• A
  • A
Switch colours to view the site as you prefer!

Ability is a fixed concept, but shouldn’t it be fluid?

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education 

In the previous blog we explored the link between what kids are doing in terms sport at 15 and what they are doing at the age of 53. It seems that, from the 38-year longitudinal study we investigated, the breadth of leisure time activity and grades in PE are significant indicators of future exercise habits, as is socio-economic standing. The blog argued that - given these indicators - we need to think radically different about PE and perhaps introduce a handicap system that helps everyone to succeed.

In this blog we explore how ability has been ascribed to students and that ‘we’ often assume that ability is fixed, rather than acknowledging it has a dynamic process. Indeed, when students enter our physical education programmes they are labelled - low ability, middle ability or high ability - yet how long does this label last, and what impact does this ability label have on our practice and our students?


Paper 28:

Evans, J. (2004/2012). Making a difference? Education and ‘ability’ in physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 67-80) London: Routledge.


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

I had the pleasure recently to meet with a former student of mine and we got to talking about school and, inevitably, physical education. He was - by his own reckoning and my memories - rubbish at PE. He was certainly a low ability student and while he tried hard (very hard) he just couldn’t succeed. Indeed, his story is unremarkable and I certainly never remarked on it until reading this paper. But what if we changed the definition of ability and what if we skewed the curriculum a different ways. If we did this - and put dance at the centre of his physical education experiences - then he would have been the highest achieving student that the school has possibly ever seen. He would have aced his school days and other - me included - would have been of low ability and considered ‘rubbish’ at PE.

Why do I so confidently say this? Because he is a professional dancer and a dance teacher who has toured the world and who continually seeks to choreograph new and innovative dances, pushing the boundaries of what it means to dance. He was in the university working with a colleague using technology to develop a group dance on his own. He was using video delay to create dances where he partnered himself or himselves. Stuff that I couldn’t get close to and my only way of using this technology was for audio feedback from students on a shot played or a point one...hardly cutting edge. Yet, neither school or his teachers (me very much included) positioned ‘ability’ in such a way that he could be seen as able in PE- even though he most clearly is. So what does this say about the idea of ability? How do ‘we’ define ability and does the ascribed ability status impact young people’s experiences of PE? 


The Paper

The rationale for this paper is a concern around issues of ‘ability’. Evans questions how ability is “recognised, conceptualised, socially configured and embodied in and through the practices of PE”. He questions if, as a profession, PE has serious considered how this impacts on the subject. He starts by defining PE as the subject matter itself and the people (researchers, teacher educators and teachers) and he then asked how PE has developed the hidden potential of students rather than simply reinforced the idea of ability that they arrived at school with. In this way he asks if talent is a fixed term in regards of performance capability and if PE has merely accepted the inevitability of ‘talent’ (and by default talentlessness). He suggests that the idea of educating ‘the body’ has almost disappeared from discussions about PE in teacher education and PE in schools. 

Evans doesn’t suggest that the idea of ‘ability’ is one that is constructed by PE. Instead, he holds that it is one that is embedded in society and reinforced in families and communities. Yet he does hold that as a consequence of these definitions of ‘ability’ PE has been required to try and compensate for any shortfall or lack of ability that students come to school with. In other words, family, culture, class or community are positioned to be blamed for a lack of ability and the school is required to engage in a programme of compensatory education  in order to make up for these perceived deficiencies. Examples of this are seen in PE when moderate to vigorous physical activity becomes the yardstick through which to evaluate a good lesson. The argument is often that this is the only PA that these kids will get but, as Evans suggests, PE cannot compensate for the poverty and deprivation that contribute to these issues. PE’s responsibility is to educate not train students.

In positioning compensatory education as a key rationale in schools, Evans argues that it takes the focus away from what is done in lessons and focuses instead on what needs to be ‘made up for’. Subsequently, quality PE that makes a difference to children’s ‘ability’ is lost and ‘ability’ is not seen as a problematic concept. Ability seems to be fixed and teachers compensate for individuals (or it could be argued that they teach to the middle and don’t compensate but that is another argument) rather than seeing ‘ability’ as a “dynamic process”. At present ‘ability’ is seen as a form of ‘physical intelligence’ - a “God-given, homogenous, immutable construct - that separates the able for the less able. It allows PE to show when children have reached or surpassed their potential but not when PE has surpassed its role as in education.

Evans argues that PE is a conservative force that builds on and reproduces ideas around ability rather than changing what ability means. He also suggests that schools - in maintaining their conservative and compensatory approach - have lost their ability to talk authoritatively about developing pupils’ physical abilities over 12 years of schooling.  ”Indeed, “we have not been overly concerned to identify, nurture and measure such ‘ability’, let alone make a difference by eroding the disparity between the haves and have-nots”. It falls to us to recognise “what ‘abilities’ are recognised, valued, nurtured and accepted, while others are rejected by whom, where and why in schools.”


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 a vital part of getting this blog out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

comment avatar
About me
On Saturday 13 July at 08:38 Ross Halliday said
Why are we PE teachers so obsessed with ability? In other subjects teachers see it as their duty to develop students ability in their subject and yet we somehow think of inability as a barrier to our teaching. Almost like the poor ability students are getting in the way of our great lessons. This "ability is all" attitude is the reason PE has turned off generations of people from physical activity who, just like the dancer above, have their own interests, talents and actually do pursue physical activity after school. But most of the time it is in spite of their PE experiences and not because of them. Perhaps this happens because most PE teachers were the "star performers" and therefore lack the empathy to think about the experience of the others? It has to stop. We must remember the bigger picture, developing a life long love for physical activity. Find what they students are good at, find out what they like, find out what they CAN do and encourage them to do it. Often. Ability is simply one of the many, many things that should be celebrated in our great subject. It is not the be all and end all.
comment avatar
About me
On Saturday 13 July at 11:34 Joanne Hill said
Another effective summary of a paper, Ash. I have been thinking about ability this week as I've been doing some interviews with adults in a beginners' dance school. The dancers are often completely new to ballet/tap/hip hop - whichever class they go to - but what has consistently been said by the dancers is that they have joined this school because other classes expect some level of ability/knowledge in dance before starting (as well as the "right" body shape), even in a total beginners' class elsewhere they have felt like they were behind even at the start. In the classes I'm researching in, they are under no pressure to know or be anything before starting. Progression is celebrated, but not central - at the end of a series of lessons, if any dancer feels unsure about performing a particular move, they can sit out, stand back, or just have a go without any pressure to get it right; they don't need to have progressed, whether they have "ability" or not. It's so relaxed and centres the movement experience and enjoyment, not any measure of improvement or ability. I've been wondering if this is something that can be translated into PE. Does grading, levelling and an age-appropriate curriculum restrict understand of ability to something that needs to be progressed and built upon? Or something that you have innately or you don't? Does ability implicitly mean hierarchy? Are teachers under pressure to show that their pupils have progressed?

In order to add your comments, you must login or register as a member

You can login or register here