One cold November afternoon, Rob Brooks realised why his school's football teams always lost when he wasn't there. Although players were doing all the running, he was doing all the thinking. To be successful, they needed to do both.
Since then, at Lord Williams's School in Thame - the Oxfordshire Sports College where Rob is head of PE - an answer has been found in the concept of Sport in Education - a child-centred approach to teaching first developed in the US during the 1980s.
However, as Rob explains, the concept has not been used as a discrete module for 16 to 19-year-olds, as recently suggested by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Instead, it has had a major impact as a key stage 3 teaching strategy.
"By learning how to plan, manage and run sessions," he says, "students are taking ownership of their own learning at a much earlier age. Rather than always being told what to do and how to do it, their decision-making, interpretation and interaction become the central features of the learning process."
At the start of Year 7, volunteers are asked to take a warm-up activity, using ideas they have previously experienced. As their knowledge-base grows, students develop more advanced, activity-specific routines, until eventually everyone will have had their turn at leading a warm-up. Rather than issuing instructions, teachers unlock knowledge with questions: Why warm up? How do you know your routine contains all the elements of a good warm-up?
Students also take on a variety of roles in the main part of the lesson. By the end of the key stage, they will have had numerous opportunities to coach, analyse, officiate and lead.
Gone is the idea that PE is just about performing. Nor is it just an "in-school" thing any more. Pupils are now expected to prepare for the next lesson at home. Rob says that giving PE homework means they can get straight on with the business of progressing to the next level at the start of the lesson, rather than backtracking over previous learning. "They arrive full of ideas and keen to get on with things," he says. "Some will have researched rules, techniques or tactics on the internet. Others will have devised their own activities for their group to practise skills."
Well-timed teaching interventions are critical if students are to be responsible for their own learning. Prior to each lesson, a series of key pointers are provided on laminated cards. The cards help focus attention, as students are expected to give feedback to the teacher later in the lesson. During a hockey session, for example, comments on effective stance or stick technique might be requested; in gymnastics, effective ways of transferring weight from one part of the body to another could be the focus. "It's not just about getting the 'right answer' straight away," comments Rob. "If they are to progress long-term, students need to understand and be able to apply what they are doing independently."
Teacher demonstrations are open-ended, too. Rather than being directed towards a particular aspect, students are asked to observe the whole action, then pick out their own critical variable: "What do you notice about how I hit the ball? Why was it successful? What do you think would happen if I didn't watch the ball?"
Covering a Year 7 class for an absent colleague, Lord Williams's director of sport, Clare Wallace, was astonished at how independent the students had become after just a few months at the school.
"Within minutes of arriving I had two pupils volunteering to do the warm-up," she says. "Everyone knew exactly where they were and where they needed to go to progress. They were all asking if they could lead, coach and referee. One lad who was off PE even volunteered to set up a competitive schedule for the others."
Whether in PE lessons, out-of-school clubs or inter-school matches, Lord Williams's students no longer just do the running - they do the thinking as well. The result: self-reliant performers making quicker and more sustained progress.