Conversations at the notice board

Just outside my office is the PE notice board. It is a blue felt board which is used for multiple purposes; fixture lists, principles of play, team sheets, games groups and PE rotations. It brings children from every year together, to talk about PE and school sport. A hive of activity and chatter every break, lunchtime and after school.

For a long time it bloody upset me. When I wasn’t running a session or having a meeting, I would be trying to eke out some admin work in the little time I had. Their conversations would distract me and I would find myself poking my head round the corner and telling which ever group of kids that were there. They got the message soon enough and left me to continue my work in peace.

I had more important things to do that listen to them talk. I had data to crunch and numbers to analyse, so I could provide an improved experience of Physical Education. Didn’t they understand that I was working hard to make things better for them? If only I could figure out what. I just needed to play around with the data and it would provide me with the answers.

One day I was going through the Year 8 end of year data. Again it was down on the previous year. More children were failing to reach their aspirational targets and more needed ‘interventions’. Take James for example. Level 2 for dance, gymnastics, rugby, football and cricket. Well below what was expected of him. I was staring at a mass of numbers, trying to work out what was wrong and what I could do to ensure this didn’t happen. My thoughts of what was wrong with James were rudely interrupted by another loud conversation at the notice board. I was getting out of my chair when I heard one of the group talk about their last lesson.

I sat back into my chair and listened. I listened to how cricket was boring because all you did was practice techniques and never play. I listened to how unfair it was that all the ‘good’ players got to play in the house competition and they never got a chance. I got to hear which teachers they liked or disliked and why. The stories they told about PE and School Sport provided me a wealth of information my spreadsheet couldn’t. I began to listen to more conversations at the notice bored. I heard about the good things we did and much of the bad.

It dawned on me that I didn’t really understand the problems as I was only looking at the outcomes. I needed to stop seeing James, and the rest of his peers, as just a numerical representation. To challenge my previous outlook and recognise that all behaviour is goal driven. If that is the case then we should seek to engage and understand people’s motivation. We can’t look to influence a person’s behaviour if we don’t understand the motives that drive it.

Christian Madsbjerg of ReD Associates, author of Sensemaking, believes we can reframe any problem involving humans as a phenomenon. This means observing human behaviour as it exists in social contexts, not in abstract numbers. It is a method that would bring PE Teachers closer to understanding the children they aim to support:

The methodology of studying human experience is not interested in what is extraordinary, but is ordinary and common for all (or most) of us. It isn’t about the “r2,” or the significant sample size. In fact, a relatively small number of people and their situations will suffice. These experiences should be collected and understood in order to fully see the patterns of behaviour we all share.

By not paying attention to what was being discussed at the notice board and focusing on the data I thought I was being more objective, more efficient and more scientific. However if we lose contact with the human perspective we limit our ability to geninuly understand ‘our world’ be that physical education, school sport or any other world that involves people. Listening to children talk at the notice board provided me with a wealth of data, through the stories they shared. About all sorts of experiences of PE and school sport, from the obscure to the profound. It provided me with an deeper understanding of the culture of PE and school sport that my department provided.

Listening to those conversations has allowed me to understand that one of the key reasons that children were withdrawing from school sport was not being used when picked as sub. I heard stories of being at an away match with only minutes of playing time, or cup fixtures where no playing time was given at all. I had the numbers to tell me that attendance was falling, but not the reason why. We are unable to get a deep insight into a culture if we don’t have a willingness to engage with it beyond decontextualised data.

I want to change my pupils behaviour and attempt to make movement meaningful for them so that they take responsibility for it. I want to provide them the tools with which they can use movement as a way of flourishing throughout their lives. Part of achieving that is by having a broader view of how I inform my practice with ‘data’ that includes qualitative insight about the experience alongside the quantification of outcome. By understanding their world and their movement culture I’m afforded the opportunity to make better decisions than just relying on partially constructed data that lacked the richness and colours of their shared experience of PE and school sport. The human factor is always the most important factor when it comes to making sense of any culture. If I could harness the conversations at the notice board and make sense of them as well as I can the data in my spreadsheet, then perhaps I might have a chance at helping my pupils change their behaviour for the better?