Each day of Physical Education provides many opportunities for our students. Learning, growing, frustration and failing, succeeding, experimenting can and will happen. What kinds of experiences will we use to package and present the content and/or concepts we want to teach?
When I was a student teacher (quite some time ago), a popular model was “skills and drills.” Line the students up in groups and practice the skills. For a Basketball unit, it looked very much like a sports team practice. The familiar lay-up drill was prominent. Free-throws, dribbling in place or back and forth across the court took the rest of the time. Then, go to scrimmaging. Who enjoyed that part the most? The athletes. The ones who already love the sport on which you are basing your unit. While they loom large in personality and voice, the actual percentage of the class who enjoys and learns from the unit is fairly small.
Sadly, I took this model of teaching through many of my units. The main tool I ended up using to “teach” and “ evaluate" was Competition. And while the sport athletes enjoyed the units, many of my students did not. And it is a period of time in my teaching career I regret deeply.
Since then, I’ve gotten older. Hopefully I’ve grown wiser. Conversations with wise people and wisdom from experience have helped me gain a broader and deeper perspective on teaching. One that has equipped me with more tools with which to teach and relate to my students as well as help them relate with one another. Competition is still one of those tools. But I now wield it differently. It is not the hammer that crafts the frame from different pieces of wood. There are other tools better suited for the task of which the hammer plays only a small part. So say hello to the other tools in my tool belt.
I have struggled for years with a basic “reason” or “driving force” for my program. I’ve seen themes developed by other teachers, and I love the idea of a central focus for the year. And I’ve seen others, month by month, or unit by unit, feature different “muscle of the month” or “this month’s fitness concept,” and weave these into their school year’s plans. I’ve started drafts of these types of themes many times. While I see the benefit in many of them, and laud their creativity, none of them have spoken to me as strongly nor related to me so intimately as Community.
The concept of Community has become the driving force of my program. I’ve become so convinced of its power and relevance, it permeates every lesson and unit I now teach. While not always on prominent display, it is always there. Each skill that is taught, practiced, and applied is a skill which will be used at some point by a child who is and will be part of a community of others. And I want them to be equipped with as many skills as they can experience, so as to make their future experience all the richer. Purposeful, Free and Creative Movement can be a wonderful Community event.
When in college, I was blessed with the privilege of playing pick up games with the varsity girls volleyball team, along with other men who also loved the sport. These people were highly skilled, and their skill and friendship drew me in, helping my skills to improve. It gave me a love for playing volleyball I still have today. I never took those skills into Olympic or travel league play, but I now have those skills and use them to have fun with others.
What might my students do with the physical skills they acquire, whatever their level? What kind of perceived competence will they gain, empowering them to choose life-enriching activities when they leave my physical presence and influence? What knowledge will they have available to them, allowing them to make their own informed choices regarding their health and well-being, which effects how they relate to those around them?
The idea of community drove me to inquire into its nature. What makes a Community, and what makes it work well?
Obviously enough, the answer is people.
Wherever you go, communities abound. They come in all manner of sizes, types, and locations. And the purposes of each community are as varied as the number of communities you’ll find. Whether it is two children working on a project for 4th grade History, or two thousand people in a remote village working to survive a famine, these groups are Communities.
The students in each of my classes are their own little community. Our purpose? To learn. To learn about physical skills and to learn through physical skills. And since each one will be in varied communities later in life, they can learn about how communities work best through physical activities. Each child has a unique set of characteristics and skills that give their group its own unique makeup. Those characteristics and skills can be used to help the group reach its goals, whatever they may be.
Now people can make the community work well or not. History is loaded with examples of both. What I believe makes a community survive and thrive most is Cooperation and Collaboration. Both are similar in scope.
Cooperation: the process of working together to the same end.
Collaboration: the action of working with someone to produce or create something.
However, our world has turned that upside down. It has made both Cooperation and Collaboration tools to be used for Competition. Each group must get along and work together so as to be better than another in something or gain an advantage over that group. This mindset has made its way into our schools, sports, and even our classrooms.
I believe in switching that back around. We can and should use Competition to help improve the skills of our students. But we do it very judiciously and with high purpose. We use it so our students can use their skills for the benefit of themselves and their community.
Purposefully used Competition is like lifting weights or biking uphill. The resistance is real and naturally works against you. When someone chooses to ride their bike up a hill, they are choosing to do so because the resistance is there. They know what the resistance can do for them. The resistance has the potential to make them stronger and able to ride their bike longer.
As a teacher, I need to apply this resistance in a way that will help the participants, not discourage them. Like any resistance, if too much is applied too soon, frustration, or worse, injury can occur. It is the same with competition. If a student isn’t sufficiently competent or confident in their skills, competing against someone may frustrate or discourage them from the activity. As one of our goals is to foster meaningful and joyful movers, this can be a costly setback for the student with far-reaching consequences.
In my classes, I seek to foster a more purposeful use of competition. I desire the activity to foster skill improvement or refinement in both participants. If the only objective of the competition is winning or losing, this objective is unattainable. But if each participant knows they are there to be that resistance for each other, the improvements have a better chance of occurring.
I would like my students to be “noble” competitors. I’d like them to be the kind of “opponent” people seek out. Not because they are an easy win. But because they would be a challenging win. This kind of opponent would provide the necessary resistance to help make you stronger, play longer, and get better. And, they would be a lot of fun to play. A twitter user, @IMSporticus, provided a link to an article that describes this kind of relationship between two world championship class Tennis players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Other tools are available to me as well as any teacher of any content area. The ones I will explore next are Inquiry, Exploration, and Reflection. Of those three, I’ve been most comfortable with Reflection. I’m hoping the publication of this blog entry will motivate and encourage me to be more purposeful in the examination of the other two, thereby coming back soon to share my findings.