🔎 Looking at PE Through a Different Lens

We know that in a lot of schools around the world that Physical Education programs are very sport driven, skill focused and performance obsessed. We know that through research and through the students that we see in front of us, that sport driven, skill focused, performance obsessed PE curricula are failing to meet the needs of these students. Particularly post pandemic, we’re seeing a lot of disengagement with that sport driven, multi-sport model of physical education. Maybe there’s another way to have our curriculum meet our why or our departments values, and help it to nurture physical literacy and help physical education gain value within your school setting. Before you read the rest of this blog post, I want you to think about the following questions:

🤔 Does the curriculum that you are currently teaching in your school, or in your district, meet the needs of all of your students?
📚 Is the content and the topics that are included in your curriculum, or what you must teach, meeting the needs of all students?
👨‍🏫 Does the curriculum align with your ‘why’ or with the ‘why’ of your PE department?
⛹🏾 Does your curriculum nurture physical literacy, or is it simply replicating skills, learning rules and playing games?
🏫 Is PE valued in your school? Or is it just something that the kids do to get away from their classroom?

What I’m hoping to show you is that you don’t need to make massive changes to what you’re doing. You can make some small changes and some changes in the way that you think and approach PE to help you answer yes, to all of these questions, to help you say that your curriculum truly meets the needs of all of your students and that your curriculum meets and aligns with your why, and that your curriculum nurtures physical literacy and the PE is something that’s really highly valued, not only with your students, but with the staff and the parents and the administrators in your school.

What is Concept Based Learning?

A Concept based approach moves away from subject-specific content and instead emphasizes “big ideas” that span multiple subject areas or disciplines. Concepts are universal, they’re timeless, abstract, and move students towards higher levels of thinking. Concepts are broad ideas that transcend the perspectives and limits of any such specific subject area. A concept is something that can be taught in any classroom, no matter what the content includes. 

Take persistence for example. I could teach that in math, I could teach that in science, I could teach that in geography, I could teach that through a social emotional learning lens or I can teach it in Physical Education. How do we persist when you know our team’s not doing really well and when we’re losing, is that a good time to, to persist? Or should we just give up? Concepts are broad and when lessons require students to process facts through a conceptual level of thinking they retain a much greater amount of factual information, reach deeper levels of understanding and have an increased motivation for learning. If we can make the learning more realistic and more applicable and transferable to the student’s lives, they can see it in a way that not only applies to the lesson that they’re in, but everything outside of that.

How Does it Work in PE?

Taking a conceptual approach moves learning away from sport and physical activity, being the end destination. Instead it uses sport and physical activity is the vehicle for which learning is delivered. The end goal of our unit isn’t necessarily learning to play a certain sport or learning how to be proficient in a certain physical activity, instead that sport or that physical activity or that movement experience becomes the vehicle for which learning about a much larger concept can be delivered. That’s one of the fantastic things about PE is that we have this perfect opportunity to use physical activity and sport to help kids learn about concepts, which go far beyond the gym or the field or even our subject area. We know when kids learn through experiential learning and learn through being active and moving their body, that they’re really able to take the learning that they’re immersed in and see it in a way that makes sense to them and that they can then transfer into other areas of their life or other subject areas or other aspects of their schooling.

But why should we do this? Why, is this even important? Why is concept based curriculum in PE something that we should use our time or change what we’re doing? Maybe you’ll say to me, “Hey Nathan, my PE program’s great, I’m a great teacher. My kids love being active. They’re engaged in physical activity inside and outside school. Why would I change this?” I think the answer to the question is that by shifting the focus of the curriculum, not necessarily the content that we’re teaching, but shifting the focus, we’re doing much more than just getting our kids active. We’re teaching them life skills and we’re providing the experiences for PE for every child, not just those kids that love PE, not just those kids that comply and want to just do the right thing and do what the teacher says, but we’re improving the experiences for every single student in our class, the kids that are high achievers, the kids that are hesitant to participate, the kids that are those followers and just want to comply. By shifting our focus and focusing on these bigger concepts and these bigger ideals we are able to hopefully improve the experience for all of the students.

Moving Towards a Conceptual Approach

Concepts are not intended to replace content, so you don’t need to throw out your entire PE curriculum. Instead, concepts bring context and purpose to the content that the students are exploring. So you can teach the content that you are teaching right now, but maybe start to think about some of the bigger ideas behind that content. Consider what is the big idea that you’re really exploring when you are delivering this content? Why do you choose to include basketball or invasion games in your PE curriculum? Why do you include some sort of dance in your curriculum? How can you make those units more contextual rather than just focusing on the content and the skills within the student’s experience?

We want to move away from that idea of teaching facts and topics, towards teaching concepts. In Physical Education facts are our sport specific skills. If we’re teaching basketball this would be learning to dribble, being able to pass, shooting, or understanding the rules of the game. These are all facts and there is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way of doing these things. A lot of PE teachers already who are using a Teaching Games for Understanding model or approach have probably moved past this skills and drills approach into a more unit or topic approach where we’re encouraging students to think about things like attacking strategy and defensive strategy. These topics generally still only apply to that unit, lesson or topic.

This is probably where I was at for quite a long time with my teaching, using a Game Sense and TGfU approach, and having students understand ideas like knowing how to find space in one game, then transferring that into another game. I was probably operating at that topic level, but in wanting to move deeper into that conceptual level, I started teaching my invasion games unit using the lenses of cooperation, communication, and interaction. If I didn’t tell you that we were playing basketball, if I just showed you these big ideas of cooperation, communication, and interaction, those concepts transfer across any team sport or any interaction or relationship with other people when we’re working together. So if we make those big ideas our focus and we talk about cooperation, we can still talk about attacking strategy and defensive strategy. We can still talk about the skills and the rules that are needed to be able to be successful in a basketball unit or an invasion games unit, but then we’re talking about how do we cooperate to attack? What sort of communication do we need to have when we’re on the field? What sort of communication do we need to have between the coach and the players, or what sort of communication do we need to have between attackers and defenders and how does the interaction between you and your opponent affect the way you play?

Teaching with these concepts, we can still focus on attacking strategy and defensive strategy. We’re still learning how to pass, dribble and shoot. We’re still learning the rules of basketball, but we’re talking about it from a much bigger perspective and we’re talking about it in a way that enables students then to say if I know how to cooperate in this setting of playing in a basketball team, when I’m out in the real world in a job, or with my family, how can I communicate in different ways with the different people in my life? If students have had experience doing that through a basketball setting, then maybe they can transfer that understanding across into another part of their life. The learning that has taken place doesn’t just stay within that basketball and that invasion games unit that students are going to experience once a year, it goes much deeper.

Want to Learn More?

If this blog post has peaked your interest in exploring a more conceptual approach to physical education then you can learn more by listening to our podcast on the topic. The PhysEdcast is available on all good podcast providers.

You could also take our Concept Based Learning in Physical Education Online Course available on The PhysEd Library, where we dive deeper into Concept Based Learning and discuss planning and assessment on units. By completing the course you also gain access to a Certificate of Completion for your records.

Nathan Horne is a physical & health educator and department head currently based in Canada. Nathan is also a pedagogical coach, consultant and the founder of iPhys-Ed.com & The PhysEd Library. Be sure to never miss out on any of iPhys-Ed.com’s future posts by connecting with us via TwitterFacebookYoutube or Instagram.
Nathan can be contacted on Twitter @PENathan or via 

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  1. I have only been teaching for four years but I feel as though I came into my position with this type of mindset. The units that are taught have a variety of skills but many times the activities are used as a scaffold to help students get to our end goal or objective. We then are able to identify where students can use these different skills as I am not only teaching throwing, rolling and kicking, but problem solving skills, fitness skills and identifying team and individual sports or activities that can be done.