Independent Choice and Independent Learning in Elementary Physical Education
By Eric Aeschlimann
In most ways, this pandemic has been a tough ride for teachers but it hasn’t been all bad. As educators, if we can’t see obstacles as opportunities for growth, then we aren’t living up to our growth mindset ideals we expect our students to strive towards.
In Physical Education (PE), my system has always included a schedule of units and skill-building that allowed an introduction to skills, time to practice, and opportunities to build on previous skills. Out of necessity, the schedule depended on weather (soccer in fall, gymnastics in winter when stuck in the gym, etc.) and much of that has stayed the same. But, this year, with fewer minutes for PE, it was an opportunity to take a risk and attempt something I’d been wanting to try for a long time: independent learning for grades K-5.
I wanted to have students come to class and immediately start independent work for the first 5-10 minutes of class. In theory, if students were motivated to improve on these chosen skills then these 5-10 minutes would add up to a lot of practice by the end of the school year. After set time for practice, then our PE units would follow the same order as before: a quick chat about the day, a warm-up, and finally our daily unit/game/activity.
Once back in the gym in late January, I trained students to choose a skill to practice for the first 5-10 minutes of class. Luckily, I had whiteboards at my disposal for daily reminders, and I put 6 skills on one board and 5 exercises on another. I had skills and levels of expectation for grades K-5 on each whiteboard. It looked like this:
This became a habit: students were taught that each day they’d have 5-10 minutes to work on a skill or exercise of their choice. My goal for them was to get to their grade-level-ability or better by the end of the school year: the first number was generally a first-grade level and the final number listed a fifth-grade level. I stressed to students that this year we were behind in our typical learning and that while some kids already had some of these skills, others may not, so each should choose a skill they individually needed to improve upon. To keep the “watch me’s” at bay, I told students this was independent work time and that I would ‘test’ each of them on a different day: my goal was to check about 5 kids each day and give feedback to those students, while everyone worked independently on each of their skills of choice.
What I’ve learned in the first month and a half of this process has proven what I had hoped.
Additionally, I have noticed how much interest there has been in the pull-up bars. I have five spots for this and they’re typically full: students race to get to them so they can work on pull-ups or the flexed arm hang. We’ve also had the rope and arm ladders available during much of February and it has been so fun to see students getting stronger just by using those muscles.
I am always reminding students that if they want to get better at something then they need to practice. Climbing the rope, swinging on the rope, pull-ups, and flexed arm hangs are very real examples to students, who after a little over a month of practice, are seeing their work pay off: those who could not do a flexed arm hang have been able to hold themselves up after they work on it and play on the rope.
Students have been able to choose a skill, find out which grade level they are at, and then work on it every day they have PE and track their own improvement. It has been exactly what I had hoped for: not just me telling students what was important, but them choosing a skill and putting actual effort into improving at it. The focus has been tremendous.
I will continue to use this system of choice within my classes moving forward. I’m impressed with how much content I’m able to assess with this new system. Plus, the smaller class sizes we have had this year due to Covid-19 have allowed me to really get to know each student’s skill level better and to monitor individual progress. With elementary PE, units are still practical and necessary due to equipment set-up and the simple fact that elementary kids, in order to learn new skills, need personal practice as well as to see their peers demonstrating practice. At the older levels, however (fourth & fifth), I can see this system expanded to more than the first 5-7 minutes of PE: I can see a warm-up choice, small unit choice, or even skill-practice within each unit.
Prior Understanding Matches Findings & Bonus Discoveries
What I had previously learned about personalized learning was that students would be on task with more focus because each student’s education was tailored to their current level. Students in their ‘sweet spot’ of not too hard and not too easy would take ownership of their learning and really focus to improve their skill. This is true in my newfound experience.
A healthy side effect of this model has been how little I’ve had students give up or refuse to participate. Discipline is hardly needed, as kids simply know what to do and do it. They don’t get bored because they have eleven choices and each one at their own skill-level.
Tips for Sucess
I am excited to see how far, moving forward, I can stretch putting kids in charge of their own learning as they become independent learners. After all, students becoming independent learners is our endgame.
My suggestion to any teacher who wants to put students in the driver’s seat more often:
Personally, I tried this a couple of years ago with fifth graders, tweaked a few things, then added fourth graders. Though it might not be viable in every subject area every day, I do believe whenever individual work is being done, it is possible.
The trick for the K-3 students was to ‘train’ students prior to setting them free to explore: I was nervous about them learning something the wrong way and becoming embedded muscle memory. Therefore, I spent a few minutes on each skill and spent the first few days after not tracking or assessing, but monitoring proper technique instead.
There is a sweet spot of not too hard, nor too easy. For younger students who are not yet readers, this can be tricky; so, I used pictures and symbols with numbers underneath and encouraged kids to help each other or ask me if they forgot or couldn’t figure something out.
Application Beyond PE
This technique is not only for PE! In a math class, for example, one choice could be flash cards, another could be white-board practice, another could be manipulatives (cubes, coins, etc.), money counting, etc. On a whiteboard or poster, could be the levels. I think it is key for students to know where grade level is and beyond. It could look like this:
I was looking for a way to give choice and voice to students and hoped for focused work that led to increased assessment scores and fewer discipline issues. What I learned in my K-5 PE classes this winter was that it can be done. Students were self-motivated and focused on the task at hand; therefore, I had fewer issues with students off task.
I am excited as I look ahead to how I can expand choices in different units and settings, as I feel I have opened a new door that has endless possibilities. When teachers choose to go this route, students will become more independent and self motivated. Who doesn’t love that?
By Mark Barden
Constraints get a bad rap. People see them as wholly negative: they impede progress and diminish potential. Entrepreneurs, in particular, seem locked in a perpetual grim struggle against scarce resources and abundant obstacles.
But constraints can also be fertile, enabling—even desirable. They can make people and businesses more than they were rather than less than they could be. Constraints force people to reframe problems and get creative, and from that fresh perspective and creativity emerge new opportunities: superior alternatives at which smooth, open roads would never have arrived.
In these “interesting times” when our lives seem chock full of constraints thanks to the pandemic, it can be liberating to think about the possibilities in the constraints.
Examples are everywhere:
Google and Zappos were responding to external constraints, which is the typical scenario for startups, but the NBA and Seinfeld created their own constraints. Can you imagine becoming so confident in your ability to transform your limitations into gold that you might impose them on yourself?
As advisors to the plucky challengers of the modern world, we’ve been wrestling with this subject for 20 years. Our research spans four continents and numerous industries and we’ve reached some simple, but powerful conclusions about the mindset, method, and motivation required to make constraints beautiful, including:
With the right mindset, method and motivation, the thing that binds you may just be the thing that liberates you to achieve greater success. Good luck!
Making Educational Constraints Beautiful
with Mark Barden | 3.16.2021
Barden shares a wealth of information on how to leverage the constraints in education to create more than if no constraints existed at all.
by Myron Dueck
I grew up in a small Canadian farming community about an hour and a half north of Grand Forks, North Dakota. The landscape was pretty flat--I could’ve sung along with the Who: “I can see for miles and miles and miles.”
I came to like two notable landmarks that broke the monotony: grain elevators and farm silos. Most dictionaries cite two definitions for silos. One, of course, is the tall cylindrical farm feature that is used to store grain or silage--a feature of many cattle farms. The second, which also has ties to my community and its proximity to the Canada-US border, is the military connotation of a silo: the underground chamber used to store a guided missile and the equipment used to fire it. According to the Grand Forks Herald (2015), by the late 1960s, northeastern North Dakota was home to 300 nuclear silos. I was born in 1972, and like so many others in my generation, I was inundated with news stories and movies that allowed me to, “grow up strong and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.” Thanks, Freddie.
As I looked around for various definitions of silos, I came across a third, metaphoric definition. Beyond food storage for domestic bovines and apocalyptic subterranean nukes there is:
An isolated grouping, department, etc., that functions apart from others especially in a way seen as hindering communication and cooperation
Wait a second…this sounds much more related to my contemporary existence--education
It’s time for me to admit it: too much of my educational career has been spent in the ‘school silo’. “Isolated, functioning apart from others, hindering communication…” was I the model for that definition? Was my classroom bugged?! Sure, I’ve read books, watched documentaries, and engaged in many conversations that were ‘outside’ of education per se, but somehow my NORAD radar was not homed in on the array of themes and lessons from the ‘real world’ that were applicable to my role as an educator. I was shielded by the walls of my classroom and set in my scholarly ways.
In their fascinating and relevant book A Beautiful Constraint: How To Transform Your Limitations Into Advantages, and Why It's Everyone's Business by Barden and Morgan (2015), we’re challenged to identify and break our ‘path dependence’ in order to solve seemingly unsolvable problems and, well, make our constraints beautiful. The authors point out that ‘path dependence’ can be formal, such as the myriad ‘how-to’ manuals and long-standing protocols and procedures to which we all adhere. On the other hand, ‘path dependence’ can “exist in a more informal, pervasive sense of “the way we do things around here”—the learned best practices, processes, values data sources and partners that people pay attention to” (page 38). Breaking path dependence requires us to look outside for new ideas.
I suppose there is a sort of collision occurring in my thinking that prompted me to write this article now, in January of 2021.
In any event, I think we need to look outside our school walls a little more often, rethink our constraints, in order to overcome the challenges inside those walls. When feeling there is no way out of a gripping limitation, instead of repeating, ‘we can’t…we can’t…we can’t’, Barden and Morgan offer nine strategies using the phrase, ‘we can if…’. One of these approaches suggests we venture outside of the silo:
WE CAN IF . . . WE ACCESS THE KNOWLEDGE OF . . .
In my latest book from ASCD entitled, Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage, every chapter starts with an account of something outside of the education silo. One of those ideas would fall under the heading:
WE CAN IF . . . WE ACCESS THE KNOWLEDGE OF ADVERTISERS.
Take the ‘elevator pitch’--often defined as the encapsulation of an idea in time it would take to ride an elevator from one floor to another. Steve Jobs described Apple as “having the ability to take really complex technology and make it easy to understand and use by the end user” (Arthur, 2014). Imagine for a moment you were tasked with coming up with an elevator pitch for your classroom, department, school, or district and it had to be simple--a sentence or two. In 30 seconds or less, how would you sum up your purpose, your reason for being, your ‘why’? Perhaps we’d be tempted to launch into what we do--teach, conduct classes, offer extra-curricular activities. Terry O’Reilly, the host of the enlightening advertising podcast Under the Influence, would be quick to interrupt. O’Reilly argues that the most successful companies have figured out a few really important lessons, and all of them center on why they do what they do.
Here are three to consider:
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Airport Stories: Piloting Students Beyond the Silos | with Myron Dueck | 2.2.2021
Myron Dueck and the Third Eye podcast team discuss how to help students navigate beyond the silos, in which we educators and our students frequently dwell.
Myron Dueck is a teacher and administrator from BC, Canada. Published four times in EL Magazine, he is also the author of the best-selling book, Grading Smarter, Not Harder– Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn and Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage. Connect with him at @myrondueck.