Thursday 2 May 2024

Teaching Quality Physical Education with Dewey

 Submitted by: Darren Dornstauder, HPEC Executive Member

The term ‘Quality Physical Education’ has become a popular way to describe PE in recent years. We’ve created standards, checkboxes, lists, and units about what quality physical education should be, but I believe at times, these characteristics may only distort one’s vision of what quality physical education actually is. For years, I have been after the true meaning of quality PE and what that may look like in my teaching. It wasn’t until I read a book written nearly a century ago that I really started to understand what quality physical education meant to me. John Dewey’s 1938 timeless book Experience & Education may be more relevant to current educational settings than one may first consider. His ideas regarding quality experiences of learning may in fact guide teachers towards better teaching and more meaningful learning for their students. The ideas that I am going to share about John Dewey’s approach to education come from his aforementioned book and the following is why I believe one should consider teaching through Dewey’s lens.

I am going to start with the end in mind by stating my philosophy towards teaching physical education.  As a physical education teacher, I believe physical education should enable students to discover the necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to promote lifelong physical activity behaviors so they can live healthy, enjoyable and happy lives. I am sure my philosophy of teaching PE is similar to many others, but even if it differs, please hear me out as Dewey’s theoretical perspective has changed how I’ve put my philosophy into practice.  Let’s put my philosophy aside and get a better understanding of Dewey.

Dewey’s approach to education is quite practical, as he believed education is rooted in experience. It is important to understand though, that Dewey did not believe experience itself was enough when it came to learning, meaning experiences lived in education does not simply mean all experiences are going to be genuine or equal to one another. In fact, Dewey believed that some experiences can even be mis-educative. These mis-educative experiences may affect future learning experiences with the potential of creating a sense of callousness, which could result in a lack of responsiveness or sensitivity. 

Dewey provided a few examples of what these mis-educative experiences could look like. First, an experience could increase an individual’s automatic skill yet land them in a groove or rut. Let’s relate this to physical education. I could create the most detailed fitness unit for my high school students with prescribed activities to complete at different times throughout the school year, where my students had the opportunity to improve in all components of fitness, yet my students' experiences from the prescribed and regimented fitness plan could be overly repetitive, mundane, and disengaging to them. 

Dewey also explained that experiences in education can create immediate enjoyment while still creating a slack and careless attitude. Relating this to physical education again, I think of when my students get the opportunity to participate in racquet sports such as  badminton or pickleball during junior high PE classes. For the most part, students enjoy these activities as most students find success related to basic skills fairly quickly. I could easily roll out the cart of racquets and shuttles or balls and my students would most likely be more than content playing games for two weeks, without receiving much instruction or teaching. What would my students be gaining from either of these examples? What impact would these experiences have on them? One cannot assume learning occurs just because an experience occurs. We need to go further than just checking off boxes, hitting objectives, and meeting required instructional time.

Because learning experiences run the risk of being mis-educative, Dewey explained that everything depends on the quality of the experience which is had. He believed that the quality of an experience is formed by two circumstances:

  • 1. A learning experience will have an immediate impact towards whether one agrees or disagrees with the experience.

  • 2. The learning experience, whether one agrees or disagrees with it, will influence future or later experiences of learning.

According to Dewey, the central problem of education, if based on the importance of experience, is to select and present experiences that are lived not only creatively but also fruitfully in experiences that subsequently occur. In other words, the quality of an experience impacts learning and future ensuing experiences of learning. Therefore, what and how students experience learning is very important to consider.

After wrapping my head around this understanding of the importance of experiences of learning, I reflected on how large of an impact physical education in a school setting can have on a child’s physical activity behaviors throughout their lifetime and it made me think about my own students. Why do some students enjoy PE while others don’t? Is it because of earlier experiences they had during previous years of school? How did the good intentions of some teachers create quality experiences of learning while it meant little to others? Did a bad experience from PE for one student impact future experiences towards physical activity? What impact has my own teaching had on my students' future learning experiences towards physical activity? In many ways, experiences of learning in PE, whether of quality or not, will have an impact towards future experiences of PE, physical activity and learning.

My list of characteristics to what I believe defines quality PE could be extensive but whatever characteristics go along with it, I believe creating quality and meaningful experiences of learning for students must be at the core of quality physical education. That begins with putting the needs of the students first. If one considers how every experience of learning will impact our students’ future experiences of learning, one may begin to understand how they can help create more quality experiences of learning for the present.

 I’ll be the first to say that I am far from having this figured out. Each year and each class brings new students with different lived experiences which presents its own challenges, and that motivates me. It helps me acknowledge how important it is to know my students’ needs, strengths, weaknesses, and unique differences. If I put quality experiences of learning at the forefront of my teaching, I cannot just rely on my bank of lessons that were successful in previous years. I must be creative, reflective and adaptable in my teaching. If your philosophy of PE is similar to mine, then presenting quality experiences of learning to our students will help increase the likelihood of students engaging in lifelong participation in physical activity.


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.