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The differing faces of education

What does your version of education or physical education look like? I ask thequestion as I have just read a paper by Gabrielle O’Flynn at the University ofWollongong that made me sit up and consider the physical education of myclassrooms, lectures and writing. O’Flynn (2010), writing in the journal ‘Sport,Education and Society’ on the production of social class subjectivities inphysical and health education, examined the ‘truths’ about physical education andhealth that teachers portray and expect in their classrooms. The area is new tome and I start this blog with an apology based on the realisation that I might notbe best positioned to relay what I consider to be the important findings inthis paper. That said I do feel that I should share, as best as I can, the resultsof this paper as it has implications for the ways in which we consider andconceptualise ‘our’ physical education.

At the crux of the paper was O’Flynn’s investigation of twovery different schools and how they take up and negotiate the meaning of healthand physical education that their students adopt. She argued that schools have apredisposition towards the type of students that they educate. In other wordsthey have ‘classed subjectivities’ that implicitly effect the shape of the ‘somebodies’that the school invites its pupils to become. Looking deeper O’Flynn draws onthe notion of self as being constructed through the interplay of people and thepower/knowledge relations in which they are involved. In terms of schooling shesuggested that schools are able to constrain and enable certain discourses thattheir students can subsequently ‘take up, reject, resist and negotiate’ astheir idea of ‘self’ develops. As a result of the school’s predisposition towardscertain discourses, and its rejection of others, “students are conceptualisedas being ‘invited’ by their schooling to take up particular subject-positionsand ways of thinking, being, and governing themselves and others” (O’Flynn,2010, p. 432).

In her exploration of the wider literature O’Flynn suggeststhat schools have become sites of (re)production, where classed and genderedsubjectivities are maintained and enhanced. In the two schools – one a privategirls’ school and the other a co-educational government-run school in the same Australiancity – different perceptions existed around the nature of the students, and inmany ways the ‘somebodies’ they are allowed to become were predefined. Middle-classexpectations that students would be ‘high achieving’ and ‘motivated’ werecompared to working class expectations that students would fail in both theirlives and their studies seemed to be embedded in the subjectivities of thetwo schools.

The language of the two schools in describing their pupilswas markedly different. The ‘exemplary students’ and ‘future leaders of thecommunity’ of the private school were expected to achieve ‘high academicsuccess” and be ‘independent’ ‘leaders’ ‘team players’ and ‘adaptive individuals.’In comparison the ‘vocational learning’ in the co-educational school wasachieved through ‘basic skills’ and ‘student welfare’ in an environment that ‘promotednumeracy and literacy’ for all with the provision of ‘remedial assistance’ andwith a focus on ‘well-disciplined students.’ The discourse, O’Flynn argues, ofsuccess and failure are located in the individual schools and in many ways thewords used remind me of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The construction of the ‘somebodies’of each schools meant that they were almost (pre)ordained to construct theirfutures as being either privileged and following the traditional trajectoriesof educational and professional success or deviant and disadvantaged and endingup in low-skilled employment or unemployment.

The ‘truths’ of each school meant that students wereencouraged to construct themselves as being ‘normal’ when they shared thediscourse of their school. Consequently it is important that we look not onlyat the simplistic discourse of education but at the “similar and different wayspopulist notions (in this case of health and physical activity) are drawn on byschools” (O’Flynn, 2010, 443). Such an examination would explore why dominantdiscourses are classed, gendered, raced and hetronormative and afford a greaterunderstanding of the ways in which schools shape “the ‘somebodies’ young womenand young men are invited to ‘become’” (O’Flynn, 2010, p. 444).

 

References

O’Flynn, G. (2010). The business of ‘bettering’ students’lives: Physical and health education and the construction of social classsubjectivities. Sport, Education andSociety, 15 (4): 431-445.

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On Saturday 19 February at 11:00 Brendan Jones said
Hi Ashley, Interesting account of something that isn't just about PE, but I think about education in general. It reminds me of the accounts of why PE was introduced into school in the first place, and the role it played through quasi military drill and discipline to "school the body" and promote "conformity through physicality". In essence education itself hasn't really changed, in that light, since the beginning of the Industrial Age, where "education" was a way to churn out units for the factory or office. Many of our practices still pay homage to the view that to be successful you earn high marks in the exam room paradigm, go to university, get a high status job and perpetuate the same to the next generation. This fails to take into account that the world has moved on. That the modern student, to thrive in the 21st Century needs skills like critical thinking and problem solving; they need to be able to collaborate across networks; they need agility and adaptability; they need to develop initiative and entrepreneurialism; possess effective oral and written communication and be confident accessing and analysing Information. I borrowed this list from Tony Wagner and his book, "The Global Achievement Gap". Looking at this, both schools in the paper should be able to do this, but on face value most people would say that only one is capable. Why? Its a class thing. A certain amount of edu-snobbery, I suspect. But accepting that both schools are capable, I think the key to success is leadership. I work in a comprehensive government school, and our mantras are "Personal Best", "If it's not done well, then it's not done at all" and "fair go for everyone". Whilst it may not be fervently chanted in the corridors and classrooms, it is known and understood by all staff and students. Things go wrong, and the first step on the path to restitution is revisiting these ideals. We value and celebrate achievement in all fields of endeavour. We reflect on areas for improvement and put plans in place. The way schools deal with "perception" is a reflection of their very reasons for existence, and the two schools in the paper obviously exist for, and cater to, very different groups. Their educational "product" is a result of what these groups see as important. It's a generalisation, but I believe it's not hard to see how both approaches only serve to limit the opportunities of the students in the 21st Century. I hope that makes sense! :} Jonesy Refererence: Wagner, T. "The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don't Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need--And What We Can Do About It" - Basic Books, New York, 2010
Ashley Casey
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On Saturday 19 February at 11:44 Ashley Casey said
Thanks for the comment Jonesy. I agree that my blog relates to general education but O'Flynn's paper explores in much greater depth the discourse that existed in the two schools around physical and health education. If it didn't break every copyright law I would send you a copy but if you can access it then I would recommend a read. The area of research is new to me (and I have a colleague who I know would really appreciate the gendered and classed subjectivities) but it certainly stuck a cord with me as I begin to explore the 'expectations' that exist around students - especially aboriginal students - and the (pre)expectations that we have for them. I agree that the needs of the 21st century have moved markedly away from the 'rank' that Foucault suggests dominated 18th century, industrial age schooling and that others have strongly suggeested dominates school of the 'modern' day. Thanks for the heads up on the Wagner book...it is ordered from Amazon and I will add it to my 'to read' list.

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