Effective professional learning in physical activity

Publication Details

An evaluative research report in 2007 on the impact of effective professional learning in curricular and co-curricular physical activity in primary schools.

Author(s): Kirsten Petrie, Alister Jones & Anne McKim

Date Published: March 2007

This report will inform schools communities, educational researchers, pre-service teacher educators, in-service advisors, community support agencies and teachers of the impact of professional learning in physical activity on primary school communities. 

A case study of 10 schools was undertaken to consider the impact of the professional learning of teachers (over the period of one school year, 2006) as a result of the support given by advisors from Schools Support Services and Regional Sports Trusts working within the Physical Activity Initiative.


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Executive Summary 

This milestone report is the fourth and final for the research project ‘Evaluative research on the impact of effective professional learning in curricular and co-curricular physical activity in primary schools.’ The research was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and conducted from December 2005 to March 2007.

The broader context of the research was the Physical Activity Initiative, a joint Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health, and Sport and Recreation New Zealand initiative, encompassing the provision for professional development of primary teachers in curricular and co-curricular physical activity. Schools involved in Model 2of the Physical Activity Initiative, were expected to engage in professional development delivered by School Support Services and Regional Sports Trusts during 2006. The specific purpose of the research was to explore the impacts of professional learning (Model 2), in physical activity, curricular and co-curricular, on primary school teachers, students, and wider school community. In addition, a literature review was developed to explore the national and international literature on physical activity in primary school. Furthermore, gaps in the literature and research evidence were identified, and suggestions were made to enhance the effectiveness of physical activity, curricular and co-curricular in primary school settings.

A national and international literature review was carried out. The literature review was organised into literature related to a number of relevant themes:

  • Physical activity in New Zealand primary schools;
  • The role and place of physical education in school settings;
  • The benefits of having physical activity as part of a school curriculum;
  • The enablers and constrainers to physical activity in primary schools;
  • The impacts of professional development on physical activity in primary schools; and
  • Interventions to enhance physical activity in primary school settings.

The literature review highlighted:

  • That professional learning opportunities for teachers need to include: ongoing sessions of learning, collaboration, and application, accompanied by school and classroom-based support, over a sustained period. For example, physical activity interventions in the USA, and UK, run over an extended period of time, up to three years, with reducing levels of support each year;
  • That generalist teachers, in particular, need additional opportunities to enhance their personal understanding of, and proficiency in, physical activities, in order to develop professional confidence and competence in both curricular and co-curricular physical activity settings; and
  • The development of school and wider community cultures, and effective partnerships are needed to foster positive attitudes and increased participation in young people.

The literature review revealed a number of gaps in what is known about physical activity, curricular and co-curricular, and which this research might address:

  • New Zealand based research on the state and place of physical education in primary schools;
  • Research on generalist primary teachers’ interpretations, experience and beliefs about physical education and physical activity, both in New Zealand and internationally; and
  • Research on professional development of teachers in relation to a physical education curriculum that aims to develop students in a more holistic manner, rather than simply focusing on movement skills.

In addition, ten case studies were carried out in New Zealand primary school, each of these being a study of:

  • How physical activity, curricular and co-curricular, was evident and delivered before the introduction of the professional learning opportunities;
  • How the professional development was facilitated and delivered; and
  • The impacts of the professional learning for teachers, students and the school physical activity culture.

The ten sites were chosen to provide a range of schools, based on decile, geographical location, roll size, ethnic makeup and involvement with School Support Services and Regional Sports Trusts. Four regions were identified from which to draw the sample.

For each case study, data was collected in two phases: pre and post intervention, by means of interviews, observations, questionnaires and document analysis. A researcher made visits to each school and collected data from interviews and questionnaires with teachers, observations of primary classes, interviews with a sample of students, interviews with school Principals, parent questionnaires, and teacher planning records and other documentation. In addition, interviews were conducted with professional development providers from both School Support Services and Regional Sports Trusts in each of the four regions.

Data collected by the researcher was analysed both within and across case studies. The case studies provide snapshot views of each of the ten schools as they participated in Model 2 of the Physical Activity Initiative.  The description and analysis of each school includes:

The background of the school and the snapshot context;

  • Physical activity practices and programmes in the school before the introduction of professional development;
  • Details of the professional development programme for each school; and
  • Impacts of the professional learning on teachers, students and the wider school community.

Following the within-case analysis and writing of individual case studies, a cross-case analysis was undertaken. The analysis was grouped and presented according to four central themes: interpretation of policy, deliverers and delivery of professional development, enablers and constrainers within schools, and impacts of the professional learning on teachers, students and the wider school community.  The presentation of individual case studies and a cross-case analysis, made it possible to identify what was particular to each case, and what was common across cases. The impacts of the professional development on schools varied. Nevertheless, major findings were drawn from across the case studies, relating to: systemic issues at policy, professional development, and school level, that appear to have influenced the professional development; and the impact of the professional development on teachers, students and school physical activity culture. Major findings highlight that:

  • Teachers developed an understanding of how to apply general pedagogical knowledge/practice, such as sharing learning intentions, questioning, and ability grouping, in their physical education lessons. The adoption of these general pedagogical strategies assisted teachers in structuring the learning process in physical education;
  • The development of teachers’ general pedagogical knowledge within the physical education lesson, appeared to impact positively on students’ attitudes and participation;
  • The alignment, and joint approach between School Support Services and Regional Sports Trusts, proposed as a major feature of this of Model 2, was not realised. As a result of the development of school physical activity culture was restricted by limited Regional Sports Trust involvement in Model 2 schools;
  • The one-year timeframe restricted the interactions School Support Services advisers had with schools, and the content they were able to deliver. This resulted in a somewhat standardised programme of professional development, as opposed to a programme designed to meet the individual needs of the schools. In addition, the desire to move teachers on within the one-year timeframe, through the provision of unit/lesson plans and activities, appeared to create a level of teacher dependence on advisers to supply learning programmes;
  • The knowledge of School Support Services advisers’ was limited by their own previous experiences as generalist teachers and lack of professional development for their advisory role before working in schools. This potentially restricted their ability to broaden content to meet individual school needs;
  • The focus on general pedagogical knowledge, within the professional development, at the expense of subject-specific pedagogical content knowledge appeared to restrict teachers’ opportunities to develop content and curriculum knowledge, which in turn limited the opportunities for students in schools;
  • There had been little change in teachers’ knowledge, or understanding of how to develop students’ movement skills;
  • The broad aims, of Model 2, of the Physical Activity Initiative were not realised as planned for at a policy level. Schools and teachers identified a range of strategies and opportunities that would assist them to meet theaims of Model 2, and develop physical activity, curricular and co-curricular. These included: ongoing professional development, access to resources and ideas for use in the classroom; development of a comprehensive school-wide physical education programme, more support for school sport; maintenance and enhancement of physical activity equipment; and better communication with parents.

On the basis of evidence from the case studies and literature review, recommendations for future professional development and learning in physical activity, curricular and co-curricular, in primary school practices were identified for policy, professional development, principals and Boards of Trustees to consider. Finally, recommendations for further research were identified.

Included in the recommendations for policy, professional development, principals and Boards of Trustees to consider are:

  1. That there be greater alignment between Regional Sports Trusts and School Support Services at policy and operational level, when working in educational settings;
  2. That longer-term in-depth professional development is required for the development of teacher knowledge. This is best supported by the allocation of adequate time and appropriate change management strategies;
  3. That the development of teacher knowledge, including pedagogical content subject, content knowledge and curriculum knowledge, is needed in addition to general pedagogical knowledge, in professional development programmes relating to curricular and co-curricular physical activity;
  4. That principals and Boards of Trustees consider the balance of professional learning initiatives, and the impacts of these initiatives on staff. Multiple professional learning opportunities need to be managed so that change becomes sustainable; and
  5. That principals actively engage in providing leadership and support for professional learning, and the change management process, in relation to developing a holistic understanding about the nature of curricular and co-curricular physical activity.

Recommendations for further research include:

The exploration of alternative models for the facilitation and delivery of physical activity professional development and learning; and a long-term research programme to explore the sustainability of professional learning opportunities focused on curricular and co-curricular physical activity. These would allow for the development of an effective feedback loop to inform Ministry of Education initiatives relating to curricular and co-curricular physical activity in education settings.