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The ends and not the means of PE: Who decides which is important?

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored physical literacy that emphasised the importance of movement. Last week’s blog considered how we could create experiences in physical education for all to achieve, where Whitehead asked us to consider how could we ‘open doors’ for physical activity through the life course

In this blog we explore constraints of changing practice. It suggests that whilst we may have a desire to change our practice and improve the learning experiences for young people, what we do on a daily basis in physical education is constrained by the expectations of our schools and the expectations of society. Subsequently, whilst we may try to innovate, the learning experiences provided for young people are also dependent on these extraneous expectations. The paper suggests that if we are to change and allow innovations to exist then we need to work with the school and we need to work towards changing public expectations. Without such focus all we do is more of the same. .


Paper 25:

E.A. Williams (1985/2012). Understanding constraints on innovation in physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 443-450) London: Routledge.


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

What is the ‘end’ of physical education? What is its objective, its outcome, its purpose? What would the mission statement above the gym door say? “If you’ve come here to win then enter and be victorious. Losers are not welcome!” Or another ‘motivational phrase coined by an elite coach to inspire the players? Or would it read “Physical activity is for life - all welcome. Step inside to continue this lifelong journey”. While I would hope the latter, it seems that what we think should be the ‘ends of physical education’ are lost in the means. In others words, the problem seems to be that we often lose sight of what we want to achieve and instead focus on the activities and the outcomes of ‘winning’. So for example, lifelong participation is lost in the desire to be a good footballer, and producing good footballers become the objectives of our lessons and programmes.

So what are the means to our ends? Currently games would be the dominant one but anything that occurs in physical education could and should be considered as a means. The means to the end is important and personally I got a huge amount out of my games playing days in physical education. The ends of my physical education experience were competitive sport and it this is what I took with me when I became a teacher. However, as I have suggested repeatedly across this series of blogs, not everyone had the same experiences of physical education that I enjoyed. Indeed, games and competition can be alienating for some. However, I wasn’t alone in believing that games and competition were the means to my desired end. In fact, I was supported by the school and the parents in my pursuit of success for the teams that I coached. My ‘job’ was to bring prestige to the school though the success that the students under my care achieved. But how did this happen?

It happened because it was what was expected to happen. My beliefs around physical education matched those of my colleagues, my management team, the governors and the parents; indeed the others schools in the local area. We frequently got invited to rugby tournaments but never to football or basketball ones. We supported rugby and resourced it, local firms sponsored shirts and parents attended fixtures, and yet the same couldn’t be said for other activities. It was these factors that helped us to maintain the status quo and yet it was also one of the factors that made the development of alternative sports or activities more difficult. Cheerleading and Lacrosse were two new ideas that were attempted but they met with resistance.

Innovation in schools is hard not just because the internal structures of the school make things difficult (for example, the time we have to invest in doing things differently and learning new things). The external structures and expectations around which schools are built are also a problem. School sport is a term that is often used in British society that reflects the importance society places on sport. This is an example of one expectation that make physical education a legitimate school subject in the eyes of the wider world. However, PE has long argued that it is about health and wellbeing and is capable of playing its part in the obesity crisis. Yet the means it uses to meet these ends (sport) have been called into question. If physical , for example, is the goal then how could we be better positioned to meet these goals. If we were innovative in our curriculum selection? If we broke the expectations of sport and competition that are encouraged by the school, parents and outside of school sports clubs?  So I ask what makes innovation with change happen? And who are the stakeholders in this process?


The Paper

William’s asks us to consider the many different human factors and practical constraints that get in the way of innovation in PE. She asks us to consider why it is difficult to develop, disseminate and implement new ideas and initiatives on PE - because teacher autonomy in curriculum decisions is not as clear cut as we might think. The statement “I had the autonomy to teach what I wanted” may not be what it is cracked up to be. Do we really understand what it takes to be involved in curriculum change? 

Physical education, Williams argues is seen as an important aspect of the school curriculum. Indeed, like maths and English, it is seen as essential and so it continues to survive. However, unlike maths and English it is not seen as central to the curriculum. Instead it is peripheral. In other words, we must have it but not support it. But why is it essential but not a central feature of curriculum and school? Williams argues that the lack of importance placed on physical education as a valued subject in comparison to maths and English is due to the expectations around the subject from outside of school, where physical education is seen as ‘merely’ being about sport and recreation.

Sport and recreation, Williams suggests, are socially significant and form an important element of life for the wider public - a wider public that in turn serves to legitimise physical education in schools. So we go round and around the vicious circle. Sport and recreation is important so we endorse it. Sport often means competition. This places an undue emphasis on the talented few and the expense of the majority. So we look to innovate and break the status quo. But this isn’t supported by others who define PE as sport and recreation. So we stop innovating and the majority of students are left out of meaningful and worthwhile learning experiences. They grow up and have kids of their own. Yet they still see PE as sport and recreation so they support this idea when they see their children doing it and don’t like it when it changes. etc. etc.

The key, therefore, seems to be in selling the idea of change outside of the department and even the school. How can an innovative idea be best presented to the public so that the innovation is seen a legitimate form of physical education? Health-related fitness is one example that Williams uses to show how this might work. The wider public has bought into health-related fitness (potentially as a result of the messages around an obesity crisis) and it has become a legitimate part of the curriculum. These are the lessons that we need to learn if we want innovation in PE to work beyond our good ideas. Williams’ paper suggests that it is not about only selling good ideas to teachers and schools, but also the wider public. 


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 Vicky Goodyear whose work behind the scene as copy editor is an important part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence.


Andy Vasily
About me
On Wednesday 26 June at 02:13 Andy Vasily said
When looking at this blog post and reflecting upon William’s paper on the constraints of changing practice, many key considerations come to mind regarding innovation in PE. Taking a hard look at ‘who decides what is important’ requires us all to have an open-mind when trying to answer this question. Let’s define who we are answering this question for. Is it our administrators, our parents, our district boards of education or other governing bodies, or are we answering this question for our biggest stakeholders, the ones who count on us the most--our students? When answering this question, in my opinion, we must look at the 21st century needs or our students, not only from a PE point of view, but also from a holistic perspective. What are the biggest needs of our students as we move forward in the 21st century? In my opinion, physical, social, cognitive, and mental development are all essential elements that are all intertwined and very much dependent on having a balanced curriculum that puts the needs of our students at the very heart of our programs. It should never solely be about teaching only sports specific skills and concepts in our PE classes. Getting our students to inherently value lifetime fitness isn’t just about keeping them as active as possible. Defining exactly what skills and traits, we as teachers, will arm our students with at the end of their time with us is critical and should be unwavering and sound. This is the means and the end in itself. Our pedagogical beliefs, values, teaching philosophy, and student-centered approach must be consistently woven within the fabric of our lessons, units, and programs should we help our students to realize success in the 21st century. Our energy and effort must go into developing self-confident, motivated, kind, caring, independent, and competent students. Will that alone help to defeat the obesity crisis facing many developed nations? Absolutely not, but with consistency over time shown by all teachers, not just in PE, a dent will be made in this crisis. Added value to this is the importance of developing risk-takers who are curious and willing to explore and discover new recreational and sport activities (not just ones that they have already mastered or are good at). Our curriculum must allow for these explorations and discoveries if our students are to find true value and ownership over their learning. I agree with William’s in the fact that selling the idea of change outside the department and the school, within the greater community is critical should innovation in PE be regarded as legitimate. However, this alone will not do it. Ongoing advocacy for quality PE is an essential component to creating long term sustainable change within our profession. Creating strong lines of communication between administration, parents, governing bodies and making connections with fellow PE teachers around the globe, via social media, who share in the same vision is also a must do. Creating a connected, universal web of excellent teaching practice will continue to make a difference and raise the bar over time. We are all equal stakeholders in this process and are responsible for making this happen should the global view of PE change for the better. Sound too airy fairy, idealistic, or impossible to achieve? I don’t think so. I am a believer and will hold true to my vision as I know many passioned educators out there are doing the same. It is a marathon and not a sprint. In the long run we shall prevail. Thanks for listening.

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