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Changing the Sun: themes rather than activities as the centre of children’s learning

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education


In the previous blog we explored what it means to be a physical education teacher in a ‘world’ that seems to want to continual diversify its knowledge base. It asked if it was still OK to have an idea of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘does’ when it’s teachers are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds, understandings and experiences. The discussions on the blog resonated with this concern and people were advocating for passion around teaching and learning to future proof our practices and make us proud of what we do. Different knowledge is not a bad thing. However, we need to embrace these ideas and spread our own good practices, while being receptive to the ideas of others. Above all, the respondents advocated for a joy of movement and a pedagogical focus on the child.  

This week’s blog builds on last week’s discussions and explores the idea that activities should not be the sun around which physical education revolves. Yet that notion seems to reflect the public and political perception of our field. In advocating for a new approach to physical education the authors suggested that a critical pedagogy of social justice should be positioned in our schools in place of the current agenda of elite performance. By replacing traditional activities (through which young people learn to be performers) with a thematic curriculum (where students learn through movement) the blog argues that children will, in the words of John Dewey, be the sun around which [physical] education revolves.


Paper 17:

Penney, D. & Chandler, T. (2000/2012). Physical education: what future(s). In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 285-306) London: Routledge.


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

The very fact that this paper was written thirteen years ago, and yet still seems aspirational and forward thinking, goes a long way to reinforce the sense of inertia that seems to exist in the wider policy and curriculum fields around physical education. It would be fair to say that this is not the first time I have felt this when reading papers older than this one for this blog and have seen the lack of change that appears to have occurred. That is not to say that the people I talk to at conferences, on social media and those who respond to this blog don’t inspire me. They do and yet I still wonder at the majority. When I approached one delegate at the AAPHERD conference I attending this week, and asked him if he wanted to attend our session on Cooperative Learning, his response was “my kids don’t cooperate” as if that was that and it was nothing to do with him. I wanted to shout at him and ask “whose fault is that! Theirs I guess, because you couldn’t possible have taught it wrong.” I didn’t, and I now wonder if I must take some responsibility for his lack of willingness to change.

It is this entrenched idea of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘is about’ that, it seems to me, is responsible for this inertia and it is what Penney and Chandler are writing against. The more examples we get of good and outstanding practice and the more these spread and proliferate our planning processes and appear in our classrooms, and the more we put the child and not the activity at the heart of everything we do then the momentum will start. But it will not happen of it own accord. I meant a lot of great people in North Carolina but they were talking of walking out of sessions and being frustrated by some of the messages emerging from different sessions. These were equally passionate people who are advocating for ideas that place in-class physical activity at the heart of everything they do in the hope that they can make a difference. It comes back to the idea of teaching someone to fish rather than handing them one.

Reading this paper it is clear that change hasn’t been very evident in the last thirteen years. Well not in the wider world at least. Yet in that time I have made radical changes to my approach to physical education and I am sure others have as well. Social media has given our community a voice, and while we are still a discordant voice in small communities, we are having an impact. The longest journeys start with a single step and while we might not be even remotely close to being ‘there yet’ we are under way and we need to remember that in times of exasperation.


The Paper

At the dawn of the 21st century Penney and Chandler asked what the contribution of physical education will be, indeed should be, in the education of children in the new millennium. They asked this question, it seems to me, from a position of scepticism as to the adequacy and appropriateness of current practices and structures, and in both “public and political perceptions of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘is about’”. Furthermore, they challenged us to consider how we might inspire and enable change that could improve the quality and quantity of the learning opportunities that are available to young people.

The argument they make around change is one that has been heard before, since, and will, unfortunately, be heard again. They argue that changing leisure activities, changing relationships between work and leisure, and changing interpersonal relationships (among other things) have all contributed to a feeling that physical education is falling behind. The consequence of being stuck in the past is that we are faced with a society that we continually want to change rather than one of which we can endorse. This brings us to consider the type of learner that we want to help develop and shape? Penney and Chandler are not alone, I feel, in advocating for an idea of physical education that is connected “within the subject, with other aspects of the curriculum, and with lives and societies beyond schools” and which has “a ‘lifetime approach’ to education”.

This paper is more than just rhetoric but it is certainly aspirational in its intentions. Having laid out the need for change the authors firstly argue for radical change “in and off physical education” and specifically in lesson contexts, curriculum design and in policy. They then move on to discuss a vision for a future curriculum that puts “a critical pedagogy for social justice” at its heart and argues for a very different voice in physical education and the development of a different message.

In calling for a new message Penney and Chandler argue that political and public perspectives of physical education position it as a ‘doing’ subject that can be equated to ‘sport’. One of the critical failures in curriculum design, teaching and learning is that we have allowed (or have adopted) a firm belief that there is only one possible structure and orientation for the subject to develop alone. So much so that what physical education does is now ‘obvious’ to policy makers and communities.

Their core message is that this obviousness has come to be represented by activities or areas of activity, and yet this is not what physical education is only, or primarily about. It is about proving opportunities for ALL children to experience enjoyment and achievement in physical contexts. These experiences, and the associated knowledge, understanding and skills they gain, serve as a basis for them to lead an active and healthy life. Furthermore, as teachers we are positioned to establish children as creators rather than just receivers of knowledge. In comparison, under activity-based structures the focus is on performance. This, in turn, seems to inevitably come back to elite performance in specific activities where control, accuracy and precision become narrow interpretations of activities.

Penney and Chandler's response to this is to suggest a thematically orientated, rather than activity-based curriculum, that can play a key role in “enabling, encouraging and extending participation and performance”. Themes such as movement and physical literacy, physical activity, health and fitness, competition and cooperation, and challenge form the heart of this proposed thematic approach, where a weaker framework allows learning to be more student and individually centred, and creates partnerships between teachers and students, involves parents and local representatives, and creates a new expectation around what physical education ‘is’ and ‘is about’.


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 Saturday 27 April at 04:19 Mike McMillen said
Although it's sad to hear that a delegate refused to take the opportunity to develop an area that clearly his class (and by the sounds of it him/herself also) need development in, their are plenty of practitioners out there who have a more positive approach towards PE. As a young teacher, I cannot comment too much on how the curriculum has changed and how we as practitioners have delivered PE, I can only reflect on what I have read and heard. I feel that for a long time now Physical educators have pushed for a more a thematically orientated curriculum, but society has refused to change, still believing that PE is just activity based. Now that social media is growing, will that start to change? Having recently become part of the growing twitter community and other social media outlets, I was amazed to find the amount of other Physical Educators out there advocating for a thematic approach. Now that we have a voice that is constantly growing, will it be heard? Can this be the tool that we need to adopt a more thematic orientated curriculum? Judging by the educators I follow, I believe it is. Politicians and the public are staring to hear us. More importantly the collaboration and sharing of ideas has become more simpler than ever. Establishing children as creators rather than receivers is no easy task, but now that we have the support and easy access to other practitioners worldwide, supporting the same views, that task becomes much easier and achievable. I know that since becoming part of twitter I have changed the way i teach, mainly because I feel more confident in doing so as I have the support of others. I believe that many others will also follow this experience and soon we will be providing a curriculum that enables, encourages and extends participation and performance.
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On Monday 29 April at 22:25 Nalda.wainwright said
Thanks Ashley for keeping this going, apologies for not commenting more. When I read the part about What physical education is about it made me think of the chapter in the recent debates in physical education capel and whitehead (eds) , where Margaret explores Arnold's ideas. For me it was particularly clear what pe is about when she spoke of education being about the education of the whole child, and if this is the case pe needs no further justification in a curriculum beyond its unique role in enabling the development of the embodied self. For me it felt like....yes why are we always making claims about what pe does, many of these claims other subjects can to do? No other subject contributes to the holistic development of the child like pe as they do not develop the physical, our problem is that society has for so long seen school as a place for intellectual development instead of the full filling of children's true holistic potential. we feel we have to find some intellectual basis or wider value for our subject. I don't think pe is about leading to an active active healthy life that is a broad role for many subjects, the home and society.....I PE is about each child being able to know who they really are and if an understanding of this leads to them relishing and enjoying themselves as a physical whole person then surely that may lead them to explore and enjoy their physicality throughout their life in many different contexts. For me pe should be a way for children to explore and develop this understanding of embodiment. .....that's just me and I am fairly brain dead from whole day of marking!!

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