Education is an ever swinging pendulum. One thing that is not swinging back in our society is our advancements in technology. Who knew just 10 years ago that most people you would walk by on the street would be carrying a computer in their pockets. With that advancement comes an entirely new generation that does not know life before the internet. If they want to know something, they simply ask Siri for the answer. Soft skills are no longer innate but must be taught through practice and repetition. Data is showing that the student-centered model of education is how these tech-infused students are learning and the more hands-on they are, the better.
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Some courses seem easier than others to implement student-centered instruction. Certainly, when you think of a science class, you think of the labs that are direct hands-on experimentation. A Social Studies class can be filled with simulations that represent different events from history. But what about a physical education class? Surely those are one-size-fits-all when it comes to activities and learning objectives. If you feel that statement is as solid as it can get, then I would believe you haven’t investigated student-centered physical education before.
Why is Student-Centered Physical Education Necessary?
I remember my gym teacher in my senior year. We were a good group of kids who tried hard, but she was very sports-oriented and if you weren’t “good” at an activity, she got really irritated that you weren’t trying. It’s not that we weren’t trying…there were just some activities we didn’t excel at. It was frustrating for us, but that was back in the days of cookie-cutter instruction, especially in a gym class. Not every student is going to be a star at every activity. That is the case for every course and every topic. Some students will naturally “get” some things and have to work harder at others. Knowing that, and knowing the learning styles of this generation, why wouldn’t we work with that as educators to help them to excel to the best of their abilities?
A physical education class is a unique beast. Some kids are naturally athletic while others have no interest in doing anything physical. Sparking the interest of every student is a difficult task to accomplish. The best thing to do is to find what motivates each and every student. The students who are more athletic will be easier to appeal to, but finding out what those who are on the other end of the spectrum enjoy will be more of a challenge. A student-centered physical education class does just this. Maybe they are more into designing in an engineering type sense. Perhaps they can design some type of obstacle course that correlates to a topic in the curriculum. Perhaps during a dancing unit, you can appeal to a student who enjoys history to try to find some cultural dances from around the world to teach to the other students. This idea is a little outside of the box, but it will give the students more of an opportunity to buy-in to the class.
Another way to increase student buy-in is to encourage goal setting. These don’t have to be large goals, but the unit can be directed towards each student reaching their personal goals. Perhaps someone is terrible at basketball. By the end of the unit, maybe their goal is to have one ball go through the net. You can also pair students up for this either by similar goals or in a mentoring sense to help one another. Maybe those who are really great at basketball can create a “how-to” type project to help those that are struggling. The possibilities are really endless with this, but it takes knowing your students.
Modifying activities and breaking them down into the specific skills that need to be mastered in order to complete the activity with more zest is also a great option. This differentiates, but you do need to be careful with this method; the last thing you want is the less apt students feeling like they are inadequate. Don’t approach this by saying “this is the skill you are working on”, but make it more so that different groups are working on different fundamentals: don’t have some students working on throwing a baseball and others playing an actual game. Think of this as a more drill-based activity that meets your students where their abilities are and help them to excel further.
In an era where our students are often more sedentary than previous generations, it is more important now than ever to try to make sure they’re all engaged in our gym classes, and certainly, student-centered methods will be more appealing to all. If your district has it available, there are also a number of digital tools that can be utilized in the physical education class. Games like PokemonGo and apps like Coacheseye and Vidalyze bring a digital element that still encourages movement and physical activity. Students can also create “how-to” videos for different physical activities and games, which could be utilized in the differentiated model discussed previously. Another simple idea is to invest in a few pedometers that students can wear during the class and have a variety of “step” competitions.
The key to all of this is making sure that all students are engaged. In traditional physical education classes, it is difficult to make sure every student is engaged both enthusiastically and to the best of their physical ability. However, in a student-centered physical education class, just adding some of these different elements helps to sustain interest in each student and have them performing better than if the class was a cookie-cutter. To learn more, you can check out the book Student-Centered Physical Education. It focuses on the middle school gym class, but certainly, it’s concepts can be adapted for older or younger students as you see fit. There are so many options out there to make gym class work for every student in your classroom. I challenge you to try out some student-centered physical education techniques in your next class.