Project-Based Learning and Physical Education
Physical education (PE) can be a place where relevant and authentic learning can occur. I think project-based learning (PBL) is one way to not only create this, but to also show others how valuable PE can be. When done well, PBL gives students a relevant and authentic task—a problem or challenge—that they, as a team and as individuals, must explore and solve. Instead of a project that is a curriculum add-on or completed at the end, the standards-based instruction is filtered through this authentic task, which creates a need to know in students. They see why they are learning what they are learning. The students learn and complete the project concurrently, continually revising and producing a product that they will present publicly.
In my visits to classrooms across the country, I have seen some great projects that teachers have created and implemented. I am continually inspired and amazed by what they create. We "steal" from each other and use each other's ideas in our own classrooms. In this spirit of stealing, here is an example of a PE PBL project filtered through the "Seven Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning," a framework for inquiry shared by my Buck Institute for Education colleagues John Larner and John R. Mergendoller in a recent Educational Leadership article. Steal this project and use it in your classroom!
1. Need to Know
A group of high school students were presented with a letter from the local middle school principal. The letter asked them to create the best exercise program for the middle school students. They were asked to create sample PE units for the teachers and students and present their ideas to a panel of teachers, administrators, and other experts. They were also required to create, through their own participation and physical activity, data that proved physical exercise was occurring.
What a task to ask of high school students, and they had a lot of questions! What is a good PE unit? What do middle students like to do in PE? What are the goals of PE? These were all questions generated by the students. They had to engage in research, both online and in person, in order to accomplish this authentic task and present it to a real audience.
2. A Driving Question
For this project, students were trying to answer the question, How can we create the best exercise program for middle school students? All the work was geared toward this question. Students were reminded of the question in their daily lessons. It helped them answer the question, Why are you doing this today? when administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders visited the classroom.
3. Student Voice and Choice
Students were allowed a variety of opportunities to choose how they wanted to show their learning, but they were still graded on the same standards and learning objectives. Traditionally, teachers dictate all parts of the assessment, rather than give students power of how they can show their learning. If students are given voice and choice, they are engaged and empowered to perform the task.
For this project, each group was allowed to choose its PE unit, whether it was focused on a racket sport, conditioning, or a combination. However, they had to prove that this unit would meet the needs of physical education, whether the needs were created by the PE teacher or to align with specific standards and learning targets. In addition to the group work, each student was required to create another engaging PE unit for middle school students, but showcase it in a format of each student's choice (for example, podcasts, videos, flyers, or demonstrations). This ensures accountability of the same learning targets for both the group and the individual.
4. 21st Century Skills
Students were engaged in two 21st century skills: collaboration and presentation. Unlike group work, which is activity based, they would work together to create something over a few weeks. Rather than one day, they would engage in collaboration like professionals in the workforce. These skills are valuable across disciplines and in the postgraduate world. Teachers trained students to do these skills well, whether in a team-building activity in PE class or help from the drama teacher in the art of presentation.
5. Inquiry and Innovation
Because the task is authentic and open-ended, students are constantly engaged in the inquiry process. They are finding and being armed by the teacher with the information they need to accomplish the task. Students are also creating something new. It is not simply a regurgitation of knowledge, but instead using that knowledge and newly created data to design an innovative PE unit.
6. Feedback and Revision
The students had to test-drive each other's units, which meant they were engaged in a variety of physical activities. However, they were also looking for feedback from their peers, from teachers, and from the middle school students. They learned that continuous improvement is possible, and that revision is a great thing to do.
7. A Publicly Presented Product
Students presented to a high-stakes audience, both for the individual and group products. They shared their data, demonstrated their units, engaged in persuasive rhetoric, and shared the stage with each other. After the presentations, there was a sense of relief as well as a sense of accomplishment. They had successfully completed a project that they would remember for the rest of high school. Not only that, but they came to their own understandings of many PE content standards, as well the importance and need for a physical education program.
I encourage physical educators to think about the possibilities with PBL. The project can be geared toward any standard and any audience. Its focus can be narrow or broad, and it can last anywhere from several days to several months. The payoff is engagement. Students will see the relevance for their learning in PE through the authentic task of a PBL project. You must give up power in order to empower your students; empower them in their physical education.