Physical Education: Preferred and Plausible Futures

The critical literature on physical education has consistently problematised historically common aspects of what Metzler (2011) described as 'physical education method' and Kirk (2010) called physical education as sport as sport techniques: short units of work, program breadth of coverage of many activities as possible described as the multi activity program model, and overuse of direct instruction for replication of teacher demonstration and explanation- which Tinning (2010) called the demonstrate-explain-practice PE model of instruction. Some have suggested physical education, due to lack of time to teach for substantial learning outcomes because the content focus changes too frequently for learning to occur, becomes little more than a site of talent identification of competencies developed in community sport settings and reinforcement to many of what they can't do, or it becomes educationally bereft  'keep them busy, happy, active' time. Although some have criticised the dominance of sport in PE, others have cited the place of sport in PE as part of the educational merit for PE in curriculum time.  In countries with a 'British' tradition of games, like Australia, sport has replaced 'games', physical instruction and gymnastics to dominate PE since the 1960's. In Australia, national reports on young people's physical activity behaviour continue to show sport dominates their physical activity. The decline in sport participation in late adolescence into adulthood is often used as justification for shifting PE from a sport focus. Green, Smith and Roberts (2005) offered that the decline may be due to the limiting opportunities for school and community sport participation from late adolescence and hence continued development of the competency and confidence that encourages continued participation, rather than a rejection of sport itself. Sport curriculum, coaching, coach education and player retention/attrition are other (than PE) areas I research. The literature in the area of player attrition/retention in adolescence centrally positions the coaching style and the relationship of the coach with the player that leaves the sport.

In the complex and complicated debate about the educative purpose of physical education, the one question that seems consistent to me I describe as: How is physical education going to do the business of making a difference? Certainly, it was this question that led me to theorise nearly a decade ago sport literacy as an application of Arnoldian philosophy of education in movement, education about movement, and education through movement to sport teaching in PE.

What I have become aware of recently, is that all who practice physical education are part of what in futures education might be called the 'long now'. If time exists with the past, present and future as one, then in the present we carry the past 'on our backs' - we never leave it 'behind'. Perhaps, this is why so frustratingly 'new' ideas take a long time establish, and ideas of from the past exist so persistently in our present. What does that mean for 'futures thinking' and 30 years of debate by critical theorists that physical education needs to reform? If we think of 'the here' as time, then perhaps it means change is the logic of effectiveness at a point in time. Hence we may ask, are we any more effective now than we were in the past? Declining engagement by successive generations in moving and movement culture should lead us to consider whether the contemporary narrative emphasis (I use emphasis as the narrative has always 'been there' - part of the long now) on 'just play' and 'fun' is evidently not leading to the persistence of the habit of physical activity seeking by the majority of people in developed in countries like Australia. When I started teaching PE in the late 1980's, the dominant narrative emphasis had for a long time been 'movement competence'. The research summarised in the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance report cards is that for some time we are failing the majority of young people achieving actual movement competence and the perception of competence, which then impacts on their confidence to be physically active and choice to be physically active now and into their 'preferred' future. The movement competency deficit we now see in successive generations is established early in the primary school years with failure of many (if not now, the majority) of children to reach coordination and control of fundamental movement skills (for a global summary of FMS research, see here).

Rather than time, our 'here' can also be thought of as the 'territory' we inhabit. Looking at 'the here' as territory shifts thinking about the reality of 'what works' by looking at the places in the territory where 'it' is working, and where in the territory 'it' is not working yet. By amplifying the awareness of places where 'it' is working we can learn from these places to develop strategies for the places in the territory that are 'not working' as effectively as they might. It encourages us to avoid absolutism, which in the case of physical education would be 'PE needs to change', which labels every practitioner and school program in the deficit. This is not the case - there are highly effective programs and highly effective teachers. From a futures perspective, thinking about the 'here' as a territory rather than 'a time' shifts the narrative construction from 'a time of crises' and the need to change, to consideration of where in the territory is local curriculum integrity occurring, where are teachers are being strategic to support students succeed as learners, and where teachers are engaging in scholarship and agency, and where these things are not occurring.

Perhaps, to think more usefully about physical educations future, one needs to keep past, present and future in mind simultaneously. When we do this, a lot of the ideas presented now as 'new' look remarkably similar to ideas present in the past. A lot of the challenges of the present are not dissimilar to challenges of the past. This enables us to learn from the lessons of the past to guide our future. Furthermore, futures thinking also puts a spotlight on the generative power of narratives.

Shifting from 'time' as 'now' to time as a continuity can lead to the recognition of the subtle, long term processes and the circumstances that determine multi-generational changes. By 'stretching our time frame thinking' we can locate self in a part of the territory in a landscape of time.

My experience of the propensity in PE academic writing and presentations to frame the field in the negative or critical is why I have been attracted to appreciative inquiry and the possibility the framework of appreciative inquiry provides to amplify what is working. At the 2016 AIESEP conference, I suggested that perhaps many researchers can't see the effective practices and where change has occurred to bring practice to more effectiveness as they are fixed in a critical narrative and/or crises discourse that is deterministic in its labelling of the entire landscape of PE. I get how this serves the purpose of research to create justification for lines of inquiry. I've used this narrative as a research tool. However, I suggested it important to balance that narrative, and appreciative inquiry may be a tool through which to do this as it brings a lens on the possible, the plausible and the illumination and amplification of places in the landscape of physical education where effective physical education is occurring. 

I am still learning about appreciative inquiry, and have published a couple of papers looking at its use in PE and sport coaching settings (available at my Research Gate [RG] site). I am new to the ideas of futures thinking. I see the potential for tools of futures thinking: focus on signals, look back to see forward, and uncover patterns, to create foresight, insight and action - to work well with the 4-D model of appreciative inquiry to enhance the generative potential of appreciative inquiry.

If futurist thinking interests you, I suggest you check out Marina Gorbis's blog: Five Principles for Thinking Like a Futurist and the OECD Schooling for Tomorrow Futures Thinking in Brief site. Two books I recommend reading are The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined (2012) and How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (2000)


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