Why Health and Physical Education needs a shift in focus

Traditionally in the health and physical education space we have spent most of our time telling students what to do or what not to do. For example, we tell students “they should eat a healthy diet”, “they should be physically active” and we tell them “don’t smoke”, “don’t binge drink”. As Jill Stark in The Age coined it – we are giving the uninvited lecture. All that young people are hearing in this conversation is “blah, blah, blah”.

Anecdotally I think we’ve all known this for a while, particularly those of you who are the parent of a teenager. However, research is now emerging that supports the need for a shift in our approach to conversations about health and wellbeing.

Recent research released by the Australian Research Centre for Sex and Health in Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University provides evidence that the traditional delivery of sexuality education in schools is failing to meet the needs of students.

Relevance of sex education in schools

Relevance of sex education in schools

The National Secondary Students’ Sexual Health Survey involved more than 2,000 students in years 10, 11 and 12 at Government, Catholic and Independent schools in all states and territories. The results found that “50% of young people expressed significant dissatisfaction with sex education at school, citing irrelevance to their real experiences, lack of relationship advice and lack of discussion of same-sex issues as problems”. (Mitchell A, 2014)

The data also showed that 7% of students reported not receiving any sex education at all … now I’m not even going to go there as that is a whole other issue that deserves a whole post to itself!

But it’s not all a bad news story as the following video shows.




The research also reported some very promising data including:

  • 31% of the respondents reported that they had never participated in any sexual activity
  • around one half of non-sexually active students reported that they did not feel ready to have sex; that they were proud to say no and mean it, and that they thought it important to be in love the first time they had sex
  • relatively low proportions of students reported frequent cyberbullying in the last couple of months
  • most common cyberbullying behaviours ‘every few weeks or more’ were receiving prank mobile phone calls (10%) and being deliberately ignored or left out of things over the Internet (9%)
  • 40% of students reported never drinking alcohol
    the vast majority of students (81%) have never smoked cigarettes
  • only 4% report smoking regularly
  • 83% of students report never having smoked marijuana, with only 3% reporting regular use of marijuana.

So to begin our teaching from a starting point of deficit, e.g. the assumption that ALL students will be participating in harmful or risky behaviours is doing a disservice to those students who are not participating in harmful or risky behaviours.

This growing evidence supports the underpinning framework of the new Australian Curriculum. Rather than focusing only on potential health risks or a deficit-based model of health, the curriculum has a stronger focus on supporting students to develop the knowledge, understanding and skills (those personal assets and strengths) they require to make healthy, safe and active choices that will enhance their own and others’ health and wellbeing.

Rebecca Alber in her article titled Ditching the deficit model identifies 5 learning strategies that teachers can use to help students to identify their strengths and personal assets or as she calls them their “jewels”. They are:

  • Goal Setting.
  • What I Know Well
  • Learning Inventories
  • Artifact from My Life
  • Takeaways.

Check out Rebecca’s post for more information about each of these strategies and how you might use them in your classroom.

A strengths-based approach is not reserved only for health education. Cote & Mallett in 2013 explored the use of positive psychology in sport and coaching in an effort to recognise and develop a strengths or assets-based approach to sport, coaching and physical activity. Sandy Gordon, in a presentation at the WA Health Conference in 2011 used cricket to demonstrate how a strengths-based approach can be used when considering elite movement performance. In her presentation she describes how Australian cricketer Marcus North was asked to consider a series of questions about his batting using a strengths-based approach. Below are his responses as reported in Gordon’s presentation:

Question: My strengths are … I feel strong when I am … {doing this}

“I feel strong when I am coming into bat when the innings needs rescuing or a game is to be won.”

Question: What is your best shot? How do you get most of your runs?

“Straight drive”

Question: I deliver my best and feel in my element doing what?

“Rebuilding an innings when the team is in trouble. Guiding the team to victory using a calm and clever mind set. Involving myself in the contest.”

Question: My favourite role(s) that I find most stimulating is (are)

“Being the player that stands up during the tough times and most difficult periods of play”

Question: Things I can do to build on my strengths, put myself into situations where I am in my element are …

“To train mostly by simulating tough game situations under greater pressure”

As a teacher, you could use similar questions with your students to get them to think about their strengths in different movement activities and contexts and to focus on these strengths in order to improve movement performances. This is just scraping the surface of how the strengths-based approach can be translated into practice.

How will you incorporate a strengths-based approach in your lessons?


Want to join a live webinar to explore how a strengths-based approach can be translated into your teaching practice?


Further reading on a strengths-based approach in the Health and Physical Education curriculum

Louise McCuaig , Mikael Quennerstedt & Doune Macdonald (2013): A salutogenic, strengths-based approach as a theory to guide HPE curriculum change, Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 4:2, 109-125


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA] (2014)

Draft Australian Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum (http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/health-and-physical-education/Curriculum/F-10?layout=1)




Future focused learning in Health and Physical Education

Our current generation of students are the most connected and informed learners we have ever taught. They have access to more information and knowledge at their fingertips than we could ever have imagined. So, how does the new Health and Physical Education curriculum cater for the new generation of students?

The research into future directions in education and health was powerful in informing the development and directions of the new curriculum. The futures research in education suggests that schools will more and more become settings that guide learning with an orientation to developing lifelong learners, rather than settings that simply impart knowledge to create learners who can perform well on a final exam. Teaching within schools will no longer just be the domain of teachers but learning will be shaped by partnerships and connections with knowledge experts in the community. This will see teachers shift from a role of knowledge “keepers” to playing the role of knowledge “brokers” – facilitating access for students to knowledge gained from other sources or experts.

To cater for these shifts in knowledge access the Health and Physical Education curriculum includes a critical inquiry approach that promotes researching, analysing, applying and appraising knowledge in the health and movement fields. This approach seeks to support students to understand that a range of factors shape a person’s ability to be healthy, safe and active and that often these factors are out of an individual’s control. As students explore concepts and issues within the curriculum the content encourages students to question knowledge and test assumptions that we may take for granted to ensure that they are founded on reliable and accurate information.

Research into the future of health care suggests services will move towards a preventive focus and predictive medicine and interventions will become more widespread across Australia. Sources predict that nearly a million people in the United States have already signed up for full genome-scans with the hope of understanding their health better and avoiding the risk factors most relevant to their genes. This projected move to a rising engagement with predictive technologies will signal a dramatic shift. Health and Physical Education has historically focused on teaching students strategies to avoid a generic suite of risky lifestyle behaviours. The new curriculum focuses on developing understanding and skills to be able to make healthy, safe and informed choices about their health based on the information available to them. Health experts have identified the development of health literacy as a key skill for individuals in being able to manage their own health and wellbeing. The curriculum focuses on the development of the following skills within the three dimensions of health literacy:

  • functional – the ability to research and apply health information to respond to a health-related question
  • critical – the ability to selectively access and critically assess health information from a range of reliable sources in order to take action to promote their own or others health and wellbeing
  • interactive – the ability to actively and independently engage with a health issue and to apply new information to changing circumstances.

Taking this research into account the Shape of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education, proposed that a future-focused Australian Health and Physical Education curriculum should:
•    be contemporary, inquiry-based, developmentally appropriate, learner-centred
•    be relevant to the student and the local and global communities with which they identify
•    be informed by a preventive health agenda
•    provide opportunities for developing face-to-face communication and collaboration skills
•    draw on information and communication technologies to enhance learning
•    prepare students to be lifelong learners.

What does this mean for you as a teacher?

The release of the Health and Physical Education national curriculum provides an ideal opportunity for schools to put their current programs under the microscope. It’s important to critically reflect on the programs that you currently deliver in your school and evaluate how effectively they cater for your students as lifelong learners. Some questions that may help direct your reflections include:

  • How can your Health and Physical Education program best equip your students to deal with the day to day challenges they will face now and in the future?
  • How well does your Health and Physical Education program prepare students for life beyond the school walls, both now and after their school years have finished?

In a rapidly changing world, Health and Physical Education will play an important role in preparing young people for the new challenges they may encounter in the future. These challenges include the expectations placed on them as global citizens, the rapidly changing world of work, issues related to food security and bio-security, the role that social media and social connections online will play in their relationships and the broadening level of inequalities experienced between rich and poor.

Don’t stress … there is help out there

We have put together a structured process with accompanying resources for faculty and school teams to revise and renew their school HPE programs in light of the implementation of the new Australian Curriculum for Health and Physical Education.

If your school team is ready to review and renew your programs why not get in touch to find out more about our faculty mentoring packages.


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