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I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. But is sorry enough?

Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored 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 - and we asked how long this label lasted, and what lasting impact this ability label might have on students.

In this week’s blog we reconsider Ennis’s notion that physical education, as a subject, owes more than just apologies to many students for their sport-based physical education experiences. She suggests that sorry is a first step but that actions speak louder than words. Indeed, without concerted efforts to ensure that we move beyond the poor practices that have plagued our subject area, then Ennis argues the subject will remain as a place of humiliation and embarrassment for some kids; not because of their race or gender (although this is still far too common) but because of their ability.


Paper 29:

Ennis, C.D. (1996/2012). Students’ experiences in sport-based physical education: [More than] apologies are necessary. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 81-85) London: Routledge.


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

When I look at the way in which PE teachers are portrayed in the media – be it in the international media, in films or on TV – it makes me cross. Essentially teachers are portrayed as doing a poor job and providing poor learning experiences for young people. Yet these are not the lessons good teachers strive to teach. Even teachers who are so firm entrenched in the idea that there is one traditional WAY of teaching PE, work hard to put the needs to their students first. 

However, when I talk to friends about their PE experiences, they seem to more closely reflect those portrayed in the media.  When I think back on my earlier career, and the lessons I experienced myself as a kid, I recognise these media portrayals of PE teachers. I didn’t experience the caricature of a PE teacher that sees so popular in the media but my teachers (across multiple schools) displayed the traits – so to speak. Yes, they wore tracksuits and carried whistles and a large bunch of keys. Yes, they were athletic and competent sports performers – normally in games. Yes, they raised their voices and use physical activity as punishment. I did all of these things as a teacher myself. But, despite this, PE was a place where I thrived but I am increasingly aware that I was the minority in my class of 30.

At a recent school reunion I was described as the ‘sporting guy’ and ‘the last person expected to get a PhD’ and that seems like a fair summation of my life. However, in contrast to many of the ‘sporty’ students I didn’t always get on with my PE teachers. Sometimes the punishment runs were too much and the focus on winning inter-school games wasn’t always ‘ fun especially when we had a below par rugby team and especially in the wet and cold. But as a player and one of the ‘sporty’ students you ‘sucked it up’ and ‘got on with it’.

But if I hated it at times, and yet enjoyed PE, I wonder if the aspects of PE that my not so sporty peers hated and enjoyed differed.

When I take this situation forward from my teens to the beginning of my career as a PE teacher then I know that many kids experienced both sides of this coin – loving it but hating bits of it or hating most, if not all of it. This is the bit that I need to apologise for and that, as a profession, we all need to do more than apologise for. We all know colleagues who teach this way – sometimes in celebrated sport-based programmes – who are either unaware of the potential impact they are having on the kids or who doggedly stick to curriculum approaches and teaching methods that favour the most able at the expense of the rest.

It is hard to change your own approach to teaching and learning – often against many obstacles – but is this enough? How to we cater for everyone’s engagement in our programmes? Should we divorce our elite programmes and high performance expectations from our teaching and focus on the needs of each and every student?


The Paper

Ennis, writing more than fifteen years ago, wrote this paper as an argument for change. She argued that school sport is focused on high performance and rarely takes into account the “diverse characteristics of the individuals in school sport or the wide variety of contexts in which sport-based sport curricula are implemented”. She went as far as to suggest that the elitist notions of school sport constrain sport pedagogy and constrain our ability to acknowledge let alone address the negative practices that occur in schools. Indeed, while there are some sound even outstanding programmes that exist nationally and international, there are increasing evidence that the sport-based physical education that many (and in using the term many in this blog I mean that any child who experiences poor physical education is one too many) kids experience is neither positive nor beneficial.

For many kids sport-based physical education has had or will have a negative impact on their perspectives on physical education. Ennis suggested that many kids are already expressing (to researchers) their unhappiness about PE. She highlights research that indicates that some kids will dress for class but will not enter the game by choice and when they are forced to enter the field of play refuse to become involved in the competition. Ennis cites research indicating that boys and girls report an intense dislike for the embarrassment and discomfort they experienced in sport-based PE and suggests that kids reported being the subject of verbal and physical abuse from their peers. It is to these students that the first set of apologies are due for, as Ennis states, “no one should be required to endure these insults in an educational setting”.

It has been widely reported that stronger, faster and more aggressive players dominate sport-based PE programmes and they are often encourage to ‘“eliminate” weaker, slower, and more timid individuals’. These few individuals rule the roost in PE and the majority of the class are discriminated against and denied positive forms of sport as physical activity. Yet this is permitted in many programmes and this is a second apology that is owed especially when many of the sports that dominate school programmes are viewed as masculine. This means that boys who don’t participate and girls who do are subject to “negative social and sexual slurs”  – especially when these slurs come from other students and parents. Given the fact that this paper was written more than fifteen years ago, and given that the research that Ennis drew upon longer ago than that, it seems that there remains a gap between the needs of students and the programmes they are offered. In other words little seems to have changed. 

Skillfullness is the currency of sport-based PE and those who have it prosper, while those who don’t experience discrimination and limited access to meaningful and positive physical activity. If we are to promote positive sport experiences then we need to “provide a meaningful, instructionally effective, and safe environment for all participants”. Yes, apologises should go out to those who might have wished to participate but who never felt safe to do so, to those who tried but were too embarrassed and to those who never felt comfortable. However, these apologies are “hollow and meaningless without concerted efforts to include all students in positive, school-based sporting experiences”.


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. 

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On Friday 02 August at 15:24 Mike McMillen said
I think what Ennis mentions resonates with most people when reflecting back on their PE experience in school. Skillfullness WAS the currency, the more you had, the more powerful you became within the class/school. Those without skill, suffered, deemed failures or surplus to requirements within the PE class. I say 'was' because from my own short experience of being a #physed teacher (3 years) I see a complete difference to my own experience as a student of PE to the experiences that I see my own students and many other students exposed to. For me I see PE more activity-based rather than sport-based, with the element of competition toned down or eliminated (an issue that probably requires further discussion than I have time for right now). I see PE teachers focusing and paying attention on each child's individual progress, researching and implementing ways in which they can engage all of their students, and trying to bury the past sins of PE. I'm sure that in some PE programs skillfullness is still used as a currency, but by collaborating with other PE teachers online I am greatly aware of the PE teachers who provide programs that aim at providing a positive and engaging experience for all. Yes we owe apologies, but these apologies will continue to fall on deaf ears until we can show people that PE can be a positive experience for all (ambitious, but I believe we have to aim for the top). I believe our actions now are benefiting more than before and others who have had bad experiences need to recognise this, and accept that we can't change the past, but we can change the present and future.
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On Friday 02 August at 21:04 Amanda Stanec said
I hate how we, as physical education professionals, are portrayed in the media. Yet, as a professor, I observed a lot of poor PE teachers along with the effective ones. What I don't like is when curriculum dictates what we can and can not teach. I think that it should be written in a way that various means to reaching outcomes can be met. These should be met with a balance of activities (including modified sport). If a model (such as TGFU) was used, modified traditional sport can be an awesome way to engage learners at the high school level. Differentiated instruction is par for the course in such a model. However, if exclusion games that failed to focus on skill development were the norm leading up to the high school years - even TGFU would be difficult for students to enjoy at the high school level. Rather than call for an elimination of activities that can (when done well) lead to great learning, activity levels, collaboration, and enjoyment - we need to make sure we hold ourselves accountable as professionals. While "traditional" PE may not be the norm - it still exists. My question is - how is this happening? How can we - as PE teachers - look at ourselves in the mirror when we offer this type of curriculum. I don't feel I need to apologize at all for my teaching. I planned diligently, I got to know my students, I used assessment to increase their enjoyment, motivation, and their learning. While far from perfect, I put my heart into it. It's exhausting - but so fun! Ennis is an incredible professional - I admire her work very much. She has done so much to push PE forward in North America. I loved PE - and was told I was a terrible writer and "not very good" in math. My program was traditional but I entered the profession knowing that I wanted to "help" those who needed me the most (obese, not physically literate). I think it comes down as much to how we were raised, our moral compass, our teacher education programs, and our professional development experiences. All have to align if we want to leave this world better (healthier, more active) than we found it!
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On Tuesday 06 August at 18:28 Adam Howell said
I have a lot of rambling thoughts on this topic that I am not sure I can tie all together in one post. I think the paper absolutely resonates--I experienced a traditional physical education program as a student as well. Actually, it may have been worse as I could 'opt out' of credits because I was also in marching band. Like Amanda and Ash, the stereotypical PE teacher we see in pop culture is one that I find very insulting and makes me angry. But, what can we do about it? Change is difficult and change takes time. There are many really good to excellent PE teachers out there who are dedicating their lifes work to this end, but its impact has not become a part of the main stream consciousness (at least in the United States). My biggest question really is--do we have research or data that investigates what types of physical education programs exist on a macro scale? I would think if we truly want to eliminate the nasty caricature of the PE teacher as a "non-too bright individual, a companionable man of action but not someone with whom to engage in critical conversation" than I think it starts by taking a critical look at what our current programs look like? Are sport-based programs still the norm? I would also be curious as to the quality of our teacher education programs (once again, my lens is that of a United States context), and what happens there? Amanda or Ash--are PE teacher prep programs accredited at all? Can anyone be a PE major or are programs selective in who they accept? In the US, there is so much focus on obesity and the research that exercise improves our brain function/memory is finally becoming main stream as well. However, whenever I read about proposed solutions for the problem, it seems that quality physical education in our schools is rarely offered as one. This is a pretty tough pill to swallow.
Ashley Casey
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On Thursday 08 August at 12:40 Ashley Casey said
To start with Adam's comments I am not sure we have a definitive list of the different type of programs that exist in teacher education - I guess each country does it different - but all teacher ed course in the UK are registered and have to work through the government. There are statutory requirements for each student to meet, and hopefully surpass, and everything is closely monitored. Lots of my colleagues report on witnessing some great practice but are disappointed to frequently see the same traditional, teacher-centred ROBers (Roll out the ballers if you have seen me use that acronym before) that this article talks about when they go into schools to observe our students' teach. I am greatly encouraged by the people I talk to on Twitter and who read this blog - if these folk are the rule (in terms of PE teaching) then we are in great hands. However, I think they are still the minority (given what people say) but I have no evidence for this outside of anecdotes. I think until the companionable man or woman myth is finally dispelled then we are facing an up hill battle (like running on a treadmill just to keep up with the current perception of the PE teacher let alone get beyond it) to change public perceptions of PE. Perhaps, by acknowledging that things have gone wrong in the past and vowing that we will not allow these practices to continue - not through direct criticism perhaps (as this is confrontational and you might not be a position to do that) - but by helping our friends and colleagues to reconsider what it they do in their classes and to find others ways of doing things that include and encourage all their students. In this way, as Amanda suggests, we will leave our profession healthier and stronger as a consequence of us being there and taking an interest. As for Mike's suggestion that change will only happen when people can see the difference - this means showing the world the great things that we do. We need to be confident that anyone, anywhere could walk into any school and any gym and see outstanding practice. I am not confident that we are close to that position yet...but I do feel that things are moving forwards. We need to advocate for our profession and be clear that we will not condone any practices that would later require apologies.
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On Thursday 08 August at 13:05 Amanda Stanec said
Interesting conversation! I only have a moment but wanted to share these with you Adam. Like in the UK, there is an accreditation process for PETE programs in both Canada & the US. Canada - http://www.ccupeka.ca/en/index.php USA - http://www.ncate.org/ Some programs don't have PE teacher educators teaching all the classes - for a variety of reasons! But, many do. PETE programs have changed DRASTICALLY since I attended undergrad 1994-1998. I received a very traditional education. Alas, if I hadn't went on to study (because I knew I had lots to learn) & sought many PD opportunities, I am not sure I would offer a program that was anything other than traditional. Ongoing and excellent PD is so necessary! :)

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