San Luis Valley Physical Education community-engaged research project

Can you describe the current project you are working on?

The current project I’m doing is one I’ve been working on for a while, in its fifth year. It’s based in the San Luis Valley, working with about one hundred schools, forty teachers, and principals. The purpose of the project is to help physical education teachers implement best practices around physical education, particularly with reference to engaging kids in moderate to vigorous physical activity. So the activities they’re doing in P.E. are fun and engaging, but also get the heart rate up, in a way that’s not scary or horrible. There’s kind of a new P.E., that’s less concerned with traditional games such as basketball or football, but looking at ways to help teachers implement small-sized games, fitness activities, activities in which kids work at their own abilities. So the research is really around: What does it take to get P.E. teachers to adopt evidence-based practices around physical education. That’s one part of it.

The other part is helping principals, superintendents, and school boards understand the relationship between high-quality physical education and academic achievement. It’s a relationship, not a cause-and-effect, but there’s growing evidence to show that if kids are engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity—really anything more than walking—there are physiological benefits that can occur in the brain. That means when they go back to class, they’re more likely to be engaged in classroom activities, more likely to be able to concentrate.

Dr. Nick Cutforth, DU

Dr. Nick Cutforth, DU

How do you expect this approach influence practice?

Trying to get anybody—even me!—to change what they’re used to doing, is hard. So we’ve used a community-based approach, and the community-engaged piece is embedded throughout. From the beginning, we spent a year planning this intervention with a group of fifteen individuals in the San Luis Valley—principals, superintendents, physical education teachers, community health people—being very intentional around what could facilitate, and, more importantly, what were the barriers to high-quality physical education there. And through that process we were able to, with the help of the community, choose a P.E. curriculum that was deemed to be appropriate for the teachers.

What do you feel is most valuable about this type of approach?

The most valuable thing, and there are several, but the most valuable for me is that the community has a voice in the process of any change that one is trying to make. Without that community voice and buy-in, you’re not going to get any traction, particularly in communities that we’re working in that are rather skeptical of outsiders. When I say voice, I mean more than people talking, but their expertise, their local knowledge that they bring to the table, their day-to-day reality of their life, work, and social, cultural, and economic factors. All of those things, in my opinion, have to be taken into account by researchers, such as me, who have a sense of what works. But again, the evidence-based practice has to be molded, has to fit the community, otherwise people aren’t going to buy into it. They’re independent-type folks, which is both a pro and a con. They are used to having to fend for themselves, and are skeptical of outsiders. And this comes back to the community-engaged research piece.

How does this differ from traditional research, now that you are working with a practice site?

I don’t want to beat up on “traditional research,” but I guess I’ll define it as where the researcher acts fairly independently of the community, doesn’t engage the community in the exploration of the research topic, data collection and analysis and interpretation. They don’t necessarily draw on the community voice. So that’s how I see it as different. It’s more linear, in some ways it’s not as messy and not as relational. One of the advantages of community-engaged research is that in some sense, the community can lead you as a researcher. The most practical example of that is advising us on research design, and leading us to people we might want to talk with, and with survey construction, being really candid about language, and site selection. Traditional researchers just have a different way of going about things. The San Luis Valley has been very proactive, as a region, in vetting outside researchers. The organization that I work with, the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center, part of the CU School of Public Health, they’ve been working in the Valley for thirty years. They have a community advisory board, an empowered group of people who understand the principles of community-based, participatory research. So any researcher who comes to the San Luis Valley, whether it’s to do research on water, on farming, education, air pollution, they’d better talk to the community advisory board. There have been traditional researchers in the past who have come in and taken without giving. With community-engaged research, there are two big areas. There’s research, trying to learn about what works. The other is trying to make sure that there’s change in the community, and benefits. You’ve got to strive to leave the community in a better place. Those two things go hand-in-hand.

What are your next questions that stem from the practice-engaged research?state-map-sm

Our grant also involves physical activity and healthy eating. What I’m interested in studying is providing more concrete evidence about the impact of high-quality physical education on student achievement. What environmental policy features of schools contribute to kids’ being active and being healthy, and by implication, learning better? There are a lot of factors that are out of our control, like home life, socioeconomics, poverty, stuff like that. But I’m really interested in trying to help schools be places where kids move, and eat well. The other area I’m very interested in studying, and this would be if I had a magic wand, I’m very curious as to what would happen if schools, particularly in rural communities, were the center of the community for physical activity and healthy eating. This is going on in Europe, has been for many years, and in England and other places, the idea of schools being wellness centers, places where the community can come and participate in physical activity and healthy eating. I’m not just talking about sports, I’m talking about wellness—yoga, meditation, spiritual aspects of holistic life—I’d love to think about how community members themselves can be the teachers of their community. There are many people already who are very skilled and talented in certain areas of life who are operating under the radar—incredible cooks, in Crestone there are people who do meditation—people can bring their talents into community life. John Dewey, the educational philosopher, talked about this many years ago: how schools are the center of the community. I’d like schools to be the center of healthy communities.

What’s next? Any additional projects in the pipeline?

With the southeast expansion, it will be the same model. The research questions are: Through this new approach to physical education, are we able to increase the amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity that kids have in P.E. class? In the San Luis Valley, we got a 31% increase in two years in elementary schools, which is higher than any national study. We also got high levels of increase in the middle school. So that research question still exists, but also: What are the demographics of physical education instructors and principals, what do they come into this project with, what do they know about high-quality physical education? How does that knowledge base, that sense of self-efficacy change over time? What policies and environmental changes can they make in their schools as a result of what we’re doing? For instance, do kids get more minutes of P.E. as a result of our work? We have ways of measuring whether teachers are giving better instruction, so not just looking at whether kids are moving more, but at the ways teachers are instructing children. Are they spending less time on classroom management, is the obvious one. Are they spending more time on individual games rather than team games, that sort of thing? Those research questions are still going to be used in southeast Colorado.

Do you expect that these programs will have sustainability, after you, the researchers, are gone?

The biggest challenge we’ve got is sustainability. In the San Luis Valley, we’re now working on sustainability strategies, and it’s hard. We’re employing a top-down approach, whereas before it was bottom-up, when we wanted to improve physical education outcomes in the San Luis Valley before we did anything else. We can’t ask for more minutes of physical education if physical education is not very good. So we’ve got to make sure that P.E. class is taught well, and the kids are having a good time, and learning. That was all happening in the first three years, there was a change in most schools. Now we’re in a better place to say to superintendents, school boards, and principals: You’ve done this work and seen what’s going on, now let us work with you so that you can create the kinds of environmental and policy changes to support high-quality physical education. We want to be able to educate school board members about what happens to kids when they move, physiologically, and how that relates to student achievement. Because if you don’t help them see that, they’re not going to think physical education is the worth investment. We’ve got to give those at the top the knowledge, so they can say that physical education is worth supporting, we see the relationship between P.E. and student achievement. We are going to equip P.E. teachers with the skill sets to be able to speak to school boards and advocate for themselves. The other important piece in the Valley is Adams State University; we’re working with them because they have a physical education department. We’re trying to find ways for them to take over some of our responsibilities because they’re going to be there forever.