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Tinkering around the edges is not enough: gender sensitive physical activity programmes

Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored that through ‘our’ actions and inactions, and our voice and ‘non-voice’ we have been compliant in western societies pursuit of being slim as a measure of a healthy good-looking citizen. The blog explored hidden and demonstrable roles that physical educators have played in enforcing and reinforcing the mandates of the ‘Cult of Slenderness”. In other words, in doing nothing we are guilty of collusion, but the blog also asked if we have supported the idea of slenderness through the idea of physical education.

This week’s blog explores suggests that we need to look hard at physical education and its gendered nature and consider starting again from scratch. In seeking to make physical education genderless we have favoured one idea of engagement i.e. team games, over any other and then watched, confused, when girls show through their actions and inaction that they don’t like being in the boys’ classroom. The blog suggests that only by being gender sensitive and understanding what it takes to lead an active life will we make physical education a place for all. 


Paper 23:

Vertinsky, P.A. (1992/2012). Reclaiming space, revisioning the body. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 396-423) London: Routledge.


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

Given some of the ways I think I behaved as student (both in high school and university) and as a young teacher I feel that I am the last person who should be writing this blog this week. I don’t ever recall doing anything ‘wrong’ but on reflection (and I have a lot of time to do that) I was a product of a very traditional games programme at school and went on to maintain that as a player of rugby and cricket and then as a games teacher. It made sense to me to continue to advocate for such a programme and to maintain the status quo with regards to single-sex classes based on traditional sports. Therefore, this blog could be similar to the ex-smoker who in seeing the error of her or his way when he/she becomes an anti-smoker.

I guess my previous actions and beliefs is one of the things that strikes home the hardest when reading a paper like Vertinsky’s. It seems that the old saying “you can’t see the wood for the trees” applies to teaching in physical education, and as a result we end up seeing what suits us best. I saw that that the programmes of traditional sports that I had engaged with as a student of physical education and a rugby player worked, and therefore I felt these served as a measure of good practice for the students I would teach as a physical educator . I didn’t challenge my part in student disengagement or even consider why my friends would ‘opt out’ rather than ‘buy in’. Instead I tried to engage students in the physical education experience that had engaged me. This lack of acknowledgement and “you can’t see the wood for the trees” seems to be the issue at the heart of Vertinsky’s paper.

Indeed Vertinsky argues that we have readily accepted male-defined standards of strength and power for physical education. We have stressed the differences between men and women rather than acknowledging that, while there are differences, we are more closely related to one another than any other species on the planet. In this way, we don’t challenge enough how physical education is organised and taught in schools and what learning outcomes should be expected

However, we’ve also been guilty of adhering to a self-fulfilling prophecy; by ‘accepting’ that boys take the dominant leadership roles (e.g. a coach) and girls the subservient ones (e.g. a recorder); by allowing boys to thrive on competition and girls cooperation and by using practices that lead boys to dislike ‘sporty’ girls and label these girls as ‘lesbians’ - because they beat them at for example, Football.

If we continue to adhere to a self-fulfilling prophecy then we support the current social misconceptions around gender rather than looking at the biological ones. “Girls can’t throw” is just not true - there are many women who can certainly out throw my 37 metre javelin personal best and yet the label is made to fit. Boys don’t like dance is also a convenient lie, especially when you see the number of boys appearing on talent shows to highlight their obvious skills.

So how do we  take things forwards?. How do we change physical education and move beyond the self-fulfilling prophecies that were potentially how we were taught in school? Could we metaphorically enact the Great Flood that Moses endured in the bible and wash everything away? What would happen if we did? Could we start from an idea that was fundamentally different to the one that we have now? Seems like the time for tinkering has passed...it is time to make a real difference, if we are to break the gendered stereotypes that exist in our classrooms.


The Paper

Vertinsky argues that we need to transform physical education through agency and action. We need to shift our focus from the body and training to one that looks at social and cultural analysis of issues pertaining to health. We need a radical review of the range of activities typically available in schools, and we need to acknowledge that many girls simply do not like their current physical education programmes. She argued that the place for this to start is with teachers and teacher training, but that it would also require the profession to convince parents and administrators who often act to hold teachers in check and maintain a notion of physical education that they recognise.

She does this by exposing a number of myths and common (yet well entrenched) views that women are frail and that therefore girls need to be protected and limited in the types of exercise and sport that they have access to. In this way, men and boys engage in masculine sports that celebrate speed and power while women and girls engage in gymnastics and dance - rhythmical activities. Even when equal opportunity legislation came in, coeducational physical education simply reinforced these ideas. Vertinsky holds that girls were simply invited into the boys’ physical education classrooms and that these classrooms simply did not acknowledge the needs of both genders. The boys were more active than girls and the girls were blamed for having the wrong attitude. Subsequently, the boys actively harassed girls, controlled the available space and limited girls’ participation in games. Even when teachers modified games to favour girls (i.e. only girls can score) this only served to ‘prove’ that girls needed help to beat the boys, and they didn’t have the strength or power that was needed to score without these conditions on the games.

As a result of participating in a boys’ class, the girls were put off physical education and they opted out. The idea that they weren’t as good was simple reinforced through a lack of practice time in comparison to the boys. Teachers weren’t in a position to help as they lacked the experience (having taught single sex classes for most of their lives) and the pedagogical knowledge to do anything differently (we all know what it is like to bring in an activity that we know little about). However, what Vertinsky argues is that co-ed didn’t equate to gender equitable classes. In other words opportunities were often weighted in the favour of boys.

On the basis of the findings discussed in this paper, Vertinsky  argued that we need to develop a ‘philosophy of gender-inclusiveness’ that “locates gender inequality in the social relations of exercise and sport rather than in biological and behavioural differences between girls and boys”. In other words we need to change the gender stereotypes we learnt, and that have existed since we were students and sports players. One of the ways that she suggests is to look at what ‘gender-sensitive active living’ might look like. Girls don’t want ‘girl appropriate sports’. Therefore this means changing the spaces in schools and the pervasive language and opportunities that limits girls to what we feel are appropriately ‘girly’ things.


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 09 June at 22:27 Anne McKay said
An age old issue that often raises it's head as physical educators work to find the best way of providing relevant and meaningful programmes. I even wonder if it is just a gender issue or perhaps more one of what is relevant for young people of today. if we do buy into the idea of girls and boys physical education programmes or contexts we are yet again placing our students into pre determined boxes. If you are a girl you must like dance if you are a boy team games are your thing. Boys and girls also have different interests and learning needs - not so much based on gender but on prior experiences and opportunities and even then acknowledging that it may just come down to individual interest and motivation. Coming back to my 13 year girl twins that I spoke of (very late in the piece) in the last article, both have had similar experiences and opportunities however have quite different learning needs in a physical education setting and very different interests when it comes to context. I was even reflecting on such gender differences over the weekend as I watched my daughters 13th grade girls team play on a half field while the boys 10th grade team played on a 3/4 field and wondering why? Perhaps it might come down to teachers letting go a little and involving students in developing programmes of work. Possibly easier said from a NZ point of view as our curriculum is very open and not at all prescribed meaning that schools and departments do have more flexibility in what and how they teach. This is seen by some teachers as a blessing as they can be more responsive to their own students and a curse by others as it does take more time and energy and can be challenging when you do not have the programme set from the year before, however where students are more involved in and included in programme design I believe there is more potential for relevant and engaging programmes - not based on whether or not you are a girl or a boy but on what is switching the learning light on. The following reading is interesting in seeing how this might happen http://www.nzcer.org.nz/research/publications/better-professional-students-co-contributors-educational-design
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On Wednesday 12 June at 03:07 Jo Bailey said
I am product of a very traditional PE program - boys and girls sports were clearly defined and there were activities/ sports that one gender or the other simply did not play. One of those was rugby and it annoyed me no end that we were not allowed to play. Luckily at university I was given that opportunity and I am so thankful for that- it opened no end of doors for me and gave me great enjoyment as a player for many years. Unfortunately I still encounter old-school teachers who ignore one gender or another within their classes (or sports teams) (happened when I was at school) and I also fell foul of some of the assumptions made about females in sports, something I had not been exposed to while at school. I do think, certainly where I am, the tide is shifting. Zumba and other dance classes are seeing males join in and chose to take the class as a semester option- the expectation for all activities is to try but I have been pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement of some students with Zumba in particular. Being a female teaching rugby also helps me because it breaks down another stereotypical wall. I do not accept gender related excuses or misconceptions - the notion of "girly push ups" or "throwing like a girl" are two common phrases you hear with regards to sporting prowess, but ones that can quickly be thrown out with role models serving as examples, both societal and within the class. Remember that many of these misconceptions are passed from generation to generation so I fully expect it to take a while longer to seep in fully. However, we as PE teachers are the agents for change and need to address these issues when they arise.
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On Thursday 13 June at 11:35 Mike McMillen said
Like many other PE teachers, i came through a school system that also contained single-sex classes and consisted mostly of traditional sports. Boys would do football, rugby, basketball, while girls would do gymnastics, dance, netball, hockey. There were very few sports that were covered by both genders. When facilities were limited perhaps due to the gym being used for exams for example, girls generally received the short straw, being restricted to whatever space was available after the boys has been given priority choice. When it rained, boys were allowed to have PE outside, yet girls had to remain indoors. When coming from a background that promotes so many inequalities, without our experiences and thoughts being challenged, these inequalities are likely to remain in place. Teacher training needs to reflect this, so that students of future generations do not grow up believing these inequalities are acceptable. I think Vertinsky highlights an important issue as he suggests that at times 'girls were simply invited into the boys’ physical education classrooms. Both genders need to feel comfortable in their learning environment and it is important that the PE programme provides this comfort for both genders.

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