How to transform your health and physical education curriculum so all your students have a chance to shine

How to transform your health and physical education curriculum so all your students have a chance to shine

Focusing on sports skills and tactics is a very traditional way of teaching health and physical education, and an approach that only reflects a small part of the national curriculum. So when Elisabeth Murdoch College said they wanted to totally transform their program, Monash researchers jumped at the chance to collaborate.

Health and physical education experts Laura Alfrey and Justen O’Connor explain what the process looked like.

Three years ago, the Health and Physical Education teachers and school leaders at Elisabeth Murdoch College faced a challenge. Their program — which was made up of a series of sport-specific units — did not always have clear learning intentions, nor did it give students the opportunity to show growth and learning.

The sporty kids did well, but had little scope for improvement. The not-so-sporty kids often felt excluded because of the focus on competitive sports.

The teaching team decided to change it.

“We started to think about what we wanted our students to be able to do, what we wanted them to know and the kind of people we wanted them to be when they left our program,” explained domain leader Jess Wade.

Working collaboratively with us, the team created a futures-focused program, which allowed individual students to choose how they were assessed. This, together with a number of other strategies, resulted in participation rising from 75% to 100%.

“It’s a really different way of teaching. We are 'on' all the time. We are trying new things. We are working really hard. But it’s worth it, because we can identify really specific areas where we are having an impact on students.

“And that’s what teaching is, having an impact.”

Elisabeth Murdoch College has been overhauling their health and physical education curriculum, with support from Monash Education.

Key changes

Beyond using high-impact teaching strategies, here are some of the key changes that were made.

Shift away from large-sided competitive sports

Moving away from large-sided sporting competition to an innovative, broad and balanced curriculum was a major step. The teaching team introduced small-sided games and aimed to support students in developing ‘Game Sense’.

To kick off, three different units were developed:

  • Create a Game: students worked in small groups to create a new game, teach each other and to give and receive feedback.
  • Beats and Bodies: a contemporary rhythmic and motor skill unit that included video choreography and linked to concepts such as body image.
  • Moving communities: a unit that focused on the opportunities for movement that existed in their local communities.

All units, to varying degrees, employed the five propositions of the HPE Curriculum.

  • Educative Focus
  • Critical Inquiry
  • Value Movement
  • Health Literacy
  • Strengths-Based approaches.

See our resources section at the end of this article for a practical advice on each proposition.

Activities were broken up into small groups

Small groups are now a regular feature of the HPE Curriculum at the school. Students work together to achieve a particular goal or respond to a set challenge (e.g. develop a new game never seen before, using only the equipment provided and inline with a list of parameters).

This means all students get more practice and more opportunities to make decisions, contribute and own their learning. Students also have more choice over the constraints of the task — such as the rules, space and equipment used — to better match their level of challenge.

Charlie says that in a small-sided game with four people gives him more of a chance to get the ball, practice, get better, as well as learn more.

Students can choose how they are assessed

For each unit in the new HPE program, students can choose the focus of their assessment, to give them an opportunity to demonstrate growth and learning.

For example, in the unit ‘Create a Game’, students could demonstrate their growth and learning related to either:

  • Leadership
  • Team-work
  • Skill
  • Officiate (umpire/referee)

These options have allowed students some choice around the focus of their learning, and what standards they wanted to show growth in. Over the course of the year, it was expected that students would tackle all four of the standards, but this flexibility enabled them to showcase their greatest growth and be rewarded for effort.

Year 7 student Alyssa, said this approach was much more empowering for students. “I think it’s good that the students have a voice in what they’re doing. It gives them a choice, so they’re not being forced to do something they don’t want to do.”

Alyssa chose to be assessed on leadership during her Ultimate Frisbee Unit.

Teachers had a clear vision for the learning intentions

The HPE teaching team developed a clear vision for what the students are going to learn in their classes.

The curriculum was developed to span social, technical, tactical and physical domains. Data was collected to showcase student learning with a focus on what has been developed in class rather than what talents the students already had.

“While we held a value to the fundamental motor skills and the tactics that can be transferred across different sports, we also wanted to draw upon the personal and social capabilities as well.

Jess Wade is the HPE domain leader at Elisabeth Murdoch College and says she can see a real change in her students.

What can other schools learn about the changes at Elisabeth Murdoch College?

The change process at EMC came with a number of challenges that needed to be addressed. Here are a few factors that could help prepare you for a similar experience.

Have ongoing support from school leadership

All too often, innovation is thwarted because the school or ‘system’ does not support it. From the outset, the school leadership at EMC invested time and money to support their HPE teachers as they created a more educative and inclusive program.

HPE teachers were given time to plan with the provision of casual relief teachers. The school also invested in ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the new HPE program.

Be ready for the ‘pit of despair’

The ‘pit of despair’ was the term the teachers gave to the lowest point in the curriculum renewal and implementation  process.

After introducing many simultaneous changes, teachers felt out of their comfort zone and were being challenged. They struggled to balance student ownership with structure and control, sometimes giving too much control to learners who didn’t yet have the tools to respond in ways the teachers had planned for.

The teachers pulled together as a team, and realised how far they had come and decided there was no going back to rolling out the ball and ‘doing sport’.

They continued to hone the skills needed to facilitate more effective student-led learning.

Have a clear vision

As mentioned above, the teachers had a very clear vision about what they wanted their students to ‘be, know and do,’ once they completed their HPE at the school.  This clear vision became a touch-stone when the going got tough.

The vision for the HPE program: to provide the opportunity for all students to pursue a healthy and active lifestyle through personalised learning and links to the wider Langwarrin community. Our program will encourage students to become physically confident and health literate in order to build resilience and embed values such as respectful relationships, pride and life-long learning.

To work in partnership with the HPE teachers at the school was very rewarding, particularly seeing research translated into evidence-based practice.

We would like to thank the EMC staff and students who have invested so much in making their HPE program more educative and inclusive.


In this five-part video series, Dr Karen Lambert and Dr Justen O'Connor explore the five propositions of the Australian HPE curriculum and how they might be adopted by educators:


Hellison, D. R. (1995). Teaching responsibility through physical activity. Champaign Il: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning. The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 49(3), 373-388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5

Mosston, M., and Ashworth, S. (2002). Teaching Physical Education (5th Edition ed.). San Francisco, CA: Benjamin Cummings.

Sanchez, B., Byra, M. & Wallhead, T.L. (2012) Students’ perceptions of the command, practice, and inclusion styles of teaching, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17:3, 317-330, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2012.690864

Shelley, K and McCuaig, L (2018) Close encounters with critical pedagogy in socio-critically informed health education teacher education. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 23 5: 510-523. doi:10.1080/17408989.2018.1470615

Quay, J. & Peters, J. (2012). Creative Physical Education: Integrating Curriculum Through Innovative PE Projects: Human Kinetics.