Do Students Have to Think in PE?

By: Mark Banasiak @MoreThanGym

Our physical education program is skills-based. The progression of skills typically begins with teaching the skills independent of one another. When appropriate, I let students combine and apply those skills in game-like situations that are both dynamic and unpredictable.

In those situations, the students have to think. I firmly believe that anytime a student has to apply these skills in a game-like situation, there is a strong element of critical thinking that takes place.

Thinking is an area that administrators can easily overlook during an evaluation because they may interpret the situation as “play.” Whenever an administrator inquires about student thinking within your instruction, you should advocate for yourself and your program.

My state’s evaluation system has twelve indicators within their instructional rubric in which teachers are assessed. One of those twelve is thinking.

Let’s look at three types of thinking and how they occur in a physical education setting:

  • Analytical thinking requires the students to analyze, compare/contrast, evaluate, and maybe even explain the information. This type of thinking occurs when a student is participating in individual, dual, or team sports. For instance, when a student receives the ball, they have to decide where to strike it. It also occurs when a student has to determine which receiver is the best option to pass the ball to. In addition, some skills practice can allow the students to compare themselves and/or a peer to a rubric.
  • Practical thinking requires the students to apply and implement what they have learned in real-life scenarios. This type of thinking occurs in the culminating activities that follow individual, partner, or small group skills practice. These are the activities we teach in hopes that the students will engage in them throughout their lifetime.
  • Creative thinking requires the students to create, design, imagine, and suppose. These are the situations where a teacher provides the students with basic equipment and asks, “Can you get your own heart rate up?“ This also occurs when students are allowed to design their own activities. Students also have the opportunity to be creative when navigating an invasion activity or when being placed in a chasing, fleeing, and dodging situation.

To dig a little deeper, let’s look at a situation involving striking. The following could occur within a volleyball, 4-square, tennis, ping pong, or any other culminating activity that involves striking.

When a student is preparing to receive the ball, they may ask the following questions:

  • Where is it coming from?
  • Will it arrive at a high, medium, or low level?
  • At what speed is the ball coming toward me?
  • Where do I need to stand to best receive and then strike the ball?
  • Is my current position okay or do I need to move?
  • Where is my opponent?
  • To whom or where do I want to hit it?
  • How do I want to hit it (i.e., forehand, backhand, etc.)?
  • How much force do I need?
  • Do I want to strike it in a “safe” or an “aggressive” manner?

All of those questions need to be asked and answered within a few seconds or milliseconds. At the same time, the student must immediately use the information gained from answering those questions to develop and implement a strategy and plan of action. That is thinking! In fact, it is critical and higher order thinking!

Do you stop and talk about these questions, scenarios, and strategies with your students?

Similarly, when a student is participating in a chasing, fleeing, and dodging activity, the student must ask the following questions:

  • Am I safe in my current position?
  • If not, where should I go?
  • Are there any areas that are better than my current location?
  • Which pathway shall I take to get there?
  • Are there any taggers around that will inhibit my pathway?
  • If so, do I need to alter my current pathway?
  • Is there anyone who needs unfrozen?
  • Can I safely get to them and help?

This type of thinking occurs in Crab Tag and Treasure Island which are two of my favorite invasion and tag activities.

When shooting basketball, the student must analyze the situation and determine how far away they are from the goal. The student must then develop a plan of action that includes how much force to use and whether or not to use the backboard.

When tossing and catching, it is easy to practice back and forth with a partner. If you want to make the students think, add a defender and make it a game-like situation (please scroll down about halfway down the link). If you want the students to practice catching in an unpredictable situation, use a playground ball and a bean bag.

When running into a moving long jump rope, the students may have been taught the cues and where to stand. However, each student must stand there, evaluate the speed and position of the rope, develop a plan, and then decide when to enter.

In recent years, I have stopped telling the older students how to rotate when placed in small group situations. I simply tell them to figure it out themselves. After all, that is what they will have to do when placed in real-life scenarios at recess, the park, or in the neighborhood.

Do your students have to think in your physical education program?

If so, how?

Do you make a point to plan for it?

Are you prepared to explain it to an administrator?


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4 thoughts on “Do Students Have to Think in PE?

  1. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for posting this question and your thoughts……..made me think about what I see and take for granted everyday. I am a member of IllinoisAHPERD and was wondering if you would give us permission to reprint this in our Journal or Monthly newsletter



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