Sunday, April 9, 2017

Confusion – it’s such a terrible shame (Electric Light Orchestra)

Adapted from the paper: Hyndman, B. & Pill, S. (2017). What’s in a concept? A Leximancer text mining analysis of physical literacy across the international literature. European Physical Education Review. Available at

Until recently an Arnoldian philosophy of physical education (PE) was considered to be something of a ‘touchstone’ “for theorising the form and content of physical education in relation to its educational status in schools” (Kirk, 1988: 71).  Arnold’s (1979) three conceptual dimensions for PE - education in, through and about movement, provided a distinctiveness of purpose between PE and other forms of physical activity provision by giving ‘voice’ to the educative dimensions of PE. The philosophy of physical literacy (PL) (Whitehead, 2001) has gained a sense of momentum in recent times, to the point where advocates have a philosophy and justificatory argument and are now in search of a supportive pedagogical argument (Kirk, 2013). PL has increasingly become part of the PE discourse and the ‘PE-community’ has a responsibility to pay close attention to the momentum being gained by the PL movement. However, definitional evolution, differing operationalising of concept in policy and curriculum documents, and substitution of PL where PE was once used in documentation confuse and obstruct a common consensus on its understanding - meaning that internationally PL has not been universally accepted in PE curriculum documents (Macdonald and Enright, 2013).

In the 1990’s, around the same time as the 'New London Group' were espousing multi-literacies theory and expanding the focus of literacy from reading and writing to an understanding of multiple discourses and forms of representation, Margaret Whitehead entered the contested territory of physical education definition and direction, and the fields educational defence. Whitehead (2001: 131) presented a case for PL as part of the PE legitimisation debate by proposing a “description of a physically literate individual.” The case for PL is not the only or indeed first solution to an educationally defensible PE conceptualisation. Initially, Whitehead acknowledged similarities between PL and conceptualisations proposed by others, including Arnold (1979). Later,  Whitehead (2013) asserted that you ‘do not teach physical literacy’, and that PL is not a pedagogical model, rather, a rationale for the value of physical activity.

Hardman (2011) suggested PL departs from PE in that PE has been associated with the development of generic and specific competencies, while PL has been associated with motivation (see Whitehead, 2010). However, the definition demarcations between being physically literate and being physically educated are increasingly blurred as advocates of PL seek a supportive pedagogical construction (Corbin, 2016). Further confounding the PL proposition is the absence of empirical support for the theorising (Chen, 2015; Macdonald and Enright, 2013). The similarity between definitions of PE and being physically educated, and the replacement definition of PL that has occurred in some jurisdictions, has also added to the conceptual confusion. There has been suggestions that the term PL has been placed upon practitioners with limited evidence of a need to do so; to the point of being described as a “profession being distracted” from the more important things it needs to focus on (Lounsbery and McKenzie, 2015). There are many unsupported assumptions about PL and its educative role in the literature (Lundvall, 2015) being complicated by the substitution of PE for PL (Corbin, 2016). 

Then and Now: Physical education and physical literacy definitions....and the difference is?
Image from Lounsbery & McKenzie, 2015. 

As PL is described as a goal of PE programs in some countries, and aligned to physical activity advocacy in others, further understanding needs to be generated as to how PL objectives can be aligned to achievement standards described in curriculum documents. Presently, PL in international studies appears conceptualised within a traditional understanding of PE. The lack of empirical evidence that adoption of the concept of PL changes anything in the jurisdictions where it has been embraced lead some to question the rationale for the strong advocacy of the concept (Lounsbery & McKenzie, 2015). The concept that has come to have the most relevance connected to PL appears to be ‘education’, the very term that is commonly being replaced by some PL advocates with ‘literacy’. 

I first connected with PL in 2009/10 while doing my PhD and trying to develop the idea of sport literacy using multi-literacy theory. I believe PL has something to offer as a philosophy for active living. As a general capability of the curriculum or a cross-curricular priority the philosophy could be positioned as a key idea around which to rally for the importance of physical activity and the 'active school' (Fox, 1996). Presently, however, in some quarters PL seems to be subjected to reductionist pressures in order to serve an oratorical function that draws attention to the field of physical education, but which seems to do little to address pedagogical and curriculum concerns for strengths-based PE containing a clear educative proposition for active and healthy living in and beyond the school gate. There is a long history of discussion and interventionism from health promotion and physical activity advocates around the terms associated with what is done in the name of 'PE' in school and community settings( PE, PL, PA - and what seems like not that long ago when you are my age, debates about 'human movement', 'personal development' and 'kinesiology' in place of PE). Indeed, it is a relatively recent phenomenon that PE has been reduced by some to something that happens in a subject called 'PE' and not other PA or movement contexts. I think it is important the movement education field moves on from continued nomenclature and semantic incursions and debates, and from a practitioner perspective the focus is on the productive pedagogies that construct the notion of quality PE (QPE or QHPE if referring to the school learning area) that provide PE teachers, sport educators/coaches, fitness trainers reinforcement of what is a quality 'movement' education program, teaching for effective learning and where that fits in physically educating people such that the observation of physical literacy is evident.

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