Get Strong – Lift Others

An effective Service Learning (SL) project is an absolute win-win scenario for all involved. In the very simplest terms the mutual benefits are explained in the name SL. Service – to the needful; and Learning – which presents an understanding of various socioeconomic factors to the providers of the service and how they can be of influence. There is a deliverable, commonly overlooked that the beneficiaries of our good intention give back to us. The “Helper’s High” is a real thing. The endorphins that are released when we obtain gratitude and satisfaction as a consequence of our actions are significant. Combine these with the realisation that small actions that we undertake can make huge differences and provide us with increased social and emotional intelligence.

Reality Bites

Government funded schools in rural, low-caste and low socioeconomic communities are typically faced with the same raft of problems. Education, although universally available, is held in low value, especially for young girls who frequently are married off and without completing basic schooling. Seasonal work means that whole families can be uprooted for part of the year in search of farming opportunities that can sustain them, resulting in inconsistent and only partial school attendance. Teachers in these government schools are generally not kept to even mediocre standards. Absenteeism amongst the teachers is significant, commonplace and endemic. What happens in schools like this is that daily attendance of enrolled students runs to about 20-30%. Overall literacy in these parts of India is up from 12% at the end of British rule in 1948 to 64% in 2011, which indicates impressive growth, but the reality is in rural areas the rates are much lower. Social and economic barriers built up over centuries help keep it this way and they are very resistant to being broken down, no matter how well intentioned official programs are.

Success Stories

I am incredibly privileged to have an incredibly positive SL experience two weeks ago in Rajasthan Province, North India. Our SL was facilitated by a third party organisation (Utsaah) that works with a community school set up by an NGO. We knew very little about our project going in. The beginning of the week students were invited firstly to investigate. Using students from a local private school as translators, our students asked questions to the teachers, students and community members. What we found was that the community believed in and saw consistently what the power of basic education was able to bring. The school was run and funded by their own community. They were represented on the school board, able to make decisions that impacted learning and how resources were to be allocated. Families are willingly contributing their scarce, hard earned money to school projects. School attendance is consistently at or above 80% and equally represented in gender. Families that travel for seasonal work leave their children in temporary ‘hostels’ that are run by elderly village members providing the double benefit of keeping children in school and providing an income for adults unable to continue the work of hard physical, agricultural labour.


Many of the benefits of being literate are obvious and explicitly linked to what is learned in schools. Reading, writing and numeracy skills are undeniably valuable and they are taught along side ‘life skills’ such as budgeting, first aid, income generating skills, safe water and food storage and personal hygiene. It is however, the lesser realised benefits of literacy which to me are more valuable. Knowledge of basic human rights, caste and gender discrimination are examples of how children can be empowered to make decisions that create an alternate, safer and more prosperous life course. This is a huge boon for people that have generationally been trapped in a cycle of poverty because they have not been aware of this power of choice or how to act upon it. Students that graduate from the school make empowered choices about marriage, family planning, hygiene, health and have choice of employment. They are able to act and develop a personal and unique journey in their world.

And you thought I’d never get to it.

So how does this affect my view of what Physical Literacy (PL) is? In case you haven’t connected the dots yet, a physically literate person is one that is empowered with choice and the tools to implement or act. If I, as an adult, choose to take up mountain bike riding, capoiera, golf, gardening or want to engage in a snowball fight while riding a unicycle, I should be equipped with an understanding of what it would take to begin, awareness of some movement rules and concepts, along with some knowledge of how to pursue mastery if I desire. It doesn’t mean that my schooling should have include a 2-week block in that specific physical activity to provide a rudimentary level of competence should I wish to undertake it in the future. My ‘toolbox’ is therefore not filled with a swathe of specific sport or activity skills, but broadly applicable movement and physical understandings.

Content vs Concept

Forgive me while I get into the weeds a bit here. I’m not here to hate on the SHAPE Standards (it just happens to be one of six I’m reviewing at the moment) it is only one example but it shares the same guilt of many such documents that are content rather than conceptually driven. Here is one example that I found on a page I opened at random –

“Passes and receives with feet in combination with locomotor patterns of running and change of direction and speed with competency in invasion games such as soccer or speedball. (S1.M4.7)” 

SHAPE Grade Level Outcomes for PE

It is no wonder these documents are so dense. Teachers are bound to certain physical activities and they struggle to cover each standard. I was recently told that that it is not possible to add anything to the (SHAPE) curriculum. “It is a 10 pound sack of potatoes that already has 10 pounds of potatoes inside.” I honestly could not think of a better metaphor for it myself. The burden of carrying that sack must be immense. Therein lies the problem with content driven standards, they create a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

Think about this scenario in relation to the above standard. As part of a summative assessment, a student is asked to perform in a drill or small-sided Soccer game where the teacher grades, using a Games Performance Assessment Instrument (GPAI) or other tool, against the standard or outcome. If a student has no previous exposure (before the unit) or interest in soccer or speedball, they are then graded on involvement and skill execution. In a subject where we are supposed to building confidence and competence, the results of this assessment produce exactly the opposite.

On the other hand, think of a Standard that is constructed conceptually.

Understands/demonstrates the relationship between agility and (movement) accuracy.

We, as teachers can create a multitude of learning experiences that explore this Standard, including the Soccer scenario outlined previously. Our same student has the opportunity for success here because they are given many opportunities and contexts to explore this wider concept. Just because they have no interest in Soccer they may yet understand that manipulation skills (movement accuracy) become more complex when the speed and agility demands are greater. This conceptual understanding becomes a part of their knowledge on which other experiences can be built, thereby constructing deeper meaning, relevance, building competence and confidence.

Who are we teaching?

We must ask questions of how a students interests, opportunity, environment, socio-economic status and culture can create a personal and relevant understanding of how they physically interact with the world. Here is a definition of PL, inspired by Whitehead (2001) from the creators of The Brand X Method.

Physical literacy is the capacity to interact with the environment and is characterized by the physical competence, confidence, motivation, as well as knowledge and understanding, to pursue and master the broadest possible range of physical activities throughout a lifetime.

This definition screams of both choice and empowerment. The words that jump out are interact, competence, confidence, motivation, knowledge and understanding. It provides options without ties to explicit context. Just like literacy is more than read, write and count; Physical Literacy is more than run, jump and throw.