For Paul Wright, the greater purpose of physical education is the social and emotional lessons it provides to children.
And, the professor of Kinesiology and Physical Education is happy to discover, he’s not the only one who thinks that way.
Wright is currently on a research sabbatical in Scotland, where he’s examining the approach to physical education there. He is working with several Scottish schools to observe how such learning objectives are interpreted, promoted by teachers and experienced by students.
His time in Scotland also has included presentations to physical education research and professional organizations.
“On this issue of promoting social and emotional learning through physical education, Scotland has a lot in common with the U.S. In their national curriculum, social and emotional learning outcomes are part of physical education,” Wright says.
“However, in practice, teachers have very different interpretations of what that means,” he adds. “Most of the teachers I see are very competent and doing many things right. However, their approach to teaching personal and social skills is less coordinated and less intentional than their approach to teaching psychomotor skills, fitness, etc.”
Based at the University of Edinburgh, where he is a visiting scholar in the Moray House School of Education, Wright also has met with collaborators in other European countries such as Finland, Greece and Spain.
NIU colleagues also are helping to expand the scope of the research project, including schools in New Zealand, as they conduct a cross-cultural analysis.
“Much of what I am in seeing in Scotland matches what I have seen in the U.S.,” Wright says. “By the end of this year, with a large international sample, I think we can share findings that will bring a lot of attention to this topic in the physical education research community.”
Part of that will deal with educational policy and curriculum at a broader level.
To that end, he and his collaborators are uncovering a wealth of best practices that already are proving successful and “developing a good sense of what support is needed for teachers to turn this corner.”
“We are seeing that ill-defined learning objectives are less likely to be implemented in practice, especially when they are not accompanied by professional development, accountability or follow-through,” he says. “This is an educational policy issue that many countries and states need to be aware of.”
Scotland shows potential to build on its great foundation for promoting social and emotional learning through physical education, he says, but that job will require a more coherent framework, consistent pedagogical strategies and a more intentional approach.
“Like in the United States, there are opportunities built into physical education to explicitly teach personal and social skills. These are teachable moments that many teachers aren’t capitalizing on,” he says. “Physical education is an ideal setting to teach transferable life skills like cooperation and teamwork, but I think it’s falling short of its full potential at present.”
Coming months will keep him involved; he’s already debriefing with teachers in Scotland to assess their interest in moving forward with real-world applications of what he and his collaborators are learning.
Primary cohort Shirley Gray, who is helping Wright to develop this community of practice and action research, will facilitate its activities. Wright does plan to stay in touch through virtual meetings and occasional return visits.
Eventually, he and his colleagues plan to share their findings with policy makers as well as educational researchers and teachers.
“By taking this grassroots approach in each of the nations in this study, we hope to have a positive impact that goes beyond the traditional academic presentations and publications,” Wright says. “Social and emotional competencies are life skills that can help students in the present and in their future.”