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The Ghost of Physical Education Past

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Gard and Wright’s 2001 paper which challenges the wholesale acceptance of “obesity” as an epidemic. They were concerned with what they see as physical education’s uncritical acceptance of ‘expert’ testimony as to the existence of obesity - testimony they believe to be based on scientific evidence that was both “unstable and contestable”. The resulting conversation on the blog, but more particularly on twitter, was unsupportive of this position, although the idea of being more critical was accepted. The paper, written more than a decade ago, might be considered dated with regards to such a fast paced debate but it does raise wider concerns around our frequently uncontested acceptance of news stories

In this week’s blog we explore a paper written more than 25 years ago but which predicted the death of physical education as a curriculum subject. In his ‘retrospective’ piece Shirl Hoffman (1987) reports on the death note of physical education in Florida in the year 2020. Using educational debates from the 70s and 80s as his evidence base, Hoffman joins the dots together in unexpected ways. However, many of his arguments are still reflected in the debates that run through physical education at present. The learning of our children is too frequently set upon by ROBers (Roll out the ball specialists who do little in the way of teaching). Furthermore, as concerns mount over lost Olympic legacies and increasingly sedentary lifestyles the words of Hoffman increasingly serve as a warning of what might be if we do nothing.

Paper 9:

Hoffman, S.J. (1987/2012). Dreaming the impossible dream: the decline and fall of physical education. In D. Kirk (ed) Physical Education. (pp. 133-147), London: Routledge.

My ‘take home’ message – the implications of the research on practice

Hoffman, it seems to me, had a gift for prophecy. He predicted - with a depth of description that cannot arguably stand the test of time - the future demise of physical education. While we are far from this position he has picked out a number of key events that may well been on the not too distant horizon (or indeed some may believe these are already upon us). During a long recession Hoffman predicted that, in an effort to save money and bring in expertise, schools would hire outside providers to run their extra-curricular and intramural programs. Initially this would be funded by parents but in the end it would be provided by youth sport providers. I would argue that this is increasingly prevalent in the UK (and would love to hear about other contexts), especially in primary schools where outsiders are being brought in to run these out of school programmes (a matter that features strongly in the work of Ben Williams in Australia). Indeed, even a decade ago when I was a much younger teacher, the idea of paid coaches was broached in my school. Yet Hoffman argued that, from this commercialisation of elite ‘high school’ programmes (sponsored by business and run by coaches), would emerge the less desirable aspects of elite sport i.e. free agency, bribes etc. Indeed, all notions of education and sportsmanship would soon be removed from these programmes.

To many of us this is the heart and soul of physical education. It is not about school sport and winning at all costs. School sport has become a catchall phrase for what happens in schools but is the educative value of these activities that people love and support. Yet, with the commercialisation of these activities do we run a significant risk of losing these ideas. However, Hoffman predicts that this will be just the tip of the iceberg. With the media portrayal of physical education as unstrenuous and of physical educators as bullies how long before the PE teacher is replaced with a cheaper alternative? How long before the ‘health of the nation’ becomes the default position in all schools and PE teachers are replaced with fitness instructors - even doctors as one study suggested? If we cannot agree ourselves on the purposes of physical education and we tolerate the ROBers who plague far too many of our classrooms (and by far too many I mean any), then what is the future of physical education? Can you predict what PE might look like in 2040?

The Paper

The year is 2020 and the last school district in Florida finally throws in the towel and closes its physical programme; joining every other country in the world. The writing has been on the wall for a decade or more, and only the die hards supporters of PE (some would say the romantics) have managed to keep this programme running to date. Physical education has been replaced across the world by Self-Directed Play (SDP), a simple and cheap programme with four rules: no fighting, no injuries, no destruction of school property, and no sitting down. Many have argued that this is in fact no different from some of the PE taught in the 80s and 90s and commissioned research suggests that teaching assistant (or SDP managers) are achieving as much as fully trained PE teachers with PhDs. Research in itself remains ineffective as it is inaccessible and, as one administrator said, “we would have to modify our operations every year if we were to seriously consider what researchers tell us” (Hoffman, 1987/2012, p. 135). Even when teachers tried to argue against this they had no evidence of their own as to the effectiveness of their programmes - not over ten years, 5 years or even 2 years.

Much of the decline, and the eventual fall of physical education, was foreshadowed by the commercialisation and “for profit” of school sport. While there was a pedagogic link between physical education and school sport - which included a sense of inclusion, fair play and sportsmanship - the two coexisted in schools and were overseen by a teacher or “coach”. Yet once this was privatised and the emphasis was placed on “profit” and “success” then the writing was on the wall. Overtime, multiple providers of youth sport became one and the need to hire coaches with a pedagogic background was removed in favour of those who could win...and at any costs. Sleazy practices would emerge over the next few years to shock even the most ardent of supporters but by then sport and physical education had parted ways. Yet, since youth sport was no longer educational such matters were of no concern to school boards or local education authorities these matters went unchallenged.

The opening of this door prompted the youth sport provider to venture into physical instruction. Hoffman argues that this process was aided by PE’s inability to agree on what should be taught or what, in fact, PE was. The lack of sequential structure (in other words the fact that curricular provision in primary schools was mirrored in secondary schools) in PE was blamed for the ease in which PE became commercialised. Many in administration, in the community, even in PE itself, saw PE as glorified recess or a chance for kids to take a breather. Furthermore, the key skills of the teacher (as defined by their professional development profiles) seems to be a) 1st aid provision b) a knowledge of health and safety c) understanding of how to organise large groups and d) knowledge of the wide range of basic skills and practices.

Parents, administrators, principals and headteachers found that journeymen and women often had more knowledge and experience in specific sports than the PE teacher and they were cheaper to train and employ. Four weeks rather than four years were required for the basic first aid training etc and where PE teachers were seen as “specialists in generalism” these individuals had more expertise. Businesses sold packages of physical instruction to schools with liability insurance, legal representation, equipment and field maintenance, and locker room supervision with a towel service included. Furthermore, promises of “performance improvement or your money back” became commonplace and teachers increasingly lost their jobs. Academia was not exempt from this; for as the demand for programmes reduced, professors lost their jobs. The focus in kinesiology departments became sports science and in the end the physiologies and biomechanics that remained were moved to health or engineering departments and physical education programmes disappeared. In his closing comments Hoffman suggested that physical education was suffering from “Organisational Alzheimer’s”, which left it confused, disoriented and unable to put together a strategy for accomplishing reasonable goals.


What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate? Use the comment box below to ask question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings?

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is this your responsibility or just something else to be put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? Please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

Vicky Goodyear
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On Thursday 28 February at 14:45 Vicky Goodyear said
When I read this blog I thought “oh my god” how did he get it so right. But then thinking about it “really!”, it seems that in Hoffman’s predictions he was led to believe that pedagogy of ‘roll out the ball’ had not, by 2020 changed - which meant the teachers could be replaced. Indeed, since the 1980s has a roll out the ball and a teacher-centred approach vastly changed and then is the 2020 he visions true? In answering the question of can we predict 2040? – David Kirk’s work on the future of physical education is useful here. Kirk (2010) suggests that there are 3 futures 1) more of the same 2) extinction and 3) a radical reform. Yet more of the same would lead to extinction. So therefore what could the radical reform be? I recently watched a presentation by David who argued for a models-based approach. This would mean curricular being structured by, for example, a season of Sport Education, Cooperative Learning and Teaching Games for Understanding. Although Ash is one of the only teachers I know out there that has used multiple models within a curricular. Therefore, in light of this blog and the suggestions I thought it might be apt to ask – if a models-based approach is the proposed as a way to prevent a future that Hoffman predicted for 2020, does anyone else have examples of using multiple models in their curricular? And do you think this is possible?
comment avatar
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On Friday 01 March at 12:35 Brendan Jones said
Hi Ash, You know, my response to reading this (during and after) was "I see this everyday". Whether it's in my school, the primary school across the road or online in forum discussions - the simplification, the distilling of a complex learning area into set piece "essentials" that are easily digestible by staff and an students is happening now. In fact it could be argued it's happening across education. 6 years of secondary school culminates in a regurgitation fest in exams. The problem is, very rarely is there an effect against the flow that makes a difference. Teachers on their own have a bit of fun playing with new pedagogies, but unless it becomes custom and practice generally, it remains a cottage industry selling curiosities. Systemic support helps, yet rarely does a educational system as a whole move with the times fast enough for change to be really "new". I've had some interesting conversations with my faculty about the new Australian Curriculum for HPE, currently in Draft form and being discussed at the moment. Interesting because some deem a valid approach for adoption of things like TGfU or your idea of multiple models is to say "we can still do what we've always done, just get it to fit the new way" I mentioned the school across the road - one of our partner primary (elementary) schools. They outsource PE to private providers. The call for primary school HPE teachers has been ignored at a systemic level on financial grounds ever since I began to work in schools. Except for a small number of enlightened/skilled/motivated teachers, PE is most likely regarded as a mandatory requirement ending up as a "break from class", not an important part of kids development. I don't blame the primary school teachers - they are victims of an overcrowded curriculum as it is. As Vicky said - Kirk has it right, but I'll reduce it to two futures. Tokenism or radical reform. We've passed "peak PE" in my opinion. Our profession has enjoyed the good days on quasi militaristic bootcamps, bathed in Olympic glory and hung it's hat on various lifestyle crises to get through. That doesn't cut it anymore. We have to own our future and change to become relevant.
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On Wednesday 06 March at 14:08 Dr. Lee Schaefer said
Think- I generally write from a critical standpoint, glass half empty perhaps. However, as I read this I wondered how Hoffman would respond to the podcast I just watched. Two PE teachers more than 1000 miles away from me shared a conversation around physical education pedagogy. I just accessed, this morning, another PE teachers web site on the other side of country to help strengthen my lesson to my pre-service teaches tomorrow. Were looking at how we might think about assessing tactics and strategies in a purposeful way. I am responding to a blog, no more than 5 minutes after accessing this last web page, that includes colleagues from different countries with whom my work resonates so strongly that I don't have the time to even scratch the surface. A year ago I experienced these things once, maybe twice a year for 2 or 3 days at a time when I attended national or provincial conferences. Act- "organization alzheimer's, from my perspective, is partly created by being isolated, and becoming stagnant. Swamps, which have no tributaries are on their own to evolve. They often become stagnant, they take on a smell, they dry up. I think from a pedagogy standpoint, and a research standpoint, PE metaphorically, has been the swamp with no tributaries. The proletariat status (McDonald) of PE has de-professionalized us in a way that has fostered this isolation, and I believe become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many times can you be called "just a gym teacher" before you start to believe it, and become just a gym teacher. This blog is an example of a space that disrupts the prophecy, it is a tributary to the swamp. The podcast this am, which I will show a clip of to my students, allows them to see "we" are not alone in wanting more from PE; another tributary. PE chat, PE geeks, physed.com all sources of water that create ripples in the algae and brings in a new source, new ideas, and maybe most importantly, a united front that works against the dominant stories around PE Change- Personally- take the opportunities to write with, read with, learn with, the individuals who are passionate about changing the story around PE., perhaps the perfect remedy for organizational Alzheimer's. Pedagogically- Help the pre-service teachers I work with to see this, to become involved in this, to become a part of this collaborative and passionate front. The end of PE? I would argue that it is, as Brendan mentions, the beginning of a new forward looking story in which the plot includes collaboration, advocacy, and a different self fulfilling prophecy.
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On Tuesday 05 January at 17:31 Trey Leech said

Good food for thought.  In response to the model-based question that Vicky asked, I've found it difficult to introduce model-based instruction as a PETE professor when the "traditional approach" of physical education is so prevalent in K-12 physical education programs.  With all, except from one program that uses Sport Ed, K-12 physical education programs in my area use a multi-unit approach with 2-4 lessons per unit.  Across one semester of 16 weeks, this can result in 32 different types of content.  It's a challenge to persuade physical educators to switch to longer units to allow the intended learning outcomes to occur with instructional models, as well as curriculum models.  For example, in my state there has yet to be any state standards establised which has allowed our physical education programs to be "whatever suits the their views" of what physical education is.  There is no push to have our K-12 physical educators meet national standards.  Questions remain for me as I reflect on these posts.  What is the best approach to deal with cooperating teachers who are engrained to provide too much breadth of content (vs. depth), have a school district that requires only a 60% passing rate for the course based on attendance/participation, and have large class sizes of 30-50 students?  Some teachers want to make the change, yet unable.  There are many more reasons as why this occurs that go beyond the extent of this post.  

Professional development and beginning to introduce model-based instruction with pre-service teachers has been tried and is still being introduced.  The challenge:

-  What to do if the professional development opportunities are poorly attended?  

-  What to do if other physical education teacher education colleagues across the state and within the same PETE program prefer to not attempt or adopt model-based instruction?  

Non-aligned views/philosophies on how to design/teach physical education experiences has created a fractured program and confusion for pre-service teachers when it was attempted within the PETE program.  

-  What have pre-service teachers gained if they are unable to implement model-based programs during their PETE program or after?  Additionally, lack of knowledge and know-how has occurred with PETE colleagues to implement model-based instruction.  

This is not to say that there have not been positives from introducing model-based programs at the PETE level with pre-service teachers.  For example, elective courses have been provided to PETE pre-service teachers and those who have taken them "get it".  TGFU/Tactical Games Approach, Adventure Education, and Sport Education has been used early on in the PETE program during the activity courses.  There is curiousity from pre-service teachers yet to adopt a model-based program during their student-teaching experience and induction years is a hurdle that I've yet to seen tackled or supported here in my state.  There are plenty of PETE programs that promote model-based instruction/programs but it's still a challenge that isn't as easy as it sounds.  

Changes can occur yet I do wonder to what extent the use of model-based instruction has made an impact with a majority of physical education programs across the US.?  How many teachers are using models?  How well are the models being followed?  

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