or enter onto a field, hiking trail, bike path or body of water and be filled with a sense of excitement, joy, and adventure rather than dread, boredom, or fear.

Prioritizing meaningful experiences also links to some of the major purposes of physical education, represented in policy documents and also in the beliefs and values of key stakeholders (teachers, students, parents, and administrators). Amongst a wide range of identified purposes of physical education, we align ourselves with the purpose of democratic transformation (Ennis, 2017), where ‘different ways of being in the world as some-body are both possible and encouraged’ (Quennerstedt, 2019, p. 611). In this way, education is viewed as a continual transforming of experience, with an aim of cultivating educative experiences that lead to the growth of further experience (Dewey, 1938). From this perspective, having learners seek and become aware of the personal meaning of movement through reflection becomes part of the core purpose of physical education, where it is understood as a ‘suitable learning context for initiation into a range of worthwhile social and cultural practices’ (Thorburn, 2018, p. 26).

The What of Meaningful PE

When thinking about the ‘what’ of Meaningful PE, we ask: what is it about and what does a meaningful experience tend to consist of? In finding an experience meaningful, attention is drawn to its quality, which influences the likelihood of individuals seeking the experience again or avoiding it. Although meaningfulness is highly subjective (that is, what an individual finds meaningful will be different to others), it involves a complex mix of individual cognitive and affective elements as well as relational, social, and cultural dimensions.

From a pedagogical perspective, we drew from Kretchmar’s (2006) assertion that meaningful experiences in physical education tend to consist of several features: social interaction, challenge, fun, motor competence, and delight. While children often refer to one or more of these features as major contributors to how they experienced meaningful experiences in physical education (e.g., ‘I found it meaningful because I was challenged), the features typically work together and should therefore be thought of as integrated than isolated (e.g., ‘Today was fun because I got to be in a group with my friends and we spoke about playing the same game at the park this weekend’). Modifications to a task based on one of the features can therefore have an impact on the others (e.g., adjusting the level of challenge can have effects on fun and students’ engagement with motor competence). We are also very mindful that these features likely do not paint a complete picture of what might contribute to learners finding a physical education experience meaningful. For instance, we think that creativity and self-expression are but some of the other things that could contribute to how some students experience meaningfulness, and suggest to teachers that the features are not used in a reductive sense but as a useful basis upon which to begin talking with students about what they find meaningful in physical education.

How do I teach using Meaningful PE?

Meaningful PE is offered as a flexible set of ideas that can help teachers and students make decisions about how to facilitate meaningful experiences. Meaningful PE can be applied across all physical education content and linked to the outcomes and expectations of official curriculum and policy documents across various contexts.

Meaningful PE is democratic

Meaningful experiences require personal investment, ownership of learning, and personal relevance in ways that demand a democratic approach. Meaningful PE is, at its core, inclusive and supports a variety of learning needs and interests. Teachers and students work together as learning collaborators to set goals and agree on activities within a flexible curriculum.

Teachers should aim to be student-centred in much of their decision-making, providing students with more autonomy and control of their experience to engage with tasks that have personal relevance and carry out activities they find meaningful in their own right. In addition to offering opportunities to make choices and be involved in decision-making, other characteristics of autonomy-supportive classrooms include listening to children and providing time for independent work, acknowledging others’ perspectives and feelings, and praising improvement and effort (Mandigo & Holt, 2006). Strategies that support students in making autonomous decisions about their engagement include: selecting specific tasks based on personal level of interest or challenge; contributing to group composition decisions (Koekoek & Knoppers, 2015); modifying tasks to tailor the level of challenge to individual skill levels; and identifying tasks to be assessed in culminating activities (Beni et al., 2019).

Meaningful PE is reflective

Opportunities to set goals, and to reflect on their achievement is central to identification of experiences as meaningful. Of course, it is possible to have meaningful experiences without a formal scaffolded period of reflection. I am sure you can all think of examples, but maybe we were lucky to identify the meaningfulness of these experiences in our movement journeys. Planned, structured reflection time can ensure that children get opportunities to identify the value of their experiences and that it is not left to chance. Reflection in and on experience is therefore crucial in order for both teachers and students to identify and become aware of the meaningfulness of certain situations (Dewey, 1916). Reflective processes are important for students to engage in so they may become aware of the ways they experience meaningfulness in physical education. Beyond their personal experience in a task or activity, attention can also be drawn to discussions about physical activity participation in the wider community, through asking: Who has access? Who benefits? and Who is disadvantaged? These discussions can help individuals make sense of their own experiences as well as promote actions towards a more socially just world.

In order to engage students in reflective processes, a teacher might use goal-setting, introduce a PE Diary, or use paired, small and large group discussions during and after participation. Goal-setting can also facilitate personally relevant learning for students where opportunities to transfer learning to their lives outside of school can be identified.

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