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Knowing about something is not the same as doing it: Girls apparent engagement and disengagement in PE

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education


In the previous blog we explored the ideas around the lack of change in physical education. Williams (1985), writing almost 30 years ago, suggested that changing practices in the classrooms it takes more than an individual desire to change. We need to involve those outside of the classroom, such as parents or local community clubs, to change the expectations around the subject and allow innovations to survive.

This week’s blog explores the idea that there is an expected way of being a student in physical education and then there is another way; an individually right way. In other words, the paper has explored girls’ engagement with physical education and the expectations that surround girls’ participation in sport.


Paper 26:

Azzarito, L., Solmon, M.A., & Harrison, L. (2006/2012). “...if I had a choice, I would...”: A Feminist poststructuralist perspective on girls in physical education In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 7-39) London: Routledge.


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

The message from this paper seems to be that, whether you’re a girl or a boy you are expected to behave in a certain way. These gender expectations have a greater influence over the way you act than you own desires. In other words, at school kids appear to trying to be the person who they want to be known as rather than themselves. For example, regardless of a girl’s personal enjoyment and desire to be physically active, being active isn’t the expectation for a ‘girly girl’ and therefore they opt for inactivity. In a similar way, we could argue that whilst a boy might enjoy dance as a physical activity, this choice doesn’t meet the expectations around being ‘manly’ so rugby or football are chosen instead. This choice then serves as an expression of acceptance rather than as the boy’s preference for the ‘real’ activity that he enjoys.

The girls’ behaviour that is explored in this study shows that for some physical education wasn’t a place they wanted to be physically active. Instead they either chose to take physical activity both in and out of school, or they found that fitting in (i.e. not participating in lessons) was the way of ‘doing’ PE and they were active in private. These decisions to fit in were often based solely on their expectations that boys were better at PE than girls. In other cases it was based on the idea that there was a difference between the same activity when it was played at school and when it was played at home.  In particular, playing with boys or the other students who weren’t in their ‘friendship’ groups changed the appeal of the game.  Subsequently, participating in physical activity was seen as something to do out of school with family and friends, it was not something to do in school.

However this love for an activity, coupled with an unwillingness to engage in it at school, has implications for girls’ participation in PE. The idea of gendered games (Netball, gymnastics, dance) was not one that the girls in this study appreciated and yet the games they liked to play (even football) either weren’t made available to them or they had lost their out of school appeal.

Much has been written, and many films portray, the difficulties of school - from a social context. The idea that school is something to survive is certainly something that is strongly portrayed in the media. This portrayal means that girls’ awareness of gender stereotypes and inequalities is only the first step to changing schools and school physical education. In contrast to many of my own experiences of teaching girls and much about what is said in the media, when girls behaviour was explored they actually weren’t unwilling to participate, and nor were they passive in their decisions not to be involved. However, they wanted a choice in what they did. To this end I wonder if it is worth considering how powerful choice might be in physical education. How many girls would be involved if it was on their terms? It would seem that girls understand the benefits of physical education but they choose not be involved. They know what they want but it isn’t what we seemed to have assumed - i.e. not to get involved because they might look unfeminine - instead it is often because they don’t see the value in what they are being asked to do.


The Paper

Azzarito and colleagues begin the paper by exploring the commonly held ideas around girls’ non-participation in physical education in schools. The authors build a common picture around girls experience of physical education using terms/phrases such as alienation, sexist practices, gender roles, inferiority, meaningless, powerless and marginalisation,. The “forceful occupation” by boys “of space, skillful control over objects, or physical power” are then cited as common ideas that allow the physical competence and dominance of boys to prevail in physical education.

These ideas around girls have almost been accepted in society. Issues of power have allowed for ideas around the domination of boys and the subordination of girls to become commonly held ‘truths’ rather than biological fact. Girls are seen as powerless and frail. They are also portrayed as simply not valuing movement or physical activity. The strength of these beliefs is such that, in wanting to be a women and womanly, girls seek to conform to being powerless and frail, and don a ‘costume’ and put on a show much like when an actor wears a costume to perform. Indeed, such has become the expectation that girls don’t take part in PE that they have become the ‘problem’ and we have looked beyond the curriculum (and what it offers) in our effort to blame the individual.

The structural organisation of physical education lessons and the programmes we offer, these authors suggest, are in part to blame.  Physical education allows the girls to perform as girls and the boys to perform as boys. There seems to be a separation in what each gender can and can’t do. For example, in offering boys’ games and girls’ games, and in limiting the options of both, “common sense assumptions” about what is natural for a girl or boy to do arise. Yet this study suggests that there is a difference between what girls will do outside school and what they will do inside school. When in school they might reject their role and the types of physical activity they are permitted to play, while outside school they understand and engage in activity. This often unseen reality highlights the difficulties that exist for PE but also emphasises the need to make the subject socially relevant to young women.  

Azzarito and colleagues found that while girls enjoyed and valued physical activity they also made conscious decisions about how and when to be involved. Furthermore, they showed how girls’ perceptions of their opportunities differed markedly from those who taught them. When it is clear that physical activity is important to girls, that is a positive experience, and it helps them to maintain and achieve fitness, then why is the expectation still that they don’t want to be involved? Popularity - which was associated with skillfulness - was seen as one reason not to be involved. The need to be seen as ‘lazy, and passive” was cited as another reason. These seem like spurious reasons not to be involved in school but they certainly indicate that the decision is not an individual one but a societal one - and is one that needs much greater consideration. 


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.


Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is an vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

Andy Vasily
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On Sunday 30 June at 01:52 Andy Vasily said
When addressing Azzarito’s paper on girls’ apparent engagement and disengagement in PE, I must say that I am shocked in the least, especially in regards to the terms and phrases used to describe the experiences that girls have in PE. Describing girls’ physical education experiences using terms such as alienation, sexist practices, gender roles, inferiority, meaningless, powerless, and marginalized calls into question our entire profession. It sounds more like the way a typical scene from the popular television series ‘Madmen’ could be described and this was a show set back in the 1960s. In all of my year’s teaching PE at both the elementary and secondary levels in 5 different countries, I have not seen a PE program that treats girls in this manner or causes them to feel alienated and powerless. However, there is definite truth to the lack of participation and engagement as described, but mostly at the secondary level. I would like to know which schools and districts Azzarito el co. visited and how they collated this information. I don’t dispute that this is what they may have observed from time to time. If they actually observed these horrific practices most of the time, the teachers, schools, and administrations of the schools they visited should be forced to undergo significant professional development and training. My gut instinct tells me that their research was not indicative of a true scope encompassing a wide representation of different schools from different districts and possibly even different countries. However, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that this is the case. What I can say is that there are distinct gender differences in the way males and females learn and what genuinely and intrinsically motivates them to better engage in learning tasks. There is no doubt that teachers spend loads of time planning for their lessons and units, but are these gender differences in learning taken into consideration? This is a critical element that must be reflected upon in order to better engage all of our students, both girls and boys in our PE programs. I have long been a proponent of giving students much more ownership over their learning in PE and document this journey with regularity on my blog. I have tested this out for years and continually modify and adapt what I do and how I instruct in order to maximize learning opportunities for both sexes. When doing so we must consider the fact that boys are more visual-spatial learners by nature and girls are more inclined to be verbal-linguistic in nature. This is the norm, but not always the rule. Creating more opportunities for girls to refine and better learn visual-spatial skills and concepts is critical, but tapping into their natural inclination to learn verbally and linguistically can enhance their learning and better engage them in PE. On the flip-side, boys need more opportunities to work on their verbal-linguistic skills in general in school and opportunities to do so can and should be implemented into our PE programs. These are critical transdisciplinary skills that are important in every day life. I truly believe that when we can better understand these gender differences from a social and biological perspective, we can begin to eliminate some of the issues related to girls’ disengagement in PE, especially as they advance through school. I know I have not even touched upon a number of other several important factors related to this topic, but as an initial starting point and response to Azzarito’s paper, I wanted to begin by stating my first thoughts. Another great blog post Ash. Must get more to respond as this is an important topic for more teachers to reflect on and contribute their thoughts to.
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On Tuesday 02 July at 10:27 Joanne Hill said
Hi Ash. A few thoughts from me. I think you have summarised Azzarito et al's message very nicely here. It is not a message that they alone argue; it's found in a number of investigations from the last 2-3 decades, but they have a good way of writing and encapsulating what is the issue. One thing I find interesting is your use of us and them: "us" for the PE profession/academic community, and "them" for girls. I was one of those girls who was disengaged in PE, found it irrelevant, useless, and designed for those who would get stuck in and already knew how to play (I spent most of my secondary years in a girls' grammar school). (Yes you might wonder how I've ended up where I am!). Am I an "us" or a "them", not sure. So it's a striking choice of language. I understand it though - with the in-service teachers I teach on masters programmes there is a frequent frustration with girls' disengagement and a desire to investigate further. Most of the teachers who wish to do this are women themselves, but whose own PE experiences were clearly positive and have led to a PE career. What does this tell me? That girls' experiences are not uniform. That some of us had terrible experiences, some of us had boring experiences, and some of us had great experiences. This one time, some of the time, all of the time. Equally, there are many disengaged boys who also make the choice not to be involved for similar reasons. For example in Tischler and McCaughtry (2011) they work with boys whose sense of self is deeply affected by their experiences in PE, who choose to forget kit, hide at the back, etc. so as not to be seen and hence laughed at for e.g. their low competence. There are a number of reasons why pupils choose to disengage or engage in a certain PE activity or other based on how their identity/sense of self is affected within that environment. Just as there are many girls who are engaged in PE and sport. Without writing a whole essay, I can say I support the idea that choice is central to re-engaging disengaged students; this comes up frequently in research, as does a need to provide a caring, supportive environment, and to consider what is it really that "we" want to get out of PE. I'd like to also address a couple of Andy's points in his comment. I find it difficult to support the notion that boys and girls learn differently from each other. I would suggest caution in claiming that gender correlates with differences in learning, that boys as a vast, diverse "group" ALL learn differently to the vast, diverse "group" that is girls. We just do not know what gender is, what difference gender makes, to be able to claim anything like this. In response to the claim that boys have better visual-spatial awareness - I suggest looking at a text like Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, who investigates the science behind these ideas and finds it wanting. Whether learning differences are psychological, biological or socially constructed, we just do not know enough about gender to claim anything, I would be suspicious that all boys learn in one way, the same as each other, and it seems restrictive to teach in a specific way depending on the gender identities in the group. Is it not less restrictive to teach to a variety of learning styles? Additionally, work such as that of Heather Sykes helps to question the notion of a binary gender system of girls and boys. I have recently begun a project with an adult dance school that specifically creates a non-gendered environment for people of all genders to learn ballet. For instance, all the learners do pointe if they want, all both bow and curtesy if they want, all learn both traditionally male dances and female dances. Partly this is to be inclusive to the many queer and trans learners in the school, and partly it's just inclusive full stop. Why create an artificial boundary around what can or can't be learnt and what the body can do in movement? In sum, my point would be: don't assume it's about gender, but don't assume it's not. Many of the things "we" think are about girls' differences to boys are actually not about gender, usually being far more complex than that. The differences among boys or among girls may be greater than those between boys and girls. Perhaps we only create better learning environments by attention to the individuals within a given group of learners.
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On Wednesday 03 July at 14:41 Mel Hamada said
Hi Ash, this is an awesome topic to debate and I have been thinking about your post for a while. I am really glad that Ms Hill commented before me as I also want to lay some weight to being a PE teacher but having a hard time in PE as a student. I found PE difficult but showed promise as an athlete (Track and Field) which confused me as a teenage girl. I can certainly empathise that if many teachers are following the PE teacher model from 30 years ago that more girls (and most likely boys that don't fit into the specific mucho style) will be negatively affected by looking at PE as a chance to play games - particularly games that boys are likely to be stronger at - mostly team games that involve power and good coordination and so if you aren't practicing these skills in school or after school then you will find them very socially and physically challenging leaving the better option to sit out and stay safe. Performance based ridicule is very real and very public and performance based anxiety is very powerful and has large knock on affects, and as we see students go from egocentric Middle School to social based High school, it becomes very clear that working in a Performance based environment and taking really huge risks is not the preferred option, and who could blame these students really? I agree with Ms Hill that it is important that we as teachers are looking at the environment we are offering our students and working to keep the learning risks minimal but to challenge our students every lesson and take them from strength to strength. I have some students in my class who are not happy PE students, it is important that we as teachers embrace this and make this part of our teaching - for boys and for girls. I would also like to add that like Andy, I have not seen as much pull-out or deliberate sit-out in my classes as I teach overseas, but that this was more of an issue in the public system in Australia before I moved away. It was hard to work with the girls and boys who were not keen on PE in school and I am not sure I can offer any solutions to this here. I would also say that culture and culture-bias can also be an impact on pull out of PE. I have found that my slight Asian girls are not keen to play many games in PE with the physically larger students, and who can blame them? It is also important to look at who you are playing in the same groups and make sure that the groups working together are going to be a bes-fit. I also believe that as we evolve our assessment in PE we will see more of our students have opportunity to do well in PE - less emphasis on performance based work and more assessment on other topics of discussion - knowledge, social or personal engagement, communication, variety of sports (team, pair, individual) and also looking at skills vs. performance (eg. not measuring time or distance in Athletics but looking at technique - I have found that my slighter students have the same opportunities to do well in Javelin by looking at technique over distance thrown - but those that can throw powerfully also have the chance to do well with good performance). Thanks for the chance to share = I look forward to more. Thanks also to Ms Hill, I have some new reading to do. PS - Dr. Ash this theme is killing me - can you move away from white text on black background as at night it is really hard to write! :)
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On Thursday 04 July at 01:20 Ross Halliday said
I have a related story for my first ever teaching role as a graduate from university back in Scotland. I was nervous at the prospect of starting of course, but was bursting at the seams to begin my teaching career after all my undergraduate preparations. One of my first classes was S3/S4 "core PE" (which is the equivalent of Yr 9/10 here in Australia where I teach now, I teach primary school now) at any one time when we had core PE there would be 4 classes, so over 100 kids. On the first lesson they would all be placed in the gym and given 4 options of activity, I was horrified when it became clear that there was a 5th option for all students with "no kit". They were marched off to a classroom and sat there chatting to each other for an hour, they subsequently did this for the rest of that unit, supervised by our soon-to-be-retired head of department. There were about 30 students in this category and at least 25 would be girls. Not only was "not doing it" an option, but it was consequence free and became acceptable to everyone, staff included. After all, it got the difficult students away from those who wanted to to participate so was "easier". As a new graduate with endless enthusiasm (which I hope I still have now 10 years on) I was really taken a back by this practice to the point where I was moved to ask if I could take the "non participants" for a unit. I'm not sure this was viewed as a good option by my colleagues and they were dismayed to hear I may even try to get them to do something active. They had a view of "we've tried, it won't work". I stuck it out for more than one unit, and after many relationship building hours (and I couldn't really garner any support for disciplining these students, again too hard as there were too many of them) getting to know them and listening to their reasons for not wanting to take part was all the strategy I really had. After listening it became clear that school, teachers, societal issues, were the "problem" not the students. Slowly, one by one and two by two, I was able to encourage them to take part in something of their choosing, my colleagues looked on in horror as i brought my old sports gear and runners for some of them to wear- no excuses! Thankfully when a new head of department started he brought in a clear, consistent, fair, and strong discipline policy to the dept which got the last few over the line. And in the space of one school year we had the students (mainly girls) doing something. They weren't always the best PE lessons I've ever taught and some of them involved more talking that doing stuff, but when I visited Scotland last year I met one of the girls and she said "we always remember you because you would never let us opt out. She said they "hated me" with a wry smile. I hope they understood it was because I cared about them and I cared about PE. My reason for posting this was simply to give a first hand experience. Often I/ we may get caught up in the theory of our subject, especially on the big issues. I believe, at the end of the day, we work with kids. They need to be given respect, they need to feel important and special and they need to "want" to participate in your class, and they need to "want" to never let you down. This means WE as the men and women who teach them, have a responsibility to breed these attitudes in our students, and accepting that sometimes we may not always win.

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