Saturday, November 26, 2016

Physical Education - Contested Ground

The great thought of physical education is not the education of the physical nature, but the relation of physical training to complete education, and then the effort to make the physical contribute its full share to the life of the individual (Thomas Wood, 1893)

Physical education like few other subject areas in the school curriculum has been "contested ground" (Ennis, 2006; Penney & Evans, 1999). Given that I argue that sport teaching needs re-framing, and I have suggested sport literacy as a form of knowledge using "Arnoldian" framing to describe those knowledge forms (see previous post), it follows by logical extension that I am also entering the pedagogical battleground of physical education. This "battleground" considers much of the curriculum and pedagogical practice originating from behaviourist understandings of education a contributing factor in the marginalisation of physical education (Kirk, 2010; Locke, 1992; Penney & Chandler, 2000). Further effecting the status of physical education and the philosophical, content form and pedagogical "battleground", in public discussions a clear distinction is seldom made between physical activity, sport, physical education (Swabey, 2006) and increasingly, physical literacy. This perhaps demonstrates a lack of awareness about how physical education and sport in physical education are defined and related, and how they are distinct from extracurricular, community and professional sport, and other forms of community physical activity provision. Whatever the reason, physical education has a history like few other subject areas of being open to influence by agencies outside education - in the case of physical education particularly agencies that are interested in it as a site for health and physical activity "interventions"; and ideological battles of education of the physical and education through movement.

In a historical context, the physical education "battleground" can be seen as one of emphasis. Where the word physical is accented a focus on education of the physical is prioritised, thereby placing emphasis on physical education as a form of training of the body (Gensemer, 1991). Alternatively, if the word education is emphasised a different "voice" (Penney & Chandler, 2000, p.77) arises where the discourse is about physical activity as the medium for learning. It is a premise of this blog discussion that although physical education lessons necessarily involve physical activity, physical activity in itself is not sufficient to justify physical education as a subject worthy to pursue during curriculum time (Macfadyen & Bailey, 2002).

Penney (2008) argued that physical education is positioned at the periphery of education. In Australia, and internationally, physical education has been treated as subordinate to more academically esteemed subjects (Kirk, 1990; Sparkes, Templin & Schempp, 1990; Wright, 1996). Georgakis (2006) indicated that this was because "physical education has been located 'outside' the academic curriculum as a non-academic subject" (p. 46) due to its form and content. Kirk (2010) argued that internationally, physical education has struggled to break free from the shackles of physical training (Kirk, 2010) and ideas about physical competencies (Kirk, 2010; Laker, 2002). However, cognition in the form of knowledge and understanding has long been generally regarded as the most useful and valuable aspect of any field of education (Felshin, 1972). Some have argued that the marginalisation of cognition and understanding in many physical education teaching leaves physical education as a subject/learning area open to criticism as essentially non-academic and, therefore, extraneous to the purposes of education (Alexander & Luckman, 2001; Alexander, Taggart & Thorpe,1997; Green, 1998; Siedentop, 1992).

Wright and Burrows (2006) claimed that ability in physical education is too often defined as a single capacity and is made evident through effort and compliance (trying hard) to attain athletic or movement performance, or technical perfection (and now perhaps, physical literacy). Tinning et al., 1993 argued this "attainment" perspective of ability serves to disconnect physical education "from the 'real stuff' of education", reducing it to a means of  "balancing long periods of sedentary activity of the academic tasks of schooling" (p. 51). I have seen an extension of this recently where physical education becomes talked about in preventative health terms rather than educative outcomes.

Have we problems of our own making?

While some argue matters of philosophy and ideology perhaps physical educations marginalisation comes about by a reluctance to jettison a common "physical education method" that is more rhetorical than evidential in delivering its claimed educational outcomes. Specifically, the units of instruction typical in physical education have been criticised as too short to develop substantial learning outcomes (and specifically, skill acquisition learning outcomes) and lacking in connectivity for coherent progression year by year for meaningful gains in knowledge (Alexander, 2008; Brooker, Kirk, Brauka & Bangrove, 2000; Capel, 2007; Crum, 1983; Hastie, 2003;Kirk, 2005, 2006; Lock, 1992; Penney & Chandler, 2000; Pettifor, 1999; Siedentop, 1994; Siedentop & Tannehill, 2000; Siedentop et al., 2011). Kirk (2006) explained that this conveys the message that the purpose of physical education is little more than to cover as many activities as possible. As a result, what is learnt is neither transferable nor sufficient to be useful in situations outside of school (Alexander, 2008; Capel, 2007; O‘Connor, 2006).

Launder (2001) observed that short units of work within the multi-activity curriculum plan limit the time students engage with content, which can result in a progressive and accumulated lack of readiness to engage with new or more complex motor skills and conceptual knowledge (Launder, 2001; Wein, 2001). Students, therefore, engage in learning that does little more than scratch the surface of the subject matter. Its failure to provide for cumulative building of knowledge and skills, deep learning and understanding is magnified when there is an absence of connectivity between topic content (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982; Ennis, 2003; Kirk, 2010; Mauldon & Redfern, 1969; Tinning et al., 2001). It is O‘Connor‘s (2006) view that because of the multi-activity model physical education is inadvertently skewed towards rewarding the already athletic and capable students who have largely developed their skill and knowledge outside school, and who then "thrive at the expense of less skilled students" (p. 192).

The educational status of physical education and the subject‘s content are closely related issues. Kirk (1988) explained that the educational value of a subject is a crucial condition in determining its prestige, the resources it can command, and the contribution it can make to the educational experience of pupils. A largely experiential and "surface" approach to skill, knowledge and understanding doesn't "cut it" anymore.

Deep Learning

Deep learning is implicated with constructivist learning where teaching builds on the knowledge base
of students by engaging them as active knowledge builders (Bransford et al., 1999). Constructivist informed teaching address the intellectual quality of the ideas, concepts or skill, the quality of the learning environment and the significance of the pedagogy (Department of Education, 2003). Deep learning is a constructivist idea thus connected to the contextual relevance of the curriculum and authentic competencies. Authentic competencies and depth of learning need to feature in any curriculum model that promotes teaching for understanding and not merely reproduction. Several authors suggest a shift from overly directed teaching to a constructivist "teaching approach" to prompt pedagogically progressive practice in physical education (Butler, 2006; Griffin et al., 2007; Fernandez – Balboa et al., 1996; Kirk & Macdonald, 1998; Oslin & Mitchell, 2006; Penney, 2003; Pope, 2005; Singleton, 2009; Wright, McNeil & Fry, 2009). However, constructivist theory does not "rule in" or "rule out" an instructional strategy/pedagogy, rather that the instructional strategy "move a mentally active audience toward deeper understandings of a particular content" (Hausfather, 2011, p. 4). I have argued in an earlier blog that an educatively focused "strengths-based" physical education is necessary for physical education that influences students "beyond the school gate" (Drummond & Pill, 2011). 

Concluding thoughts

The challenge highlighted by Macdonald and Brooker (1997), one of teachers constructing a school physical education program that is defensible, rigorous, relevant and legitimate, appears to remain if Ken Hardman's reports on the status of physical education world wide are any guide. Penney (2008) proposed that a defensible, rigorous, relevant and legitimate physical education curriculum would have "education as the core reference point" (p.38) in order that physical education becomes recognised more legitimately as a subject area warranting development and investment similar to that received by other subject areas. In this blog I have attempted to place the "knowledge" status of teaching in physical education onto the education of the individual rather than the content forms and physical context inherently part of the learning environment and engagement. My bias in the "battleground" I acknowledge; to paraphrase Wood (1993) The great thought of physical education is not the education of the physical, but the relation of physical education to education of the person, and then the effort to make the physical contribute its full share to the life of the individual.

Arnold‘s (1979) philosophical conceptualisation of physical education as education in, through and about movement has influenced my thinking about the distinctiveness of physical education, and the place of sport teaching in physical education in particular. Kirk (1988) suggested it is recognised as the standard reference "for theorising the form and content of physical education in relation to its educational status in schools" (p. 71). Arnold‘s three conceptual dimensions of physical education can be summarised as:
1. Education about movement: Movement as a field of study.Human movement can be studied as a body of knowledge in its own right and requires consideration of how best to apply the knowledge in practical situations;
2. Education through movement: Movement as an instrument of value. Physical education can be a means of bringing about the goals of education as they relate to the development of the "total person" (Arnold, 1979, p. 172) - cognitively, morally, socially and physically; and
3. Education in movement: Movement as a source of personal meaning. Participation in physical education provides a means for learning about the self and the world in which the self lives. Knowing how to engage in movement meaningfully, so that the experience is satisfying and engaging, will be determined by the degree to which the experience "permit(s) the person to actualize the physical dimensions of his being in the form of developed capacities, skilled accomplishments and objective achievements that are in themselves worthwhile" (Arnold, 1979, p. 178).

The business of schools is essentially education. It should be possible to justify physical education and teaching for their educative purpose (Kirk, 1996). Like others concerned with matters of PE curriculum and pedagogy, I have argued for a curriculum and professional discourse that articulates a philosophy and practice pertaining to education and learning for the learning area known as physical education. Student learning and not physical activity accumulation must be explicit in defining the subject and in framing the design of curriculum to move PE from the margins of schools concerns to a more central curriculum position (Penney & Chandler, 2000; Pill, 2007).


  1. Shane,

    Well done. You bring together a lot of great resources and ideas for us to consider as we evolve in our conception of "Physical" "Education."

    I'm wondering, however, if the "contested" nature of PhysEd can ever be effectively dealt with until the contested nature of "Education" and "School" is dealt with. I would argue that "Education" is a different beast for policy makers than it is for educators. Likewise, it's different from teacher to parent, from parent to child, etc. What is this "Education" that you speak of? I'm not sure anyone knows. Additionally, the history of schooling (at least is in the states) is not necessarily one to be proud of. It's not like schools have always been there to "educate" the "people." Some of the historical mission of school revolved around training/indoctrination/control, not any sort of emancipatory, democratic "education." So until we figure out what "education" means, we will forever struggle with conceiving an effective "physical" one that is meaningful or transformative.

    Thanks again. Good job!

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