Kindness a key ingredient in meaningful physical education, doctoral grad says

Jodi Harding-Kuriger says she can’t point to a particular formative experience that compelled her to pursue health and physical education (HPE) as the focus of her academic journey.

“I just love to move. [In physical education] you get to dance, you get to do gymnastics and play games, you get to be inside and outside, you can focus on team or individual sports,” she said. “I just love the variety and the feeling you get when you’re moving with others is so wonderful I just want to share it with everyone.”

After completing her bachelor degrees in education and physical education at the University of Alberta in 2004, she moved directly into teaching phys ed and math at an Edmonton junior high school. Her subsequent experience informed her awareness that not everyone shared her enthusiasm for HPE—not just among the students who abandoned “gym class” when it was no longer mandatory, but among colleagues whose student experiences made them reluctant to teach it.

When she returned to the U of A in 2018 to pursue her PhD—which she receives on Friday, November 19 at Fall Convocation—Harding-Kuriger set out to explore how to make physical education meaningful for students in a way that would help them carry that joy of movement and participation beyond the school gymnasium.

“I thought this really needed to be addressed: why does physical education, which used to be one of the most beloved school subjects, have so many negative feelings associated with it?” she said.

Research as service

Harding-Kuriger’s doctoral research engaged a group of teachers at an Edmonton secondary school in a community of practice to better understand the concept of meaningful physical education. She then planned to work with 58 students to collect their thoughts on what was most important to make physical education meaningful.

“My personal research goal is research as service, so as a health and physical education teacher I would work alongside teachers and students in their classes to co-plan lessons that they identified as meaningful, we’d live them together and then we’d reflect together,” she said.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 forced Harding-Kuriger to delay her project for months and, ultimately, to move this collaboration to a virtual setting in the fall of 2020. Though less than ideal, Harding-Kuriger said the participants rose to the occasion.

“They were so gracious, they were so amazing. And the conversations — junior high kids are so fun to talk with. There was so much laughter. And they were so accepting of each other’s ideas.”

Brainstorming activities with the students generated 196 statements which were distilled down to 44 ideas, then sorted into four categories or ‘clusters’ of what mattered most to students: they valued physical activity, quality education, fun and, above all, kindness.

“The fact that they focused on kindness was really wonderful,” Harding-Kuriger said. “They wanted to see their teachers laughing and participating with them. They wanted more physical activity, but if there weren’t positive peer-to-peer relationships, then the physical activity wasn’t fun for anyone and it didn’t matter.”

Further data analysis yielded a conceptualization of meaningful physical education that could guide teachers in thinking about and planning lessons.

“Meaningful physical education experiences are learning experiences that are co-created between teachers and students through communication, collaboration and conversation that really allow for student voice and choice, and also include everyone,” Harding-Kuriger said. “That kindness feature really spoke to the fact these students were looking for inclusive opportunities.”

Harding-Kuriger says she hopes she gets to see how her research shapes participating teachers’ approaches to physical education.

“It would be amazing to share the foundation of meaningful physical education — relationships — to honour that inclusive aspect that was identified and through those relationships allow for voice and choice,” she said. “So, instilling in teachers that they don’t have to over-plan and have their year plan follow the athletic schedule, but look at how physical education can be more student-led. If you’re not listening to your students, you don’t know what their interests and abilities are, so how can you plan something that’s relevant to them?”

Sharing the joy of movement in a new context

Not one to rest on her newly attained laurels, Harding-Kuriger is preparing to embark on a two-year Mitacs postdoctoral fellowship focused on improving access to sport and physical activity with the Kitaskinaw Education Authority in Enoch, Alberta, a project she says will continue her doctoral research in a different context.

“I will be there working alongside community members and teachers and recreation centres to see how we can continue to improve participation with students there,” Harding-Kuriger said.

“We’ll take some time to conceptualize what physical education experiences need to look like in that specific community in order to continue to motivate students to be active. The second part of it is, how do we take our high school youth and keep them active? Part of it is providing first aid training, coaching training, youth leadership training, so they can become the new leaders in the community for sport and physical activity.”

The University of Alberta’s Fall Convocation 2021 takes place online at 10 a.m. on Friday, November 19.