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.

I disagree.

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.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 12.03.52 PMThe Instructional Core can be defined as follows: the relationship of the teacher and the student in the presence of content.

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:

  1. Raise the level of content that students are taught.
  2. Increase the teachers’ skill & knowledge that they bring to teaching of that content
  3. 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.



24 Comments on “Defining the Instructional Core in #PhysEd

  1. This is a great post! Drawing attention to the instructional core model is so key. I am often struck by how there is no end to the amount of (excellent) resources, program ideas etc. made for school based PE…but often so much less focus on how to structure lessons and units to facilitate the best learning…maybe if resources came accompanied with more specific guidelines into the latter, more teachers would use them? (cause I also find that relative to the amount of resources out there, few are actually well-used!).

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Katherine. I see that as well. In general, education is so content/resource driven with little time spent having meaningful discussions about teaching and learning and improving our practice.

      There was a group of us at #SHAPESeattle who were discussing just this, that at conferences it’s all about the “activity sessions” but, we don’t spend time delving deeper about the instructional strategies that are embedded within the activity.

      • That is the PD that I need, been teaching for 15 years and know where to find great activities but how to engage students in their learning is not easy, you are right the transition is not an easy on. thanks for this.

  2. In my experience, teachers who want to be better don’t need more activities, they need more instructional strategies. We definitely do not lack in content. We lack in pedagogy. Effectiveness cannot be mandated or attained by handing a teacher a curriculum. Ultimately, it’s about people, not programs.

    As leaders, no matter what programs we introduce or seek to strengthen our school — the most important work is to improve the people in our schools. Nothing makes a difference as much as the quality of our teachers. There are really two ways to improve a school significantly: get better teachers, and improve the current teachers. As quality as many of the physical education curriculum resources are — it’s ultimately the quality of the teacher that matters most.

    This isn’t to say that no program can encourage or support improvement of people within a school. We all can rattle off innovations that were touted as the answer in education. Too often, we expect programs to solve all our problems or to fill our deficiencies. The reality is no program inherently leads to that improvement. If there were, it would already be in every school across the country by now.

    It is people, not programs that determine the quality of a school.


    • Hey CJ, thanks for your thoughts.

      2 quick comments. First of all, your first paragraph is so spot on! Really, that could serve as an elevator speech.

      My second comment (and I’m sure you feel this way as well), is the good news is that good teaching CAN be learned. It is a practice. It can be improved. No one is born with a “natural teaching ability” that just makes them better at it than others.

      It would be a refreshing change in our school if we did invest all of our resources in focusing on continuous improvement of pedagogy rather than programs, systems, or accountability.

      • Agree, Adam. Any teacher can fill a bookshelf with books about education or the latest and greatest curriculum guides. Any teacher can study lists of guidelines, standards, principles and theories. The best teachers and the worst teachers alike can ace exams in their undergraduate or graduate classes.

        The difference between more effective teachers and their less effective colleagues is not what they know. It is what they do.

        It is imperative that we build capacity amongst our teachers. How do we get there? We need to have high expectations for ALL. Great teachers have high expectations for their students & even higher expectations of themselves. We need to increase capacity building in our schools. Giving people more skills (capacity building) generally leads to increased accountability. We need to be transparent about our results and our practice. We ALL can get better (growth mindset) and should push ourselves to do so. Maintain a relentless focus on progress, focus on collaboration and pedagogy.

        Lastly, we need to increase our commitment to our peers, system and results. We are all a FAMILY. Whether it’s a staff within a building or global PHYSED community — we are a family and committing to help our peers and profession to drive results will make us stronger.


      • I think there is a lot of power in building the capacity you talk about from the inside-out rather than top-down. Lateral accountability is the only thing that is really going to push us forward.

        I also would argue that the institution (education) is not always setup for us to be successful in this way. In some ways I feel a radical redesign is needed in how we organize ourselves professionally.

        It’s one of my favorite quotes… “It’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you.”

      • Adam, as I transition into administration I know the best teachers are going to be far better teachers than I am. It would be foolish to pretend that I am going into their classrooms just to improve their teaching. Quite the contrary: I will learn from them, harvesting techniques and approaches that I could then model in other classrooms.

        The realization that others could learn from great teachers by getting into their classrooms is an essential tool. Who better to teach other teachers than teachers? I’ve heard this concept eferred to as “instructional rounds”. Collaboration among teachers is one of the basic and most effective ways to improve instruction. Great leaders deliberately apply a range of strategies to improve teacher performance. Using our most effective teachers as positive role models multiplies their productivity and helps others maximize their talents. It also creates the lateral-accountability model you mentioned.

        Simply, we need to get in each others classrooms.

  3. Sounds awesome. I definitely agree we should continue to help each other with the HOW we teach. HOW we plan for quality outcomes. What we do next…. One thing I wonder about is … how do Teachers nip behaviour in the bud at the beginning of the year, to get kids to be this focussed, this engaged. Honestly, I have MANY students who have GREAT difficulty (elementary) not only in PE but in regular classroom with attention, respect for others, self-control, safety…. Next week I’m going to try some ideas shared in PLN re: using a QR code that links to a google form 1) for outstanding behaviour, 2) for stop and think behaviour… I will let you know how that works…. #myStruggle @MrsNeal0

    • Hi Mary,

      I want to just hit on your comment, “to get kids to be this focussed, this engaged.” The short answer is, it’s never perfect and always hard work!

      I teach middle school. I see some of the exact same things you talk about. Kids come to my classes with varying levels of readiness with regards to attention, respect for others, self-control, safety etc.

      I think part of it is we need to be very explicit about our expectations, gradual release of responsibility, and structures that provide lots of scaffolding for kids. This type of student independence in class is something that can take up to 6 months to build to. It certainly doesn’t happen on day 1 or overnight.

      While I think what I described is a very high level of teaching and learning–I can’t say it enough, the day to day practical aspect of teaching means that there are always speed bumps in the road in the journey to get there.

  4. “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.” That is a home run, Adam! You are absolutely right. It is extremely difficult and it takes loads of preparation to make sure that there is a constant connection between teacher, student and content. At times we may get lost in our sport coaching or extra duties we may have and forget that we are all physical educators first. Going the extra mile and putting in the bonus effort with planning and curriculum design will make classes more effective and develop lifelong physically active students.

    Thanks for writing such a much needed article. I appreciate all you do.

    • It IS extremely difficult and does take loads of preparation! There is no magic bullet to teaching and as much as we wish would could get “dialed”…I think that is an unrealistic expectation.

      One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about coaching was… On the field you get to teach 12 people…in the classroom you teach 300.

      It always allows me to keep perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Great post Adam.
    Always one of my pet peeves at every conference I attend are the people I call “session bandits”. They run from session to session searching for the all important paper copy of the handouts. With modern technology now they run round and round from room to room with iPads taking pictures and video of everything going on. They are filling themselves up with more PE content then anyone would ever need. It’s like going to Old Country Buffet! Does anybody really need to eat that much mashed potatoes, corn, chicken breasts, and dessert? No! What about going somewhere where the potion size is smaller and the quality is much better? Same with PE content. The problem with “session bandits” is that they run around taking in content, but don’t stay around to see the proper way to deliver the content to the students. There are so many great teachers to learn from at conventions, but just getting their handouts/taking video and moving on won’t show you how to put those ideas into action effectively. Also the fact that you can go to the SHAPE America website and get all the handouts now is like the ultimate Old Country PE Lesson Buffet. All you can eat, but is it too much?
    Don’t forget to sometimes take the time to perfect a smaller portion size, improve the instructional practice, and give your students the best Physical Education experience you can.
    Now I’m hungry.

    • Hey Mike, I have some mashed potatoes with your name on it…

      But in all seriousness, this is a great analogy. I have had people attend workshops of mine where the first question asked is, “Can I just get a copy of the handout, I don’t have time to attend your session.” This has always seemed so counterintuitive to me. You are at place to learn and you don’t want to actually spend time engaging in any learning.

  6. Ah, always good to scroll down. Hours later, and i see I can post here, though I sent you a message on twitter. Well said, Mike. I laughed. But in all seriousness, it does get back to relationships and wanting to bring the best and do the best for your students. It’s all about them. When we focus here, we become better at our craft, using the tools in our toolbox. It’s always bothered me when I meet other educators that just go thru the day to day motions to get thru the day. They don’t even try to get to know their students, colleagues or community. I had a great principal once who had me focus on bringing only three new instructional units to my students, reviewing the rest that year. It was a great journey of self reflection and goal setting. I still hear him speaking to me everyday. (besides the fact he made you feel like a million bucks working in his building) He retired after my first year in his school. But his words have continued to resonate with me and, he was the first principal that I did not have to explain what Inquiry based learning was in physical education…….

    • Hi Betsey,

      Thanks for the comments. I have some thoughts as to why some of us in the profession just “go through the motions,” but that is a post for another time and another day.

      It is such a powerful thing to be a PE teacher in a school where you feel your administrator 100% supports what you do!

  7. This is an excellent article and discussion. The single most important factor in a student’s learning is the quality of their teacher. It doesn’t matter the resources used, rather it matters how the teacher designs the learning activities, assessments, and ultimately reflects on the entire process. As a physical education teacher and presenter of a popular “resource” it saddens me when the evaluations reflect only how much fun the activities (content) were. Very few teachers process the actual design and delivery (management and instructional strategies) of the activities and this is what makes them successful for teachers and for students. The instructional shift taking place now is widening the gap between those of us wanting to do what is best for students, and the profession and those who want to keep the “busy, happy, good” going.

    • Thanks for your comment Deidre. So how can we shift the discussion ourselves? How can we alter our workshops and presentations so that it does become about the design and delivery and the content is secondary?

      • Well, this is happening in pockets I believe – some of us are shifting our presentations and our own professional development towards this focus. This type of training does not “sell” as well as MVPA content training does. So the art becomes blending it all in a way physical educators understand (mvpa) and learning/reviewing and or re-training and applying the pedagogical skills they need to be successful moving towards 21st century physical education.

  8. Wonderful discussion! I’ve been struck with the notion that when we consider our selves as teachers delivering content we run the danger of “compliance” rather than “learning”. We owe it to our students to insight them to be active learners. To shift our professional development strategies we need to design sessions that engage the participating teachers in the process of active learning.

  9. Adam, thank you for your insightful thoughts and reflections of #SHAPESeattle in your post. You are a talented and passionate writer. My mildly lengthy response is aimed to clarify my interpretation of the phrase ‘Content Is King.’ I agree with your stance about ‘Content Is King’ in the context that it was used in your post. I agree that the student teacher relationship is paramount in moving learning forward. A better phrase might be, ‘A Student’s intrinsic motivation to grow and develop is emperor,’ (bit of a mouthful, and could use some work) I digress. I also agree with you, that the way Badminton lesson B was explained in your post, promotes much more student growth and learning than Badminton lesson A. Well done. I believe a student will learn best from self-evaluation and finding a deeper understanding of what is being presented to them if they care. If a student takes ownership in their own learning, everybody wins! In your badminton example, a student will learn and retain information about badminton much better if they feel they have a vested interest in the lesson. As Daniel Pink portrays in his book “Drive,” intrinsic motivators drive creativity and growth, especially in dynamic and divergent situations. And what is Physical Education, if not a dynamic and divergent situation!?
    I personally use the phrase, “Content Is King” with teachers across the country. I’m writing to bring clarity to what I convey to teachers when I use said term. I believe in quality physical education (QPE). QPE is comprised of four big ideas: Fitness, motorskills, social/emotional, and health & fitness academic content. As a result, when I say Content Is King I’m talking about the fourth big idea, health and fitness academic content.
    For me, Content Is King is answering the why questions that all students ask. By answering the why, students not only enjoy MVPA in our classes, but they understand why it is important in their own lives. At the end of the day, my expectation is to have students find joy in their own health & fitness so they have something to do, and a reason to do it, outside of Physical Education class. I want students to be happy, healthy, and active for a lifetime. ie: If I student asks us why we are running the pacer test today, we will explain to them, “Because it is one way to improve our cardiorespiratory endurance. Cardiorespiratory endurance is a big word for saying, how strong is your heart. Stronger hearts can play longer. Now let’s go see if we can maintain or improve our cardiorespiratory endurance!” We would not respond with, “Because I said so.” We would answer the why behind the activity. If students do not understand the health and fitness content behind why they are moving, I fear they will only move when a teacher or personal trainer instructs them to do so.
    ‘OK, so what is the content that makes it King?’…food recognition, food groups, diet, components of fitness, the FITT & training principles to name a fewe. In the A & B examples of Badminton, I would argue that there was not health & fitness academic content embedded within those lessons (not that there needed to be). IMHO, both were solid lessons, and as previously stated, Lesson B shows more opportunity for motorskill growth and understanding of a sport (badminton). The content in those lessons is sports/motorskill-based, and not what I would refer to as ‘Content Is King.’
    My goal was to clarify my use of the phrase Content Is King. I’m strictly talking about health & fitness academic content and answering the why questions for the students. A great relationship between the teacher and student helps develop self-efficacy in a student. This will promote an internal motivator to grow in the student….that, is emperor! We want students to feel comfortable in their own skin as they move. Once the comfort is there, we must explain why we are doing what we are doing. Keep up the great work, and thanks for all you do to promote healthy kids!

  10. After reading the summary on Elmore, I would like to share my thoughts on Principle Two: “Change one part of the core/change all three. For any positive impact on student learning to take place, changes in any single element of the instructional core must be accompanied by corresponding changes in the other two elements.”

    While I agree with Elmore on this principle, I do believe that those that impose or establish guidelines for P.E. programs are not aware of this principle (or of many other basic and important educational principles, for that matter). As an example, when in Florida it was established that elementary students should have a mandated 150 minutes of Physical Education a week, that mandate went into effect just like that. Like magic, it was expected not only to happen, but to happen with quality. This meant that for example in my school, I had between four and six classes in one group (that is an approximate of between 70 and 110 students per P.E. class period). And while I have always had one Paraprofessional working side by side with me, those classes were more about survival and safety (making sure all students were accounted for and in one piece at the end of the class period). There were no additional funds to hire more teachers so classes would not have to be so large and unsafe. There were no funds for professional development so teachers would learn ways to implement the curriculum in a safe and engaging environment. And there were no funds either for quality equipment to use in the classes.

    In this case the powers that be changed one part – the amount of time students need to be in Physical Education classes – but made no changes nor allowed for changes to make this worthwhile. To make this even more interesting, the wording of the mandate made it possible for some schools to “demonstrate” the engagement of their students in “physical activity” by counting, for example, minutes students walked from their classroom to the lunchroom, or to the library, or time spent in recess.
    In order for a mandate of this order to be really meaningful and to produce the desired results, other areas of the core should have been changed. Teachers should have received appropriate professional development, the curriculum itself should have reflected the reality of the schools, and there should be appropriate facilities and equipment to carry out the program.

    Let me add one more piece to this nightmarish puzzle. Florida now mandates end-of-the-year P.E. tests. I find it completely inadequate to test what the students have learned during a whole year in the courts and fields in one written test. The “nature of the beast” in Physical Education is different than in many other subjects. In my opinion, although there is a very important cognitive component, Physical Education is inherently a participatory subject, hands-on, experiential, and subject to so many variants, that it seems incongruous to subject students to a one or two hour test at the end of the school year to see if they have really learned P.E.

    On the other hand, this test is based on the cognitive spectrum. This means that a student might know how the cardiovascular system works, for example, but cannot jog or walk for 5 minutes due to lack of endurance. How is this beneficial for our students? Or that a student can answer that when doing an overhand throw, they need to place the opposite foot in front, but when given a ball, they cannot perform this skill correctly.
    Again “Principle Two” comes into place. The test is created and mandated, but the teachers do not know the content of the test; do not know how (or why they need to) to help students memorize all this content of the cognitive area; do not have the time to teach (or the facilities) these concepts when they are working with such large classes, and do not even buy into the idea of giving this test to figure out if their students have learned (and which will count for the evaluation of the teacher’s performance).

    Elmore should be a mandated reading for those in charge of making decisions or changes in Physical Education (or any other subject, for that matter), and maybe they should be subject to a test on those principles. But I’d give them a practical test. Show how you, as an administrator of education, make changes on all three cores in a way that makes sense, that is appropriate to the grade level or the maturity of the students, that has the possibility of being implemented with the existing resources, facilities, and quality of educators. If a district can pull it off, those administrators might earn a passing grade.

    I read a quote that comes to mind quite often: “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t, pass laws about what teaching should be”. We need to change the reality of Physical Education. We need to have in the administrative positions those “who can”.

  11. Pingback: Teacher as Learner

Join the Discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: