Much of the research on school- and classroom-based physical activity has focused on the effectiveness of the intervention in increasing physical activity levels on student’s health and academic-related outcome, including classroom behavior (1,2), cognitive functions (3), and academic performance (4,5). Although substantial resources are invested to design and evaluate the effectiveness of school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions, few examine the teacher’s perspective. However, teachers are on the front line of education and often identified as the most important agents of implementation of educational interventions and policy reform (6). Among the aforementioned school-based physical activity effectiveness studies, we conducted the Active Smarter Kids (ASK) study. In the ASK study, teachers were key drivers of intervention and important gatekeepers for successful adoption and implementation; nevertheless, their perspectives were not examined in the original study and, therefore, provided a valuable scope of investigation and, furthermore, were decisive in the translation processes of bringing science to action.
Briefly, the ASK study was a cluster randomized controlled trial designed to investigate the effect of a 7-month curriculum-prescribed multicomponent physical activity intervention on children’s academic performance from 57 primary schools in Sogn og Fjordane County, Norway (7,8). The ASK intervention was led by fifth-grade classroom teachers in 28 intervention schools delivered throughout and after the school day between November 2014 and June 2015. The ASK intervention consisted of three active components: 1) the main component involved 3 × 30 min·wk−1 outdoor physically active learning lessons covering curriculum subjects, English, Norwegian, and Mathematics, and 2) daily 5-min physical activity breaks during classroom lessons and 3) daily 10-min physical activity homework. To support and qualify teachers to conduct the intervention, we arranged three comprehensive preintervention seminars over 5 months and two regional refreshing sessions during the intervention period. We also gave support via e-mail and telephone to teachers. A password-protected homepage (www.askbasen.no) further provided teachers with information, videos, and content of approximately 100 intervention lessons. Finally, we provided all intervention schools with equipment (e.g., mathematics bingo tiles and dices, cones, and laminating machines) necessary to support the intervention.
We found no main effect of the intervention on student’s academic performance (8). However, results suggested a trend where academic performance improved among low academic performance students in the intervention group compared with those in the control group (8,9). In response to the ASK study and the growing literature on the effectiveness of school- and classroom-based physical activity on student’s health and academic-related outcomes (10–15), there is a tendency in curriculum policy in Norway and elsewhere to implement more physical activity into the school day. In addition to the 90 min·wk−1 of required physical education, policy makers in Norway introduced in 2009 a regulatory provision requiring students in the intermediate grades (fifth–seventh) to participate in 45 min·wk−1 of supervised physical activity (16). Now, 10 yr after the introduction of physical activity, Norwegian politicians are considering expanding the amount of student’s levels of physical activity in schools considerably. Mainly grounded in a preventive public health perspective, the Standing Committee on Health and Care Services made a majority resolution (Resolution 106) stating that the government must present a case before the parliament that ensures all Norwegian schoolchildren (1st–10th grade) a minimum of 60 min of daily physical activity (17), including physical education (typically 90 min·wk−1).
Previous classroom-based physical activity interventions have focused on easy to implement interventions that do not provide major innovation in teachers’ pedagogical practice (13,15). A reason for this could be that interventions are often developed and implemented using researcher-led push approaches that rarely involve teachers (18). Hence, based on the suggestions of McMullen et al. (19) and Quarmby et al. (20), further research on school- and classroom-based physical activity needs to increase their consideration of teacher perspectives. Moreover, any successful adoption and implementation begins at the individual teacher level. It is therefore critical to examine teacher perceptions of integrating physical activity into schools’ daily fabric and their experiences from participating in such interventions. Furthermore, few school- and classroom-based physical activity studies have conducted follow-up assessment to examine the maintenance of the intervention (21). There is therefore a knowledge gap in whether these school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions have any influence on teachers’ educational practice beyond the intervention period. As such, the ASK study provides a unique context in which to explore the above issues.
In the context of understanding teachers as “agents of change” in school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions, the concept of teacher agency is helpful, and indeed, it has emerged in recent literature as an alternative means of understanding how teachers might enact practice and engage with policy (22). In simple terms, agency can be described as the ability or potential to act (22). However, agency is a much-contested term, with different interpretations in a range of academic disciplines, including sociology, philosophy, economics, and anthropology. The distinction among agency as variable, agency as capacity, and agency as a phenomenon is often overlooked, resulting in misunderstanding and miscommunication. The latter conceptualization of agency understands it as an emergent phenomenon—as something that is achieved through the interplay of personal capacities and the resources, supports, and constraints of the environment (22). This ecological conceptualization of agency emphasizes the importance of both individual capacity and contextual dimensions for shaping agency and views the achievement of agency as a temporal and dynamic process (22). Agency in this sense is considered as an ecological, ongoing process that can be increased and nurtured and exists as a configuration of past influences, present engagement, and aspirations toward the future (23). An understanding of teacher agency provides a useful insight into the barriers and opportunities that influence teacher’s ability to implement school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions.
In the follow-up of the ASK study, an opportunity exists to better understand teacher’s perceptions of the ASK intervention. Therefore, the purposes of this study are as follows:
- 1) to describe teachers’ experiences of implementing the ASK intervention
- 2) to investigate teachers’ maintenance of the ASK intervention, i.e., the sustained use, of physically active learning, physical activity breaks, and physical activity homework 1 yr postintervention in addition to potential causes for maintenance/ceased of delivering
We conducted a prospective, mixed methods descriptive study across 1 yr. We drew on the experiences of teachers from 28 intervention schools that participated in the ASK study (24). Data were collected via self-report questionnaire, administered online through QuestBack (www.questback.com) at two time points: immediately after the ASK intervention was completed (June 2015) and 1 yr later (June 2016). First, in June 2015, we mailed a questionnaire to teachers who delivered ASK in intervention schools (Supplemental Digital Content 1, http://links.lww.com/TJACSM/A48). The questionnaire comprised open-ended questions about teacher’s experience with (a) delivering the intervention, (b) teacher training and regional meetings, (c) the equipment package, and (d) the ASK website (www.askbasen.no). We also sought comments on what advice they would offer schools that wished to provide physical activity opportunities for students during the school day. One year later (June 2016), we sent out a customized questionnaire to the schools designed to determine whether teachers maintained to deliver the ASK intervention (Supplemental Digital Content 2, http://links.lww.com/TJACSM/A49). The questionnaire was composed of alternative answer questions such as “How many minutes, approximately, in a regular week, will students in 6th grade have physically active learning?” and an open-ended question such as “What factors were crucial for your school to continue or discontinue, all or part, of the ASK intervention?” All teachers (N = 59) from 28 intervention schools were eligible to participate. To prevent workload burden, teachers from the same school were offered the option to respond as a group to a single questionnaire. In total, 31 teachers from 22 schools completed the first questionnaire, and 26 teachers from 25 schools completed the second questionnaire. Teachers who did not complete the first questionnaire were still eligible to complete the second questionnaire.
Analyses followed a mixed methods convergent parallel design, in which quantitative and qualitative responses on the questionnaires were collected simultaneously but analyzed independently, before being combined for interpretation (24). As the quantitative data were largely descriptive, the responses to the alternative answer questions were analyzed using Microsoft Excel, version 16. Maintenance response was grouped according to 1) equivalent dose per week prescribed in the ASK intervention, 2) somewhat less dose per week prescribed in the ASK intervention, and 3) ceased delivering the ASK intervention and was provided as a percentile. Qualitative data from the open-ended questions were thematically analyzed (25) following a four-step procedure. The first step involved reading the open-ended answers thoroughly and multiple times to obtain a first impression of the data. The second step entailed identifying and sorting comparable answers. The third step identified themes by an inductive (“bottom–up”) approach. This step also involved building on the impressions gained from the familiarizing stage in step one. For the fourth step, by looking through the lens of the conceptualization of achievement of agency presented by Priestley et al. (22), we saw how the emerging themes might add or detract teacher’s opportunity achieve agency when implementing the ASK intervention. Both questionnaires were analyzed using the same procedure.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
Our findings integrate teachers’ experiential descriptions and expressions with researchers’ understanding and explanation of these data (26). Findings are divided into two parts: teachers’ perceptions of the ASK intervention (first questionnaire) and teachers’ maintenance of the ASK intervention (second questionnaire). Three primary themes surfaced related to teachers’ perception of the ASK intervention, including student’s social engagement, their professional competence, and interpersonal processes.
Teacher’s Perceptions of the ASK Intervention
Theme 1: the ASK Intervention Benefits Student’s Social Engagement
Teachers tended to focus on student benefits of the ASK intervention in the first questionnaire. Here, the prominent discourse was social engagement. Teachers experienced the physical activity opportunities in the ASK intervention as positive, stimulating student’s collaboration, empathy, and problem solving. In light of this, many teachers emphasized the physically active learning component. Teachers experienced that physically active learning provided new social learning opportunities where teachers and their students were able to interact. One teacher explained,
“Physically active learning have not only an educational and physical benefit, but it also strengthens the cohesion, cooperation and empathy to the students.” (Grade 5 teacher)
Another teacher explained it similarly,
“To see positive interaction between children who do everything to solve a challenge or task together.” (Grade 5 teacher)
The above excerpts illustrate that teachers value how physically active learning provides settings for social interactions, social engagement, and encounters among students. Physically active learning may build cooperative experiences and strengthen students’ sense of cohesion or belonging by bringing people together due to shared interest (27). Shared experiences, in turn, might lead to improved social capital and promote social inclusion (28). A novel finding, however, was a recognition that the interaction in physically active learning opportunities was especially beneficial for students with low academic achievement:
“Struggling students have had some relaxation from the usual class, feeling like they belong in the class.” (Grade 5 teacher)
“The classroom’s solidarity has gotten well, and the level differences between the students have not been shown in the various activities.” (Grade 5 teacher)
Evidently, as academic content is shared across a group of students during physically active learning, teachers experienced that students who struggle academically experienced a greater connection to their peers. Moreover, teachers noted a more “holistic” school day when implementing the ASK intervention, providing students a more varied, less monotone school day with more breaks than previously:
“ASK has made the school day more active, varied and creative for both students and teachers!” (Grade 5 teacher)
In previous classroom-based physical activity studies, teachers have highlighted the integration of physical activity into schools’ daily practices as beneficial for students’ academic skills and content knowledge (29–31), attention and readiness to learn (32), enjoyment (19,29,30,33,34), active engagement and attitudes toward subjects (29,32,34,35), and a more peaceful learning environment (36). Our findings extend the current knowledge base, as teachers’ perception of the ASK intervention tended to coalesce around students’ social engagement, especially as physically active learning was beneficial for low academic achievement students.
Teacher agency includes the beliefs and values that teachers bring to their work. Beliefs can have an orientation toward the future and thus play a particular “driving” or “motivating” role in the achievement of agency (37). In response, researchers must make sure that the discussion of implementing physical activity in the school setting is not exclusive to finding the most effective ways to achieve certain ends, e.g., student’s health and academic-related outcomes, but also addresses the question about the desirability of the ends themselves. Focusing on social engagement when promoting physical activity in the school setting might be to a greater extent consistent with teachers’ educational goals and in concurrence with their potential to act, rather than influencing multifactorial complex outcomes such as student’s health and academic performance.
Theme 2: the ASK Intervention Contributed to Teacher’s Professional Competence
The most prominent responses of the ASK intervention revolve around teacher’s professional competence, i.e., knowledge and skills. Although many teachers mentioned the importance of the preintervention seminars to gain competence and confidence to deliver the ASK intervention, some teachers thought the seminars were too theoretically heavy and redundant:
“It was nice to know how the body works and how the brain reacts to physical activity. Nevertheless, I still think that the most useful sessions were more practical lectures. How to use different equipment, how to variate physically active learning lessons, etc.” (Grade 5 teacher)
Several teachers highlighted the practical part of the preintervention seminars as the most meaningful and arguably expressed a need for more. One teacher provided a marine analogy:
“What’s happening in ‘the engine room’ is of limited interest for us who works ‘on the deck.’” (Grade 5 teacher)
Teachers especially sought concrete tips on how to facilitate and vary the ASK intervention components in their context. In a previous study from Dyrstad et al. (38), teachers requested more preplanned physically active learning lessons that match and support the focus of the unit and subject they were teaching.
Agency is dependent on the qualities that teachers bring to the situation. Training programs address teachers’ competence and confidence to deliver physically active learning and manage classes in nontraditional settings (20). However, researchers and external expertise might engage teachers in training that is geared to what researchers find compelling, with little regard to our target audience—teachers. Moreover, this speaks to the “dynamic tension” when implementing designed educational interventions regarding two imperatives: fidelity of implementation, i.e., the delivery of manualized intervention program as prescribed by the program developer and program adaption, i.e., the modification of program content to accommodate the needs of a specific consumer group (39). The ASK study was designed as a randomized controlled trial and adhered to strict study design, methods, and guidelines. A key point of consideration is that the ASK intervention was designed by one group of stakeholders and implemented by another. Agency is not present if there are no options for action (22). Instead, teachers achieve agency when they are able to choose among options—where they are able to judge which option is the most desirable in the light of the wider purpose of the practice in and through which they act. It is therefore a logical argument that the design of the ASK study may have restricted teachers’ agency through a highly prescriptive form of implementation. In the future, it would be advisable to consider the potential restriction school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions could have on teacher’s agency. That said, ASK activities and educational materials were codeveloped with teachers and adapted to each school’s context, physical frameworks, grade, and academic content. Previous classroom-based physical activity studies have also highlighted the need to provide incentives for teachers’ participation and perspectives for successful and maintained interventions (40–42). At the same time, in light of maintenance of interventions and teacher’s achievement of agency, a vital consideration is the balance between providing teachers with preplanned physical activity lessons and challenging and stimulating teachers to be reflexive about their teaching and practice. This requires a greater degree of teacher engagement and effort to implement.
Several teachers perceived that activity preparation was time consuming and labor intensive, especially at the onset of the intervention. These findings are reflective of the wider literature where the pressures of assessment combined with an already packed curriculum have been identified as barriers to classroom-based physical activity more broadly (41,43). Despite this, several teachers explained how the seminars and the ASK intervention influenced their perspective on teaching, expanding their practice and broadening their horizons:
“ASK has opened my eyes to see that it is possible to vary the regular teaching with physical activity.” (Grade 5 teacher)
“Also, we as teachers have become more aware of using physical activity as part of teaching in all subjects.” (Grade 5 teacher)
The ASK intervention seems to have developed teachers’ professional knowledge by providing them with alternative ways of providing the curriculum to their students. In turn, this opened new ways of thinking and afforded opportunities for alternative practices to routinized ways of teaching, or as Quarmby et al. (20) stated in their article, “teachers are very stuck in their ways, viewing teaching as very didactic.” What our approach to the issue of teacher agency makes clear is that the achievement of agency is rooted in teachers’ past personal and professional experiences (22). A previous study found that teachers’ past employment provided an influence on their current physical activity practices (34). Therefore, if the focus is to be on developing agents of change and professional developers of physical activity in school, then researchers and external expertise should focus on developing this capacity to interrupt habitual ways of thinking about schooling and to encourage an innovative and questioning mind-set. Without attention to teachers’ past personal and professional experiences, it is unlikely that the call for teachers to become agents of change will affect a real transformation of educational processes and practices.
Theme 3: Teachers Valued Interpersonal Process in the ASK Intervention
The key findings in this theme centered on the interpersonal processes in the ASK intervention. The opportunity to share and exchange ideas and experiences with researchers and fellow intervention teachers was considered useful and highly appreciated:
“We learn a lot from each other when we meet.” (Grade 5 teacher).
Across the 7-month intervention, two regional meetings were organized. The social and collective dimensions of the regional meetings were frequently mentioned in teacher responses:
“Regional gatherings have been very useful and motivating.” (Grade 5 teacher)
“There was a lot of news at the start, so it was good to have some gatherings to know if one was on the right road and to learn from others.” (Grade 5 teacher)
Regional gatherings seemed to influence teachers’ agency and enabled them to draw on learning experiences from other teachers when dealing with problems and professional dilemmas. One teacher referenced a community of practice, where relationships extended beyond school boundaries:
“[It was] fine that all ASK people had a community and a meeting place away from the ordinary workplace.” (Grade 5 teacher)
These excerpts reinforce the importance of seeing social structures and relational resources that contribute to the achievement of agency (22). In this process, identities and relationships change, resulting in learning, commitment, and participation. Thus, teachers appreciate opportunities to take action and seek new opportunities. Hence, any school- and classroom-based intervention requires a web of cooperation among teachers. Furthermore, other studies suggest the importance of other key educational stakeholders, i.e., school boards, school administrators, and parents (40,44). When this occurs, it provides a ready community of practice that can support where innovation might be developed, implemented, adapted, and scaled with ongoing feedback and communication among stakeholder groups. However, in many educational interventions, teachers are perceived as the sole instrument for achieving developers’ intention (45). Therefore, to recognize teachers as pivotal partners in the development of new school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions, the CLASS PAL Programme design appears as a viable example to follow (46). The intervention was coproduced with teachers and other school stakeholders to support the integration of various physical activity as a matter of routine practice. The coproduction approach was guided by the COM-B model, which proposes three sources of behavior: capability, motivation, and opportunity (47). Capability includes the individual’s psychological and physical capacity to engage in the activity concerned; motivation includes habitual processes, emotional responding, and analytical decision making; and opportunity includes all the factors that lie outside the individual that make the behavior possible or prompt it (46). Without a direct comparison, the COM-B model interacts with the presented conceptualization of agency. In addition, there was no prescription regarding the frequency, duration, or type of classroom physical activities in the CLASS PAL Programme. However, teachers were encouraged to set personalized goals. Compared with the ASK study, such a design seems more accommodating to the teacher’s ability to achieve agency as it provides space for action based on a teacher’s own educational goals.
Teacher’s maintenance of the ASK intervention
The key finding illustrated in Fig. 1 is that 81% of the teachers reported some maintenance of physically active learning and physical activity breaks, as part of their weekly pedagogical practice 1 yr postintervention. One out of three teachers maintained equivalent dose per week of physically active learning prescribed in the ASK intervention (≥90 min), whereas one out of two teachers maintained the equivalent dose per week of physical activity breaks prescribed in the ASK intervention (≥25 min). However, only 19% of the teachers reported maintained use of physical activity homework 1 yr postintervention. To our knowledge, no previous study has investigated the maintenance rate of school- and classroom-based intervention studies, including physically active learning, physical activity breaks, or physical activity homework. Dyrstad et al. (38) have found that teachers wanted to maintain using physically active learning, but not as often, not as planned, and with a shorter duration than the initial intervention. In the present case, the teachers who maintained the ASK intervention as part of their weekly pedagogical practice emphasized the social engagement for their students. This emerged in theme 1:
“We have chosen to keep up with the ASK intervention this school year because we see multiple positive effects of this. Student gets valuable training in cooperation through ASK. It’s a good way to vary your teaching.” (Grade 6 teacher)
Similarly, the teachers in the Moving to Learn Ireland expressed a desire to maintain integrating physically active learning after completing the intervention because of several benefits experienced by their students (19). In addition, teachers only wanted to repeat the activities that the students enjoyed. Thus, the students’ wishes and responses are of great importance for the teachers’ willingness to maintain and facilitate physical activity postintervention. Clearly, this is an area ripe for future research.
Lack of resources, structural changes in the colleague of teachers, or change of work was the reason some teachers did not maintain the ASK intervention. Unlike other studies, student behavior was not reported as a particular barrier to implementing or maintaining the ASK intervention (33,35). In the study of activity breaks of McMullen et al. (33), teachers reported student behavior as a key issue when considering whether to use an activity again.
In some cases, teachers highlighted colleagues and parents influence on their maintenance of the ASK intervention:
“The experience was exclusively positive and other teachers were curious about the activities. We see the gain in more physical activity, students are more motivated and look forward to these lessons.” (Grade 6 teacher)
“We took an evaluation last school year. I wanted to continue, students wanted to continue and parents wanted to continue.” (Grade 6 teacher)
These comments reflect on that teachers do not operate in a vacuum, and the wider environment in which they operate influences their achievement of agency. In a recent study, findings exposed some fragility of teachers’ empowerment relative to the school’s culture, authority systems, and curriculum restrictions when delivering physically active learning (48). To a large extent, the study indicated that the senior leadership team and, in many cases, the head teacher themselves may be a source of disempowerment. Hence, teacher’s beliefs, values, competence, and confidence at an interpersonal level are likely to be shaped by the school culture and support from colleagues and senior management at the institutional level and parents at the community level. A key implication is that if agency is achieved rather than being solely about the capacity of teachers, then the importance of context should be taken more seriously by researchers, as such contexts may serve to disable individuals with otherwise high agentic capacity.
First, the study was conducted in a small sample of informants from schools participating in the ASK study, yet the themes emerging from the data may be valid in other contexts. Although a high proportion (81%) reported delivery of the ASK intervention components after 1 yr, it would have been useful to survey a larger sample of teachers no longer implementing ASK. Furthermore, teachers were eligible to respond to the questionnaire collectively; therefore, the respondent rate may actually be higher. Second, questionnaires were formulated and sent by researchers involved in the ASK study, which could have biased and affected the respondent’s answers. The teachers might have been reluctant to report critical views and perceptions to researchers whom they had established a relationship with. Third, teachers from 22 of 28 eligible schools completed the first questionnaire, whereas teachers from 25 of 28 eligible schools completed the second questionnaire. Thus, outcomes may have been biased by self-selection into the study, and we cannot assume that teacher’s perceptions presented those of all teachers. Fourth, traditional focus groups would have generated deeper and more nuanced responses to our questions. Finally, the questionnaire was neither designed nor developed with the purpose of examining teachers’ achievement of agency in the ASK intervention.
Despite the study limitations, we sought to “drill down” and provide valuable insight into teachers’ perceptions and maintenance of the ASK intervention to offer their perspectives to the implementation of physical activity into the school setting.
This study found that the ASK intervention was beneficial for social climate in class and a novel finding was a recognition that the interaction in physically active learning opportunities was especially beneficial for low academic achievement students. In addition, our study reveals that the implementation of the ASK intervention influenced teacher’s perspective on teaching and, moreover, provided professional spaces for interaction and development. This seems essential for future school- and classroom-based physical activity intervention to challenge teacher’s habitual teaching methods and enable alternative pedagogical approaches. Furthermore, this study provides an important contribution to the existing scarce literature on the maintenance of school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions in teachers’ educational practice.
In light of these findings, we have attempted to initiate a discussion on the importance of the teacher’s role in the initiation of school- and classroom-based physical activity interventions, as well as shed light on the concept of agency. The key point in highlighting teacher agency as an important concept is the potential for casting a new light on the professional conditions that frame teacher’s work, in which future work of implementing and maintaining physical activity interventions in school needs to take into account to increase teacher’s ability and potential to act. To change practice, and bridge the gap between research and practice in schools, Priestley et al. (22) emphasize teacher’s agency and the importance of context and structure that support this. This necessitates a shift away from a sole focus on teachers’ individual capacity to a broader focus on the role of settings, environment, and culture. Teachers as pivotal partners can be informed agents of educational innovation and change by offering new perspectives on how physical activity might be incorporated into broader approaches to teaching and learning. Although evidence generation through randomized controlled trails remains a critical need in the educational setting, studies conducted within schools should recognize teachers as innovative and creative chefs rather than short-order cooks who merely follow set recipes.
The authors thank teachers, principals, parents, and work colleagues for reminding them of the profound importance of teacher’s perspectives in designing and implementing a comprehensive school-based physical activity intervention. They also extend their heartfelt thanks to the teachers who so openly and generously gave of their time for this study.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests. The results of the present study do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine.
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