Teaching Methods: Delivering PE online

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Thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp.

With millions of people in lockdown and schools closed to almost everyone, COVID-19 forced teachers and leaders to perform a quick pivot to new ways of delivering lessons, and providing ongoing support for students and their families. And, of course, many turned to online learning. Now, if the set-up for subjects like English and Maths seemed like a challenge, spare a thought for Physical Education (PE) teachers. Their learning spaces and equipment are of course an integral part of lessons. In this episode of Teaching Methods we’ll be looking at how PE teachers adapted to online learning during the pandemic. My guest is Dr Vaughan Cruickshank from the University of Tasmania. He’s here to talk about the findings of new study exploring teacher experiences of online delivery of PE. The results have been published in the journal Issues in Educational Research.

So then, in this ‘emergency mode’ of teaching and learning, did PE happen at all? If it did, it more Physical Activity than Physical Education? And what lessons can we learn from this experience for the future? Let’s find out.

Jo Earp: Dr Vaughan Cruickshank, welcome to Teacher. Now, you carried out the research with Dr Casey Mainsbridge, who’s also from the University of Tasmania, and Associate Professor Shane Pill from Flinders University. You’re all former HPE teachers (that’s Health and Physical Education here in Australia). So, I was interested then, as someone who’s been there and done that, if you like – what were you thinking when the restrictions were put in place? So, there was the huge shift wasn’t there to learning from home, there was differences in access to equipment, the kids had different learning environments at home, and all the educators had different levels of expertise in terms of using technology and teaching online (if schools were going to go that way). Were you thinking ‘Oh, what are the PE teachers going to be facing here? How are they going to tackle it?’

Vaughan Cruickshank: Hi Jo, thanks for having me. Yeah, I thought it would be difficult, for particularly Primary HPE teachers, to develop an effective online program when they had very little time, very little training to do it, I thought it would be very challenging. And certainly in recent years, researchers have actually expressed some concerns over online PE and some have actually said it shouldn’t be targeted at primary school students, just because of difficulties in giving feedback, difficulties in developing those fundamental motor skills, which are those key skills which are the foundation for a whole wide range of sports and activities that people might want to participate in throughout their lives. So, teaching those skills and giving them feedback is really important and much harder to do online.

There’s quite a lot of online resources and activities that teachers could use to keep their students active, and sort of busy, I guess, but not a lot of information on the actual pedagogy of teaching PE effectively online. So I think a lot of it was probably trial and error for teachers, even those who were quite confident with technology. So, yeah, I thought it was going to be difficult dealing with the challenge of teaching online PE, but also at the same time dealing with the challenge of the pandemic in general in their personal lives. So, yes, challenging!

JE: Yes, absolutely it was, and we’ll find out about some of those challenges in a moment. So, I’m interested, what was the impetus for this study? I imagine myself that one of the main drivers was to actually give a voice to the teachers who went through that – and like you say we didn’t have any experience of this kind of thing – so to share those experience so that we can maybe, hopefully, learn something for the future.

VC: Yeah, that’s a pretty good summary, I don’t have much to add to that. I guess, when we were teaching in schools we never had to teach HPE online. Some of us have primary school-aged children who received different amounts of HPE content from their schools to do during lockdown. So, yeah, we were just interested in what other teachers had done and what they’d experienced.

JE: And you mentioned about specifically the challenges to do with primary. You focused on online teaching delivery of primary school PE during 2020, in Tasmania, in Australia. You spoke to 11 specialist HPE teachers – so there were seven male and four female, they were all working in co-educational primary schools. Were they all fairly experienced teachers?

VC: We deliberately tried to get a variety. So we had teachers from their 20s through to their 50s, with a couple of years’ experience through to 30 years’ experience, teachers from city and country schools, government and non-government. But I’d say that the average teacher in our study was probably in their mid- to late-30s with a bit over 10 years’ experience.

JE: So they weren’t straight out of teacher education, they’d been around, they’d done it a while. So, again, really interesting to see some of the challenges and how they coped with those. A quick mention now that actually you ended the interviews early, didn’t you, because you said it was clear there were strong, recurring themes coming out. How many people did you initially plan to interview?

VC: We didn’t really have a set plan. We sent the invitation out to teachers through their principals and got about 30 responses from interested teachers, and those responses included a bit of information about their age and experience and school. So, we could sort of purposely select participants to get that variety of age and experience that I just talked about.

Like you say, we stopped after 11 as basically nothing new was emerging. Teachers were essentially saying the same things regardless of their different teaching contexts. And I know 11 participants might not sounds like a lot, but to give your listeners a bit of context – 11, 30 to 40 minute interviews works out at about 50 000 words of data, which is over 100 pages in a Microsoft Word document. So we certainly had plenty of data, yeah.

JE: Yeah, that was it, it was only 11 teachers but you were really discussing the issues with them, picking apart how they coped during the pandemic. It wasn’t just like a 10 question survey, yeah that’s a good point to make. So, let’s dig into the findings now; we’ll talk about some of those experiences. I was reading the journal article and there were three themes to emerge and we’ll go through those one by one, I think that might be the easiest way to do it. Firstly then: PE didn’t happen at all, but was mostly changed to physical activity/fitness or it was pushed to the back of the queue – it was seen as less of a priority and it actually sort of turned into a movement break between subjects that were seen to have higher status.

VC: Yeah, that was predominantly the case. A lot of teachers talked about daily fitness challenges and prioritising keeping students active and getting them outside, often as a break (like you say) between schoolwork rather than an actual PE lesson. So this is obviously a bit of a concern seeing as a focus on educative outcomes is one of the five key ideas the Australian HPE Curriculum was developed around.

Certainly in a lot of schools it appeared that the PE had been replaced with Physical Activity – so I guess they got PA instead of PE. And we certainly encourage students to be physically active, and resources like online fitness videos can be great for kids stuck inside during isolation, but PA by itself is not PE. So, the PA needs to be done in addition to PE lessons, where students are being taught concepts like Health Literacy, Critical Inquiry and provided with that feedback around how to refine skills and movement patterns. Because research tells us that development of those key, fundamental skills that allow students to be competent at being active are a really strong indicator of how active they’ll be throughout their lives. So that’s really important.

We did actually put in the paper that, obviously substituting Physical Activity for Physical Education long-term is going to be highly detrimental to achieving those HPE Curriculum aims around developing skills and dispositions for lifelong participation in physical activity. But it is important to acknowledge the lack of time and training that teachers were given to move online – so it’s probably a little bit unrealistic to expect them to have developed a really high quality program.

So, in their defence, I think they did perceive a focus on Physical Activity accumulation as a bit of a temporary move until suppression measures had eased and teaching had essentially returned to normal. Certainly here in Australia, or in Tasmania, we were only off school for about nine weeks, so we were a lot luckier than other parts of Australia. So I guess in other parts of Australia it might be a bit different, yeah.

JE: When you say, just to try and think about those differences then between Physical Education and Physical Activity – what were they saying about that, was it just too difficult to do? What kind of things were they actually doing for Physical Activity as opposed to what you were suggesting for Physical Education, are there any examples you can give?

VC: Some of the examples might have been, teachers kind of said ‘as long as they’re outside and active I’m happy’. So it’s kind of like the expectation moved from education to activity. Some of them might have said ‘the activity today is just go and get your heart rate to 200, I don’t care how you do it, do it any way you want’. Others might be ‘I just want you getting off your screen, go and walk the dog, go and ride your bike, it doesn’t matter, just get off your laptop for half an hour or whatever and go do that’. So it was much more around that activity rather than the actual education of refining skills and movements, and all the other parts of the curriculum.

JE: Like you say, with a bit more training … and obviously this was the first time and they probably weren’t expecting it to be as long-term as it was. The other aspect of that was that it was pushed PE to the back of the queue – so they were given very little opportunity, actually, some of them, to teach on certain weeks. And one of the responses here, I’ll just read it out, it’s from one of the participants: ‘I’ve got them doing a small fitness challenge, a little run then back in and do some schoolwork, but it’s not explicit teaching of any skills, it’s literally just a babysit kind of thing I think to give the teachers a break.’ And so they were kind seen as, you know, this thing that you could pull out, I guess, when you wanted a break from the other ‘more important’ subjects. Is that right in some cases?

VC: Yeah, definitely, they certainly weren’t given their timetabled time. And certainly I think students might have had the perception that they needed to do some of these, numeracy and literacy sort of activities were certainly the priority, and then if they had time they might do this, like you say if they needed a break they might come and do some of these activities. But yeah, there certainly was marginalisation of Health and Physical Education in some schools, definitely.

JE: Yeah, so a lot of competing priorities and again we’ve got to remember that this is the first time that it happened, there was all sorts going on at school, all sorts of hectic things to do with timetable juggling and so on. But these themes and this feedback is really interesting.

We’ll continue the conversation then and look at themes two and three, after this quick message from our sponsor.

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JE: So, theme number two then, let’s move on: Online learning platforms were already used by schools, but not with any consistency. Using them to teach PE can be a lot of work and the teachers had varying levels of confidence and inclination to use them.

VC: There are a few themes to unpack there. It’s probably not unexpected that different teachers have different levels of confidence and competence with technology. But I probably wasn’t expecting the variety of platforms being used in schools, often within the same department of education or even within the same school. If some teachers had a preference for Seesaw, another one preferred Microsoft Teams, another one preferred Canvas …

So that obviously worked okay for the teacher in their class, but for the PE teacher who’s uploading activities to all their classes across the whole school, that can be a lot of work. Particularly as a lot of primary school PE teachers in Tasmania actually work in multiple schools, because the small primary schools don’t have enough classes to make a full PE load. So teachers might do two days in one school and three days in another. So, if there are different platforms across different classes then, yeah, it’s a lot of work for them to get up to speed on how to proficiently put all the activities up and give feedback and all those sorts of stuff. So that could certainly be a lot of work.

Some teachers actually found that even if students were all on the same platform, it could be a lot of work interacting with them if engagement was high. Obviously they wanted students to engage but some were saying, for example, they might send out a video to their 200 or 300 students every week and then they’d get over 100 responses – so students actually doing the activity, sending a picture or a video, and some of these videos could be several minutes long. Obviously these students would naturally expect some sort of feedback or a message. So it took teachers a long time to respond to all of those. It was obviously a real positive that they were engaging, but the flow-on workload effects could be quite considerable.

Then, in terms of teacher inclination, I think we’ve called it, that was quite interesting. Some teachers said that they didn’t want to use technology for PE, even if they were quite competent themselves. And that was primarily around their concerns that students were spending so much time online for all their other learning areas they didn’t want to add to it with PE. So, that was quite a conscious decision and that might actually go some way to explaining why some teachers chose to prioritise movement accumulation and getting people outside, just to get them off their laptops. So that’s potentially another kind of justification/explanation for the lack of PE that we noted in the teacher responses.

JE: Just to go back to the different platforms, and clarify that. One of the participants, again I’ll read it, was talking about the differences here. So they were saying: ‘I wasn’t asked to do videos and to tell the truth I wasn’t jumping at it because as a specialist teacher I have to communicate with every class there and one class is Seesaw, one class is on Dojo, one class is on Microsoft Teams, so I’ve got to be across using three different online learning platforms, you know, to quite a proficient level. It would have been a Mount Everest for me.’ And I guess that comment really does bring it home – if you’re the class teacher, yes, you may be using one platform, but if you’re teaching like you say right across the school and multiple schools in some cases then you have to handle (depending on what platform the teachers have chosen) three/four different ones. So I thought that was really interesting. And the third theme, and we’ve kind of touched on that with that inclination point, was that connection: Having a connection is an important part of teaching – the teachers in your study actually preferred to connect with students face-to-face (and I think probably most teachers would say that across the subjects) but they had those concerns about delivery of feedback and also about the student engagement online.

VC: Yeah, they definitely had a clear preference for face-to-face teaching. Their comments indicated concern for students missing the social benefits of learning together and working within teams, and then obviously their personal feelings of missing their students and not being able to build relationships with them like they would normally, essentially.

I guess, in terms of feedback if you’re in class you can watch a student do a skill and give them an immediate feedback on how to correct it or to improve it. Whereas if you’re responding to a video that students performing a skill have uploaded and you don’t get to it, potentially, ‘til days later, some teachers were concerned about the value of that feedback given so long after the student had actually done the activity. So they were questioning how much feedback they bothered to give online, in some cases, because they weren’t sure how useful that would be three or four days later.

And then in terms of engagement, obviously that varies in face-to-face classes but some teachers were concerned that they couldn’t check in and engage or support students if they didn’t respond to emails or even have internet. So that was another group of students that I hadn’t really thought about.

Teachers in this study, they had face-to-face students at school – the children of essential workers – they had their online students, and then they had their offline students who didn’t have internet or didn’t have enough devices for all of the kids at home. So they had to come in and collect printed out activity packs. But if they never returned them it was impossible for teachers to sort of know what they doing, if anything.

So, yeah, kind of this three different balls that teachers were juggling in terms of their teaching. So, definitely a big challenge.

JE: And, there were some positives though weren’t there to come from this – it wasn’t all just things that were challenging. Just reading, again, about student engagement and here are a couple of examples. The first one, the participant says: ‘We had a virtual cross country and nearly 95 per cent of the kids at school were running cross country and, you know, even kinders were running two to three kilometres, when traditionally they only run 800 metres’. And then this one, another lovely one, again something that I think has been really good for parents: ‘Some of our kids have got into really good habits with their family. They’ve been doing some PE with Joe’ (he’s sort of a celebrity, if you like, in the UK isn’t he Joe Wicks, he did the morning PE sessions there) – so the comment was saying ‘they’ve been doing some PE with Joe or one of the apps that they’ve been sent every day and you know some of the families they weren’t doing it before, so I think it’s been quite good, that extra time for some kids.’ So, like I say, there were some positives, weren’t there, in terms of engagement.

VC: Yeah, definitely, obviously the successful cross country in that virtual way. It’s obviously great if families can be developing positive physical activity habits together. I think we wrote in there that it might have had something to do with exercise being one of the few reasons Tasmanians were actually allowed out of their houses during isolation. But if students and their families can keep those habits up then that’s definitely a positive.

JE: So, let’s look at the research as a whole then – were there any particular surprises for you? You know, we talked about those themes: so, marginalisation of PE to focus on so-called ‘higher priority’ subjects; inconsistency in platforms; that kind of hankering for face-to-face … is that kind of what you expected?

VC: Yeah, besides the variety in online platforms – which I didn’t think there would be so much variety, even across the department of education but let alone within schools, so that was a real surprise. But apart from that I don’t think there were any surprises really because research and just anecdotal chats with teachers have revealed similar things about marginalisation of PE, particularly in primary schools, in the past. So, it probably honestly wasn’t a big surprise, some of those comments but it was nice to actually have some data around to justify some of those anecdotal feelings and chats that you might have had with teachers. So that was definitely a positive to come out of this.

JE: We’ve published a few stories on learning in lockdown, and learning from that experience. I get the feeling that one of the things teachers have said, you know, everything happened so quickly – they need some time to actually process exactly what happened, the good, and the bad as well. Interestingly, what they’ll keep from the new way of working and then also what they were doing before that that they’ll ditch now. Is that kind of what will be happening in the area of PE too do you think? What are the implications for this research when it comes to (hopefully) making things easier in the future if and when this kind of thing happens again?

VC: Yeah, I was actually saying to one of the other authors about that the other day. It would probably be a good follow-up study in a year or two to see what’s actually changed. I suspect with teachers being so busy, they haven’t even fully been able to process it yet, particularly obviously teachers in New South Wales and Victoria who are just coming out of lockdown again (in some cases). Things might have just gone back to normal while teachers were getting back into the throes of face-to-face teaching.

But I think if something like this did happen again then I think PE teachers essentially need to fight for their time and their equal status, so they’re not just kind of marginalised to a movement break between other subjects. So, certainly, setting content and activities for students to do individually and maybe even in groups, and then potentially having those scheduled Zoom sessions (which I know some teachers were sort of a bit against), but that’s where they can do that potentially in their normal timetabled time and really ensure that ‘E’ is in the PE. So they can potentially provide immediate feedback on … get students to perform skills they’ve been practising and give them feedback on that; lead discussions on the importance of Health Literacy and other curriculum areas, such as Food and Nutrition, Safety, Mental Health. Certainly that mental health was a pretty big theme just generally around society in terms of lockdown, so giving students some tools to work in that area would be great.

Then I think probably [education] departments and professional learning providers need to be developing resources to help teachers that don’t just have great activities, but also have a bit more around the pedagogy of effective online teaching. I know providers such as ACHPER – which is the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation – they’ve done a bit in this space, particularly the Victorian branch. And I was reading a paper the other day about a resource developed in Ireland last year, so I think more of that is needed. Because, PE is a bit of a unique subject, in that a lot of the education occurs within movement and with others. But it’s not completely unique, because other learning areas like Science or Drama have a lot of practical experimentation, or performance with others, that can be challenging to sort of replicate online. So different learning areas might be able to learn from each other in that regard.

So, hopefully that’s a few ideas that will help us be better prepared next time. But, yeah, I think teachers still need some time to process everything and sort of move forward. Certainly using a bit more of those online platforms for some of the theory I think is happening, and I think a few more teachers are potentially flipping their classrooms – giving students a bit more content before class to have a look at and then they’re sort of coming to class and then discussing, and working on that afterwards. So I think there have been a few small changes, but there’s probably more that can happen.

That’s all for this episode of Teaching Methods, thanks for listening. We’ll be back in two weeks for another episode of our monthly series The Research Files. Subscribe to our podcast channel on Spotify, Apple podcasts or SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts from, so you can be notified of any new episodes as soon as they land – and you can access the 200+ episodes already in our archive. And, while you’re there, we’d love if you could rate and review us.

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References and related reading

Coulter, M., Britton, Ú., MacNamara, Á., Manninen, M., McGrane, B., & Belton, S. (2021). PE at Home: keeping the ‘E’in PE while home-schooling during a pandemic. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 1-13. https://doi.org/10.1080/17408989.2021.1963425

Cruickshank, V., Pill, S., & Mainsbridge, C. (2021). 'Just do some physical activity': Exploring experiences of teaching physical education online during Covid-19. Issues in Educational Research, 31(1), 76-93. http://www.iier.org.au/iier31/cruickshank-abs.html

One of the challenges for PE teachers in this study was having to navigate several online platforms to reach all students across the school. Thinking about your own school: is there consistency in the online platforms used by class teachers?

As a school leader, when you moved to remote learning did each subject still get its slot in the timetable? Were some subjects pushed to the back of the queue to give priority to others? How would you do things differently next time?