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).
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.