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“A rose by any other name”: Problems of identity in physical education

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored the idea that sports and games are not things we do to ‘escape’ life or something we do just after work in our social time. Instead play should be seen as a central focus in both adults’ and students’ lives. Flipping the metaphor of ‘work to live’, the last paper considered that instead we should ‘work to play’ and that everything we do allows us the time and resources to play.  In his response to the blog Andy Vasily focused on the importance of intrinsic motivation but the difficulty in ‘finding it’ for every child. He suggested that that every educative journey should be empowering and should aid this search for internal motivation.

In this week’s blog we explore what it means to be a physical education teacher in a ‘world’ that seems focused on the continued diversification of our knowledge base. It asks if it is still OK to have one idea of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘does’ when its teachers are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds and with widening experiences and understandings.

Paper 16:

Newell, K.M. (1990/2012). Physical education in higher education: Chaos out of order. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 267-284) London: Routledge.

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

What is ‘physical education’? If you asked a hundred PE students/teachers that question you might get a set of answers where the similarities and differences are equally distributed. If you asked a teacher who graduated from a sport and exercise science degree her answers would be different, you would expect, from someone who graduated from a sport education course or a physical education course. Given the number of different faculties, departments and degrees that students can now graduate from, how do we know that what we say is “physical education” is the same as what our colleague, employer, neighbour, or student would call ‘physical education”?  Consequently, have we lost our way a little? Has our enthusiasm to explore different paths as a means to be a physical education teacher served to highlight the differences, and bury or silence the commonalities? Have we splintered apart and in doing so risked our very existence?

Imagine you are a prospective PE teacher and you are just finishing up in a school and want to go to university. Now imagine you are trying to make a choice where you are going to go to study and start on the university application site (UCAS in the UK) and search for all PE courses. You are faced with 50 results and none of them appear to be the same: Sport and Physical Education; Sport, Physical Activity and Health; Sports Science and Physical Education; Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy; Physical Education with QTS; Children’s Physical Education; Physical Education and Sports Coaching Science (to name a few). How do you choose? When I choose my degree route into teaching I didn’t do PE (even though had the offers) and did sports studies - just in case I decided in the end that I didn’t want to teach: which I did.

Let’s look three or four years ahead. A graduate from each of the courses names above applied for a position in your school. How do you know what they know? Does the split that occurred at undergraduate level simply repair itself or are the notions of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘does’ so strong that we paper over the cracks that exist in our shared knowledge base?

To me, these gaps are the very reason why teachers can no longer be considered ‘trained’ when they leave higher education. The disparity of knowledge is such that we need to keep learning just to catch up with the field. If a teacher has linked sports science with their physical education degree then they need to learn about sport pedagogy, and visa versa. The issues above are ones that need to be addressed by universities (as I will discuss when I explore the paper below) but they need to be considered by practitioners. What do you know? Believe? Ignore? How can you be happy that you know enough? Does a rose by any other names smell as sweet? You need to keep learning to find out.


The Paper

“There was a time when PE was PE”. It was recognised globally in higher education, the school system and in society as a subject, influenced by education, medicine and the military, that had an educative focus. Teachers were trained in courses designed specifically for them and with one intention in mind - to work in gymnasia.  They learnt about pedagogy (although they wouldn’t have called it that) and they were in a career for life. However, as Newell argues, these halcyon days are gone and physical education has been swallowed in a vast field of disciplines and subdisciplines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Whilst the field of physical education has both split and expanded into a patchwork of alternatives the subject itself has declined. The need for PE teachers has shrunk. Its importance on the timetable has diminished and the number of kids in schools has also reduced. The combined effect of this is that PE is smaller than it once was. Simultaneously, there has been growth in areas that were once seen as the children of PE - physiology, psychology, biomechanics to name but a few. This has been fuelled by the rapid growth in alternative careers for graduates, and supported by a move away from a professional emphasis on teaching and into a disciplinary focus around the components of physical activity (PA). Yet at a time when societies focus on PA was an all-time high, Newell argues that the disciplines of PA were increasingly diversifying, which in turn was plunging the area into chaos.

The question “who are we” has become increasingly prevalent and this was reflected, in the USA in 1990, in the names of departments that offered course in PA. Seventy or more different connotations at Newell’s count. Seventy different ways of saying what was once ‘physical education’. Would any other subject tolerate (even survive) the splintering of its core knowledge domain in this way?

In this ‘diversification’ - Newell argues - subject areas have been keener to justify their position by stating the differences rather than celebrating their commonalities. While this has afforded some a place in higher education, it is at the expense of the consumer. How do students know the difference between exercise physiology, biodynamics, and movement learning if we don’t? We need to find the common ground and give up these artificial boundaries. We need to respond to the marketplace and make the decisions of potential students simple. We need to respond to what the marketplace is telling us and meet the needs of society and not just our own silos. As subjects we need to throw off the shackles of independence and come together to play the long game. We need to identify what our common core of study is and celebrate our similarities rather than continuing to fragment the field. 

So I ask you to consider – what was your route into physical education? Look around in your department do you hold the same beliefs and values to your colleagues whose route differed? Does this impact what you and your department do? How can you learn from one another and pool the different things that you know? How can you operate together rather than recognising the differences?


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.

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On Sunday 21 April at 10:23 andy vasily said
Interesting topic of discussion. Just by being on Twitter itself you can see just how vast and diversified PE has become. Lots of different practitioners sharing their own vision of what PE should look and feel like. As for me, I certainly am not happy settling on what I presently know. Shoot me if I do! The passioned educator is looking for every opportunity possible to deepen their instructional practice. With a critical and self-refective eye, determining our weaknesses and taking initiative to always find out and learn more. Passion breeds passion, passion connects with passion, and a passioned classroom environment will always enhance learning. We all have different angles and viewpoints that we implement within our own instructional practice. Ashley, I believe that all of those different areas and avenues that PE has become is all about being passionate as educators. We select fields of study that we are devoted to learning more about. In my case it is elementary PE. I taught high school and middle school PE for years, but my greatest joy and main source of motivation came from teaching PE to elementary kids. Whether it be sport science and coaching, health and fitness, exercise physiology, sports psychology, or biomechanics doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is passion for learning. Whether or not you are an experienced master teacher or a high school student deciding which field within PE you would like to journey down, the key is to be passionate about it. Be truly committed to life long learning and stay motivated to be the very best that you can be. Take initiative and set learning goals for yourself. Never settle for what you think you know for if you do all learning has ceased and it is time to change careers.
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On Sunday 21 April at 12:08 Brendan Jones said
Hi Ash. This paper to the many conversations I've had lately about what PE is, what makes "good" PE and where PE is going. What has been a recurring theme is quality PE teaching. It doesn't really matter what gadgets or apps you have - it's how they're used in a meaningful way to further the learning and understanding of the students we work with. Just using an iPad or app as a set piece "busy work" strategy is just as bad as being a "roll out the ball" advocate. Andy mentioned passion, and that's a key component of future proofing your practice. Passion for all parts of your work serves to inspire you to seek better ways, reflect on current practice and then make improvements. This, to me, is an ongoing process. We can't rest on our laurels for too long. The key to the future is our flexibility and resilience - in our thinking, planning, practice and reflection. - Jonesy
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On Sunday 21 April at 16:01 Jeremy House said
Thanks for the blog on what I would consider the most Important issue facing physical education now and in the future... 'what do we do?' I agree that such diversification is not sustainable for a profession and a serious consolidation is required. This is almost certainly (along side a political need to rationalize our existence) from where the diversity has been born; dissatisfaction with current practice and dissonance between idealized and actual impact. Reclaiming the why! I don't think I have ever truly felt satisfied or proud to tell people I am a physical education teacher. I am not sure if this is common to others or just the immediate circle of people I associate with. It isn't because they are uneducated and it isn't because they are ill informed of the great work physical educators do, but when I tell people they immediately think 'ball games with kids and holidays'. I can defend this position, as I have in the past with the usual arguments of 'developing leadership, building healthy active lifestyles, forming character, being a spring board for elite performance, facilitating social and emotional growth, developing fitness and so on', but really, in my heart I cannot attest that every of my students would agree so passionately as I am advocating. Had the question been asked of me; name a student for which you have done all of these things and qualify your answer, I would fail. At best i could provide examples of different students whom are achieving small amounts of these things in isolated instances. Thus often I would agree to the stereotype in preference to my flawed defense of my profession. This was a theme of my younger years of teaching and testament that although I was newly qualified to teach I wasn't really teaching yet. I had a great conversation with a colleague and friend on a recent surfing trip to Portugal (This particular friend is a passionate surfer, skier and climber). I told him I was going to London for a PE conference next week, to which he remarked "I hated PE at school! I was only good at badminton, cricket and basketball". Curiously, I replied "Oh, do you play any of those sports now?" The answer, you probably guessed, "no". I believe that this conversation typifies sadly typifies the thoughts and experience of many people and highlights a fundamental flaw in our practice which we cannot ignore if we wish to move forward and and wish to be able to believe in what we do again. What we think we do and what we really do don't add up. Ill give you an example I think most might resonate with. Most programs of physical education throughout the world are underscored by the following philosophy. 'Provide our students with a variety of physical experiences and develop their FMS for sporting activity (tactics or physical literacy), make it enjoyable and they will (hopefully) find something they love and become lifelong lovers of physical activity' - job done! There are more and less sophisticated versions of this but essentially this translates into 3-5 week block rotations of different activities. Now I hope I am not taking you into uncomfortable territory here but I need to make the argument in 3-5 weeks you are teaching most of your students... Nothing. This is especially the case if you take the time out for some sort of pre and post testing and assessment. Therefore what you are actually assessing is what the student could do BEFORE they came to you, not what you have taught them. What they actually learn (probably in the first lesson) is if they like a, b, or c, sport or not (but this alone - illustrated by the case of my friend is no guarantee they will continue it). So I started looking for a new WHY (I knew I couldn't even think about the how or what until I had arrived at a why that was true and robust and student centered). What is it that we want the students in our care, that pass through our sphere of influence to be and to believe once they go (this is not what we want them to know or to have done - but what we hope that the are and they think). With this cause in my mind I spent the next years of my career thinking on it, reading on it, talking about it and experimenting with it. I want them to FLOURISH. I want them to be the best version of themselves they can imagine and I want them to believe in their ability to achieve this. That is all. The other (traditional) mission, and every derivative of it, has been redundant to me since that time. This is where I envisage spending the next phase of my teaching life. Strengthening the how having reclaimed the why.
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On Monday 22 April at 20:57 Dylan Blain said
Thanks Ash for another great review and to everyone for the fantastic comments that yet again lead me to challenge my own beliefs and practice. I completely agree with Andy on the fact that we must be passionate about our practice and learning to become the best we can so our students' learning experiences are the best possible. Getting all future practitioners to develop this passion for lifelong learning is a challenge and one that begins in school before they enter one of the many undergraduate PE/Sport courses. My route to PE teaching was through a Sports & Exercise Science degree followed by a PE PGCE. I believe that the access I was given to the latest work on Motivation during my undergrad degree provided me with a great grounding in some of the psychological theories relating to creating lifelong, self-determined participants in physical activity, something we all strive to do. I could pick numerous other examples from my degree which I have been able to apply to my teaching however many of these are recalled as I continue to try an learn and improve by reading, watching a talking/discussing with others. My postgrad course then gave me the basics needed to teach and also some great ideas to try once in a job (e.g sport education models). It is only upon starting the job and teaching a full timetable that you start to realise what can and can't be done, what works and what doesn't, and importantly what is sustainable as a PE teacher. It is through this continual learning and self-reflection that we can all improve upon what we deliver. All the information that I gather from sources like this and twitter etc are what lead me strive to be the best I can as a PE teacher. We therefore must strive to encourage students to become reflective and teach them how and where to access information to help them. The online community has been invaluable to me to keep learning and I have tried to spread the good practice that I learn about to my dept. this is then often challenged and refined so that we develop strategies that work for us. In this sense the diversity of backgrounds we have in the dept can be beneficial as it brings together different thoughts, beliefs and experiences with the ideas gained to develop strategies and practices.
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On Thursday 25 April at 14:48 Dr. Lee Schaefer said
Ash, I remember reading this article in my graduate work, it is interesting how time and space shift the lens that we view literature. I think I am now more conflicted over this move towards an interdisciplinary physical education then I was the first time I read the article. This post could go in 10 different directions...ill try this one. The pedagogy of physical education, due to this diversification, has become more marginalized then ever. The research on pedagogy in physical education also seems to have become less than. I would bet you have been inundated at the US conference with physical activity programming. This move, partly I think, has been in the interest of survival (insert Neo-liberal agenda here). In some way creating joint degrees with kinesiology programs brings validity to physical education. Some programs in Canada, you need a kin degree before you can move into your education classes. You take 4 years on the science of movement, and 2 on education. What does this illustrate? This chaos in terms of "who we are," spins into "what we need to know more about," which creates a national research program that is all over the map. Some people are bailing water out of the boat, and some are jumping overboard. As was mentioned, we see snippets of this on twitter, amalgamation of PA, fitness, PE, Kin etc. While I agree that differing views allow for critical thought, as a nation we need to create a research agenda that is coherent. Perhaps, as a subject area that is PE, we need this. A concerted effort to advocate for the importance of physical education pedagogy, for a distinct difference between bio-mechanics, motor development.... and.....teaching students how to become involved life long in the joy of movement. I know that we are under siege in our particular program. The Kin faculty is larger then it has ever been, the PE pedagogy program needs more "bums in seats." There is a call for indiginizing the curriculum, there is a call for infusing social justice. These calls often turn into created courses which get "plunked into programs," often in place of pedagogy courses. As you can see, I have little to offer in terms of silver bullets, but I do know that if we continue on the PA spectrum away from PE, PE will become a 30 minute walk during the day, or 30 minutes of activity where there is no emphasis on education for, in, or about the physical. Perhaps this blog, twitter may be a venue to begin strategizing how we get back to a place where PE is enough.

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