Defining the Instructional Core in #PhysEd
The last several weeks have been quite the whirlwind for me as a physical education professional. There are so many new exciting projects and initiatives that seem to be launching, I can barely keep track. I just finished attending my first SHAPE National Conference and Expo and had the opportunity to put a face to many of the professionals I have connected with digitally. Something that was a recurring theme for me at #SHAPESeattle was the increase in Physical Education content, curriculum, and lesson plans that are available online for us as professionals to access.
Just off of the top of my head, there has been a lot of buzz about: OPEN, Human Kinetics Digital Library, PE Central, and the National Lesson Plan Creator. I heard the phrase in several places this past week that content is king. In the wave of excitement, I have heard discussion that one or several of these projects are going to serve to elevate the #PhysEd profession, ergo it is content and resources that are going to create sustainable, positive change in our profession.
In our excitement over what physical education professionals can now access online, we are forgetting about some very important things. First, content is not king. Content and resources are one piece to the puzzle of improving outcomes for students. It is an important piece, especially with the new SHAPE America standards and outcomes we are trying to navigate through. There has been a lot of heavy lifting in this area already and you can read some of it from Joey Feith here, here, and here. But, if our desired outcome is to truly create sustainable, positive, change in our profession, we are ignoring two equally important factors in the presence of content: the teacher and the student.
In December, I had the opportunity to travel to Cambridge, MA to attend the Instructional Rounds Institute at Harvard University with my school district. While I could write all day about how exciting the process of Rounds is, I want to focus on where they ground all of their work: The Instructional Core.
As #PhysEd professionals, why should we care about looking at teaching and learning through this lens? If our end goal is physical literacy for every child, the only way we are going to get there is by changing in all three of these areas. It doesn’t work to just change one area of the core. They are interdependent on one another.
Elmore (for more reading CLICK HERE) defines the Instructional Core this way:
There are only three ways to improve student learning at scale:
- Raise the level of content that students are taught.
- Increase the teachers’ skill & knowledge that they bring to teaching of that content
- Increase the level of students’ active learning (engagement) of the content
The level of content, skill and knowledge of teachers, and level of student engagement define a school’s instructional core.
In the Physical Education community, we are working very hard to change the content and teacher aspects of the core, but we are spending very little time reflecting and analyzing on the learning opportunities students have in our classrooms.
I highly recommend giving the linked PDF a read and paying particular attention to principles 1-5. I am going to quote how Elmore defines principle three: If you can’t see it in the core, it isn’t there:
“Here the central idea is the academic task. Often through curriculum mapping and common assessment schedules we think all students are getting the same instruction, but Elmore finds that while curriculum and assessments may be common, what different teachers expect of their students, variance in the skill with which the teachers deliver the curriculum, and the varying levels in which students were actively involved (not just “doing” what they are given but digesting it, making connections and new applications to deepen and extend knowledge) produce significant differences in student learning” (Elmore, here).
When we think about our physical education classrooms, the question is not what are we asking students to do, rather what are students actually doing.
Let’s think about this within the context of a physical education lesson on badminton. Pretend we are getting a snapshot of the same badminton lesson in a classroom for a 20 minute portion of the classroom. In example A, we could describe the teaching and learning happening as this:
Students are in pairs playing singles badminton. The gymnasium is divided into 8 badminton courts. While 16 of the students are currently playing singles badminton, the 16 students who are currently not playing are outside of the playing area participating in station task work–some of these tasks are skill practice related towards the badminton objective for the day, other tasks are fitness oriented that require high levels of MVPA. All stations have task cards that clearly explain what is expected from the student. After 5-6 minutes, groups switch roles and the lesson continues. The teacher spends their time video taping students within the gameplay situation for the purposes of a feedback and assessment loop.
Now let’s take a peek into example B:
Students are in groups of 3. The gymnasium is divided into 6 badminton courts. In the court area, 12 students are participating in singles gameplay. The 6 students who are not currently engaged in gameplay each have a mobile device with a camera and are tasked with filming the gameplay at their court. The 18 students who are currently not playing are outside the playing area participating at stations with differentiated tasks: stations for skill improvement, fitness tasks that require high levels of MVPA, and a video analysis station where students watch the video they captured and complete a graphic organizer that allows them to analyze and discuss where they feel their learning level is in relation to the rubric that is used for assessment. Part of this process, involves students identifying areas for improvement (skill related or tactical related) that can be a focus for the next lesson. The teacher then collects this information to help inform the design of the differentiated tasks for the next lesson. After 5-6 minutes, groups switch roles and the lesson continues. The role of the teacher is multiple in this lesson: sometimes the teacher is facilitating conversation between students, sometimes the teacher is working 1 on 1 with a student to give feedback, sometimes the teacher steps back to see the big picture of what is happening in the lesson and supporting when needed.
To be clear, there is nothing bad about either of these examples. You could argue that both use current practices, both use high leverage teaching strategies, and both provide for a high amount of activity time from the students. The objectives in both of these examples were the same. The structure of the lesson was very similar. The content and resources were very similar. So what is different? In short, the amount of heavy cognitive lifting done by the students in example B was drastically different than in example A. In A, some students could be inactive passengers while the teacher did the thinking, but in B the task design attempts to put that thinking on the shoulders of the students.
I want to be clear, this shift is not easy to do. It is incredibly hard and challenging and what makes teaching so rewarding. If I put a mirror on my own teaching, my classrooms have often looked much more like example A. That isn’t to say that this is bad, but I say that as an admission that I don’t have it figured out either and I am constantly reflecting how I can truly engage my students physically and cognitively within my lessons. After all, if our aim really is to put a dent in the PE universe and improve teaching and learning, we must give careful consideration to task design and how to really engage our students in the presence of content. If our goal is physical literacy for every child, then we must make changes to the entire #PhysEd Instructional Core, not just one component.