Physical Education – a Wicked Problem

In this blog I try to bring together my thoughts after reading two very different pieces of writing. The first was David Armstrong’s paper Wicked Problems in Special and Inclusive Education, and the second was the recently released Positive Youth Development through Sport (edition 2), edited by Nicholas Holt.

Wicked Problems
Design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term ‘wicked problem’ in 1973 to refer to problems that are difficult to define and seem inherently unsolvable. Weber and Khademiam (2008) suggested wicked problems may seem inherently unsolvable as the causes, effects, consensus and solutions are difficult to sort out, as wicked problems have over-lapping stakeholders with different perspectives. The problems are therefore ‘relentless’, resisting being solved ‘once and for all’.

Physical education as a wicked problem
I have suggested that physical education is a pedagogical battleground (Pill, 2012) with two competing forces. One force is a discourse ‘of the physical’. This discourse places an emphasis on physical education as a form of training of the body (Gensemer, 1991). This emphasis is seen in contemporary discussions about physical education and its role in obesity prevention, physical activity accumulation, and the role physical activity in physical education may have in assisting the realisation of one’s academic potential. It is also seen in the, sport-as-sport techniques emphasis, of many physical education curricula (Kirk, 2010) and the pedagogical prioritisation of a common ‘physical education method’ (Metzler, 2011) characterised by highly directive verbal instruction, the dominance of a practice style described by Tinning (2010) as demonstrate-explain-practice, and a disconnected multi-activity curriculum where lots of movement forms are experienced under the flawed assumption that if all students try lots of things the individual will find something they like and pursue it. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this occurs in sufficient numbers to make the assumption a reasonable argument for the practice, and there is good evidence that a great many students leave the compulsory years of physical education learning what they can't do after having been exposed to so many activities with insufficient time to develop competency at any. The other force is a discourse ‘about education’ (Penney & Chandler, 2000) and places the emphasis on student learning. This discourse places the education in physical education as the centre of discussions about the place and purpose of physical education. This discourse has seen a few iterations – the New Physical Education Movement and its emphasis on education of the ‘whole child’ through movement – for example, Humanistic Physical Education (Hellison, 1973), the Arnoldian perspective of education in, through and about movement (Arnold, 1979), and more recently ‘physical literacy’ (Whitehead, 2001) has gathered momentum.

Despite the often and well-articulated concerns with the dominant multi-activity curriculum model and instructional emphasis that sees ‘fun’, ‘fitness’ and ‘technique’ variously prioritised, they persist as the dominant ‘physical education method’. Alternatives proposed over the past thirty years, such as the various game-based teaching approaches like TGfU (Bunker & Thorpe, 1982) in the UK, the Game Sense approach (den Duyn, 1997) in Australia and Tactical Games (Griffin, Mitchell & Oslin, 1997) in the USA, the Sport Education model (Siedentop, 1994), and TPSR (Hellison, 2003), they seem to remain ‘new and innovative’ ideas rather than mainstream. Furthermore, physical education is often seen by physical activity providers as a business opportunity, positioned by health promotion and physical activity academics as a site to trial ‘interventions’, and identified by sport authorities as a means to increase child and youth involvement in club and community sport by providing sport specific 'give it a go' programs for PE.

From the situation I just described, I’m starting to see physical education as a ‘wicked problem’. While physical education remains contested ground, the recent Global Matrix 2.0 on Physical Activity for Children and Youth painted a concerning picture about the levels of movement skill development and physical activity accumulation in many countries (see ).

Positive Youth Development through Sport
While sport in physical education is sometimes positioned negatively in physical education by critical theorising, people familiar with my work will know that I don’t position sport in physical education as inherently problematic. In fact, I discuss it in quite the opposite terms suggesting sport as a movement form that can satisfy physical education claims for educative purpose in an ‘academic sense’, as well as an educative purpose in a ‘social sense’ for the development of ‘active citizenship’. How sport teaching in physical education can be pedagogically framed to deliver these intentions I have attempted to capture in my writing on ‘sport literacy’ (Drummond Pill, 2011; Pill, 2009, 2010, 20102, 2014, 2015 – see also previous blogs
Sport Literacy
Physical education: contested ground

In essence, I suggest sport as (one) focus theme for physical education; with education in, through, about, and sport as the sub-themes, and the big idea for sport in physical education as the development of the individual ability to be active ‘beyond the classroom and the school gate’.

I have previously suggested connections between sport literacy and the applied base of Positive Youth Development described by Lerner and Lerner (2006) as the ‘5 C’s’. The 5 C’s are competence, confidence, connection, caring, and character. After reading Maureen Weiss’s chapter in Positive Youth Development in Sport (Chapter 1) I have a better understanding that there is nearly a century of rich scholarship on the positioning of physical activity for ‘character building’ in sport and physical education. 

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, National Education Association, p. 621)

If physical education is a wicked problem, what is there to be done about it?
My reading about wicked problems suggests there is no ‘quick fix’ for a wicked problem. Indeed, tackling the problem head on with ‘solutions’ doesn’t seem to work for a wicked problem – and if the physical education critical theory and crises discourse is accurate, largely hasn’t ‘worked’ in changing the dominant ‘physical education method’ in schools around the globe despite the scholarly and empirical literature pretty much ‘shouting’ that it needs to be replaced. There are of course, individuals and some schools doing things differently. Andy Vasily's recent sharing about the Connections to Community unit of work at his school is an example. See

However, as I travel around I see that school physical education curriculum that are 'a mile wide an an inch thick' are still in the main the way things are done. What has passed for physical education professional development has clearly not assisted the broader adoption of new ways of approaching the task of physical education curriculum and pedagogical evolution to a new ‘common practice’ or 'everyday philosophy'. Research tells us the ‘tips, tricks and sharing practice PD’ while enjoyable largely does nothing to change what most attendees do when they get back to the school gym ‘on Monday’ (Armour, 2006). Tom Wujec* has however proposed a way of tackling wicked problems. He suggests gathering groups of people and visualising and then (literally) drawing out the problem, and that this enables people to get clarity, engagement and alignment. I wonder what this would ‘look like’ at a PE conference, and what the outcome might be for participants?

Perhaps contributing to the wicked problem of the continuance of a common 'physical education method' and a 'mile wide and an inch thick' multi-activity program design is physical education research. At a conference a few years ago, I argued that physical education research has been dominated by a critical paradigm, which has done a good job of identifying and dissecting the pedagogical and curriculum problems. However, it doesn't serve this research paradigm to seek out and discuss examples of sustained change, where the change has become the new normal. This is where I believe appreciative inquiry research has a role to play in curriculum and pedagogical evolution in physical education (Pill, 2016; Pill & Hastie, 2016). 

* see Tom’s Tedx presentation here:

Armour, K. (2006). Physical education teachers as career-long learners: A compelling research agenda. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 11(3), 203-207.

Arnold, P. (1979) Meaning in movement, sport and physical education. London: Heinemann.

Bunker, D., & Thorpe, R. (1982). A model for the teaching of games in secondary schools. Bulletin of Physical Education, 18(1), 5-8.
den Duyn, N. (1997). Game Sense - It's time to play! Sports Coach, 19(4), 9-11.
Drummond, M.J. & Pill, S.A., The role of physical education in promoting sport participation in school and beyond. In Youth sport in Australia: History and culture. Sydney: Sydney University Press, pp. 165-178.
Gensemer, R. (1991). Physical education: Perspectives, inquiry, applications. Dubuque, IA: WCB.
Griffin, L., Mitchell, S., & Oslin, J. (1997). Teaching sport concepts and skills: A tactical games approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Kirk, D. (2010). Physical education futures. London: Routledge.

Hellison, D. (1973). Humanistic physical education: A behavioural perspective. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Hellison, D. (2003). Teaching responsibility through physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Lerner, R.M., & Lerner, J. V. (2000). Toward a new vision and vocabulary about adolescence: Theoretical, empirical, and applied bases of a “positive youth development” perspective. In L. Balter & C. S. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.). Child Psychology: A Handbook of Contemporary Issues (pp. 445-469). NY, NY: Psychology Press.

Metzler, M. (2005) Instructional models for physical education. Scottsdale, AZ: Holocomb Hathaway.

Penney, D., & Chandler, T. (2000). Physical education: What futures? Sport, Education and 
Society, 5(5), 71-88.

Pill, S. (2009). Sport teaching in physical education: Considering sport literacy. Creating Active Futures: Edited Proceedings of the 26th Biennial ACHPER International Conference, Brisbane, July 8-10.

Pill, S. (2010). Sport Literacy – it’s not just about learning to play sport via ‘textbook techniques’. Journal of Student Wellbeing, 4(2), 32-42.

Pill, S. (2012). Rethinking sport teaching in physical education. Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the degree: Doctor of Philosophy. University of Tasmania.

Pill, S. (2013). Play with Purpose - Game sense to sport literacy. ACHPER Australia. Hindmarsh, SA.

Pill, S. (2014). Sport literacy: providing PE teachers a “principled position” for sport teaching in PE and a process through which to frame that teaching according to situated contextual needs. The Global Journal of Health and Physical Education Pedagogy, 3(1), 47–68.
Pill, S. (2016). An appreciative inquiry exploring game sense teaching in physical education. Sport, Education and Society, 21(2),  279-297.
Pill, S. & Hastie, P. (2016). Researching sport education appreciatively. European Journal of Educational Research, 5(4), 189-200.

Pill, S. Valuing Learning in, through, and about sport-physical education and the development of sport literacy in H. Askell-Williams (Ed.), Transforming the Future of Learning with Educational Research (pp. 20-35). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Siedentop, D. (1994). Sport education: Quality PE through positive sport experiences. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Weber, E. P., & Khademian, A. M. (2008). Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network settings. Public Administration Review68(2), 334-349.

Whitehead, M. (2001). The concept of physical literacy. European Journal of Physical Education, 6, 127-138.

Wood, T. (1993). National Education Association. NEA Proceedings 32:621.


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