Tagged in: Physical and Health Education, Physical Literacy, Teaching

Physical Education and 21st Century Learning

Physical education is the ideal setting to support a 21st Century learner

Lately, individuals have been asking for support. It seems as though physical educators are being asked to highlight connections between physical education, physical literacy, and 21st century learning. Since I love my Twitter Professional Learning Network (PLN) I wanted to respond in a way that was useful. This, unsurprisingly, needed more than Twitter’s 140 character allotment.

What are 21st Century Learning Skills?

All content areas should allow students opportunity to grow competent in:

  • Risk Taking
  • Collaboration Skills
  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Communication
  • Civic Responsibility
SOURCE: http://education.apple.com/acot2/

Curriculum should be developed with the above skills in mind and teachers should plan, implement and assess activities gained in addition to the development of these skills. Of course, as students age, the complexity of both the content, skills and their range of application (and evaluation) increase.

“Okay, Amanda, but you still haven’t made your case for PE…”

Not only are these 21st Century Learner skills important, they are natural skills to foster in physical activity settings such as physical education. In physical education, the aim is to foster physical literacy in learners. Every administrator should understand the differences in the following definitions. As well, it is our job, as physical educators, to make sure that they do.

Physical Activity - exercise, sports, games, fitness, etc. Physical activity should occur throughout a lifespan. A combination of strength and cardiovascular activity is great for health and disease prevention. Cardiovascular activity is optimal when at moderate to vigorous intensities for at least 30-60 minutes more days than not. There are specific recommendations for different ages but this is just a brief summary.

Physical Education- a subject in school where students are taught a curriculum developed to support students in growing as physically literate people.

Physical Literacy (definition taken from here)

Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.

  • Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different forms of movement.
  • They are able to demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of health-related physical activities.
  • These skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are both beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and their environment.

Physical Inactivity: A 21st Century Health Problem

Research has shown that one of the biggest health problems of the 21st century is physical inactivity. Not obesity (although that does lead to many health problems), but physical inactivity (re: You can be very thin and still have health problems due to physical inactivity). That’s why we should always focus on health prevention and avoid the “I just want to fit into this outfit” mentality. Physical inactivity increases disease, inflammation, and certainly stress (among others).

Physical Education and 21st Century Learners

Why physical education is so important in the 21st century?

Research concludes that physical education leads to increases in academic performance or no change in academic performance. In other words, physical activity received during physical education classes does not hinder academic achievement in other content areas. Additional positive associations between physical activity and academic performance have been determined (Ratey and Hagerman 2008; Tremblay, Inman and Willms 2000).


We know that physical activity leads to great physical health benefit. We understand that it doesn’t hinder academic achievement and has been found to enhance it. Personally, I’m shocked that we even have to defend the discipline. But, if we must, let us explore the area of mental health.

You see, sometimes, we forget the positive associations between physical activity and mental resiliency. Youth who engage in physical activity demonstrate lower rates of anxiety and depression. As well, as physical activity levels of among youth increase depression levels decrease (Kirkcaldy, Shephard and Siefen 2002; Sallis, Prochaska and Taylor 2000). To me, even if academic achievement and physical health weren’t enhanced due to physical activity - I would advocate for it. To me, any subject that supports students’ in feeling empowered and happier about life - through participation in physical activity - belongs in 21st century schools.

To be clear...

There is a health crisis on our hands - physical inactivity. This is one of the main health concerns in the 21st century.

Physical activity at moderate to vigorous intensities exists in quality physical education programs developed with physical literacy as their foundation. (Whew, I dare you to say this sentence five times fast while walking backwards...). For more specific information related to what quality physical education is visit this past post.

In my humble opinion, physical education is the ideal setting to support a 21st century learner.

Here, they are able to:

  • Collaborate (with a partner, small group, large group and in a variety of settings)
  • Take Risks (learn new skills, skill combinations, etc. that can directly impact their health in a positive way)
  • Think Creatively and Critically (in planning, participating, and evaluating practice and performance)
  • Communicate (Effectively using verbal and non-verbal communication skills in authentic physically active settings)
  • Demonstrate Civic Responsibility (for their health, for supporting the community in healthy living initiatives, service learning options, etc.)

All content areas in school are important if we want to develop the whole child. I’m not going to say that other subjects aren’t important - because they are. In fact, an upcoming blog is how to integrate other content areas into physical education to support our wonderful classroom colleague and our capable students. I’m simply pointing out that physical education is an ideal location to foster 21st century learning - while also helping to reverse the insane amounts of physical inactivity that exists in this 21st century society. In doing so, we’ll have students not only prepared for the global community they are being raised in, they will be prepared to live life to its fullest potential. (And...I didn’t even talk about how much money it would save taxpayers!) I agree that learners should be developing the 21st century skills listed in this post. I also feel that their physical literacy is every bit as important as the 21st century skills skills. Whether we approach it from health prevention, economics, or happiness - the conclusion is the same. Physical literacy matters....and, it is indeed developed in 21st century physical education spaces that deliver innovative curriculum.

So there you have it, my two cents. Please add to the comments below to further strengthen this conversation so that our amazing PE professional learning network via Twitter, etc. has more information to share with their administration.

How about you?
Have you informed your administrators or PETE students about how physical literacy development in quality PE is key to the development of 21st century skills?

How do you foster 21st century skills currently in your PE classes, sport practices or PE teacher education programs?