The Importance of Student Voice in PE

Written by Grace Cardiff & Lee Sullivan

In this, and an upcoming follow-up blog, we aim to explore the profound importance of making space for our students’ voice, listening to their voices, and involving our students in decision-making in the classroom. We also aim to provide some ideas into methods of gathering their insights within classroom practice and decisions that can be taken with student feedback. Although our student voice journeys were very different, in terms of our roles within our schools and the age of our students, we feel that the introduction of student voice in our respective practices has had a significant positive impact on both our teaching and on our students’ experiences in PE. In this blog we will focus on the importance of and methods of gathering student voice.

Leading Change

Lee: Picture the scene. I am new Head of Department, walking into a new school to lead a team that has been at the school for a while. The reception I received was frosty, to say the least, especially considering that two members of the department had applied for my job. I had a clear vision of what I believed PE should look like, but it was evident that the current method of delivery at this school did not align with my vision. Despite the resistance from the team, I knew that change was necessary.

The key to unlocking the need for change was presenting the team with the results of student voice feedback. Awareness is a powerful catalyst for change. Once you become aware of something, you can’t simply ignore it or go back to the way things were. There really is no going back from awareness. When students clearly express their dissatisfaction and lack of value for PE, it becomes difficult to continue arguing against the need for change.

The majority of students revealed that they did not value PE, found little enjoyment in it, and considered the learning irrelevant to their lives. Their voices became the driving force for change.

Grace: As a generalist primary school teacher, with the sole responsibility of teaching all curricular subjects to my students, I often felt unprepared to teach PE. Due to the multiple demands of the already full curriculum, coupled with other academic pressures, incorporating PE into my planning and assessment sometimes presented challenges. This, along with the continued disengagement of several pupils in my PE lessons led me to reconsider my approach to PE.

Guided by a Meaningful PE approach, I began to use student voice as a way of making lessons more relevant and meaningful to my pupils. The children’s positive reaction to the initial (small!) opportunities for voice in PE lessons emboldened me to collaborate with my pupils further and elicit their input on decisions within the PE lesson.

Student voice as a tool for improvement/change

For a considerable period, the PE curriculum has been exclusively determined by teachers. While educators must align with the broader national curriculum objectives, the selection of activities and sports within PE lessons has often hinged on the personal strengths or weaknesses of individual teachers and the available space. This dynamic has led to issues of disengagement, a curriculum overly centered on sports and competition, and a noticeable absence of personal relevance in the learning experience.

‘Student voice involves and empowers students to be collaborators and decision makers regarding their own (either individually or as part of a class or group of learners) educational experience,’ (Iannucci and Parker, 2022). Using student voice to lead change in PE is a powerful strategy. It helps to bridge the gap between the vision of the leader and the experiences of the students. By involving students in the conversation and making their voices heard, we gain valuable insights into their needs, desires, and aspirations. This knowledge becomes the foundation for shaping a PE program that is relevant, enjoyable, and meaningful to our students.

Furthermore, student voice empowers the team by providing a compelling reason for change. It becomes difficult to ignore the collective voice of the students and continue with outdated practices that do not resonate with them. The student voice feedback becomes a call to action for the entire team, inspiring them to rethink their approaches, embrace innovation, and work towards creating a PE program that truly serves the students.

While student voice can be used as a feedback tool and inform instructional changes in teachers’ practices, it can also serve as an invaluable tool to empower students to take ownership of their learning. In one gymnastics lesson, Grace’s pupils told her that the activity she had set up was too easy (and quite boring!); one pupil quipped that Grace should “look for harder examples on Google”. While GraceI appreciated the honesty, it made her think about the children’s role in PE lessons, and their perception of this role. They saw themselves as passive learners, and the teacher as the provider of information/content. Student voice allows for a reconstruction of the traditional roles of teacher and learner. Involving the students in decision-making within PE lessons and encouraging them to alter activities to better suit their needs and preferences serve to empower students to take ownership of their own learning.

Start with the ‘Who’

As part of his brilliant online course ‘Awesome PE in 5 ways’, Will Swaithes asks us to, instead of starting with the ‘why’ when planning our curriculum, start with the ‘who’.

This shift in focus prompts us to pay greater attention to the purpose and methodology of physical education, rather than solely emphasising the specific sports or exercise activities we offer to students. Will comments ‘having had the privilege of working in and visiting numerous schools and connecting with subject leaders, I can attest to the fact that no two school contexts are alike. This realisation underscores the importance of starting with the ‘who’ – our students’.

To truly understand our students, we need to delve deeper than simply identifying categories such as PP/FSM/SEND. We must take into account their backgrounds, previous experiences in PE, sports, and physical activities, and other factors that influence their needs, demands, and priorities. What are their attitudes and motivations when it comes to engaging in physical activity? What demotivates them? What do they genuinely enjoy? By gathering this information, we can gain valuable insights into our students’ perspectives and preferences.

Gathering student voice is an essential component of student-centred learning, which places the needs and interests of students at the centre of the learning process. By gathering and using student voice, we can create a curriculum that is tailored to the unique needs and interests of our students, while empowering them to make decisions/choices which benefit them in lessons. If we want to build positive relationships with our subject, we must listen to those in our care.

Beyond Lip Service

In their 2022 JOPERD article titled ‘Beyond Lip Service: Making Student Voice and Meaningful Reality in Elementary Physical Education’ Iannucci and Parker explore how to collect and where student voice might be enacted in practice. They say ‘to access authentic voices, children must develop their capacity to provide voice and teachers must develop their capacity to listen and respond to student voices as well as establish a learning environment that is safe for all children to be active contributors.’ The article suggests that to foster student agency and authentic voice in education, it’s crucial to gradually introduce opportunities for meaningful input. Starting with student choice helps build confidence and competence, encouraging children to align with their authentic preferences and needs. While choice is a strategy to scaffold toward voice, it’s not synonymous; true voice involves detaching from dominant discourses and respecting individual differences.

The article explores frameworks and models that teachers might consider to ensure student agency is developed. Frameworks such as teaching personal and social responsibility (TPSR) are discussed as well as Hellison’s participation and self-direction framework. These practices aim to instill in students the ability to make responsible choices individually and collaboratively. This framework consists of five interrelated and interdependent competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. All these competencies contribute to the development of student agency and learning environments that support democratic practices.

Eliciting Student Voice

Student voice can be used for far more than simply proving a point. It can inform so much of our delivery. But what are the best ways to gather it? Although not an exhaustive list, the image below shows some methods of collecting student voice, along with limitations to consider when reviewing the information collected.

Will Swaithes was once again recently on hand to help the profession as he shared his student voice survey that can be adapted and used in your school. This serving as an example of how we can listen to a wide range of voices in a work-load conscious way.

In Conclusion

Starting with the “why” or the “who” allows us to align our practice with our purpose. Understanding our own motivations and reflecting on whether our current practice meets our “why” enables us to make necessary adjustments to better serve our students. Additionally, getting to know our students on a deeper level, beyond their demographic categories, helps us address their specific needs, demands, and priorities.

Using student voice to inform change requires openness and acceptance. It may not always be easy to hear, but it is essential to accept and act upon the feedback received. By embracing student voice, we bridge the gap between purpose and practice, ensuring that our efforts align with the needs and aspirations of our students.

By doing so, we will create an environment where their voices are heard, their experiences are valued, and their engagement in PE is enhanced. Through student voice, we can continually improve our practice and make a lasting impact on the lives of our students, preparing them for a physically active and fulfilling future.

Top Key Takeaways

  1. Start with the “Who”: Shift your focus from “why” to “who” when planning your curriculum. Take into account your students’ backgrounds, experiences, attitudes, motivations, and preferences related to physical activity. This deeper understanding will help you tailor your instruction to meet their unique needs and interests.
  2. Gather Student Voice: Explore effective methods for collecting student voice, such as surveys, interviews, or group discussions. Consider the limitations of each method to ensure meaningful insights. Adapt existing online survey templates, like the one shared by Will Swaithes, to listen to a wide range of student voices efficiently.
  3. Act on their voices: To avoid student voice practices becoming lip-service, acknowledge what your students are saying and build on their ideas/suggestions. “I know some of you didn’t like this activity last week, so this week I am going to give the option of….”
  4. Empower students to make decisions that benefit them: It’s important to not only view student voice as a tool for teacher improvement. When used effectively, student voice can empower students to make decisions within lessons, that better match their learning needs and preferences. A PE lesson which is meaningful, will be different for all students. Providing opportunities for choice/voice in lessons, will allow students to take responsibility of their own learning, and enable them to mould their PE experience into one that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Enjoy this blog? If you haven’t already, why not listen to this PE Insights Podcast conversation between Nathan Walker and Grace Cardiff?


Cassandra Iannucci & Melissa Parker (2022) Beyond Lip Service: Making Student Voice a (Meaningful) Reality in Elementary Physical Education, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 93:8, 41-49, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2022.2108177

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