Teachers’ Engagement With Professional Development to Support Implementation of Meaningful Physical Education

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Stephanie Beni Department of Kinesiology, Brock University, St. Catharines, ON, Canada

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Tim Fletcher Department of Kinesiology, Brock University, St. Catharines, ON, Canada

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Déirdre Ní Chróinín Department of Arts Education and Physical Education, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, Ireland

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Purpose: The purposes of this research were to design a professional development (PD) initiative to introduce teachers to a pedagogical innovation—the Meaningful Physical Education (PE) approach—and to understand their experiences of the PD process. Method: Twelve PE teachers in Canada engaged in an ongoing PD initiative, designed around characteristics of effective PD, across two school years as they learned about and implemented Meaningful PE. Qualitative data were collected and analyzed. Findings: This research showed that teachers valued a community of practice and modeling when learning to implement Meaningful PE. While teachers were mostly favorable to the PD design, there were several tensions between ideal and realistic forms of PD. Discussion: This research offers support for several characteristics of effective PD to support teachers’ implementation of a novel pedagogical approach and highlights the need to balance tensions in providing forms of PD that are both effective and practical.

Traditional forms of teacher-centered physical education (PE) pedagogy are under scrutiny, having been identified as largely ineffective for students in contemporary times (Armour & Harris, 2013). Kirk (2010) cautioned that without radical change to PE programs and pedagogies, they would either continue to repeat themselves in their current form (as they have done for decades) or become altogether extinct. One avenue for radical reform is through the development and use of approaches that change the way PE programs and curricula are delivered (Casey, 2014). However, the development of new approaches alone does not ensure their translation into practice in schools. Without robust support during implementation of innovations, there is a risk they will remain ideas detached from the realities of life in schools (Spillane et al., 2002). Indeed, sustained pedagogical change for PE teachers learning to implement innovative approaches has proven to be difficult, requiring both conceptual and practical shifts (Casey, 2014). Tyack and Cuban (1995) contend that making lasting changes to teachers’ instruction has proven to be the “most difficult kind of reform” (p. 135). This has highlighted the need for reimagining how teachers receive support as they learn about and implement innovative PE approaches (Goodyear & Casey, 2015).

The current research is part of a large-scale project focused on examining the experiences of teachers learning to implement the Meaningful PE approach (Fletcher et al., 2021). Meaningful PE is a framework designed to help guide how teachers can prioritize meaningful experiences for students. It is grounded in democratic, student-centered pedagogy, where it is assumed that learning occurs as students construct knowledge in relation to both their prior experiences and their interactions in the learning environment (Vygotsky, 1978). Meaningful PE includes an emphasis on democratic (e.g., providing autonomy support; involving students in decision making) and reflective pedagogies (e.g., goal-setting and verbal and written reflection) and highlights the value of six provisional features of meaningfulness (social interaction, fun, challenge, motor competence, personally relevant learning, and delight) (Beni et al., 2017; Kretchmar, 2006). These approaches help guide teachers’ planning and pedagogical decision making and facilitate a shared language by which teachers and students may describe the meaningfulness of their experiences. For a more detailed description of the conceptual and practical considerations of the Meaningful PE approach, readers are referred to Fletcher et al. (2021).

We recognize the need to support teachers’ implementation of innovations through effective professional development (PD) initiatives if they are to experience lasting changes to their teaching practice (Century & Cassata, 2016; Goodyear & Casey, 2015). Thus, the purposes of this research were to design a PD initiative to introduce teachers to Meaningful PE and support them in implementing it in their classrooms and to understand their experiences of the PD process.

Teachers’ PD

The ongoing PD of teachers is a major focus for policy and practice in education on a global scale (Banks & Smyth, 2011) and has long been a topic of interest in PE research (Bowes & Tinning, 2015; Makopoulou & Armour, 2011). Currently, there is a renewed attention to PD that is attributable in part to the educational standards movement, the role of professional organizations, and a push for research focused on teaching (Osmond-Johnson et al., 2019). Importantly, teachers’ learning can strongly influence the quality of their students’ learning (Fishman et al., 2003). With this potential impact in mind, providing PD opportunities for teachers has been seen by some as a panacea to solve a variety of problems in education (Armour & Yelling, 2007). However, this idea is misguided, particularly when the dominant, traditional form of PD often fails to result in meaningful opportunities for teachers’ learning (Bechtel & O’Sullivan, 2006; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). Among the reasons for the weaknesses in traditional forms of PD are their decontextualized nature, treatment of teachers as passive learners, and insufficient focus on student learning (Parker & Patton, 2016). In light of these concerns, in the last decade, there has been a focus on factors that might promote “effective” PD.

We conceive of PD as including a variety of learning opportunities for teachers related to and designed to improve the quality of their own practice (Darling-Hammond & McLaughlin, 2011; Parker & Patton, 2016). This encompasses experiences in which teachers engage to deepen their understanding of and learn about both teaching and learning (their own and that of their students). These experiences may be either voluntary or mandated, formal or informal, and undertaken individually or as collaborative initiatives (Desimone, 2011; Patton et al., 2015). Darling-Hammond et al. (2017) define effective PD as “structured professional learning that results in changes to teacher knowledge and practices, and improvements in student learning outcomes” (p. 2). In other words, effective PD can be simply defined as that which accomplishes what it sets out to: cause changes in teachers’ practice that result in student learning.

Identifying core features of “effective” PD can be challenging given that the effectiveness of PD initiatives is influenced by factors at both the school and system levels including available resources and policies (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017), the specific outcomes being measured (Penuel et al., 2007), and the stage of a teacher’s career (Guskey, 1995). Indeed, Parker and Patton (2016) contend that viewpoints on effective PD vary based on the purpose, context, and school culture in which the PD takes place. Notwithstanding the need to acknowledge context and personal preferences (Guskey,1995, 2003), in recent years some consensus has been established regarding the characteristics of effective, high-quality PD for teachers (Darling-Hammond et al., 2017). Several of these are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1

Characteristics of Effective PD

Effective PD …Description
… focuses on teachers’ content knowledge and pedagogical skills.Discipline specific; focuses on teachers’ everyday work
… is based on teachers’ needs and interests.Considers context and teachers’ prior learning and experience
… acknowledges teachers as active learners in a social environment.Focuses on inquiry and reflection; promotes discussion; allows teachers to engage in types of learning experiences they will facilitate for students
… supports collaboration.Provides opportunities to work with others one-on-one, in small groups, and/or at the school level in a format that is job embedded and specific to teachers’ context
… is ongoing and sustained.Provides teachers with time to learn, implement, reflect, and make changes in practice
… provides support.Includes time and support from other teachers, key stakeholders, and experts
… uses models and modeling of effective practice.Includes curricular/instructional models and modeling of instruction
… offers feedback and reflection.Provides teachers opportunities to reflect on practice, receive feedback from an expert, and make changes
… is facilitated with care.Supportive, not domineering, provider facilitates teacher-centered learning experiences
… is focused on improving student learning outcomes.Teachers’ engagement results in sustained impact on student learning gains
… includes opportunities for collaboration within learning communities.Teachers learn with/from one another in learning communities

Note. Adapted from Effective Teacher Professional Development, by L. Darling-Hammond, M.E. Hyler, and Gardner, 2017, Learning Policy Institute; “Policies That Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform,” by L.M. Desimone, 2009, Phi Delta Kappan, 92(6), pp. 81–92; “Effective Professional Development for Teachers: A Checklist,” by J. Hunzicker, 2011, Professional Development in Education, 37(2), pp. 177–179; “What Research Tells Us About Effective Continuing Professional Development for Physical Education Teachers,” by M. Parker and K. Patton, in C.D. Ennis (Ed.), Routledge Handbook of Physical Education Pedagogies (pp. 447–460), 2016, Routledge. PD = professional development.

While listing common features of effective PD can be helpful for PD providers, this should not be viewed as a silver bullet, nor should it negate the difficulties in providing effective PD for teachers. Such difficulties stem from the fragmented and voluntary nature of teachers’ learning (Bechtel & O’Sullivan, 2006), personal factors that influence teachers’ motivation and ability to pursue and benefit from PD (such as a willingness to participate or personal time constraints) (Makopoulou & Armour, 2011), and the time and cost of these initiatives. In addition, facilitating dialog among teachers, creating a context where teachers are willing to share their own shortcomings, helping teachers and students find shared value in teaching and learning, comparing what teachers say and do in practice, and the difficulty of linking teacher learning to student learning outcomes can all contribute to the challenging task of promoting effective PD (Armour & Yelling, 2007; Bechtel & O’Sullivan, 2006).

These challenges highlight the need to position teachers as active learners and agents in their own PD experience. This acknowledgement has led to a move away from forms of PD that position teachers as passive learners both in PE (Parker & Patton, 2016) and in education more broadly (Avalos, 2011). Knowledge of the characteristics of effective PD and other theoretical developments have provided some ideas to improve the quality of teachers’ professional learning. One of the primary ways this has been done in PD for PE is through the use of communities of practice (CoPs).

Communities of Practice

The CoPs are positioned within Lave and Wenger’s (1991) work on situated learning which “assumes that knowledge is inseparable from the contexts and activities in which it develops” (Parker et al., 2010, p. 338). Learning is situated through what Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to as legitimate peripheral participation, where it is embedded within activities of a community (Kirk & Kinchin, 2003; Kirk & Macdonald, 1998). Learning is legitimate in that participants’ work matters to the community’s success, peripheral in that apprentices are novices who are not yet full participants in the community, and participatory in that knowledge acquisition often occurs through interaction with others (Kirk & Kinchin, 2003).

Wenger’s (1998) conceptualization of CoPs positions learning as social participation, suggesting that educational processes based on actual participation are more “epistemologically correct” as they effectively match knowledge and learning (p. 102). Thus, learning is a process that involves (a) “mutual engagement” where one identifies as a member of the community, (b) “joint enterprise” where goals are shared by members of the community, and (c) “a shared repertoire” of subjects or materials that community members hold in common (Yoon & Armour, 2017). Importantly, mutual engagement or collaboration does not necessarily result in a CoP (Wenger, 1998). CoPs are “meaningful, purposeful, and revolve around authentic tasks” (Parker et al., 2010, p. 338) and must be intentionally facilitated (Hadar & Brody, 2010). While collectives and groups of teachers may have some merit in facilitating collaboration for teacher learning, these are distinguished from CoPs in that the level of mutual engagement within a CoP holds greater potential for teacher growth and development (Parker et al., 2012).

Our work is inspired by others who have facilitated CoPs when introducing teachers to various models/approaches in PE including, for example, Cooperative Learning (Goodyear & Casey, 2015), Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (Walsh & Wright, 2016), and the Activist Approach (Oliver et al., 2017). We build on these examples by designing a PD initiative to support teachers in learning about Meaningful PE. The processes of this initiative are guided by the principles of facilitating a CoP, with the aim of understanding teachers’ experiences of the process and how to better support teachers learning to implement Meaningful PE. While we recognize that not every collaborative group constitutes a CoP, we make use of this concept because it best represents the theoretical perspective upon which the PD initiative was designed (i.e., social learning theory), particularly when compared with other types of learning communities based upon learning organization theory (Blankenship & Ruona, 2007). The questions guiding this research are: What are teachers’ experiences of a PD initiative designed to support their learning about and implementation of the Meaningful PE approach? What strategies are most effective for supporting teachers in implementing Meaningful PE over time?

Methodology and Methods

In line with situated learning theory, this qualitative research was conducted through a social constructivist approach, where learning is viewed as a nonlinear process grounded in active inquiry and exploration, with teachers making sense of knowledge through reconciling past, present, and future experiences in interaction with the social environment (Vygotsky, 1978). It was our intention to work with, rather than on, teachers in supporting their PD, and we sought to learn from and share their experiences (Cooper et al., 2021). In particular, there is value in listening to teachers in order to understand helpful ways to engage other teachers in PD focused on learning about implementing Meaningful PE in the future.

Context and Participants

This research was conducted with 12 elementary (K–8) PE teachers in one school board in Canada across two school years. Teachers were invited to participate in the study via an email sent out from one school board’s PE instructional leader. In Year 1, we selected five participants from the list of teachers who had shown interest in response to the email on the basis of their range of experience levels and proximity to one another (i.e., all of their schools were in the same city). We thought five to be a manageable number that would allow us to introduce them to Meaningful PE and to work closely with them. This was an important consideration given it was the first year of our project. Three of these teachers continued their participation into Year 2, while the other two were reallocated to non-PE teaching roles in the second year of the study. The remaining teachers who had shown interest in response to the initial email were invited to participate in Year 2, when we felt confident in accommodating a larger participant group, along with several others who had shown an interest in the project since then. This resulted in an additional seven teachers in Year 2. Many participants had preexisting relationships with one another as a result of having worked and/or participated in PD initiatives together in the past and being located in neighboring schools to one another. Table 2 provides background information on teachers’ years of experience, grade(s) they used the approach with, and the duration of their participation in the study.

Table 2

Background on Teacher Participants

Participant (pseudonym)Years of teaching experienceGrade(s) the approach was used withYear(s) of participation in the research
Hunter971 and 2
Greg871 and 2
Tracy271–81 and 2
Molly16–71
Mia16–71
Emily532
Camille145–62
Miranda194–52
Melissa204–52
Liam111–82
Felix872
Sharron15–82

The first and second authors facilitated the CoP. Stephanie facilitated the majority of the CoP meetings. She had been using the Meaningful PE approach in her own classroom for several years. Tim participated in and offered support facilitating the CoP. He had been working in teacher education for 10 years and had previously taught secondary school PE for 5 years. Along with Déirdre, he had developed an approach to teach preservice teachers how to prioritize meaningful experiences in PE.

PD Initiative

We intended to facilitate PD in a way that would be effective for teachers’ professional learning, grounded in our understanding of the characteristics of effective PD (Table 1). Italicized phrases in the following passages indicate how we aimed to integrate the characteristics of effective PD in our approach. Teachers were introduced to the Meaningful PE approach through online resources we created and shared via a password-protected page on our research website. This included short videos outlining main ideas of the approach and providing suggestions from teachers who had previously used it in their classrooms, blog posts, relevant journal articles (e.g., Beni et al., 2017), and several materials for use in teachers’ classrooms (e.g., student reflection templates). Our intention in beginning with an online platform was to allow teachers to work through the material at their own pace. Teachers were given several weeks to engage with the online resources and were provided with a suggested timeline for how to do so.

After this introductory period, our approach to the PD initiative centered around fostering a CoP to support collaboration among teacher participants and members of the research team. During the first meeting in both school years, we introduced the approach to teachers through a slideshow presentation (much of which overlapped with the content of the website). This was followed by Stephanie or Tim modeling the approach for them in one or two mock lessons in the gymnasium with teachers acting as students. Initially, the intent in modeling was to establish trust by making ourselves vulnerable by putting our teaching on display before visiting their classrooms to watch them teach. Our modeling focused primarily on pedagogies (e.g., strategies to facilitate student choice), while also guiding reflections on the meaningfulness of their experiences in the lesson. For example, when Tim modeled a guided reflection following a folkdance lesson, one teacher described the cultural connections of the dance as meaningful while another expressed feeling uncomfortable dancing in front of colleagues. Thus, in this case they were seeing the pedagogy of reflection being modeled while also reflecting upon meaningfulness as their students would. We also set aside time to facilitate discussion after the lesson, giving teachers the opportunity to ask questions and engage in conversation with fellow members of the group to begin to create a sense of community.

Although teachers elected to participate and thus came to the study with an interest in learning about Meaningful PE, the literature recommends CoP meetings center around teachers’ needs and interests; thus, we were intentional about allowing teachers to play a pivotal role in guiding the conversation. We did this by inviting them to contribute topics for discussion via email before each meeting and by allowing the meetings to be guided by teachers’ voices rather than a rigid and imposed schedule. For example, one of the first items in each meeting was to have each teacher provide an update of their experiences of implementing Meaningful PE. Quite often the discussions that ensued took up all of the meeting time that was allocated. Although we prepared activities and discussion topics for each meeting, these were secondary to supporting teachers’ needs and interests, and thus we did not feel things were lost when they were not incorporated. We were also intentional about positioning ourselves as peers in the group as opposed to “experts,” by openly challenging our own assumptions, sharing our own failures and uncertainties, and asking questions rather than directing conversation. This helped create an environment where we were all positioned as active learners and to facilitate PD with care.

In Year 1, CoP meetings occurred once before and once after implementation. While it was our intention to facilitate more regular meetings, it was challenging to schedule this with all teachers. However, some teachers did initiate interactions with one another outside of official CoP meetings to support their learning about Meaningful PE (e.g., observing a more experienced colleague’s use of the approach). In response to these scheduling challenges and Year 1 teachers’ suggestions, during Year 2 we took a more systematic approach, prescheduling and facilitating group meetings once every 6 weeks early in the year and then every 8 weeks as teachers became more comfortable using the approach in their classrooms.

In addition to CoP meetings, we stayed in regular contact with teachers, following up via email every few weeks, and making ourselves available through email, text messaging, and in-person meetings at teachers’ request to offer support by, for example, answering questions and sharing resources. We also visited teachers’ classrooms to observe their teaching; however, we were careful to position these observations as an opportunity to provide feedback and promote reflection rather than to evaluate their teaching. While we were not allowed to have direct contact with students due to school board ethics guidelines, and thus were unable to measure student learning outcomes, through facilitating reflection we helped teachers draw connections between changes they were implementing in their practice and the ways they perceived these changes were impacting their students. Finally, all of these support strategies were continued across a period of two school years, providing an ongoing, sustained PD experience for teacher participants. Unfortunately, our efforts in Year 2 (including three scheduled CoP meetings) were cut short by COVID-19-related mandated school closures.

Data Collection and Analysis

Three qualitative data sources were generated. First, teachers participated in semistructured interviews before, during, and after implementation each year. Interview questions focused on teachers’ experiences of learning about and being supported in implementing the Meaningful PE approach in their classrooms. Introductory interviews ranged from 14 to 36 min, while typical interviews after the introductory interviews ranged from 22 min to 1 hr, though typically lasted 40 min or more. Most interviews took place in teachers’ schools; while convenient for the teachers, sometimes interviews were cut short due to unforeseen interruptions that arose. Second, nonparticipant observations were conducted in teachers’ classrooms once each year, conditional to parental consent. Conducting observations allowed us to see how teachers were using the approach in their classrooms, to offer supportive feedback and suggestions, and to compare other forms of data to what we observed. In line with school board ethics guidelines, we were only able to visit seven of the 12 teachers’ classrooms due to parental objections to having their children observed. Third, CoP meetings were audio-recorded and transcribed. Topics of conversation within the CoP were guided by teachers’ needs and requests and typically focused on discussion of very practical aspects of implementing the approach within their varying contexts, such as time management and the development of resources for use in the classroom. There were six CoP meetings in total (two in Year 1 and four in Year 2), four of which were recorded (one from Year 1 and three from Year 2), ranging from 76 to 103 min. The first CoP meetings each year (i.e., two in total) were not recorded to allow teachers to become comfortable with the process; however, some reflective notes were taken by Stephanie and Tim.

Our inductive, thematic analysis of the data was guided by Braun and Clarke’s (2012) six-phase approach. In Phase 1, interview data and CoP meetings were transcribed, and all data sources were read and reread for familiarization. In Phase 2, initial in vivo (or verbatim) codes were applied (Miles et al., 2014), meaning a word/phrase from the participant’s words was used for each code (e.g., “let your guard down”). In Phase 3, data were coded a second time, using descriptive codes to begin grouping in vivo codes together (e.g., in vivo codes “grab and go,” “it needs to be simple,” and “simple, quick reference” were recoded as “simple/fast”). Initial themes were subsequently generated (e.g., “face-to-face versus online context” from codes “not normally a ‘techy’ person” and “face-to-face”). In Phase 4, themes were reviewed, several of which (e.g., “self-direction and accountability” and “support over time”) were renamed as subthemes and grouped together under a single theme. At this stage, a secondary deductive analysis was conducted, comparing coded data with the characteristics of effective PD we aimed to foster. Since the questions teachers were asked centered around their experiences of the PD, many responses aligned with these characteristics. In Phase 5, we defined two primary themes and several subthemes within each. Finally, in Phase 6, we named the following two themes that are reported as findings: “It’s apples and oranges” and “Utopia versus reality.” Importantly, it was our intention to conduct a reflexive thematic analysis; we do not view themes as preexisting entities waiting to be discovered, but rather, as being crafted by us as researchers and reflecting our theoretical assumptions and interpretive choices (Braun & Clarke, 2019). In order to promote trustworthiness, analysis was guided by Braun and Clarke’s (2006) list of suggestions for a “good” thematic analysis (e.g., checking transcripts against recordings for accuracy, using verbatim transcripts, conducting a comprehensive coding process, providing clear descriptions of the analysis process, and positioning ourselves as active in the analysis), several of which align with Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) suggestions for adhering to the criteria for trustworthiness in qualitative research. In addition, the use of multiple data sources has allowed for triangulation to confirm/disconfirm themes from various sources (Wodak & Meyer, 2009).

Findings

Findings from this research center around two primary themes: (a) “It’s apples and oranges,” representing teachers’ perceptions of the characteristics of effective PD that were most helpful for their learning about and implementation of Meaningful PE, and (b) “Utopia versus reality,” representing teachers’ perceptions of several tensions between ideal and more realistic forms of PD. The sources of data from which quotes in these sections are drawn are indicated in parentheses following each quote, using the teachers’ pseudonym, the year of the study in which the data source was collected (e.g., Yr1 = Year 1), and the type of data source and interview or meeting number (e.g., Int2 = second interview; CoP3 = third community of practice meeting).

“It’s Apples and Oranges”

This theme relates to elements in the design of the PD initiative that teachers found most helpful for their learning and for implementation of Meaningful PE. When we asked teachers to compare their experiences of the PD we designed to other PD opportunities they had experienced, Camille’s quote was representative of the responses we received: “I can’t even compare it because it’s apples and oranges” (Yr2-Int2), suggesting their experiences of this PD were very different from their previous experiences. Teachers’ perceptions of the current experience were largely positive. Teachers drew from their previous experiences to identify aspects of this PD that supported their learning, much of which related to the characteristics of effective PD we had intentionally planned toward. Most prominently, the teachers spoke of the value they placed on both collaboration (particularly through the CoP) and our modeling of the approach.

Collaboration

Our intentional facilitation of a CoP to introduce teachers to Meaningful PE and support their implementation provided a space to “share best practices [and their] high and low moments” (Tracy-Yr1-CoP2), to “reflect” (Mia-Yr1-CoP2), and to network with other PE specialists (Hunter-Yr2-Int2) in a context where many of the teachers felt “forgotten” (Miranda-Yr2-Int2). Importantly, given that many participants knew each other beforehand, there was a strong sense of community and trust (Miranda-Yr2-Int2) within the group, much of which had been established prior to the research. This facilitated an environment where teachers felt they could “take risks” (Tracy-Yr1-CoP2) and feel unafraid of “looking stupid” (Miranda-Yr2-Int1). The vulnerability and willingness of some to share both successes and failures allowed other, often less experienced, teachers to feel reassured. For instance, Greg suggested, “It was nice to hear that we weren’t the only ones saying, ‘Oh my God. We’re behind the eight-ball.’ …. That was reassuring.” In addition, the CoP meetings allowed teachers to hear from others who were working in different contexts, which allowed them to “broaden horizons” (Melissa-Yr2-Int2). Tracy shared:

Learning from each other was so powerful. I live in my little bubble … and I don’t really think about it, but when I heard the women from [another school] talking, and their challenges with their kids and all that, it was such an eye-opening experience with me, saying, “Wow, okay. So, it’s not easy everywhere.” (Yr2-Int2)

In addition to the CoP, teachers valued opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in their own school. Where teachers from the same school participated together, they tended to view this as beneficial for their learning: “Where one of us leaves off, the other one can pick up, or we can work together on things” (Felix-Yr2-Int2). When recruiting participants, we prioritized accepting all teachers from a given school who had signed up to participate; this was valued by teachers and highlighted the importance of creating a learning community within the school wherever possible. Several teachers who were the sole PE specialist in their school or who taught with a colleague who was not involved in the research spoke of this and expressed a desire to work with a partner in their own school: “It would probably have been really good to have someone here in the school to bounce ideas off more often” (Melissa-Yr2-Int2). Although some participants were already collaborating prior to the research, they found value in the intentional facilitation of a CoP with a broader group of participants around a common interest.

Modeling

Teachers spoke extensively of how much they valued our modeling of the approach, allowing them to experience it as their students may and envision how it might be implemented. For many participants, seeing the approach modeled was “by far the most helpful” aspect of their learning (Camille-Yr2-Int2). For instance, Emily suggested:

That was the most that I’ve gotten out of something, when Tim did the dance lesson and then we talked about it and then we went in the room. I found that was helpful, because at other PDs it’s just them standing up there talking at you. (Yr2-Int2)

Seeing the approach modeled “[brought] it to life” (Felix-Yr2-Int2) and allowed teachers who were previously apprehensive to be able to say, “Okay, I can do that” (Greg-Yr1-Int3). In addition to modeling the approach in practice, we also provided teachers with sample lesson plans from Stephanie’s use of the approach in her own classroom. Teachers suggested this was another helpful aspect in getting them started. For instance, Tracy shared: “Your lesson plans were excellent. Having that there was really, really good and not overwhelming because I could see it. I went ‘Oh, okay I get it’” (Yr1-Int3). Thus, in addition to modeling a new approach in practice, we highlight the value of modeling other aspects of teaching, including how teachers may plan toward it or assess student learning.

Other Characteristics

While collaboration and modeling were interpreted as the most valued aspects, several other characteristics of effective PD were mentioned. For instance, teachers valued being treated as active (rather than passive) learners. They suggested that this was something that separated this PD experience from others they had been a part of in the past. For instance, Felix described previous PD experiences as “sit and get,” often with several hours of a facilitator talking to, rather than conversing with, teachers. Relating this to the current PD, he suggested: “That’s been different; I appreciate that” (Yr2-Int2). Similarly, Miranda suggested:

I think it’s unlike a lot of other things I’ve done… . The biggest issue with education and teachers is we’re not treated as learners … like, at all. So, if we’re expected to learn something, and it sticks with us, the approach that’s used doesn’t match that, whereas this does… . It’s a really good delivery if you want something to stick. (Yr2-Int2)

One of the things that helped position teachers as active learners was providing them with ample time to “tinker and play” (Miranda-Yr2-Int2) over 2 years, experimenting with the approach in their classrooms. The continuous nature of the PD initiative was also highly valued by the teachers. For instance, Tracy suggested:

This was ongoing, and I think sometimes in the past some of my PD kind of gets lost in translation… . You go with it, and you’re all gung-ho, and then you forget… . But this [PD] has been more of a constant, and I feel like it’s going to stick around probably until I retire. (Yr2-Int2)

Teachers perceived that the ongoing nature of the PD made it possible for them to implement the approach in a way that they felt would result in lasting change to their teaching practice. This was compounded by a sense that teachers had our support, in that we were readily available to them: “I think what you … did really well was your availability to us” (Sharron-Yr2-Int2). In addition, teachers valued that we facilitated opportunities for their learning through the CoP: “To have you guys lead us through it; this is what you guys are doing regularly. It’s fantastic. That’s nice” (Felix-Yr2-Int2).

While many aspects of the PD initiative were well received, several participants suggested that, although they found the online resources to be helpful, they were initially quite overwhelming: Mia commented, “The resources are helpful; I just found it sometimes a little overwhelming… . The amount of resources is great because there’s so many … but there’s, like, so many.” To which Molly replied, “Yeah, it’s an instant feeling of [being] overwhelmed” (Yr1-Int3). Similarly, other teachers spoke of feeling “lost in the website [and] blog posts” (Camille-Yr2-Int2), with some suggesting that this produced initial anxiety by making the approach seem more complicated than it really was (Greg-Yr1-Int3). Given that some teachers later felt that the resources were helpful, we suggest that when using online resources for teachers’ PD, there may be value in limiting the amount of material teachers are given access to initially and making materials easily accessible in terms of time required, language used, and concepts explained.

While many teachers wanted a particular kind of resource, some (particularly those with the most experience) saw value in a “mixed-bag approach” (Tracy-Yr1-Int1) that allowed them to pick and choose the resources that were most helpful for their own learning. For instance, Miranda suggested: “I think you need more than one way. You guys have done a good job with that” (Yr2-Int2). Consequently, we highlight the value of using a CoP-based approach that is continuous in its nature to introduce teachers to a novel pedagogical approach. We suggest providing several opportunities for teachers to see the approach modeled. In addition, teachers should be positioned as active learners who are provided with a variety of resources from which they might choose those which are most appropriate for their own learning.

“Utopia Versus Reality”

In this theme, we present several tensions between what teachers perceived to be ideal and more realistic for their PD in relation to both organizational and personal barriers. In the several years leading up to this project, teachers in our research had experienced very few, if any, PE-specific PD sessions initiated by the school board. For instance, Camille shared that the last PE–PD initiative she had attended was 6 years prior and took the form of a single 3-hr session to which only a handful of PE teachers were invited. Similarly, Liam shared, “If you look at what all the PDs are for, it’s never PE. It’s always math or literacy; literacy or math. And I get it; I get it. That’s where the money is” (Yr2-Int1). Given this context, the participants had come to expect that what might be ideal for their PD was often not possible due to organizational and personal barriers. Another quote from Liam captured this sentiment: “Well, it’s kind of one of those utopia versus reality scenarios” (Yr2-Int2). In many cases, teachers painted a picture for us of what they would consider to be utopian PD—that which would be ideal in a perfect world—versus what they thought might be a more realistic expectation in light of organizational and personal constraints. In the following passages, we present five tensions in utopian PD versus reality, grounding each in data generated by teachers. Importantly, these suggestions are not our own but rather are our interpretations of participants’ experiences of the PD and teachers’ suggestions for how they might be improved going forward, particularly in finding a balance between what is ideal and what might reasonably be expected.

Tension 1

In utopian PD, teachers are very self-directed; they take initiative to access provided resources and ask questions and then implement the approach in their classrooms. In reality, teachers need to be held accountable for their learning. While teachers appreciated being treated as active learners, they also recognized a need to be “pushed” to prioritize their learning. In some cases, they compared themselves to what they might expect from their students, suggesting, for example, “I need to actually watch the videos and do my homework!” (Camille-Yr2-Int1). Indeed, several teachers never accessed all the resources that were available online. In many cases, there was a sense that they “should have” (Melissa-Yr2-Int2) or at least “could have” (Liam-Yr2-Int2) been more self-directed by accessing provided resources. Some of the issues teachers faced with staying on top of PD tasks were related to time; consequently, some teachers wanted “short and quick” (Tracy-Yr1-Int1), “grab-and-go” (Mia-Yr1-Int1) learning materials that were fully prepared (Liam-Yr2-Int2) and provided for them. Others suggested that, while that might be convenient, it may also hinder the value of the learning experience: “If all of this is ready but I haven’t had any part in it at all, then I don’t know if the meaning is the same” (Miranda-Yr2-Int2).

Given time constraints and the effects on accessing learning materials, teachers valued the design of the PD as it provided a source of accountability by “pushing” teachers to “prioritize” Meaningful PE and come prepared to the meetings (Molly-Yr1-Int2). For instance, Melissa shared that in between meetings she would “fall off a little bit,” but when she knew a meeting was approaching, she would be inspired to “ramp up” her implementation (Yr2-Int2). Thus, though it required an investment of teachers’ time, having regular meetings, particularly early the process, was valuable in that it motivated teachers to prioritize their learning.

Tension 2

Utopian PD occurs in a purely face-to-face context. In reality, this is expensive and time-consuming and could take the form of a mix of face-to-face and online interactions. Early in the research, several teachers shared that they “get more” (Tracy-Yr1-PLC2) out of “in-person meetings” (Molly-Yr1-PLC2) and would prefer not to meet via video conferencing. Particularly for participants who did not view themselves as being very “techy,” the “information coming online [was] overwhelming” (Melissa-Yr2-Int1). Given that teachers were coming from several cities, after-school in-person meetings were not feasible; thus, all face-to-face meetings required paid release time to cover teachers’ regular responsibilities. Some teachers recognized that face-to-face meetings were problematic for these reasons, though they were consistently perceived to be more beneficial (Tracy-Yr1-Int1). As the research progressed, and particularly after COVID-19 regulations forced teachers to begin teaching from home, participants were more willing to consider the possibility of future engagement with online interactions. For instance, Liam, who was previously vocal about his preference for face-to-face learning, suggested, “With this whole Zoom/Google Meet piece, I think if you wanted to do once a month, you could even maybe do biweekly, but it wouldn’t have to be face-to-face… . And that would be such an easy, cost-saving way” (Yr2-Int2). Thus, while their preference was clearly for in-person learning, teachers’ understanding of the cost of this, along with their introduction to video conferencing software, led them to be more willing to engage in a combination of in-person and online PD.

Tension 3

Utopian PD involves opportunities to see the innovation modeled by colleagues with a classroom full of students. In reality, due to time and money constraints, the innovation is modeled byexpertswith teachers as participants. While our modeling of the approach was highly valued by teachers, after having seen it modeled by a member of the research team, many teachers expressed a desire to see how their colleagues were implementing it. For some teachers, this was viewed as something they might do “instead of” seeing it modeled by the research team (Camille-Yr2-Int2). For others, watching a colleague model the approach was seen as a “next step” that would provide an opportunity “to see how other people are interpreting [the] framework” (Felix-Yr2-Int2). While this was something several teachers suggested, there was also some understanding that it was a bit utopian and likely not possible because of time and money, along with a sense of intimidation for some of the less experienced teachers in the group. Alternatively, teachers were open to our modeling of the approach and/or to having it modeled via video if necessary (Tracy-Yr2-Int2). Although it was our hope to enable teachers to observe one another, our efforts were short circuited by COVID-19.

Tension 4

In utopian PD, teachers are fully supported across several years in learning to implement a novel pedagogical approach. In reality, teachers are supported through a phased approach. Teachers who participated in the research only in the second year often suggested it was not long enough. For instance, Sharron highlighted, “I really think you need to do two cycles if funding allows it or your time allows it” (Yr2-Int2). She suggested that the focus of the first year should be on learning about the approach and determining how it might work in the classroom, while the second year should focus on full implementation. Those teachers who participated across two school years tended to value their extended involvement and believed they were ready to implement it on their own. Tracy, who participated in both years, suggested other teachers should be given the advantage of experiencing it across 2 years (Yr2-Int2). However, there was also an acknowledgement that this approach can be quite costly. Consequently, some suggested a phased approach that involved substantial support in Year 1 when teachers were learning to use the approach and half as much support in Year 2 when they were implementing it more fully (Camille; Emily-Yr2-Int2). Camille suggested that, while 2 years of full support would be nice, this money would be “better spent” helping other teachers in the school board also learn to implement the approach, thus representing a “scaling up” and enabling coherence and shared understanding across the school board (Yr2-Int2). Teachers were also open to the possibility of serving as mentors in Year 2 to interested teachers who would be beginning Phase 1 of the PD.

Tension 5

In utopian PD, teachers’ busy schedules are taken into account, and they are asked to invest very little, if any, of their own time. In reality, time means money and teachers will need to invest some of their own time into their continuous PD. We came to this project wanting to acknowledge the busyness of teaching and respect teachers’ personal time. However, paying for substitute teachers to cover the research participants (“release time”) is expensive. Although we released the teachers whenever possible, preparation for meetings and engaging with resources for their learning was largely up to them and they engaged with this in their own time. It was evident, based on a lack of engagement with resources and teachers’ comments, that this was a challenge. For instance, Emily suggested, “No one goes to PD after school. Nobody’s going to that” (Yr2-Int2). Teachers highlighted the need for facilitators to be “conscious of their time,” considering that many of them had young families and were coaching after school (Tracy-Yr1-CoP2). However, teachers were often open to finding a balance when they felt their time was valued. For instance, Miranda suggested, “There was a good balance of, ‘We’re going to get together in the summer,’ or ‘We’re going to do this during the school day.’ I appreciate that” (Yr2-Int2). We highlight the importance of valuing teachers’ time and providing paid release whenever possible. Having access to funds for research allowed us the opportunity to offer quality PD to teachers who had been without it for several years and highlights the potential value of these types of university–school partnerships for teachers’ PD.

Discussion

The purposes of this research were to design a PD initiative built upon characteristics of effective PD to introduce teachers to the Meaningful PE approach and to understand their experiences of this process. Importantly, it has not been our intention here to suggest whether this PD initiative has or has not been effective, most particularly because student learning outcomes were not assessed. Instead, we aimed to share teachers’ perspectives and experiences of a PD initiative designed around the characteristics of effective PD and in turn, make suggestions for future PD designs based on the analysis. Teachers found value in the way the PD was designed, particularly in relation to past experiences with board-level and personally initiated PD opportunities. In particular, like teachers in Goodyear and Casey’s (2015) study, the intentional facilitation of a CoP was well received by teachers in the process of learning to implement an innovation. As has been demonstrated elsewhere, a CoP helped teachers overcome feelings of isolation and feel part of a learning community (Cooper et al., 2021), which can be particularly challenging for specialist PE teachers and those teaching elementary compared with secondary school (Gaudreault et al., 2018). We highlight the value of facilitating intentional CoPs that allow opportunities for collaboration both within and beyond the level of the school, fostering support and the broadening of horizons, wherever possible.

Teachers also spoke repeatedly of the value of having the approach modeled—both in practice and on paper in the form of lesson plans. This modeling helped them to make sense of the approach. Although teachers valued the modeling provided by the research team, there was a preference for a peer-modeling approach. Similar to teachers in Cooper et al. (2021), teachers wanted to know what was happening in colleagues’ classrooms and tended to value learning from one another more so than from external sources. While peer observations have been used effectively in PE–PD built around Lesson Study (e.g., Kihara et al., 2021), we highlight the value of providing opportunities for both expert modeling and peer observation within a CoP to introducing teachers to innovations in PE, particularly given the practical nature of the subject.

When considering factors that influence teachers’ use of innovations, Century and Cassata (2016) highlight the importance of the roles of implementation over time and support strategies. Teachers regularly highlighted the need to consider implementation over time—considering stages or phases of implementation that occur from the point of initial adoption to the point at which implementation of an innovation has become routine. Our findings support those of Dyson (2002), who reported that teachers wanted 2 years of support in learning to implement an innovative approach in their classrooms. Implementation support strategies include ongoing, intentional efforts to support end users. This research highlights the value of using characteristics of effective PD to guide the development of implementation support strategies to introduce teachers to innovative approaches. Although some of these characteristics have been used previously in PE–PD (e.g., a CoP), they are often used in isolation rather than in an integrated manner to guide the design of PD. Importantly, designing PD around characteristics of effective PD provided teachers with a supportive environment that enabled them to envision themselves being able to sustain implementation over time.

The tensions between utopian and realistic forms of PD have highlighted the interplay between personal and organizational/environmental factors in teachers’ learning process. While there is a substantial body of literature in PD on the role of individual characteristics and factors in teachers’ professional learning, Allen and Penuel (2015) suggest there has been much less of a focus on the organizational contexts where PD occurs and how these influence teachers’ practice. Although teachers’ individual characteristics played a role in the process, it was clear that the organizational structures within which their teaching and learning was situated influenced their professional learning when implementing an innovation. While teachers suggested that the PD worked well, their highlighting of tensions has shown that, even when recommendations on effective PD design were followed, teachers still had clear ideas on how it could be made better. Thus, while the literature offers an effective starting point, we highlight the need to listen to teachers in attempting to find realistic solutions to barriers that may influence their PD, even when those concerns may be difficult to work around (e.g., time and money issues).

In their recent analysis of the types of PE–PD being offered in European countries, Tannehill et al. (2021) highlight the value of using key characteristics of effective PD for researchers and providers to “assess, analyse, compare, and improve [continuous] PD policies and practices to impact teacher learning,” suggesting that PD “might reasonably be tested against these characteristics” (p. 150). Our research responds to and builds on these assertions. Specifically, in addition to assessing PD practices during or after their implementation, we highlight the value of using the characteristics of effective PD identified in the literature in a coherent way to plan for and initiate PD opportunities that are more likely to result in changes to teachers’ practice. At the same time, we also acknowledge that several characteristics of effective PD may be positioned as utopian versus realistic in their aims and delivery. PD designers and facilitators would thus do well to acknowledge the tension between utopia and reality in effective PD when designing and facilitating PD for teachers.

Acknowledgment

This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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  • Allen, C.A., & Penuel, W.R. (2015). Studying teachers’ sensemaking to investigate teachers’ responses to professional development focused on new standards. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(2), 136149. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022487114560646

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    • Export Citation
  • Armour, K.M., & Yelling, M. (2007). Effective professional development for physical education teachers: The role of informal, collaborative learning. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 26(2), 177200. https://doi.org/10.1123/jtpe.26.2.177

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Avalos, B. (2011). Teacher professional development in teaching and teacher education over ten years. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(1), 1020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2010.08.007

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Banks, J., & Smyth, E. (2011). Continuous professional development among primary teachers in Ireland. The Teaching Council and Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bechtel, P.A., & O’Sullivan, M. (2006). Chapter 2: Effective professional development – What we now know. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 25(4), 363378. https://doi.org/10.1123/jtpe.25.4.363

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Beni, S., Fletcher, T., & Ní Chróinín, D. (2017). Meaningful experiences in physical education and youth sport: A review of the literature. Quest, 69(3), 291312.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Blankenship, S.S., & Ruona, E.A.W. (2007). Professional learning communities and communities of practice: A comparison of models, literature review. Paper presented at the Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference in the Americas, Indianapolis, IN.

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