July 2021
By Brendan Lee, Assistant Principal Blaxland East PS

Think back to your time as a student in PE (Physical Education). Did it usually involve the teacher putting out some equipment and then sending students off to go and play? For many of us, it is still the norm.

Having been a PE teacher for over 10 years, I get it, the students just want to play a game and besides, they all love Dodgeball! Right?!

Yes, some of our students enjoy having a ball launched at their head (scary when it’s put like that, isn’t it?), but for many it can actually be quite a traumatic experience! As Physical Educators, can’t we do better?

What does it mean to teach purposefully?

Teaching purposefully means taking the time to think about what you want the students to be learning and then putting together the most effective lessons to help them achieve those learning intentions.

What are our overarching values and themes that we want our students to be gaining from our lessons?

Previously, I have written about curriculum design for the whole person and how we need to have an understanding on what sort of young person we want walking out our doors when they finish school. As a PE teacher, how can our PE lessons lead to developing this sort of person?

“Physical education is fundamental to the acquisition of movement skills and concepts to enable students to participate in a range of physical activities – confidently, competently and creatively.” (NSW K-10 PDHPE Syllabus, 2018)

To teach purposefully, we could use this statement as the driving factor for every single one of our PE lessons. 

Also, the five propositions proposed by the Australian Curriculum can be a guide to refining our purpose. When designing learning sequences, it can be helpful to think about which proposition you are focusing on: 

  1. Educative Focus
  2. Critical Inquiry
  3. Value Movement
  4. Health Literacy
  5. Strengths-Based approaches.

Focus on reason

To teach purposefully, means to have a reason behind what you are doing. For example:

  • Are you doing “skills and drills” so that your students can become more confident and competent in being active or are you doing it because that’s how you’ve always taught it?

  • Do your students play games to get them moving, enjoying movement, thinking or learning? All can be correct, as long as that is what your learning intentions are.

  • If your goal is to increase physical activity participation, are you focused on doing that just for this lesson or to increase physical activity for life? Aren’t we more than personal trainers?

  • Have you chosen activities because that is what the students enjoy? How do you know that they enjoy it? Is it because your loud, sporty kids keep asking for it or because you have taken a strengths-based approach? How do you know that they wouldn’t enjoy other activities if they haven’t been exposed to them?

Meaningful PE

This is where the Meaningful PE (MPE) project comes into it. Meaningful PE is a pedagogical approach to PE instruction. Kretchmar (2001, 2006) identified the following features of physical education experiences that made them more meaningful for children as follows:

  • Social interaction: emphasising shared positive participation with others;
  • Challenge: involving engagement in activities that are ‘just-right’ (not too easy, not too difficult);
  • Increased motor competence: including opportunities for learning and improved skilfulness in an activity;
  • Fun: encompassing immediate enjoyment in the moment;
  • Delight: experiencing more sustained pleasure or joy as a result of significant engagement and commitment.

Chróinín et al, 2018 conducted a study on learning to teach using the meaningful pedagogical approaches and framing learning activities using features of meaningful participation (full article can be accessed free here). It highlights the importance of being explicit in prioritising the focus on meaningful experiences for the students.

In this article from ImSporticus, the goals of MPE are summarised as: 

“The objective in MPE isn’t to develop the competence required to get all young people to the deep end, it is to help them become more aware and attuned to finding personally significant relationships with PE, with their bodies and with culturally significant forms of movement.”

The features of MPE and purposeful teaching also fit in with the research that Peps McCrea has done on motivation that can be found in his latest book, Motivated teaching. He talks about things like “precise pitching”, which means that we should provide learning experiences that are challenging, yet achievable for as many pupils as possible. He also looks at how we can “boost buy-in” by framing certain tasks to make the purpose and benefits clear to the pupils.

The curse of knowledge

Many teachers are affected by the curse of knowledge. We often assume that other people know more than they do because of how much we know. Or we think that something will be easy for others to do because we’re so good at it.

As teachers we do it all the time, many PE teachers were star athletes and because we have so much background knowledge to make connections too, we can forget or just not actually know how few schemas our students are able to link too. 

What does purposeful teaching look like in the PE classroom?

A purposeful learning experience is one where every detail has been thought about. From when the students arrive to your class, to what questions you ask and how they respond to your questions; in a purposeful classroom every aspect has been thought out.

Now, of course we will never get the perfect classroom, but that doesn’t mean we can’t aim for one. So, what do we need to think about?

1. Know what you want the students to be learning.

This year, I have started at a new school as a specialist K-6 Physical Education (PE) teacher. In NSW, it is not compulsory to have a specialist PE teacher in primary schools (check out Shane Pill’s article on it here) and as a PDHPE trained teacher I saw this as a tremendous opportunity.

When starting out, it was brought to my attention that the community has high expectations of our sporting performance and had experienced a lot of success in the past.

While I was excited about the fact that I would be working at a school that had such a big emphasis on sport, it also made me aware that part of my role would be educating the community (staff, students and families). Changing misconceptions like physical education is not just playing sport and being a good athlete does not necessarily mean being a good PE student. 

I was fortunate enough to organise a planning session with Primary PE expert, Veronica Brogden through ACHPER NSW. It was great to have someone so experienced and knowledgeable to bounce ideas off as being a primary PE teacher can be quite isolating. 

After working out what the end goal was, I looked at where I would need to start in order to get there.

Often in PE, we assume that students will learn how to communicate effectively and work well in groups. Teaching purposefully means taking away the hopeful aspect and knowing what your learning intentions are.

  • WATCH: This short video of students participating in a throwing activity, but learning how to work inclusively and respectfully 

The curse of knowledge can get us when we try to implement games, problem-solving or creative thinking activities too early. 

Ollie Lovell has put together a great overview of Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory and Hayley Dean has also written about it from a PDHPE perspective. They offer a number of practical ways that teachers can reduce extraneous load (when working memory is drawn away from the core information to be learned) and to increase intrinsic cognitive load (what we want students to be thinking about).

For example, do we need to pre-teach vocabulary before explaining a game? Will students understand what we mean when we say subject specific terms like: “attack”, “defence”, “tryline”, “shoot” and “move into space.”’

Another way to apply Cognitive Load Theory in the PE setting is by providing visual cues for students, rather than relying on them remembering what they have to do for each activity. The same effect occurs if we provide “worked examples” by modelling (or even showing a video) of what we want the students to do. This would then need to be followed up with similar problems.

The Game Sense approach looks at doing just this by putting constraints on what we want the students to be thinking about. For example, in a 2 v 1 drill where we want our students to be learning how to draw-and-pass, by reducing the amount of players, we decrease the amount that the attackers have to think about. We could even go a step further and say that the defenders are only allowed to go for the person starting with the ball and that the attacker must pass.

To avoid the expertise-reversal effect (when learners aren’t challenged enough), I have been gamifying a lot of my activities. This way students can either pick and choose where they start or progress at their own rate. 

Shane PillAndy Hair and Andy Vasily have been huge advocates of this method and have a number of excellent examples. I also used this method for a “Cross the River” activity where the students had to get from one side to the other together with limited objects that they could use. Individually, students could choose to have extra “lives” or equipment that they could use so that it was challenging them at their own level.

2. Setting up a positive classroom culture

Working in groups is an extremely complex task that many adults struggle to master. We need to explicitly teach our students how to cooperate in groups. In sport and physical activity, students have to play in teams and complete activities in groups all the time and yet we just assume they will know how to behave in that context. 

I wanted to create a positive classroom culture for my classes, so I needed to explicitly teach them what my expectations were and give them the knowledge needed to do so successfully.

For example, does John have to think about how Jane will view him if he can’t kick a ball? If so, that might lead to him acting up or not participating to avoid failure. If we can create the culture of everyone doing their best and getting better, then we can focus more on the teaching and learning part.

That led me to coming up with the focus on learning using the Personal and Social Responsibility model and starting with the essential inquiry question of: “How can I help create a positive learning environment for my classmates and myself?” 

We looked at things such as how to communicate, take turns, be respectful, what to do when conflict arises and that the people are more important than the games we play.

  • WATCH: this short video via Twitter of students working collaboratively together to help each other achieve a goal
This video is an example of the sort of classroom culture I had been aiming to set up. One where students could take ownership of their own learning, be challenged at their own level, collaborate to build individual success collectively and not be afraid to make mistakes.
The challenge was getting students to understand that they would have to think in my lessons (yes, even the Kindergarten students when we’re not going on toilet breaks) and that sometimes we would be doing more thinking than moving, if it meant more movement in the long-term.
  • WATCH: this short video via Twitter using the jigsaw technique for collaborative learning can increase accountability for students.

While students look like they are just performing another dance routine, what made this activity different was that I used the jigsaw technique that Dr. Ash Casey advocates for it as being a key part of Cooperative Learning.

Each student had to go off and learn a sequence of movements with students from other groups and then become an “expert” in those moves. Upon returning to their original group, they would have to teach the sequence to the others. It increases individual accountability while also ensuring everyone works towards the same shared goal.

Highlights were hearing from a number of students say that was the first time they had performed something in front of the whole class.

3. Checking for understanding

  • WATCH: this short video via Twitter of taking the time to check for understanding to ensure students are successfully learning. 

As you can see in the video, one aspect of my teaching that I have focused on is formative assessment.

Part of being purposeful is knowing where your students are at and challenging them at the correct level. In Why don’t students like school, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham says that, “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking.” 

This also comes back to creating the right classroom culture, so that students don’t have to contend with thinking about how others might perceive them if they get an answer wrong or they can’t do something.

Willingham writes about reviewing each lesson plan in terms of what the students will be thinking about throughout the lesson. Are you keeping your instructions direct and concise or going off on a tangent and losing the students focus. Or think about when you introduce an activity and start off by saying, “In pairs” and all the students are thinking about is who their partner will be!

Once your routines have been set up for how students can show their learning, you need to set out the time to do so. Too often in PE, we get to the end of a lesson and we’re in a mad rush to pack things away, get the students changed (if in high school) and go to your next lesson. Allocate time for effective questioning, exit tickets and highlighting what worked well.

Personally, I use a lot of Doug Lemov’s, Teach like a champion techniques such as Turn and Talk (seen in the previous video), Show Call (pictured) and Cold Call (choosing students to answer questions even if they don’t have a hand up). I have also found the Teaching Walkthrus series by Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli as extremely helpful in looking at practical ways to apply best-practice. 

We are lucky in PE that students are not required to write their answers (this can be a barrier for many) and can quite easily show their understanding by physically demonstrating what they can do or verbally communicating what they understand. 

Dr. Justen O’Connor and Dr. Laura Alfrey have been working on transforming HPE and they have included a number of assessment strategies here. ACHPER NSW Board members, Veronica Brogden and Kyle Sutton have also written about assessment in PE.

Where to next

Without a doubt, teaching purposefully requires that teachers spend time thinking and making changes. It is not easy.

If you are a school leader, firstly you will have to convince staff that these are the changes needed and then change the culture around what happens in PE for the students. If you are a classroom teacher, then you need to convince school leaders that PE is more than sport. These conversations require planning on your part in order to show what the evidence says and what your plan of attack is.

Reflecting on your own practices

Tim Fletcher of the Learning About Meaningful Physical Education (LAMPE) research project is a part of a team intent on sharing the Meaningful PE strategies with a global audience. He has spoken about asking yourself reflective questions such as:

  • What are you doing
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How were you taught it?
  • Does your curriculum allow students to use their knowledge outside of school?
  • Have you been affected by the sunk-cost bias?

The sunk-cost bias is when we make decisions based on how much we have previously invested. For many time-poor teachers, changing the PE curriculum can be put in the “too-hard basket,” because of the time that would be needed to do it and the lack of emphasis put on it by school leadership. A lot of schools put the emphasis on other aspects of the curriculum such as: literacy and numeracy, HSC and NAPLAN results or the “theory” aspect of PDHPE.

However, the traditional ways of teaching PE just aren’t working (Green, 2014). There is little correlation between students’ experiences in PE and physical activity levels outside of school.

Also, the latest AusPlay results show us that most Australian’s are still not meeting the recommended physical activity guidelines for their age. 69% of 5-11 year old children are participating in less than two hours of physical activity outside of school hours and making comments like, “Sport is too competitive and not fun” or they “Don’t like sport or physical activity due to poor introductory experiences.”

This tells us that things need to change. We need to make the PE experience more meaningful and we need to be purposeful in how we do this.

How teaching purposefully will change you

In this blog, John Coleman (co-author of Passion and Purpose) writes about how the way we think about our work affects how we feel about it. Teaching purposefully brings you back to the reason why many of you chose teaching as a career – to help our next generation of young people.

If you can make the connection between what you do and the impact it has, your purpose becomes a lot clearer. If you look at every decision that you make as a teacher purposefully, it allows you to be more explicit in the expectations and instructions that you deliver to your students.

Explore teaching purposefully further

ACHPER NSW Reimagining PE workshop series

About the author

From Brendan Lee:
As someone who has left teaching (I ran a cafe for a couple of years!) and now returned, once I found my purpose again, it gave me a whole new perspective on how I looked at work.

I now look at professional learning as an opportunity to fine-tune my craft as a teacher. I also take on as many opportunities as I can (such as writing this blog) to impact as many young people as possible.

This new found focus has put me in the position where I am now an Assistant Principal and able to impact on whole-school and community-wide changes. As you can probably tell from this blog post, I love talking about all things to do with teaching and learning and hope that you have gained something from this article.

Feel free to connect with me via:

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Email brendan.ray.lee@det.nsw.edu.au.

In the meantime, teach purposefully!


Casey A, Quennerstedt M. 2020. “Cooperative learning in physical education encountering Dewey’s educational theory.” European Physical Education Review. 26(4):1023-1037. doi:10.1177/1356336X20904075

Chróinín, D. N., Fletcher, T. & O’Sullivan, M. 2018. “Pedagogical principles of learning to teach meaningful physical education.” Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23:2, 117-133, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2017.1342789

Green, K. 2014. “Mission impossible? Reflecting upon the relationship between physical education, youth sport and lifelong participation.” Sport, Education and Society, 19:4, 357-375, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2012.683781

Kretchmar, R. S. 2001. “Duty, Habit, and Meaning: Different Faces of Adherence.” Quest 53 (3): 318–325. doi: 10.1080/00336297.2001.10491748

Kretchmar, R. S. 2006. “Ten More Reasons for Quality Physical Education.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation and Dance 77 (9): 6–9. doi: 10.1080/07303084.2006.10597932

Lemov, D. 2014. “Teach Like a Champion 2.0. 62 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College.” John Wiley & Sons Inc

Lovell, O. 2020. “Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action.” John Catt Educational

Manzano-Sánchez D., Conte-Marín L., Gómez-López M. and Valero-Valenzuela, A. 2020. “Applying the Personal and Social Responsibility Model as a School-Wide Project in All Participants: Teachers’ Views.” Front. Psychol. 11:579. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00579

McCrea, P. 2021. “Motivated Teaching: Harnessing the science of motivation to boost attention and effort in the classroom.” CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

NSW Education Standards Authority. 2018. “Personal Development, Health and Physical Education K–10 Syllabus.” Retrieved from https://educationstandards.nsw.edu.au/wps/portal/nesa/k-10/learning-areas/pdhpe/pdhpe-k-10-2018

Sport Australia. 2019 “Participation across life stages.” Retrieved from https://www.sportaus.gov.au/participation/participants

Willingham, D.T. 2021. “Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Second Edition.” John Wiley & Sons Inc 

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