Change the Profession – Graduating Active Students

A red schoolhouse painted green may look different, but nothing has changed internally.

A red schoolhouse painted green may look different, but nothing has changed internally.Author: Robert Pangrazi, Educational Specialist, Gopher Sport and developer of Dynamic PE ASAP

People often say change is good. We have all heard that the only constant is change. Yet, when I look at our profession, the change I often see is surface change. For example, changing the schedule of a school, or a new seating arrangement, or new PE equipment, or a different way of grading or assessment. The heart and soul of a school stays the same while we paint the outside of the school a different color. A red schoolhouse painted green may look different, but nothing has changed internally.

Teachers who have taught several years have heard it before – what goes around comes around. In other words, we did that 20 years ago and now we are trying it again. Charter schools were supposed to come in and develop new and different methods of teaching and learning. Yet, when they are examined closely, most of them use much of the same technology and instructional methods. Often, charter school results occur because of selectively admitting certain students that fit their desired standards.

Let’s look specifically at physical education. If there hasn’t been much change in our profession, the question is why not? Are we focused on expending the least amount of energy by maintaining the status quo? I wonder if most of our profession is hoping everything will stay the same. Are we just painting the outside of the schoolhouse by introducing a new game, a new piece of equipment, and a new fitness routine? Is the schoolhouse still the same inside as it has always been?

If you ask a physical education teacher what they teach, most will usually give you a description that includes skills, fitness, and lifetime physical activities. Ask the question “is it important for our graduates to be active for a lifetime” and, you will get a resounding, “yes, of course it is.” We have advocated lifetime physical activity for so many decades and still the overriding issue is that most adults are inactive and sedentary. So, does physical education receive a failing grade? What if we graduated over 90% of our students who couldn’t read or do basic math? And yet, we graduate over 90% of students who don’t participate in the lowest level of daily physical activity as adults.

Where am I headed with all this? I don’t think most people will change until there is forced change. Think about it. Many teachers are still playing games and sports. This approach was developed during WWI to train soldiers and, in turn, adopted by schools. Today, we still deal with “What game should I play today,” and call it a physical education program. We talk much about lifetime activity, but the program looks the same. COVID-19 is here and it has forced us to teach a different type of program because there is no choice. It is sink or swim and going forward it may be job or no job. After elementary school, we seldom teach all students. Maybe it is time to reach out to the students who opt out of physical education. Maybe we should be online for students who don’t like group activities, are overweight, lack coordination, or are fearful of getting hurt.

It all boils down to change.

Change is fueled by emotion not by rational thinking. Think about all the things people know about their health but choose not to change. A major emotion that drives change is fear of losing what we have. Right now, we are fearful of losing our job, our income, and our profession. If we are going to change, we are going to need a strong desire to make our program meaningful and important. Are you going to spend all your energy protecting what you have or on building a new and more meaningful program? Successful people take control and know where they are going. They are courageous and willing to take some risks.

You must want to change. You must want to create a better program, help more students, and become an integral part of the school. Internally, it must be a desire that is personal and important to you. You will need to create personal change first and professional change second. You will have to couple your emotion with determination and grit. Grit is long term effort filled with repetition and refinement. People with grit know where they are going, they accept its going to be a long-term effort, and they are willing to stay the course.

I personally think we are in a time of forced change. We might not have the opportunity to resist change. Many things will place a different spin on our profession. It is a perfect time to make your program one that benefits all students; gives all of them the keys to lifetime activity.

What if your administrator said, “I want a new model of physical education and I want it to touch every student in the school? We have over 3500 students in this school, and we are only teaching about 25% of those students. In addition, many of those students in PE classes are there because one semester of PE is required, not because it meets their needs. Currently, we are primarily teaching students who already love physical activity. My challenge to all of you physical educators is to design a new delivery system that gives students options regarding how they participate in physical education.”

Lifetime activities are characterized by; positive feelings, activities that can be done alone or with a friend, feelings of perceived competence, and choice. In other words, activities you choose to do for a lifetime are personal and help you feel healthy and successful. Internally, you arrive at a place where you feel good if you have done something to improve your physical health. COVID has made it abundantly clear that many students choose not to do online physical education and we have no clear-cut way to hold them accountable. And, most of these are students who want to be in physical education. What about all the other students who opt out of PE? It makes me wonder if it isn’t time for a more “gentle and kind” physical education environment for students who don’t like living an active lifestyle.

How does that compare with common physical education experiences?

  1. They are often large group activities.
  2. They are not individual in nature – you must be on a team.
  3. You must be aggressive and try to beat someone else.
  4. They are dominated by extroverts.
  5. Natural ability and previous experience are rewarded. Novices are less wanted.

Now, I know I am exaggerating to make a point. But here is the point: How are we going to expect a youngster who has never been involved in sports, weightlifting, or fitness activities to jump right into these types of settings and say, “I love being the least gifted and most inexperienced student in class.” It’s just not going to happen and that is why many students hate PE and resent having to take even one semester of it to meet the graduation requirements.

It just may be that online physical education is the best medicine for students who don’t like PE. These students are often fearful of getting hurt physically and emotionally. A broken arm will heal and be forgotten but a deeply emotional hurt may never heal. To be embarrassed or belittled in front of peers is an emotional wound that may last a lifetime. Online PE changes the whole focus; it is private, it can be personalized to the needs of the student, it can be done at the convenience of the student and doesn’t require comparison with peers. It may be the only way to appeal to students who have had a school career of failure in PE classes and physical fitness experiences.

Let’s look at physical fitness for a minute. Whenever teachers are asked about accountability, they often point to fitness scores and fitness performance. As a person who personally enjoys and practices fitness, I want everyone to see it as a positive experience. However, for those students we want to convert into believers, fitness testing is not appropriate. You must walk before you can run; you must be active before you can even think about fitness. There must be social-emotional buy-in. Why would failure on a mandated fitness test convince the haters that they need to get fit. Fitness is a goal that might work after you teach these students to “just be active” doing something they enjoy. The real goal for inactive students should be getting them to move in any possible manner – it really doesn’t matter what the movement is. What is wrong with activity that features dancing, riding bikes, skateboarding, walking and talking with a friend, playing badminton, hide and seek, and tag games and much more. All activity counts! Fitness shouldn’t even be in the discussion until these non-participants start moving.

What if you said to your administrator, “Our PE staff is going to design a program that attempts to meet the needs of more students. We are going to build a hybrid model that features three styles of learning”:

  1. The first style maintains the current program for students who are extroverts, love competition, like to show off their physical prowess, and enjoy being part of a team. This is the current physical education program we have offered for years.
  2. The second approach features an online program tailored for introverts and sedentary students who might have had negative experiences in PE. These students prefer the freedom and privacy of being active at home, outdoors or at recreational facilities. These students will learn to monitor their daily physical activity and there will be no limits on how and when they collect their daily activity. They will be graded on a pass-fail basis and you can expect wide variation in their levels of achievement. Formative assessment and passing will not depend on how far, how fast, how long, and how intense their activity episodes are. These are beginners in the world of activity, and we should be more interested in how they feel about the experience of moving than quantifying and evaluating the quality of their activity.
  3. The third design is a hybrid model for those students who found that getting active made them want more than an online class. This model might include 2 days of online activity assignments and 2 days of participating with friends in low organization game activities. The fifth day of the week could be dedicated to wellness and health instruction. This hybrid model would include low-level competition with peers who have similar interests and ability. Classmates design games and activities they want to do. In many ways, this is a health club approach. You get to choose what you want to do to accumulate physical activity. And if you get tired of doing that activity, you move to another. Choice drives the program!

In a large school with multiple PE teachers, the program can be staffed based on differential assignments. Some teachers may be intrigued by online teaching while others want to maintain the status quo. To expand the range of activities, experts in subject matter such as martial arts, yoga, and other unique activities can be recruited from the local community. Many are willing to do it free of charge because it creates future clientele. Once you start thinking out of the box, there are no limits. Let’s make COVID the nudge we need to look at how we offer Physical Education. Let’s make it a kind and gentle experience. Assure the future of physical education by reaching out to all students regardless of their ability and interest. The future is now.

It is close to summertime. Now is the time to start thinking about the future. If we plan forward, we won’t fall behind. Even if COVID restrictions are lifted at the start of the year, a new model is necessary.

Assure the future of physical education by reaching out to all students regardless of their ability and interest. The future is now. All the best to each of you for doing so much for others. I am grateful for all your contributions.

Dr. Robert Pangrazi is a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and an Educational Consultant for Gopher Sport. Pangrazi has been in the education field over 50 years. He began his career as a 5th grade teacher and was an ASU professor of physical education for 32 years. Pangrazi has published over 60 textbooks and 100 research and professional articles. He has been an invited speaker at nearly 500 national and international conferences.

Dr. Pangrazi originally delivered these remarks as part of a virtual discussion panel on Teaching During COVID-19: Empowering Students, presented in partnership with It’s Time Texas, Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living and TAHPERD. To see the full discussion, visit texansthrive.itstimetexas.org/conversations.