New phys ed syllabus to increase volume of instruction, retain grades

Physical education class at Laupa School.
Physical education class at Laupa School. Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

A new physical education syllabus awaiting the completion of an entire new curriculum is aimed at encouraging children's love of movement and will integrate other subjects into its instruction. It is also slated to significantly increase the volume of phys ed instruction as well as retain the current letter grade system.

The Ministry of Education and Research is eagerly awaiting the completion of all subjects' new syllabuses, which would allow for the adoption of the new curriculum in schools to replace the hopelessly outdated old one. The ministry also noted that phys ed desperately needs a new syllabus.

"Phys ed must provide comprehensive movement skills," said Pille Liblik, adviser at the General Education Department of the Ministry of Education. "They have to provide students with the opportunity to choose what activities they like, what their capacity is for involvement in this or that activity, and then they can make their own choices in the future. Phys ed cannot lead to an aversion to physical movement, but rather must be a source of joy and well-being."

The working version of the syllabus really is forward-looking and child-based, encourages movement and interest, and may also reduce the amount of excuses from gym class, Liblik continued. "Excuse notes are far too readily given from home."

Phys ed not achieving its objective

An overview completed this year of the need for updates to phys ed includes several reasons the syllabus needs an overhaul. The first reason cited is that the current subject is not achieving one of its primary objectives, despite the fact that it is phys ed's goal — to motivate children to move during their free time.

The results of a survey of schoolchildren indicate that this motivation grows smaller the older they are: while two thirds of 4th graders agreed that they want to be physically active outside of school thanks to gym class, just 42 percent of 8th graders and 41 percent of 11th graders agreed.

The overview likewise noted that children were starting to lose their athletic abilities as a result of their lifestyles: they aren't very physically active in their free time. Three fourths of Estonian children and youth aren't physically active enough on a daily basis to ensure their health.

For half of children in Estonia, school may be the only place they come in contact with conscious movement; according to the nationwide sports register, just 48 percent of children between the ages of 5-19 attend sports practice or classes. Some individual practices, however, aren't enough to resolve the problems that arise from insufficient physical activity. Schools, thus, should support the physical activity and skills of children that attend practice or classes as well.

Same activities for decades

The activities being taught in gym class are likewise outdated, the overview found. The same eight or nine activities have been taught for decades, even as major changes have taken place in society and several new popular activities have emerged, such as disc golf, slackline, parkour and skateboarding, none of which are formally taught in class. The new syllabus, however, should encourage keeping up with the times.

Over half of gym teachers also consider problematic the number of students excused from gym class by their doctors or parents, finding that excuse notes are written too readily. In one school, for example, 40 percent of 9th graders were excused from gym class at once.

The new syllabus hopes to equip children with universal skills, and the integration of new and more modern sports activities into the teaching of more classical disciplines should help ensure the diversity of lessons.

Students must also be capable of assessing their fitness level together with their teacher in order to choose the proper exercise level when running, for example. Alongside adequate self-analysis, maintaining a physical activity log should also help boost a student's health and well-being.

The new syllabus will not allow children to be excused from phys ed anymore, however, as "it isn't possible to be excused from learning and getting smart," as stated in the overview of the new syllabus.

Students should also learn the difference between massage and sports massage as well as cultivate interest in both sports and competitive sports, which would increase the percentage of young people who go to practice or classes.

According to the new syllabus, basic school students will acquire locomotion skills such as running, crawling, jumping and swimming, skills to move on sports equipment, skills for handling sports equipment such as throwing, catching, bouncing, hitting and kicking, and skills for controlling one's body in various positions and in movement, i.e. balance.

From grades 1-3, the learning process must support children's natural desire for movement in various environments, with experiences to be provided through play, dance and sports.

From grades 4-6, students are to develop movement skills in a thoughtful manner via movement games and simpler sports and dance. Children will also develop their own dances and games under the direction of the teacher.

From grades 7-9, students will develop and apply sills in dance and simplified sports games and activities. The active participation of all students is important, consciously employing tactics and cooperation as well as engaging in self-analysis. Students will also develop their own dances and games under the direction of the teacher.

Eight hours per week

The volume of phys ed instruction is slated to increase as well, to eight hours per week in grades 1-6 and six hours per week in grades 7-9.

Children will also be encouraged to analyze themselves and compile a more thorough, age-appropriate self-assessment at least once per academic year, as noted in the basic school syllabus.

Completion of new curriculum dragging on

A working version of the new phys ed syllabus is complete and has already begun to be tested in some schools, and specifications regarding learning processes are in the process of being polished. The adoption of the new syllabus, however, is still in the air. Initially scheduled to take place last year, it has continued to be delayed because the adoption process of the entire new school curriculum has ground to a halt. 

"It's impossible to say with either a month or year's accuracy when this will be implemented in schools," Liblik said. "Suggestions regarding the new curriculum will be accepted through the end of this year, but we're not very sure that that is how things will actually go. Phys ed is just one syllabus; the new curriculum, however, is a whole. Phys ed is the syllabus to have moved the most quickly; many schools have already adopted the working version of the new syllabus, fitting it in with the existing curriculum."

Letter grades to remain

There has been a great deal of discussion regarding the questionable value of letter grades in phys ed, much like in shop class, art or music, for example. Suggested alternatives have included pass/fail grades, or grades based on individual development rather than according to uniform standards.

According to Liblik, however, the grade system will remain in the new syllabus.

"But various opportunities for providing children with verbal, descriptive feedback to support their development have been worked out alongside it," the ministry adviser said, adding that formative assessments have been available as an approach in Estonia for over a decade already.

She added that society is not ready yet to lose the letter grade system altogether, adding that it remains very popular among parents.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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