The Role of Observation in Enhancing Pedagogical Practices in Physical Education

The role of observation

By Lee Sullivan


Observation serves as an essential component of effective teaching, fostering a deeper understanding of students’ needs and learning dynamics. Within the context of physical education (PE), where the demands of instructing a physically active classroom can be particularly rigorous, the role of observation takes on heightened significance. This blog aims to delve into the nuanced interplay between observation and teaching within PE, shedding light on its intricate dynamics and impact on instructional strategies. Drawing from the insights of educational experts and practitioners, I aspire to deepen the understanding of how observation can be harnessed to enhance teaching practices, promote meaningful learning experiences and reduce the overall workload for PE teachers.

Is Effective Teaching Occurring?

During a recent observation walk within my PE department, I gained a profound appreciation for the strenuous efforts of PE teachers during their lessons. I witnessed them tirelessly delivering instructions, moving among student groups, offering individual coaching, and accumulating quite a few steps. The sheer intensity of their work left me feeling drained and it made me realise why I often left work feeling exhausted. It became evident that the majority of a PE teacher’s time was spent actively engaging with the students.

On my way back to my office following the observation walk, I passed by several classrooms. The classrooms presented a stark contrast—some were silent, while others buzzed with activity. I noticed that some teachers were circulating among their students, while others sat at their desks, observing their students as they diligently worked. This stark difference prompted me to contemplate the differing expectations placed on teachers in a traditional classroom setting compared to those in a practical PE environment.

I posed these questions to my team during a department meeting. Initially, I sought to clarify the distinction between effective teaching within a classroom and within a practical PE setting. It was intriguing to note that my team unanimously regarded a teacher in a classroom who was actively observing students while they worked as effectively teaching. This was because the students were either engaging in task-related conversations or working diligently.

However, when I asked the team about a PE teacher standing and observing a conditioned game, the consensus shifted. They believed that in PE, effective teaching necessitated continuous circulation and the provision of feedback or instruction—essentially mirroring what I had witnessed during my observation walk. I probed further, asking their thoughts on a teacher occasionally standing back to observe for a few minutes, clarifying that this was not indicative of disinterest but rather a genuine attempt to facilitate competence development. The team remained unanimous in their view that a teacher who merely stood and observed, particularly for an extended period, was not effectively teaching. This discussion proved fascinating, as it challenged my own perspective, which had aligned with their views until recently.

My apprehension stemmed from the fear that by immersing ourselves fully in a PE lesson, we might inadvertently overlook crucial aspects. For instance, a student struggling with frustration or boredom due to task difficulty might go unnoticed. Similarly, issues such as exclusion or overbearing behaviour might escape our attention. Conversely, a classroom teacher, positioned to observe, would likely identify the student who has completed the task early and needs additional challenges or the student resting their head on the table as they struggled to grapple with complex tasks.

During my learning walk, an eye-opening revelation emerged: we, as PE teachers, were often missing valuable opportunities to deliver meaningful learning experiences. These instances represented chances to adapt our teaching approach, respond to individual learner needs, and ensure the positive experiences we aspired to offer. Importantly, this oversight was not intentional but rather a result of the prevailing belief that effective PE teaching necessitated constant physical presence among students. This misconception potentially hindered our capacity to maximise the educational impact of our lessons.

The Equaliser

My opinion of the role of observation as an essential teaching behaviour in PE has changed since reading Beckey’s (2022) chapter within Meaningful PE. In the chapter, Beckey discusses the notion of teacher reflection in-action.  Realising he spent much of his time focusing purely on the motor competence and circulating the entire class offering as much technical feedback as he could, Beckey reflected on the need to see the bigger picture of our subject ‘to value and engage in a physically active lifestyle’ (Beckey, page 54). He presents an ‘Equaliser’ metaphor to highlight how teachers can and should stand back to make tweaks to a lesson through the meaningful PE lens. Picture a sound Equaliser that has different dials that control the different volumes and tones of a sound. With so much going on in a lesson and with so many different decisions a teacher has to consider, by considering potential cues, teachers are able to tweak the ‘tone’ of their approach through the pedagogical ‘dials’ available to them. Beckey goes on to consider the potential cues one might look for in students and how a teacher might act with that information considering his Equaliser framework.

Alex Beckey’s chapter has profoundly influenced my perspective on observation within teaching. It is evident to me that his primary goal was to empower educators to create more meaningful learning experiences and to equip them with the ability to adapt lessons based on critical insights gained through student observation. Personally, this chapter has prompted a significant shift in my approach. I now emphasise the importance of stepping back and intervening selectively, prioritising moments when key cues surface and opportunities for impactful learning emerge. My aim is to not only share these valuable insights with my team but also to foster a culture of mindful observation among them.

Teachable Moments

In ‘Is PE in Crisis?’ I introduced the idea of teachable moments in PE lessons. These are times when it is appropriate to deliver effective learning to further improve or embed student learning.

Teacha­ble moments are times within a lesson that the concept can be embedded further, or coaching can be provided to enable practical progression. Teachable moments come in two forms:

  • Targeted learning: feedback provided to an individual or small group regarding the concept, key techniques, or sport specific information.
  • Discussion points: Feedback provided to a class to highlight key learning or address common misconceptions.

Look for these teachable moments within a lesson to deliver impactful learning at the most opportune time. If there are no opportunities for teachable moments at that time, stand back and keep the students active.

The Teachable Moments Control Panel

Considering Alex Beckeys’ Equaliser framework, I wanted to paint a vivid picture for my team that would prompt them to stand back and reflect in-action. If we are to keep students active and maximise our impact through adaptive teaching strategies and teachable moments, I thought creating an imaginary control panel within our lessons might help.

I asked my team to imagine a control panel situated within their lesson. If they were to stand at this panel, it would give them the perfect view of everything that is happening. The teachable moments control panel concept is designed with precision, featuring three distinct buttons:

  • Adaptive Teaching Strategies: This button serves as a crucial tool for educators to fine-tune their approach in response to what they observe. By stepping back and observing with a clear purpose in mind, teachers can pinpoint moments when adjustments to the level of challenge or rules are necessary. It’s about being attuned to the nuances of student engagement and skill acquisition, ensuring that every aspect of the lesson aligns with the desired learning outcomes.
  • Targeted Learning: The second button, ‘Targeted Learning,’ embodies the essence of focused instruction. By keenly observing specific individuals or groups within the class, teachers can identify opportunities for quick coaching to enhance performance. It’s not about constant interference but rather judiciously stepping in when a student’s development can benefit the most. Observation, therefore, forms the scaffolding upon which targeted learning is constructed, allowing for precise and impactful interventions.
  • Discussion Points: The final button, ‘Discussion Points,’ represents a broader approach to addressing common misconceptions or highlighting key learnings to the entire class. Here, observation plays a pivotal role in recognising patterns, both in mistakes and exemplary practices. When teachers step back and observe they can identify moments when a collective discussion will enrich the learning experience for the entire group.
The Teachable Moments Control Panel

The PE teacher can press any of these buttons at any time, but if they do they must understand that it will impact activity time. Therefore, when pressing one of the three buttons, it needs to be for a good reason.

They may be viewing a game in which the level of challenge is to low and therefore a rule can be introduced to make it harder. Perhaps a student isn’t being included much within the game or it doesn’t seem that the students are enjoying it. In this situation, the teacher may wish to press the ‘Adaptive Teaching Strategies’ button and make the necessary tweaks to the activity to ensure the issue is addressed.

The teacher might stand behind the control panel and view a group or an individual student for which some quick coaching might improve performance. If so, then the teacher can press the ‘Targeted Learning’ button and stop the group or individual to relay the required teaching.

Finally, the teacher could observe a number of students make similar mistakes or wish to correct any common misconceptions. They may have viewed some brilliant practice that needs sharing or review teaching points to ensure required progress is made. If so, then the teacher can hit the ‘Discussion Points’ button and stop the entire class. This button should not be pressed often, but a useful tool nonetheless.

The main purpose of the teachable moments control panel was to get my team to consider how many times they stopped students just practicing, how involved they were in lessons and ensure that they were not missing opportunities to deliver really meaningful teaching.


Inspired by Alex Beckey’s insights in ‘Meaningful PE,’ the primary objective of this blog is to empower educators to maximise the impact of their interventions by discerning and capitalising on teachable moments within a lesson. It is crucial to underscore that these teachable moments can only be effectively acted upon when teachers move away from the constant busyness of providing instruction and feedback. Instead, they must step back and engage in thoughtful observation, closely monitoring how pupils navigate the assigned tasks.

By embracing the teachable moments control panel analogy, educators gain a valuable vantage point to oversee the entirety of the lesson, ensuring they do not overlook critical opportunities to adjust their teaching strategies and convey essential knowledge. Furthermore, this approach serves the dual purpose of emphasising the importance of keeping students actively engaged in physical activities while also presenting a pathway to reduce the overall lesson workload through strategic and efficient teaching practices. In essence, it encourages physical educators to work smarter, not harder whilst maximising student movement time.

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