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A Curriculum worth Celebrating!

Friday, August 28, 2015 - 10:05

How the Revised Secondary H&PE Curriculum Connects the Dots for Holistic Student Health

For the last five years, Ontario’s educators have been using a 16-year-old Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curriculum—a document older than many of the students themselves. After a long wait, a revised secondary H&PE curriculum is set to be implemented this September—and both educators and students have a lot to look forward to.

“I think I’m most excited about finally having a curriculum that’s responsive to student needs and that’s current,” says Joanne Walsh, Ophea’s Secondary Curriculum Consultant. “It’s going to support students in developing the skills they need to navigate the 21st century.”

The revised curriculum has a dual focus on physical and health literacy, places a greater emphasis on the importance of the living skills, offers more student choice and allows for increased opportunities for students to make connections between their learning and real life experiences.

Perhaps most exciting, however, is that with the revised elementary and secondary curriculums, Ontario students will benefit from a continuum of learning that will help them to connect the dots for holistic health—all the way from grade 1 to grade 12 and well beyond. In fact, the implementation of the H&PE curriculum (1-12) stands to be the single largest health promotion intervention that Ontario has ever seen, having an impact on 2.1 million students and their families.

The curriculum places a strong focus on physical literacy.

Just like in the revised elementary H&PE curriculum, one of the key focuses of the secondary curriculum is on helping students develop physical literacy—the ability to move with confidence and competence in a variety of physical activities and environments to support the healthy development of the whole person.

Rather than focusing on specific sports, students are taught various skills and strategies that can be transferred to different activities within the same game categories. For example, once students acquire the fundamental movement skills for striking and fielding activities, (i.e., activities in which players score points by striking an object and running to designated playing areas) teachers prompt students to apply those skills in a number of ways. This might include cricket, soccer baseball, or any number of different games or activities that don’t take the form of traditional sports.

This is an effective approach, because a sports-based model isn’t necessarily representative of what motivates people to be physically active. “Some students can be more motivated through a fitness-focused lens; others through outdoor settings,” Walsh points out.

What’s more, by taking a skill-based approach, educators can help students acquire skills at their own pace, and to apply them in the ways that bring them joy. “Once students acquire the sense of ‘I can do that,’ once they feel competent and confident, the sky is the limit for how they might explore ways to use these movements,” explains Sue McMahon, Curriculum Resource Teacher for the London District Catholic School Board. “This approach is most likely to lead students to lifelong participation in physical activities, which is certainly one of the priorities of this curriculum.”

Health literacy helps students make good decisions in an ever-changing world.

Equally important is the curriculum’s focus on teaching students to develop health literacy—the skills needed to get, understand and use information to make good decisions for health.

“Health literacy is critical for students to develop their critical thinking skills, decision making skills and commitment to healthy choices for themselves and others,” says Darryll Hancock, a Health & Physical Education Teacher for the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.

Students can access information very quickly, but they need to know how to sift through all of it to make good choices based on the things that are important to them” says Walsh. To this end, one of the expectations in the grade 11 Health For Life course requires students to assess the quality of health information and products, and use information from reliable sources to make sound informed choices about health-related products, equipment or food. This ability to think critically will not only help students to navigate a complex world in the present, but will help them to continue making sound health decisions well into the future.

The living skills are integrated throughout the curriculum.

Throughout the learning expectations in the revised curriculum, teachers are prompted by symbols that indicate which of the living skills is most connected to what students are learning. This helps students develop their living skills in context of their learning. The living skills are the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills that help students make positive decisions to support their health and well-being.

“The living skills are really the cornerstone of the curriculum,” says Walsh, who points out that, although they were part of the previous curriculum, they were set apart and taught in a unit on social skills. “Now they’re embedded in everything we do,” says Walsh—and this is exactly as it should be.

After all, good health depends on so much more than having the skills to participate in physical activity and understanding how to obtain and use health information. It also depends on building resiliency, having a strong support network and working to maintain positive mental health.

“It’s so important for secondary students to have a good understanding of self, how to treat others in healthy relationships and how to think critically and creatively,” says McMahon. “With these skills students will be able to be happy, healthy contributing members of an ever-changing society.” 

The curriculum helps students make real world connections.

Yet another exciting element of the revised curriculum is its wealth of connections to other subject areas and topics—from financial literacy to environmental studies, communications technology and more.

“Decisions in real life are never made in a vacuum,” says McMahon. “It’s really important to set the curriculum in a broader context and connect the dots for students so that it makes sense in the real world.”

This is especially true when we consider the interconnection of the social determinants of health—the social and economic factors that influence individual health. These include access to quality education, food and housing.

“Financial literacy is actually a determinant of health because we need to be able to make good decisions within the parameters of our finances,” says Walsh who gives the example of a secondary student who is about to graduate and move out on their own. “Their financial circumstances are going to change,” she says. “How can they make healthy choices in the supermarket on a limited budget?” Likewise, it’s important for students to understand things like how their food choices affect the environment. Other issues students explore include: using technology safely, continuing to develop healthy relationships as they mature, living and thriving in a diverse society, and strategies to manage risks and make healthy choices. All of these topics (and many more) can be addressed through the curriculum.

More student choice means better student engagement.

“I believe that student choice has been the hallmark of effective health and physical education programs for many years,” says Hancock, “however, the 2015 curriculum offers educators an opportunity to reflect upon past practices and consider new approaches to engage students.”

All students are required to take one HALE course; in most boards it is part of the grade 9 program of study as the knowledge and skills students learn can support their successful transition to high school. Through this course, they will continue to develop fundamental movement skills and living skills they will have acquired in the elementary grades. But in addition to the HALE courses—which are offered in all grades—students may also elect to take additional H&PE credits, both in grade nine and in subsequent grades. These are called Focus Courses.

“A Focus Course allows students to meet the expectations for H&PE with an emphasis on a particular group of physical activities,” explains McMahon. The curriculum contains a list of “Focus Courses” schools may choose to offer depending on student interest and available resources. Some examples include personal fitness, outdoor activities and aquatic activities. “Through these courses, students are able to see themselves and their own interests reflected,” says McMahon.

Furthermore, even through HALE courses, students are encouraged to choose from and participate in a range of physical activities, to think about their passions and to discover what will keep them motivated to stay physically active throughout life.

Destination courses help students understand post-secondary options.

Another set of courses called Destination Courses are available in grades 11 and 12 to help guide students in their future career choices. “Students can choose based on their interests and their post secondary goals,” says McMahon. “Each of these courses will open students’ eyes to possibilities well beyond secondary school.”

Health for Life (offered in grade 11) is a college destination course. It helps students think about careers connected to health promotion. Introductory Kinesiology (available in grade 12) shows students what would be entailed in studying kinesiology at a post secondary institution. Finally, the Recreation and Healthy Active Living Leadership course (also offered in grade 12) is meant to support students who plan to attend either college or university by helping them develop leadership skills that will allow them to become mentors in wellness.

Support is readily available to educators.

Many of the principles and teaching methods in the revised curriculum are likely to be familiar to educators. “I have to be honest,” says McMahon. “We’ve been working toward this change in pedagogy knowing that it was coming because it’s simply a good way to engage kids.” All the same, when it comes to implementing the curriculum, educators can find a wealth of support.

Ophea is excited to support quality implementation of the 2015 H&PE curriculum elementary and secondary. “One of the roles Ophea plays is providing teachers with professional evidence-based resources they can use to support them in implementing the curriculum,” says Walsh. “It’s really one-stop shopping for teachers from grades 1-12. If they can’t find what they’re looking for through the website they can always connect with someone at Ophea.”

To get started, check out Ophea’s newly released All About H&PE. This resource features posters and online learning videos that provide an in-depth look at the five Fundamental Principles that underpin the 2015 H&PE curriculum.

In addition, over the 2015/16 school year Ophea will release a range of programs and services to support the implementation of key elements of the H&PE curriculum, such as the Fundamental Principles of H&PE, Inquiry-based Learning, approaches to teaching health, Human Development and Sexual Health, Healthy Active Living Education (HALE), and focus course planning.

Furthermore, a wide variety of resources are available from the Ministry of Education. Visit www.eduGAINS.ca for materials used at the Ministry of Education Regional HPE Implementation and Training Sessions, including elementary and secondary slide decks & information about key changes. The Ministry also has supports for parents including four Parent Guides and six new Quick Facts documents, which can all be accessed via the Ministry’s curriculum page.

Other organizations are also developing resources to support H&PE implementation. Walsh suggests consulting the OASPHE website for a range of curriculum implementation resources. In addition, McMahon recommends the resources produced by the Institute for Catholic Education—especially the new secondary H&PE resource that the organization will release in time for the 2015-2016 school year. Although the resource will be specifically designed for use in Catholic schools, McMahon feels it contains plenty of information that any educator can pick and choose from.

The future is looking bright for Ontario student health.

“The former curriculum was strong,” comments Walsh, “but it was dated in terms of content. What’s happened is that that which was strong was made stronger, and then it was updated in terms of skills and knowledge our students need.” In short, with the revised curriculum in hand, educators now have a critical tool for ensuring that students receive quality H&PE instruction that can help them to adopt health promoting behaviours to last a lifetime.

“This curriculum is finally that guidepost we’ve been waiting for—the document that will guide our practice so we can help our students think critically and make good, healthy choices,” Walsh concludes, but not before adding one last sentiment: “It’s pretty awesome!”