In this episode of the PE Express podcast, Dr. Robert Pangrazi explains the three levels of Physical Education and why they differ. He also shares why it’s important to support each other and how criticizing colleagues is hurtful to the profession.
[0:02] Physical education has never been a unified profession. Most of us agree that fitness, activity, and skill development are important outcomes. Few disagree that social-emotional learning is needed more than ever, and equity issues need to be addressed. However, rarely do we agree on many issues within our profession. Clearly, there are three distinct groups of teachers; elementary, middle school, and high school and each group views students differently. Once in a while, it is good to step back and try to understand why such differences occur.
[0:53] Students come to class in kindergarten with few skills and very little understanding about their physical capabilities. Elementary school physical education gives students a broad range of activities so they can learn basic skills and discover their inner abilities. The K-5 years are a period of slow growth which makes it an opportune time to learn skills. Around the age of 8, students quickly identify students who are gifted. Student leaders at this age are often the most skilled and physically blessed. Fitness testing starts in elementary schools even though their fitness levels primarily improve because they are getting older and stronger. Those who excel in fitness at this level are probably succeeding because of their genetic gifts rather than hard work and a high level of conditioning.
[1:42] Balance and hand-eye coordination develop even though body proportions are skewed by an oversized head and shorter limbs which impacts quickness and agility. In addition, this age group needs to be nurtured and offered success in the physical arena regardless of their ability level. It is important to them for them to find success, to feel good about playing with peers, and to not worry about how they compare physically to others.
[2:14] Sum it up and a great elementary school physical education teacher keeps the fire burning and interest in physical activity high. Students should leave the elementary school program with experience in a lot of activities. They may not develop a high level of competence because most children only receive an hour of PE a week. However, they can learn perceived competence through successful and positive experiences. If they perceive themselves as competent, they will want to pursue that activity going forward.
[2:47] When students graduate into middle school, they enter the “new body” era. Everything changes physically and emotionally as they enter puberty. Middle school teachers experience a wide range of development and maturity. Some students are in the middle of puberty while others are still pre-adolescents. Some are socially aware while other students are awkward and lacking in social-emotional development. A class of students may vary 4-6 years in skeletal maturity. Small wonder that middle school teachers work hard to pull together a disparate group of students who are at many different stages of development. Remind yourself that when growth velocity speeds up, the ability to learn motor skills slows down.
[3:33] Even more challenging for physical educators is their physical development. The adolescent years bring a rapid increase in growth. Arms and legs grow longer, and increased lever lengths make it hard to perform skills they once could do in elementary school. Students who were the fastest runners (and best distance runners) now find they aren’t so fast or capable of successful distance running. There was no muscle fiber differentiation in elementary school, but now slow and fast-twitch fibers start to determine who can sprint and who is best at distance. And now middle school students start to respond to training and can improve their fitness performance within their genetic limitations.
[4:18] What does it mean to middle school teachers? They have to reteach all the skills they feel should have been taught in elementary school because students now have a new body. The more activities students can experience at this level, the greater chance they will rediscover what they enjoy. Discovering activities that bring joy and satisfaction is a big part of the middle school experience. This discovery process often leads middle school teachers to lament that elementary school teachers haven’t taught their students any skills. Some elementary school teachers complain that kids learn not to like PE in middle school. This misunderstanding never helps anyone – we have to work together toward common standards and outcomes.
[5:17] Students entering high school enter a time of stable growth which allows them to refining social and physical skills. Many of the attitudes students bring to this level were developed before they arrived. The range of physical and social development narrows as they reach full maturity. High school students have strong opinions about their levels of competency in physical activity. They will work diligently to avoid activities that make them feel incompetent. Since growth has slowed and attention span has increased (slightly), they can begin to learn a skill or activity in depth. Because many high schools only require one or two semesters of PE, the opportunity to master one or two lifetime activities never occurs. There probably won’t be another time in one’s lifespan where a person will have the time to practice and learn a skill they can use for the rest of their life.
[6:20] Offer high school students the opportunity to choose lifetime activities they feel are meaningful to them. Learning new skills takes at least a semester to develop real and perceived competence. Short 4–6-week units don’t offer enough time and practice for in-depth learning. Only offering team sports or high-level fitness courses can turn off those students who prefer more recreational activities such as golf, tennis, walking, canoeing, functional fitness, etc. It is time to offer a lifetime activity track in addition to current offerings
[7:03] Word on the street is that PE is offered only for students who already like physical fitness and sports while other students fall to the wayside. It is time that we all work together at all levels to serve students of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Regardless of the age of our students, we are all physical educators, and we all need to work together to create a strong profession. Within the profession, empathy and understanding for the difficulties each level faces is a must.
[7:38] Student growth and development characteristics are different at each of the three levels. I have watched teachers change levels and become more understanding of teachers at their new level. Unless you have walked in someone’s shoes, it is probably better to try to understand why then to immediately shout out what is wrong. Let’s try to help fellow teachers and keep the criticism within the profession. When you openly criticize others in your profession, it taints the entire profession. Be patient. Be constructive. Support your colleagues.