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Commentary: Your PE teacher’s secret headaches during a year of COVID-19

COVID-19 had challenged physical education teachers in designing meaningful activities for students. It has also exposed and helped clear up public misperceptions of what PE entails, says NIE’s Chow Jia Yi.

Commentary: Your PE teacher’s secret headaches during a year of COVID-19

Physical Education (PE) lessons had to go online too, forcing teachers to adapt. (Illustration: Rafa Estrada)

SINGAPORE: Despite the disruption wrought by COVID-19, the pandemic has been a massive learning moment of interest to us educators.

Compared to many other countries, we should count ourselves fortunate our children had their learning minimally impacted, in part, thanks to a nimble education system and teachers who worked hard to find innovative ways to engage the children even during the circuit breaker.

This is no mean feat. Our educators had to re-think and re-design pedagogical practices leveraging technology to sustain and even to some extent, enhance teaching and learning across the school curriculum.

Credit too goes to parents at home, playing part time IT support and part time supplementary teacher.

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Yet in this, one subject stands out: Physical Education (PE). COVID-19 has challenged PE teachers in designing meaningful lessons and ensuring the goals of PE are still intact even as classes are transformed.  


More than any other subject, the teaching of PE has been challenged by this pandemic.

Throwing and catching an object to oneself is different compared to learning in a pair or in small, socially distanced groups, both of which became impossible during the circuit breaker.

Home-based Learning (HBL) took away the critical platform for students to see one another physically and robbed us of the mainstay of team sports to teach PE. HBL also posed the big challenge of sustaining attention when children have shorter attention spans.

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Over Zoom, teachers have had to pay attention in order to intervene to check on student progression and tailor activities according to each child’s proficiency level.

What has been lost goes beyond the element of play, when PE aims to reinforce decision-making and problem-solving, through physical activities and games.

Collaborative skills in fair play, teamwork and lessons of sportsmanship that could have been developed with physical communication when playing and interacting with their peers was also absent during HBL.

The result is the loss of learning in exercising and developing the muscle as well as the mind for such psychomotor and leadership skills.   

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Most people tend to have poor, rudimentary ideas of what PE is about and how it contributes to a child’s development.

Many have in mind an image of PE as having our children run around a field. The PE educator is often seen as the Regimental Sergeant Major dictating instructions for the session.

This cannot be further from the truth. PE lessons have evolved from the days where physical fitness overwhelmingly is the chief goal of PE.

Today, the objective of effective PE programmes is to spur the holistic development of an individual in the major domains of learning: Psychomotor, perceptual, cognitive and affective so our children can enjoy a lifetime of active, healthy living.

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In Singapore, one key goal is developing a child’s range of fundamental movement skills (throwing, catching, hopping, running, bouncing a ball) that supports their participation in a variety of lifestyle activities.

But in this, PE is not about getting our children to repeatedly practise kicking a ball to get some sort of a correct form.

Rather, effective PE is about providing opportunities for our students to move, develop self-awareness along with agility, endurance and strength and make good-decisions to enjoy physical activity in and out of school. The aim is to develop a healthy level of physical fitness that also strengthens mental health and general well-being.


One can imagine when COVID-19 struck and when our PE teachers had to quickly transit into HBL, the impact on the way our children acquire movement skills, knowledge and values was huge.

A teacher explains to students the new protocols for taking recess breaks and daily temperature checks at Yio Chu Kang Secondary School, as schools reopen amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore Jun 2, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Especially challenging was the fact that the venues where PE lessons were conducted – i.e., school fields, indoor sports halls, the swimming pools or even the neighbourhood parks - were now inaccessible.

Technology kicked in, as PE lessons shifted online to platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom or lessons delivered through the Student Learning Space (the nationwide digital platform for interactive teaching and learning) where asynchronous learning could take place.

For example, students could record themselves on video, learning or being involved in physical activities (e.g., like aerobic exercises, basic strength conditioning) at their own time even beyond the fixed lesson slots and post it online for evaluation.

Individual learning with home-made equipment or minimal need of equipment became the order of the day for HBL PE lessons (for example, using towels as objects to throw with the laundry basket as a target).

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Even after moving out of the circuit breaker and back in schools for face-to-face lessons, PE teachers had to think out of the box to adhere to strict physical-distancing measures to conduct lessons, requiring new activities to be designed.

There was greater emphasis on individual learning activities where students were provided with their own physical space during PE lessons to develop fundamental movement skills.

I have personally witnessed how students were assigned to small groups for every PE lesson and what the constraints on mingling among groups posed, as a teacher educator and mentor to student teachers in the National Institute of Education.

Google Street View of the National Institute of Education.

More time also had to be allocated at the start and end of each lesson to allow students to clean the equipment used and to observe strict personal hygiene.

This was disruptive yet necessary. In retrospect, this essential exercise may have had aided the PE curriculum, as it reinforced lessons of developing good habits. It also heightened the importance of collective safety, with PE providing the platform to exercise taking personal responsibility for the common good.

PE has not been divorced from the varied impact on groups of students. Some students were excited by the opportunity to don their PE attire and experience PE lessons in the confines of their homes while being active together with their classmates via online platforms. Some with smaller homes were not as fortunate.

So it is no surprise that even with the new safe distancing restrictions, most students were thrilled to just get out to the courts and fields during PE lessons when they returned to school.

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PE lessons today continue to be very different compared to pre-COVID-19 days. We probably are some time from returning to that state.

It is not ideal but PE teachers demonstrated grit and adaptability across the island in rising to meet these challenges and leveraged technology to engage students.

While technology has shown new possibilities of doing old things during this global pandemic, we should also be aware that there are still learning experiences that technology cannot fully substitute - i.e. the role of an educator and especially one in the context of PE.

Perhaps this coronavirus will unleash a new PE pedagogy that harness the fresh potential technology offers.

After all, the sole use of technology had constrained PE lessons at first but as educators designed lessons for the channel, the tide turned.

Chow Jia Yi is an associate professor at the Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University.

Source: CNA/sl


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