Teachers College, Columbia University
Physical education classes have many purposes. We want children to learn skill, develop positive attitudes, gain knowledge about sport and physical activity, participate in and develop habits for a lifetime of physical activity, and even learn to plan physical activity programs so once they leave school they can participate in sports and engage in life-enhancing physical activity. These may seem like a lot, but good physical education programs provide a multi-faceted approach to educating children.
Learning skills is important to help reach all of the goals of a comprehensive physical education program. For many of us, physical education class was characterized by practicing motor skills and then playing games to implement and use the skills. Unfortunately, in many situations children are put into game situations before they have the skill to adequately participate. The consequence of this is that many children do not learn the skills being taught, are not able to play the sport, and, thus, their attitudes toward physical education and physical activity are negatively impacted. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal about effective physical education and there are many good programs that provide children with quality instruction that enhances learning.
My students and I, for many years, have conducted research on what influences motor skill learning in physical education. The research is unequivocal—children learn best when they have time to practice skill (Silverman, Tyson, & Morford, 1988) and then practice at a level that is appropriate to their current skill level (Ashy, Lee, & Landin, 1988; Buck, Harrison, & Bryce, 1991; Piéron, 1983; Silverman, 1985, 1990). What this means is that the skill being practiced should be neither too hard nor too easy—for each student—if learning is to occur. In addition, as students are learning they are becoming more competent and how they practice needs to be adjusted so that the practice becomes increasing more complex to reflect the increase in skill (Silverman, 2011). The teachers in our studies who helped children learn the most skill did so by constantly adjusting practice and doing so for individual students (Silverman, Subramaniam, & Woods, 1998).
If you were to observe a teacher who is designing instruction to maximally facilitate students’ motor skill learning you would see a class where each student is practicing in a slightly different fashion. In a tennis class, for instance, everyone might be practicing the serve but some students are practicing without a net and close to where the net would be and others are at the service line with the net up as it would be in a traditional tennis game—and there might be five or six other tasks being practiced in between the these two levels. Similarly, if students were learning skills so that they could participate in a game of flag football there would be gradations in practice tasks for passing and catching with some students throwing and catching from shorter distances and working on form and basic skills and other students doing more complex tasks that look more like an actual pass play. The key to successful learning is that whatever skill is being taught is broken down to a level where each student can be successful and as the students’ skill level increases practice changes to accommodate this newly developed skill.
In order for teachers to implement instruction that focuses on the development of individual students classes cannot be organized so everyone does the same few drills and then students are split into teams to play a game (Rasmussen, Scrabis-Fletcher, & Silverman, in review; Silverman, 1993). Our research suggests that when students are put into games before they have the skill to effectively participate they do not make further gains in skill level and, in fact, their skill declines (Silverman, 1985, 1990). This is because the opportunities to use the skill are often much more advanced than they were practicing prior to being put into the game. A student who is practicing a volleyball skill, such as the forearm pass, in a controlled situation who now has to try to do the skill after it has been spiked from the other side has little possibility for being successful. There are many ways for teachers to make practice game-like and still emphasize skill, while not putting children in games where they are going to fail.
When teachers put children in games and other situations where they are not able to succeed, in addition to not learning the skill being taught, they are likely to develop poor attitudes toward physical education and physical activity (Carlson, 1995; Subramaniam & Silverman, 2002, 2007). In a recent study (Bernstein, Phillips, & Silverman, 2011) we found that when teachers put students in competitive situations—games—before they are ready to participate they know they don’t have the skill to be successful. As a result, they do not develop good attitudes toward the activity being taught and toward physical education. So despite good intentions by teachers who view game play and competition as a component of skill and attitude development, this strategy has a different result. Placing students of any age in a situation in which they are unlikely to be successful means it is likely they will not gain skill, not enjoy participating in the activity, and there may be lasting negative effects to their attitudes that can impact their participation in physical activity outside of school and in the future. A focus on developing attitude is an important component of teaching. Fortunately, the research evidence suggests that helping students learn skill so they can successfully use it also will enhance their attitudes toward the activity, physical education, and physical activity.
Ashy, M. H., Lee, A. M., & Landin, D. K. (1988). Relationships of practice using correct technique to achievement in a motor skill. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 7, 115-120.
Bernstein, E., Phillips, S., & Silverman, S. (2011). Attitudes and perceptions of middle school students toward competitive activities in physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 30, 69-83.
Buck, M., Harrison, J. M., & Bryce, G. R. (1991). An analysis of learning trials and their relationship to achievement in volleyball. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 10, 134-152.
Carlson, T. B. (1995). We hate gym: Student alienation from physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 14, 467-477.
Piéron, M. (1983). Teacher and pupil behavior and the interaction process in P.E. classes. In R. Telama, V. Varstala, J. Tiainen, L. Laakso, & T. Haajanen (Eds.), Research in school physical education (pp. 193-202). Jyväskylä, Finland: Foundation for the Promotion of Physical Culture and Health.
Rasmussen, J., Scrabis-Fletcher, K., & Silverman, S. (in review). Relationships among task, time, and student practice in elementary physical education.
Silverman, S. (1985). Relationship of engagement and practice trials to student achievement. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 5, 13-21.
Silverman, S. (1990). Linear and curvilinear relationships between student practice and achievement in physical education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 6, 305-314.
Silverman, S. (1993). Student characteristics, practice and achievement in physical education. Journal of Educational Research, 87, 54-61.
Silverman, S. (2011). Teaching for student learning in physical education. Journal of Physical Education Recreation and Dance, 82(6), 29-34.
Silverman, S., Subramaniam, P. R., & Woods, A. M. (1998). Task structures, student practice, and student skill level in physical education. Journal of Educational Research, 91, 298-306.
Silverman, S., Tyson, L., & Morford, L. M. (1988). Relationships of organization, time, and student achievement in physical education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 4, 247?257.
Subramaniam, P. R., & Silverman, S. (2002). Using complimentary data: An investigation of student attitude in physical education. Journal of Sport Pedagogy, 8(1), 74-91.
Subramaniam, P. R., & Silverman, S. (2007). Middle school students’ attitudes toward physical education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 22, 602-611.