Thoughts on 21st Century Physical education

In the job I’m currently working in, I’ve had plenty of information coming over my desk and through my screen on what modern education looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like. Edu thinkers are not only calling for change, but many are stepping up and going about bringing that change into reality. My thoughts naturally move to what all this has to do with  PE and what it will look like from now on as well.

There is certainly a move away from traditional “schooling” and practices in education, and PE is certainly not immune from this train of through. In fact I think in many respects the teaching of PE needs a shake, like a dusty old blanket. The days of the blackboard teacher are rapidly ending, with the reliance of “sage on the stage”, face the front, desks in rows, “repeat after me” teaching consigned to a necessary redundancy. Traditional PE practice of “give me some laps”, chuck them a ball, captains picking teams and ” BMI as assessment” (to name a few) need to go the same way.

The shift to “modern teaching” can be fraught with frustrations for many leaders, with school politics, staff resistance and a lack of change leverage opportunities stopping many transformational journeys before they start. Even the word “teaching” has a redundancy around it – but I’ll come back to this later.

So what do modern students and their teachers need in C21?

There is an absolute plethora of views on what today’s students need to “get” from school. There are common themes.

Most studies say in words to the effect that “Within the context of core knowledge instruction, students must also learn the essential skills for success in today’s world, such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration” (

The implications for teachers and what they do it class is changing too.

Most agree that teaching “knowledge for today” is not good enough – our teaching needs to be for the future. Information ages rapidly. Students need skills that take that into account.

Students need to become lifelong learners – the idea that knowledge and skills acquired at school are just to get you through this year’s exams is redundant. Learning needs to become a flexible and resilient habit of mind – in both students and teachers.

Learning environments need to be agile – as a PE teacher agility is something we talk about as a highly desirable quality in movement. So should it be in our lessons. Immobile, inflexible players on a team are soon found out and become a liability. So, too, does un-agile (is there such a word?) thinking about teaching

ICT shouldn’t be integrated into learning environments – it should be ubiquitous. Mobile devices are carried by our students almost continually outside the school fences, but are mostly banned in classrooms. There is a definite disconnect there.

Professional learning for teachers needs to be individual and situational. And available 24/7. Personal learning networks are no longer optional.

Utilisation of learning taxonomies like Biggs SOLO work, where adding complexity to a learning pathway adds rigour and meaning to learning experiences.

Specifically to PE, there are some great things happening in shifting what we do into the future. Jarred Robinson , Jay Trevaskis, Dr Ash Casey and Vicki Goodyear, Ben Jones, Joey Feith and Clarinda Brown (to name but a few using the #pegeek tag on Twitter) are exploring and sharing their journeys in making PE meet the future.

This brings me back to terminology – the word “teacher” suggests one way movement of information. To accomplish many of the things that I’ve just mentioned, a change in job description is needed, one that PE teachers will relate to.

The word “coach” is closer to what we should do. It suggests someone working with people aiming for a goal, and our job is to maximise that potential through tailoring a program that meets their needs for the future. In saying that, I do acknowledge that the word “coach” has suffered at the hands of people that don’t coach well, and it carries a stereotypical image that we might be best advised to avoid. Who has a better name?


So what are the implications for PE in the future? I don’t think it’s enough to rest on the bandwagon of “obesity action”. This certainly gives the work done in PE faculties a high profile, but there are some tensions here too. Fighting a society wide problem always seems to be PE’s lot. Competing with much louder and seductive voices can be difficult. It can be daunting to plan for and can easily appear to be on the verge of failure. That’s not to say we don’t try, but our approaches need to be quality. And what is quality teaching in tacking obesity, or any other societal health crisis? Ill-conceived programming can be very counter-productive.

I see PE’s greatest sphere of influence in the skills that researchers are advocating as essential. Coincidentally, they are traditionally core business for PE. From the quote I used before, skills like critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration are what students will need to be coached in. You don’t have to think too much about how PE teachers do this work day in and day out already.

In Australia, we are about to see the birth of a National Curriculum in Health & Physical Education. From what I’ve seen and heard already, it’s draft form caters for many of the things already mentioned in this post , so kudos to the designers for that.  PE advocates in Australia will have the opportunity to help shape the final product. Now is the time to build a curriculum that grows into the future for the benefit of both the students and ourselves.

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts on 21st Century Physical education”

  1. Love this post! A collection of many ideas here. On a @carlaLeeB post I suggested that perhaps the word ‘symbiotic’ is more accurate? Your thoughts on traditional #pegeek practice were quite unexpected at first. I think there are so many thoughts that apply for many KLA’s here, including #mathematics. The same critical skills exist. Perhaps time for a cross-post?

    • Thanks for the interest and encouraging words. I think what I said about traditional PE holds, and we have a great opportunity to become change agents in our own spheres of influence. I think there is a lot of merit in a tiger team post 🙂

  2. Great blog highlighting many very key and important messages. It’s also good to hear that currriculums are beginning to move with the times and recognsie the broader outcomes to student learning in physical education and processes to enhance learning. Linking to your point about teachers I read an article by Armour (2010) last week that said should re-define teachers as teachers to teachers as learners. In this way teachers continually question their pedagogy to find the most effective up to date way to enhance student learning and promote the physically active life. Have you read any of David Kirk’s stuff physical education futures? – similar messages to your blog.

    • Hi Vicky and thanks for your thoughts on the post.The notion that teachers should question pedagogy and obsolete paradigms is something I wholeheartedly support and encourage. I’m always keen to see practitioners put paradigm shift into practice, and share what they do. Luckily #pegeeks are good like that 🙂

  3. Love what you posted here. I would love to work using mobile devices in my classroom (the gym, the field, the pool, the bowling lanes…) to access the many features available on them to enhance student (and teacher) learning. In a perfect setting I’d have a class set of iPads! Why not use the tech that the students already have to help them learn. I am hoping to get a policy change so students can begin to use the device for things like video assessment and QR code scanning in a PE setting. Great post!

    • Hi Liz and thanks for the interest in the blog. Bring your own device (BYOD) has so much potential, yet we seem to be stuck in an inflexible “no mobiles in the classroom” position based on (in many cases, anyway) a misplaced fear that bullying and misuse will go through the roof. Kids already have them and are using them in responsible and creative ways. And if they do something that is of concern, isn’t that what a coach is for – to help them back on the right path? Thanks again 🙂 Jonesy

  4. Great post highlighting what needs to be at the forefront of our thinking as we move towards the Australian Curriculum. I particularly like your point about the term “coach” – a great role but the name itself does have negative connotations to some unfortunately. “Mentor” springs to mind but I still quite like “coach”. On a similar note, recent talk at school about school planning has lead us to refer to “welfare initiative” now as “wellbeing initiatives” which I see as a more holistic and postive term.

    Great read as always!

    • Thanks Clarinda for your thoughts and feedback. Yeah, I like “mentor” as well but as other people have pointed out, mentor has a status connotation (mentor above learner), whereas “coach” is more guiding by the side. As for “wellbeing”, I read a while ago about a PE faculty that changed its name to “Health and Wellbeing”. Interesting and intriguing 🙂 Jonesy

  5. I think that the article has some very good points but I think that the name of what you call the head of the class – coach, instructor, teacher, etc. – is just semantics and misses the larger problem with PE. I am also concerned with the argument that PE should not piggy back on the obesity movement. Current trends show PE going down: programs are being cut, funds are running out, and teachers are let go. Some states have tried to raise standards. But they have, for the large part, failed. Many states have not raised standards. For example, in some states, PE is not taught by certified PE teachers. How can we expect PE to improve if we do not have qualified teachers teaching the subject? The list goes on. Something has to change. The best way is to latch onto a movement, such as the obesity movement, which physical activity and education can, and should, be a significant part of the solution, in order to both improve PE, but also to decrease rates of, and prevent incidents of, obesity. We need more funding for teachers, training, facilities (some schools do not even have gyms), and time requirements that are enforced. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if you call PE teachers a coach, mentor, etc. Once you have that base, you can implement programs that integrate technology. Otherwise, we may be witnessing the death of PE.

    • Thanks for the interest in this post and the blog. I appreciated your thoughts on the idea of raising standards in PE, the observation that PE isn’t being taught by specialists and the need for more funding for PE initiatives generally.
      I have to take issue with a couple of things though. I don’t think the role we play in leading our students should be put down to a semantic argument on titling. If we persist in seeing ourselves as teachers, as the font of all knowledge, rather than coaches helping the students learn themselves then we risk making achieving any improvement (quantitative or qualitative) that much harder. This issue has probably got a lot to do with outdated pedagogical constructs still advocated by some preservice training organisations (probably a topic for a whole separate blog post). Quite often the theory gleaned during preservice training is often at odds with the reality of day to day teaching.
      The second point I’d make is hitching PE to a topical cause can be problematic. You run the risk of not achieving the very standards you speak of, without adequate resourcing. I wouldn’t want to nominate an success rate regarding the prevention or reduction of obesity in the students I teach that was dependent on the resources I specifically get for that program (which is zero at the moment). By adopting a more holistic approach to Well Being education, I feel you have a much better chance of bringing about the attitudinal change needed to, in turn, bring about behavioral change. And let’s face it, obesity is actually a symptom of deeper health related issues like self concept, relationships, nutrition and exercise to name a few. Bottom line, there is no easy answer, but an “eggs in one basket” approach to healthy lifestyles is not the way to go, in my humble opinion.
      Best of luck with your journey as a PE practitioner. Have you got a blog? I’d love to read more of your stuff! Cheers – Jonesy 🙂


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