As a Physical Education specialist who enjoys pondering the purpose of our practice, teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a wealth of opportunity to engage in reflection, especially when we consider whether our recent practices have supported our ultimate goal, developing physical literacy in our students.
I am currently contemplating that even when you find yourself to be at the top of your game as a PE teacher, the evaluation of individual student physical literacy levels feels like an imprecise practice. When I think about Marzano’s assertion that assessment and evaluation are reliant upon a combination of art and science, it makes me wonder whether imprecision is inevitable. Perhaps we could pause right there and consider a solution. Should we move in a different direction and stop trying to evaluate it with the use of letters, numbers, and general descriptors?
The recent pandemic has perhaps added considerable support for such a move. Even when students have been allowed on campus, it has been with a cover over their respiratory airway that has made even moderate exercise tainted with discomfort, if bearable at all. Online, we have been presented with a very uneven playing field, with some students having access to a private swimming pool, while others are stranded thirty floors up in a small apartment. Yet, as the months evolved, Physical Education teachers around the world found themselves in familiar conversations, discussing how they were going to best produce a supportable number or letter grade that fairly represented the physical literacy achievement levels of the myriad of individuals before them.
In non-pandemic times, teaching the traditional on-campus physical literacy areas, such as skill development, can be quite straightforward. During a net games unit it might be identified that the learning outcomes are to develop a legal serve, show movement toward the recovery position, use underhand and overhand shots at appropriate times, and apply the four-corners strategy. Regular feedback given to students on their progress towards those outcomes with identification of the next steps is teaching that skill set in a nutshell. Almost universal practice is to then allocate a number/letter/level to those outcomes. Our current non-traditional times grant us a golden opportunity to re-evaluate this nearly ubiquitous practice. If we are struggling to allocate levels to those outcomes for reporting purposes, perhaps we should consider an alternative in simply communicating in narrative form. This would be unequivocal in informing both students and parents of each learner’s achievements.
Back in 2005, I had the pleasure of working at the Canadian Academy in Kobe, and while there got to attend a workshop led by Tom Guskey. His astute observations have never left me. He shared that teachers are very adept at one thing when it comes to assessment and evaluation; they can accurately identify those that can, those that can’t, and those that are somewhere in between. In the net games unit, as soon as the “can serve” represents a 9 or 10, and the “can almost serve” is turned into a 6, 7, or 8, we have created a conundrum. Those numbers are open to imprecision due to the sheer spread of levels. In order to justify that imprecision, we now have to ponder, was it really an 8-a “sometimes,” or was it a 7- “a sometimes,” or was it a 6- a “sometimes?” The time spent on creating rubrics to identify these seemingly imprecise separations could be considered tedious, consuming, and of arguably limited benefit to the learner or practitioner.
Schools are making progress. After discussions with the various stakeholders, many have moved toward standards-based education, and many more are gradually reducing their spread of numbers and letters. In Physical Education, perhaps we need to go a step further in our approach to reporting. We are dealing with life skills that play an integral role in the focus on four non-negotiable daily questions that have become even more salient over the past 18 months: Did I exercise? Did I make good nutritional choices? Did I get enough sleep? Did I have fun with friends and family? With the pandemic has come time for reflection on our past practices, and the chance to reconsider and create relevant change. In Physical Education, I am hopeful that continued professional dialogue results in us relying on the power of the narrative to report meaningful and non-judgmental feedback to students and parents. I look forward to a future that will perhaps get us rolling the ball in the right direction.
Neil has been teaching primarily PE in the International Schools system for the past 30 years. He has worked and lived with his family in Spain, The PRC, Japan, Singapore, Bangladesh, and the UAE. He is married with two third culture children. His wife is the current ES assistant principal at ACS in Abu Dhabi where he currently teaches HS PE & Health.