Gym Class and Motivation

Scott GallagherUncategorized

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As an English teacher in public school for 17 years, I always felt frustrated by, and a little jealous of, the Phys Ed. teachers. Phys. Ed. class seemed to be a kind of outlier in school, and the teachers were able to operate in a value system totally different from the rest of school. I wished the value system of Phys. Ed. class could be applied to the classes I taught. For many kids in school, “gym” is their favorite class. One of my favorite teachers in high school was a Phys Ed. teacher, Mr. Whiteman. Now I realize that Mr. Whiteman might be an outlier himself, but I think the way he ran his classes can provide a blueprint for the direction education should move. Here are some of the highlights from his class:

  1. If you wanted to play a sport, say volleyball, you had two choices: recreational or competitive.

The kids who chose “recreational,” were those who just wanted to have fun without worrying about their teammates yelling at them. They could cheer when they did well, and laugh together when they screwed up. Competition was nowhere in the equation. The kids who chose “competitive,” could smash spikes, and try to win. But in both cases, kids could develop skills and work together. Improvement did not necessarily hinge on competition.

  1. If you were prepared and did your best, you got an A, regardless of skill level.

Doing your best was not solely based on your athletic performance. Your best included how you conducted yourself on the field or court. Winning, or being the best had nothing to do with your grade. Sportsmanship was paramount.

  1. The gameplay was more important than winning.

It was more important that everyone had a chance to practice their skills than it was for one team to win. Rules were adjusted to make this happen. For instance, in softball, even for the competitive group, the team at bat would provide the pitcher. The idea was to get hits and actually play the game. Also how you communicated with your teammates was crucial to the overall “success” of the game.

Can you imagine those three ideas applied to all the other subjects? If given a choice as to how serious, academic, competitive students would like to be in English class, I’m guessing there would be the same kind of split. Some would want to compete, be the best; maybe they’d be focused on college, or maybe they’d even want to be a writer. It would make sense for them to push themselves, and maybe competition could be a motivator. For others, not so much. Maybe they just want to get some basics, improve their skills, but they didn’t want it to be so serious that it took the fun out of reading and writing. They could cheer one  another on when they did well, and laugh together when they screwed up. Or they could be very serious, without grades or competition. And let’s not forget that kids will be more likely to give it their best if they’ve been given a choice. Not everyone wants to play volleyball, the same way not everyone wants to write poetry. Some might want to play tennis. Some might want to practice journalism.

At The Learning Cooperatives we like to think about how kids engage in a particular content area. Their engagement, their interest, their freedom to choose how to spend their time is what is important. Acquiring skills, improving the skills they already have can happen along the way. Improvement doesn’t require competition and it certainly doesn’t require all the kids engaging with the material in the same way. Playing the game is what counts and if playing the game a certain way makes kids hate the game, then what’s the point?

As Phys Ed. class can show us, it’s not that hard to get kids to perform at a high level, improve their skills, work together and value the art of play. Phys Ed. class can also show us that these things can happen even while giving kids control over not only what activity they do but how they choose to do it.

[Photo Credit: Image by Maurizio Montanaro]