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Transforming PE, one lesson at a time

At just 23 years of age, Sophie Newton is working alongside internationally renowned Physical Education pedagogues to produce ground-breaking research in early childhood education. As a recent graduate of UC’s Bachelor of Primary Education (Health and Physical Education), Sophie never expected she would be working in academia, let alone just the year after she graduated — yet now she is already making her mark on the teaching profession.

Associate Professor Dr John Williams is the Chief Investigator for the Affiliated Schools Quality Physical Education in Early Childhood project and was on the lookout for an experienced specialist Physical Education teacher to deliver the face-to-face aspect of the project, an integral role working within the schools, which puts the theory into practice.

When he met Sophie, a high achieving student in her final year, who was extremely passionate about Physical Education teaching, he realised that the right match might be standing right in front of him.

“Sophie’s role in the program has shown that graduate teachers can actually be the expert — flipping that idea what an expert means,” John said.

“Graduates come out of university with the most up to date knowledge on teaching and learning methods. Sophie is a high achieving and incredibly competent graduate and a role model for other students coming through.”

Initially, Sophie was nervous about joining the program in such a pivotal role. While she was eager to be sharing her specialised knowledge, she worried about how receptive experienced teachers would be to learning from her. She soon found that experienced educators shared the same passion for best practice and were eager to take part in the program.

“I was a bit nervous at first because, who am I to be a young person, who's just graduated, to be teaching experienced teachers,” Sophie said.

“But we’ve been very successful. The teachers are eager to learn, many haven’t had the opportunity to learn specialised PE before, and want to provide the best for their students.”

“While I’ve shared with them, they’ve also felt comfortable to share their tips with me. It’s always nice to share ideas and experience.”

The project has a two-pronged approach to professional learning, that is delivered simultaneously to students’ learning.

Each week, Sophie spends half a day at the five participating schools, teaching Year 1 and 2 students quality Physical Education classes. As Sophie delivers the lesson and instructs students, the classroom teacher remains present, also learning.

The lessons are recorded by Sophie, using a wearable Go Pro, which allows the classroom teachers to review and refer back to later on.

Traditionally in Physical Education classes, a teacher must set up each activity and direct the lesson. In Sophie’s lessons, which are based on a personalised learning model, students set up movement stations, each with an activity card and accompanying video. These cards explain in pictures and words what each child needs to do to achieve mastery in skills selected by Sophie. Students spend as much time as they need at each station, to reach movement standards specified in the Australian Curriculum for Health and Physical Education used at each of the schools.

“It's a similar concept that’s often seen in Maths and English teaching. The teacher will provide an instruction sheet, or they watch a video, and they'll collect the materials, say a dice or counters, and set up the activity themselves.”

The concept, which has been developed to align to Keller and Sherman’s (1974) Personalised System of Instruction as an evidence based pedagogical framework, has never been used before in this context, with students this age. However, after nearly a year of successful implementation, and loads of encouraging feedback from school staff, parents and students alike, it has proven to be an exciting advancement in the field of physical education pedagogy.

“It was nerve wracking when we first started out; we said, ‘this could actually work, or it could be a total disaster’, but we've shown that a personalised model of learning can be done with six- and seven-year-olds,” Sophie says.

“Throughout the program we’ve taken on feedback from teachers and preservice teacher helpers, we're constantly refining, and working to make it more effective. Hopefully once the year is over, teachers will continue to use the lessons as I have modelled them. In future, we hope to make this program available to all ACT Government schools.”

“You don't need to be a specialist teacher to teach quality Physical Education. This is a cost-effective way to raise teaching standards for this mandated subject which internationally are low and where the subject is reduced to playing a game or some other kind of activity with no educative purpose.”

The role has placed Sophie at the forefront of innovative new research in the space she’s passionate about. Having worked so hard throughout her degree, she’s already been able to begin sharing that learning with pre-service teachers. In addition to working in the schools, she’s also taken on a role as tutor for the Faculty of Education’s specialist Health and Physical Education units.

“I actually didn't think I would like it at first. I did the primary Health and Physical Education degree to teach young students and I was nervous about being so close in age,” Sophie says.

“But I think being close in age, I can relate to them on a different level. They feel comfortable reaching out to me for help and, as I've recently just done those exact units, I can give them advice and tips on at a different level than those who haven’t.”

The team’s research has been receiving increasing recognition in the industry. In December, they will travel to Adelaide to present at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference to let others know that University of Canberra is internationally leading the way in this area of early childhood education.

“It's like living a dream. I’m so passionate about Physical Education and teaching. Every day I wake up and I'm more excited,” Sophie says.

“I love it! The children make my day.”

“I think this shows that when you put your mind to it and you have a passion, you can really do anything. I never saw myself teaching at university, and now because of this, I'm also now considering a PhD to further my knowledge even more to become the best teacher I can be.”

Words and photos by Kelly White.

See our article UC brings quality physical education to the classroom for more information on the program.