Physical Education (PE) at school brings up a lot of thoughts, opinions, and memories. The questions pondered in PE teaching today are quite different from those in years past. These days, the aim of PE classes is that everybody should feel themselves competent and good, says Associate Professor of Sport Pedagogy Arja Sääkslahti.

An adult’s voice carries across from the middle of the outdoor ice rink in the brisk and frosty noontime weather, while a couple of dozen of warmly dressed children are kicking for more speed on the skates and gliding among plastic cones with their arms swinging swiftly. Some go through the track swiftly while others take their time.

Outdoor sport is nothing new in Finland. It is a large part of PE lessons for school children of all ages and around the year.

Associate Professor of Sport Pedagogy Arja Sääkslahti

Associate Professor of Sport Pedagogy Arja Sääkslahti

In international comparison, Finnish PE teaching is exceptional in its diversity. At the same time, this school subject has lived and transformed over the years along with the surrounding society.

Less than a century ago, wartime shadows fell over PE at school as well, and at those times those classes was a means to promote pupils’ fitness for defending their country. In the era of peace, the emphasis shifted to sports, and in Finland different types of sport have played a major role in PE at school. In the sport-oriented times, PE has aimed at learning physical exercise and learning by means of physical exercise. Now the goal is to learn to be physically active. It may come as a surprise to today’s young adults that we are no longer stuck with focusing on specific sports.

“A child is not there for a particular sport,” says Arja Sääkslahti, summarising the operational principles of PE teaching, “but physical activity in its various forms is there for the child. The goal of PE classes is that children and young people would find their own ways to enjoy physical activity.”

Sääkslahti works at the University of Jyväskylä at the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, and her job includes, among other things, teaching prospective PE teachers. Sääkslahti is specialised in children’s motor development and physical activity as well as physical education for children. She is involved in many forums and has a vantage point for sensing the societal atmosphere as to what direction PE at school should be steered.

PE is a school subject for well-being

According to the present Framework Curriculum for Basic Education, published in 2014, the purpose of PE is to teach pupils to maintain and develop their physical, mental and social functional capacity and also to promote well-being. In PE classes, students identify what physical activity is, how people engage in it, and how you can influence it.

The mission of PE teaching is to strengthen an individual’s physical capabilities and motor skills as well as to support holistic functional capacity in a holistic fashion. Pupils are taught physical activity in different environments: in different seasons, indoors and outdoors, on different platforms. The aim is for everybody to feel competent and good at something, Sääkslahti says.

“In PE classes, pupils learn to recognise how physical activity or inactivity affects one’s condition. How it feels when your muscles are relaxed or working dynamically. On schooldays, pupils sit still for long stretches, so recovering from the passive periods is important.”

Research has shown that physical activity supports learning in other school subjects as well. It brings benefits to those looking for recreation provided by physical activity and also for those wanting to let out some extra energy, which could help them concentrate better on classes.

Children are skating at Pe class with their teacher encouraging them.

Research has shown that physical activity supports learning in other school subjects as well.

PE classes are a place to fight against pressure about one’s appearance

The social dimension strongly associated with PE at school is now better recognised on a curricular level, and teachers are also trained to take this dimension better into account at their work.

The social aspects can be seen in a pupil’s relationship to other people when doing things together and feeling a sense of belonging. Conversely, it also involves other people’s relationship to the pupil: Am I appreciated as my own self, do I have a good and safe feeling in class, and do I have any sense of autonomy: do I have any choice?

Pressures for about one’s body may also arise, for example, from unrealistic expectations fed by social media, and it is during PE classes that one’s body is most visible to others.

“Children and youth face very harsh pressures in this respect, and we are fighting against these pressures,” Sääkslahti says. “A PE class could be a place where pupils can experience their own bodies in a positive light; that one’s own body is suitable, good and skilled.”

On PE classes, the teacher must be able to consider multicultural aspects as well. Multiculturalism has long been a topical issue at schools in the capital region, and in recent years these issues have become more relevant elsewhere in Finland. The biggest question is how multiculturalism could be utilised better at schools. There is still much to learn, Sääkslahti says.

If people are good as they are, how is physical education assessed?

PE assessment is based on the objectives defined in the curriculum and also on progress made in view of the pedagogic objectives.

Children skating

A big goal is to learn to engage in physical activity.

The assessment criteria were last updated in the comprehensive school curriculum in 2014, and they have been supplemented later with more specific descriptions of different grades.

A big goal is to learn to engage in physical activity. As presented above, PE covers the respective dimensions of physical, social, and mental functional ability.

“Everybody promotes their own physical abilities from their own starting points,” Sääkslahti explains.

“The assessment targets consist of how pupils have progressed in class in their basic motor skills, how they behave in class, how they interact with others, how they bear responsibility in learning situations. In assessment, it is examined how the pupil has learned things and how he/she shows the learning outcomes during PE classes.

“We all have better and worse days, and the PE grade will not be affected just because floorball may not your thing. Free-time physical activity does show on PE classes, but free-time activities do not directly affect school assessment, since the level of fitness does not determine the grades.”

The teacher must be able to create a suitable atmosphere for the classes

Sääkslahti hopes that parents would have patience and confidence that things have changed.

“Based from their own experiences, parents may think that PE grades are based on fitness tests; so that we do the tests, check the result from the table and it gives the grade. At this point, it should be noted, however, that the results of Move! tests taken on PE classes do not – and must not – influence the grades.”

Sääkslahti also wishes that parents would not pass on their own negative experiences to their children.

“It annoys me that if a parent holds strong negative images from the PE classes in their own youth, the parent may express beforehand the idea to the child that PE classes are unpleasant. This denies the child the chance to experience and consider things autonomously.”

The effects of the Move! measurement settings on pupils have been studied. Some find the tests motivating while others may feel nervous or anxious.

“It is natural that when you want to try your best, you are also slightly nervous about it. For this reason, it is important that the teacher knows how to deal with such an atmosphere. Through teacher training, including in-service training, we can add tools and methods that help avoid unpleasant situations for pupils.”

In the same way as the school culture is in constant flux for the pupils, also teachers gain skills and knowledge in accordance with whatever they face at work and to what kind of jobs they end up. The University of Jyväskylä, among others, provides in-service training for teachers.

According to research findings, the general atmosphere on PE classes is very good. PE is still one of the most liked school subjects – even though there is some school-specific variation.

“On PE classes, there is no such situation where you would have no capability at all. For example, for pupils having difficulties to concentrate in other school subjects, PE can be a kind of a vital opportunity that saves the school day. And on the other hand, if some form of physical exercise is not quite one’s cup of tea, some other form can offer experiences of capability instead.”

The challenges of the teacher’s profession are seen among PE teachers as well

The teacher’s profession is nationally faced with a big challenge: there is a lack of qualified teachers, and many trained teachers are moving to other jobs.

“This shows the most clearly at primary schools. PE is only a small part of class teacher training, and there is huge variation in sport pedagogy competences at primary schools. In early childhood education, physical activity is flourishing, and this would be desirable to continue at primary school as well.”

A figure girl skating girl.

A new degree programme (LiikLo) combines PE teacher and class teacher education and provides qualification for both working as a PE subject teacher and as a class teacher.

In the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, teacher education departments are encouraged to increase class teachers’ skills in sport pedagogy. A new opening in this direction is the LiikLo degree programme, which is included in the joint application system for the first time in spring 2023. The study programme combines PE teacher and class teacher education and provides qualification for both working as a PE subject teacher and as a class teacher.

The Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences investigates and monitors what PE teacher education is able to provide for the professional field. There is a lack of qualified teachers in the field of education in general, but in the application process sport pedagogy has remained among the most popular subjects at JYU.

Prospective PE teachers’ engagement in the field is supported already during the entrance examinations. Suitability to the field is tested there in a very well-rounded fashion.

During their own teacher training, the students keep in touch with the field of practice: they make school visits and have practice periods at schools, school classes come for a visit to the faculty, and contacts are maintained with PE teacher graduates.

Newly graduating PE teachers see that they have versatile expertise for the world of work. One big topic these days is how teachers cope with their work, and public debate is not making it any easier.

Sääkslahti is grateful for the cooperation with the teacher education departments of different universities as well as for the regular contacts with the Finnish National Agency for Education. There is still much to do, she feels, but things are moving in the right direction.

The winter day seems to be clearing up slightly at the outdoor skating rink as the sun peeks through a narrow gap in the thick cloud cover. The children start collecting the plastic cones from the ice they had just used for skating practice.

The talkative group moves on together to take off their skates and soon disappears back indoors, to their next lesson in a warm classroom.

In 2023 the Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences celebrates its 60-year-long journey in PE teacher education.

Questions about PE at school? A science evening: Well-being from PE at school? (in Finnish) will take place at the University Library Lähde and online on 21 March 2023, at 6:00–7:30 p.m. The panellists at the event are associate professors Arja Sääkslahti and Timo Jaakkola from the Department of Sport and Health Sciences as well as PE and health education teacher Katja Sjöblom-Korhonen from Huhtasuo Comprehensive School, Jyväskylä. Please attend and join in the discussion!


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