Six years ago, I led my first PBL workshop for a group of high school teachers. It was the summer after my tenth year in the classroom and I felt fairly confident that I could facilitate a whole day of professional development. I knew, for example, that the things I didn’t know or understand would be filled in by the people around me; that we would all learn from each other. I understood that the smartest person in the room is the room. Actually, that’s not true. The room isn’t very smart. It’s just drywall and sheetrock and paint. But the people collectively, as a network, have experience and expertise that I will never be able to match. On this particular day, though, I learned that I had been ignoring a group of teachers with a wealth of knowledge.

Although the workshop seemed to be going smoothly, I noticed something. A team of teachers kept looking away with their arms crossed. A few times, they passed notes and chatted with one another. Finally, I worked up the nerve to talk to them.

“How is this group doing?” I asked.

A woman shrugged. “This isn’t really for us.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we’re the P.E. teachers. You’ve talked about having students do reading and research and I get that. But I need kids moving. That’s not what I teach. I teach P.E.,” she answered.

The man next to her added, “It’s always like this. We go to trainings but they don’t really apply to what we teach. At least you’re entertaining. You’ve made us laugh.”

“Yeah, you’re not dry,” the woman said. “I’ve enjoyed some of this but really this doesn’t apply to what I do.”

A third teacher added, “When you teach P.E., people want to tell you how to integrate reading and writing and math into the curriculum. But what about the core subjects? What could they learn from us?”

That question lingered for days. In fact, it’s lingered for years.

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What can we learn from P.E.?

For the last six years, my approach to PBL workshops have changed dramatically with more of a focus on what PBL looks like in every subject – including P.E. I’ve observed more art, music, and P.E. teachers as a professor and I’ve worked with other professors who came from those fields.

But there’s still that question. What can we learn from P.E.? This question has also changed my approach to how I conduct workshops and how I teach my university courses and how I taught in my last three years at the middle school level. When that teacher challenged me to learn from P.E. teachers, I began to pay attention to the P.E. teachers in my building. I watched Coach Yancey give more precise feedback than I typically gave. I sat down with my brother-in-law, David (a phenomenal elementary P.E. teacher), and asked him, “What can STEM and journalism teachers learn from P.E. teachers?”

For the last two weeks, I’ve been teaching my brand new cohort of pre-service teachers. Six of them have Physical Education as their primary focus area. They’ve been reminding me, yet again, that P.E. teachers have so much they can teach the “core” subject area teachers. The following are a few lessons master P.E. teachers can offer teachers in other subjects.

1. Make learning fun.

Often, P.E. teachers make a conscious effort to get students excited about the content area. They create games and contests to get kids excited about movement and skill development. They play loud music (including those dreaded Kidz Bop songs). My initial thought is, “Well, P.E. is a fun subject. Kids come in liking it. But what about math?” However, most kids don’t walk into class excited about running. While many kids will say, “I’m not good at math,” I’m guessing the same number of kids will also say, “I’m not an athlete.” The best P.E. teachers inspire kids to fall in love with the subject by making it fun.

Don’t get me wrong. There are so many science teachers who do this with experiments and simulations. There are math teachers who have turned their rooms into interactive, exciting spaces and social studies teachers who make history come alive.  There are language arts teachers helping kids fall in love with reading and writing through things like choice reading and blogging. These teachers create a sense of fun and joy in their classrooms. But in many buildings, P.E. is the subject where fun is at the forefront. It’s visibly noticeable. I think we can learn from that.

2. Assess on the go.

When I first began teaching, I viewed instruction and assessment as two separate activities. I would instruct during class and assess at home. Each week, students would take a quiz, which I would use to redesign future lessons. As I shifted to PBL, I realized that we could “assess as we go.” I began using assessment in the moment to modify lessons. Over time, I implemented peer assessment, such as the 20-minute peer feedback system:

I incorporated more self-assessments, including concept maps, reflections, and student-generated checklists and surveys. I also began using checklists and observations in the moment to monitor student progress. While my assessment journey took years, it would have been faster if I paid closer attention to our P.E. teachers. They regularly used checklists. They walked around giving frequent feedback. Our P.E. teachers knew that shorter, in-the-moment, specific feedback would help students monitor and adjust on their own.

By default, I viewed assessment as a noun. It’s something you give to students. It’s something they take. But P.E. teachers reminded me that assessment is a process. It’s an action. It’s a verb. By changing my approach to quicker, more specific, timely feedback, I was able to help students when they actually needed the help.

3. Break tasks down.

This was a real weakness of mine as a classroom teacher. I tend to be a big picture person and I struggle to make things concrete. I thrive in teaching concept attainment lessons and in doing larger PBL projects. However, I’ve always struggled whenever I needed to teach a specific skill. It might be a Photoshop or iMovie lesson during a documentary project or a specific math skill lesson while we were learning about linear equations. However, I improved this skill from watching a few master P.E. teachers. Typically, they would break a task down to the most concrete level and have students practice it. Often, they would include peer feedback, so students could learn from one another. Next, they would add new skills, combining the new set with the previous set. In other words, direct instruction was never entirely teacher-directed. It was highly interactive. By breaking the tasks down, they reduced the cognitive load.

Again, this is something many math and language arts teachers do well. However, I’ve noticed that it’s a strength for many of my P.E. teacher candidates and it’s one that I am still working toward improving.

4. Movement matters.

P.E. teachers often remind us that learning happens with the whole body. It’s easy to view it as a cognitive process but emotions, energy levels, and tactile interactions play a vital role in cognition. We learn through viewing, listening, speaking, and touching. Learning is inherently physical.

Consider the role of energy levels in learning. In Daniel Pink’s recent book When, he shares fascinating research on the best time of day for learning new content, analyzing information, and thinking divergently. When I shared this research with my cohort, the pre-service P.E. teachers responded with, “Everyone knows that. You teach totally different lessons to the morning and afternoon groups.” However, this was eye-opening to some of the rest of the students, who hadn’t really considered the role of the physical body on deconstructing a text or solving an equation.

As classroom teachers, we can incorporate more movement into our lessons. Instead of doing a typical discussion, do a value line activity. Instead of sitting down for a full close reading activity, do a rotating reading activity, where students move from table to table deconstructing the texts and adding to their graphic organizers. It might mean using Kagan activities, like stand-up/hand-up/pair-up or a carousel activity. Or it might involve a TPR (total physical response) for learning vocabulary.

A simple diagnostic question is, “Are students using their whole body to learn in my class?”

A Surprising Source of Innovation

Innovation isn’t always about piloting a new skill or strategy. It’s often about borrowing an idea from another discipline or domain. Darwin changed biology when he was a geologist. Kahneman and Tversky reshaped economics by offering perspectives from psychology. Similarly, math teachers can learn a thing or two from language arts teachers – and vice versa. However, too often, we work in silos. Too often, P.E. teachers end up in the most rigid silos, left out of conversations about teaching and learning. Their classrooms seem too different. Indeed, they’re often not even rooms, but fields or gymnasiums. But it’s this difference in context and experience that makes their perspective so much more valuable.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

One Comment

  • Leanne Collings says:

    Yes! Someone finally gets us. I’ve been saying forever that we should be the center of the education wheel. Everything can somehow be explored through PE.

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