What is an outstanding PE lesson?

Throughout my career as a PE teacher, SSCo, a PE subject leader and most recently, as an Assistant Vice Principal with responsibly for a Performance faculty, I often have discussions with school leaders and teachers about teaching and learning within this area, and the question I am asked most is “What is an outstanding PE lesson?”

My answer used to involve a list of teacher jargon or buzzwords which would often include quoting the most recent research I had read or the keynote speaker I had listened to at the last PE and Sports college or Sports Partnership conference.

Now, having really thought about, seen and developed departments to deliver excellent Physical Education, as well as being on the other side, observing lessons through three Ofsted inspections, two organised external reviews and numerous teaching and learning audits, I now have a further developed understanding of “outstanding PE”, and rather disappointingly, my answer to that same question has become less impressive, simpler but much more useful.

My answer now involves just 3 simple statements:

  • There is no formula for “outstanding”.
  • Consistently good teaching becomes outstanding learning.
  • Good teaching is more about you and when you do something, than what you do.

I am convinced when people hear this response they look at me and think “Cop out! He can’t tell me how to deliver “outstanding lessons”, so what does he know?” Some would prefer a list of things that could very rarely all be achieved in a single lesson, but at least they have a checklist to work to, so let me explain my answer further…

There is no formula for “outstanding”

Outstanding PEOfsted recently stated “there are many routes to excellence”. To suggest a formula for outstanding lessons would ignore the fact that what makes one lesson outstanding might not necessarily do the same for another, and what works for one teacher with one class might not work for another teacher and another class. There are of course some common strands in every excellent PE lesson that have to occur for an outstanding judgement to be considered, for example, all learners needs are planned for and met, all students make progress through challenge, engagement and hopefully inspiration. How you achieve this is up to you, the activities you plan, the questions you ask and the environment you create will cause this.

However, school leaders should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching and, as the new Ofsted framework suggests, teachers should teach in their own style: inspectors will not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology.

Consistently good teaching becomes outstanding learning

Typicality has become the key indicator in judging any lesson. Flash in the pan, all singing, all dancing lessons are a thing of the past and rightly so. PE and all subjects should be judged as ‘progress over time’, 1 great lesson at the expense of every other lesson that week is unforgivable, every lesson should aim to be at least ‘good’, Monday to Friday. Therefore, teaching consistently ‘good’, or better, is the only way to achieve outstanding.

The practical and visual nature of PE can be a real benefit in demonstrating consistent routines, a positive learning environment and students eagerness and commitment to learning when being observed. However, it can also pose real challenges, for example, when students clearly lack motivation or urgency or in the worse cases refuse to comply. I also think as students progress through their school PE career there are less ‘lightbulb’ moments; most students know what you are trying to teach them and in fact the best practitioners are able to refine skills excitingly and effectively. Therefore achieving outstanding PE requires constant, careful planning coupled with inspirational teaching techniques. Remember, outstanding learning and progress over time is something that is judged through triangulation, lesson observations, analysis of progress data and by talking to pupils and staff – one-off episodes will be quickly found out.

Good teaching is more about you and when you do something, then what you do

This last statement has been added to my answer more recently. What I am really saying is that outstanding PE teachers have an instinct to know when to intervene, challenge or change something. This is the most difficult thing to develop and is directly affected by teacher relationship and credibility. Great teachers create excellent relationships and have credibility and respect. Therefore, the students know that when they are stopped or questioned it is to add value to the lesson, and is therefore valued by students, even if what the teacher is doing is not the most effective teaching strategy. Teachers who fail to create these same relationships struggle to have real impact with classes even if their teaching strategy, subject knowledge and tasks are superior. I am not saying only teachers with personalities that students like can be outstanding, but that to be outstanding, students must believe in you, trust in you and understand whatever you do and whenever you do it, it is in their best interest. Do not underestimate the importance of being credible.

To conclude, my overall message about achieving an outstanding judgement, is to stop looking for the magic wand, success is not magic! There is no set list or formula that says if you do this, in this order, you will be an outstanding PE teacher. Instead, use your time with your students wisely: every lesson counts. Plan for all learners and build on small gains over time. This will create outstanding learning, improve your credibility and improve the outcomes for all students. When this happens you will know when you are outstanding and this will stand up to any internal or external scrutiny.

This post was contributed by Phil Cocks, Assistant Vice Principal at the Oasis Academy, Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is Head of Sixth Form, Curriculum Development and Enrichment, Cluster Lead of Performance Faculty and teaches both Physical Education and Maths. He is an ex-subject leader of PE, KS5 PE and was previously a School Sports Co-ordinator (SSCo). He holds a BA (Hons) with QTS from the University of Chichester and is currently undertaking a MEd in Special Education (ASD) and Learning Power at the University of Bristol.

Photo: Sport Nottinghamshire

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  1. Phillip,
    I agree with what you believe is an outstanding PE teacher. I really like how you point out that it takes instinct to know when to intervene, challenge or change the lesson. I believe it takes experience and the willingness to make every lesson a good lesson to gain the instinct you speak of. I wish more administrators understood teaching physical education the way you do.

    1. Thanks for the comments Diane, I agree about instinct, I have seen the exact same lesson taught with very different outcomes due to the timing of changing activities and level of challenge and expectation, if only we could bottle that instinct!

  2. Hi Phillip,
    Love your article. It is interesting that you have put into words so succinctly elements that I have thought may actually be a ‘truth’.
    I have a principal who is an ex pe, who believes pe should be taught using directed teaching technique.
    I have developed a very good report with my students (well most of them, difficult to have it with all ) I allow for exploration of equipment prior to giving instruction/demonstration/etc, then observe and give feedback to as many students as possible. This is the general format of my teaching, but of course there are variations depending on the unit, class, year level etc.
    Do you have any suggestions as to how to sway his way of thinking that there are many different styles that can be used to gain results.
    Thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

  3. I like what Phillip has to offer. So many people have no ideas about the dynamics of a good P.E. lesson, but what you have made clear is the enthusiasm of the teachers and their students responses. If the students are excited, engaging in activity, and love to run, play and achieve, then your P.E. teachers is doing a great job!

  4. Ah yes! the intuitiveness of the experienced P.E. teacher , who is willing to amend, and adapt to a particular class situation. Every teacher knows that one lesson does not fit all. and we must adapt to the needs of our students. This observation would take an experienced administrator though wouldn’t it?

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