Things I Think the Pandemic Taught Me: Rethinking When Students are Ready for Partners

Authors Note: This set of microblogs will cover a wide variety of instructional practices that the pandemic has either made me think about them differently or has led me to question them all together. The working title of the series is “Things I Think” because they are based on my perceptions and experiences and are subject to change. These posts should be looked at in the context of reflecting on teaching elementary physical education in person during the pandemic from January 2021 – June 2022.

“I will know you’re ready when you’re elbow to elbow with a partner in 5…4…3…”

“How quickly can you demonstrate jumping jacks with a group of 3?”

“Let’s play a game! When I say GO, see if you can stand toe to toe with a partner before I stop the music…GO!”

Teaching students to find a partner or a group quickly and efficiently is a part of my DNA as a physical educator and it probably is for you too. But, what happens when you can no longer teach that way? Suddenly, you have to teach differently. I’m not talking about teaching by distance learning either. I’m talking about teaching in person with individual learning spaces marked where students need to stay at all times. This was my reality when teaching from January 2021-June 2021. 

It forced me to think differently.

Before, I go any further–I am not here to question the necessity or value of teaching students how to work with others or in groups. I’m not questioning the value of cooperative and collaborative learning. I value these things deeply. As physical educators, we like to point out that Social and Emotional Learning is written right into our standards in standard 4 (although, I would argue that it is more implied–since our current standard 4 is really more about compliance than deep SEL learning. I have a feeling this will change with the standards update, but I digress). Teaching students social skills through physical education is often messy–let’s have a reality check–these are young people just beginning to learn how to work and problem solve and solve conflict and share and play and be respectful to and with other young people. It’s a total mess. It’s also awesome and an incredibly rewarding part of teaching.

In the past, teaching students how to group quickly and efficiently was something that first started early in the school year (with some grade levels as early as day 1, with some maybe a couple of weeks in). Throughout the entire year and just about every lesson, there were opportunities for students to work with others every single day. I have taught this way for years.

One of my biggest a-ha’s when I was forced to teach differently in a world where all learning was individualized–students were able to regulate emotionally for much longer periods of time (especially primary), there was way less conflict, and students developed a stronger bond with me. I especially noticed this with grade levels K-2. 

When I started the 2021-22 school year, I surveyed my students (3-5) and their thoughts on working alone, with a partner, or with a group and the results were very surprising to me. The majority of my students preferred to work alone while some liked to work with a friend. Almost no one liked to work with a group. There are probably a variety of reasons for this–obviously the pandemic and social distancing (it took some of my students the entire year before they were even comfortable with high fives again), but also not having the skills or being able to practice working with others in a productive way. 

So what did I do? Well, I really spent the first three months of the school year teaching in a much more individualized way. Then I progressed to giving students choice in either working alone or with a friend in some activities. Then I progressed to working with structured grouping. Teaching students to get into groups quickly and efficiently didn’t happen for me until the early Spring.

I liked the results. I’ve started to think about social learning in PE quite differently and viewing it through a readiness lens rather than it being something I’m going to force early on in the school year. I still have work to do as I would like to be more explicit in what indicators I should see to determine readiness, but that’s part of the work.

I plan to continue developing and utilizing this concept as I begin the 2022-23 school year.

7 Comments on “Things I Think the Pandemic Taught Me: Rethinking When Students are Ready for Partners

  1. While this is today’s reality (more individual, less partner/group, it is sad to me. I pray, in time (hopefully a short amount of time), trust will overcome fear.

    Thank you for your post. 👏👏👏

    • Very good insight Adam! Very interesting article! If you have any more resources regarding this article I would be very interested. Thank you and it is great to hear from you again.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I would like to just clarify my side of this—as I don’t think it was fear and lack of trust for students. Did that contribute? Sure, probably.

      But, I asked students why they preferred working the way they do—and the vast majority of them—it all had to do with lack of collaborative or cooperative skills that they perceived in their group mates. They thought it was EASIER to work alone. Maybe this is because they weren’t practicing it in their classroom either.

      But, I think many of them genuinely felt they learned better or could learn more on their own rather than with “distractions” from others.

      We definitely worked on that—and I’m going to continue working on that—but, it’s certainly a set of skills that needs to be practiced.

  2. I have observed similar behaviors related to my students and working within groups after returning to in-person learning the last few years. I think more students work individually than ever before. Because of this, I like to give my students a choice in the Health classroom to work individually, paired, or in a small group. I feel this helps to accommodate students of various learning styles and personality types.

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