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Eminently replaceable?

The previous blog explored the idea of bio-pedagogy and argued that we should stop being idiotés and instead be contributing citizens. By engaging in bio-pedagogy (a form of autobiographical inquiry that looks at the links between personhood and pedagogy) the blog argued that we need to think less about doing things as we are expected to do them and more about what, ethically, we think the aims of education should be and then advocate for it.

This week’s blog explores the idea that we have “disavowed our tradition which focuses on and values the physical as experience” and suggests that, in doing this, we have focused on ology’s and not actions. It argues that we need to either put the physical back into university physical education or reconsider what we teach in schools. Maybe, given our degrees, we would be better off teaching our grade 2 and 3 students biomechanics rather than basketball – after all that is where our expertise really lies. Finally it argues that we are more similar than we know and, as such, as teachers, are eminently replaceable. 

 

Volume 3: Teachers, teaching and teacher education in physical education

Paper 67:

Siedentop, D. (2002/2012) Content knowledge for physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 414-425) London: Routledge.

  

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

Somewhere at home, not very safely kept, is a copy of the reference I used to get from an old head teacher of mine. I couldn’t, for a moment tell you where it is and trying to lay my hands on it would be a long and probably fruitless task. Indeed it probably got lost years ago and I am deluding myself that I still have a copy. I would be very surprised if I had thrown it out – certainly I wouldn’t have binned it deliberately – but in many respects I don’t need to have an actual copy now because the key sentiments are engraved on my memory.

But why?

Not for the reasons that you might think. It was not a shinning endorsement. It wasn’t something I would want to show anyone or really even share with them – at least not until now. In fact it was an indictment on my ability as a teacher and it stood in the way of my career development (at least I thought so at the time) on more than one occasion. I only knew about it because a head at a school in which I was being interviewed, did me a huge favour. He told me that they had brought me to interview and given me a chance to overcome the massive hurdle that was my head teacher’s reference. He took the time to let me know just how badly I was being represented and advised me to ask to see the letter and discuss it with my head when I got back to school.

The very next day I arranged a meeting with my head teacher and eventually got to read my reference.

The whole thing – the one and half pages of times new roman, font size 12 (I am guessing) – was poor. Appalling from memory. Not that he actually said that, not in so many words, but it was the way he said things that made it obvious that he didn’t rate me one iota. Talk about damning with faint praise. One line sticks out clearly in my mind and it was the closing statement.

“We would be sorry to see him go but would expect to replace him well enough.”

To say it was a hurdle was a massive understatement. To say I felt hugely let down is another one. I carry some of those words with me to this day and the whole sentiment of it – well I think it will stay with me forever. Given what I have achieved since I received that piece of advice and confronted my head I guess I should be grateful. Both heads made me confront difficult realities. However, while the head that interviewed me opened my eyes to the truth at the time I am only now realising the truth buried in the words of my then head teacher.

He could expect to replace me well enough. He might have said it out of spite but it doesn’t make it any less true. I wasn’t unique. I, as a teacher of PE rather than a person, was ten to a penny. There were hundreds of me’s out there and finding a new one - who wanted to work in this school - would be easy. I was nothing out of the ordinary. After all, we are the same – aren’t’ we? In the way we teach or what we can teach? How different was I from any of my colleagues in the department or in neighbouring schools?

However, it has taken me years of reflection and consideration to realise, at the heart of things and at that time, I was eminently replaceable. I didn’t do extra-ordinary things. I taught like my teachers had taught, I taught traditional games in a traditional manner, I did my clubs and looked after my students but I wasn’t a standout. Replacing me would be easy.

This is the message that comes out of this week’s paper. We have created, overtime, a stereotypical teacher of PE. By focusing on biomechanics and psychology we have lost the expert physical performer and therefore, as Siedentop suggests, PE has become about teaching the same introductory lesson again and again. Why? Because a real depth of school physical education content knowledge is missing. We only know the basics of most sports and activities because we haven’t done them much beyond what we did at school. We don’t do them in our degree programmes in kinesiology or sport science. We are, in Siedentop’s view, better prepared to teach a 2nd grade motor control unit or a 3rd grade biomechanics unit than we are to teach basketball or dance to the same students.

 

The Paper

Siedentop argues that “you can’t have pedagogical content knowledge without content knowledge, and all the advances in pedagogy in physical education can’t change that simple truth.” We have placed the pedagogical skill before the content knowledge in physical education. In other words we have paid such scant attention to the subject matter of school physical education in our degree programmes that our graduates could be described as ‘ignorant’. In doing so he believed that we have been preparing teachers who have better pedagogical skills than any generation before them but who’s lack of a knowledge base in the physical leaves them struggling behind their predecessors in terms of what they can teach. He suggests that ‘we’ (and by this he means the teacher educators in physical education) have disowned and renounced “our tradition which focuses on and values the physical as experience.”

Taking a step back from physical education Siedentop argues that the maths, English, music and art we see in schools are clearly related to the maths, English, music and art we see in universities – albeit in less sophisticated, complex, and intellectually rigorous ways. That, he says, is not the case for physical education. What we see in university is biomechanics, physiology, sociology, philosophy and lots of other ology’s – including the term kinesiology which replaced physical education as the ‘title’ of our field in the 1960s.

As a result while the Maths undergraduate student tries to master “the logic of derivation, facility in calculation, skill in the analysis of problems, and the ability to fit solutions correctly” – in other words the “the stuff of the subject” in school – the physical education teacher learns about the subject’s history, sociology, or neurophysiology. This is not the “stuff” of the school but the stuff of someone else’s construction of an academic version of the physical.

The long and the short of it, Siedentop believed, is that somewhere and somehow we bought in to the argument that “sport performance coursework is not worthy of academic status”. In seeking academic recognition for our wider field – which has thrived – we have reduced sport performance and performance-related courses in our field to such a level that many degrees now have no performance courses in their programmes. 

Sport is “academically unpalatable” and yet this is the subject-base of our field – in schools at least. The core problem is that the diet in school is not provided in universities. 

“Learning basketball, volleyball, and gymnastics – and all the associated issues of training, techniques, performance, and strategy – are not worthy of formal academic credit as the central foci of a pre-professional program”. Consequently this content is not the focus at university and is completely overshadowed by kinesiology courses and its ology’s.

The result of a lack of content knowledge of different sports is that school physical education is taught in either a multi-activity programme or in long, single sport blocks.

A multi-activity programme is based on short-lesson units (3 lessons is the shortest I have seen). In a year students could complete as many as 10 different activities on such a three-week rolling programme. A specialist programme focuses on single sports. When I was a student and a teacher we taught some sports to all students across two lessons each week, over two terms and for five school years.

But what is the result? Are teachers being forced (and who can blame them? Us? Me?) to teach innovative multi-activity curriculum - that might include yoga and darts - because they only have a spattering of content knowledge in a number of sports and activities but nothing that allows them to go into any depth? Or are they forced to specialise in the handful of sports they played themselves as students because to step outside of this knowledge-base would hamper their ability to ‘focus on and value the physical as experience’?

So how do we move beyond the same introductory unit  approach? Should we replace or substantially revise our degree programmes? Should we require students to take performance courses in addition to their degrees? Have you undertaken CPD courses that helped you understand more about specific sports? Would you sacrifice pedagogy or biomechanics for performance knowledge? Or, equally, has Siedentop simply got it wrong? In the future what should the preparation of teachers both look like and prepare them to do?

 

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve 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? If you want to do something or are looking for help then 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 for her work behind the scene as copy editor and Routledge (part of the Taylor and Francis group) for donating a copy of the Physical Education: Major themes in education series. Their respective help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. 

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On Saturday 10 May at 07:53 Clare Healey said
As teachers we spend the majority of our working week dancing to the tune of externally driven directives such as target grades, interventions, numeracy, literacy as well as trying to make the curriculum varied with an eclectic mix of old and new activities. As a head of department I am now trying to reclaim the beauty of our subject by asking my department to reflect on and share the values that underpin their approach to PE. We will then make a vision for our department that is underpinned by our values, and next years programme will be born from our vision. Time is needed to step away from the the business of the data and reflect. Our subject is unique and our profession has a duty to keep it that way. What the outcome of this will be is as yet unknown but we must ensure that we retain ownership of our subject.
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On Wednesday 14 May at 17:32 Gavin Ward said
I think Siedentop over simplifies the debate and it is worth reading Tinning's reply. We ignore the cultural context of the practice of PE at our peril as pedagogy always has a location. I am currently in Mauritius teaching a degree course to practicing students very keen to upgrade their certificate of teaching to a degree status. Why? They will earn more. Our course is competing with a local provider, who's curriculum is focused on exercise physiology, skill learning and anatomy. Why? They value the teaching of O and A level PE as this earns the teacher more pay and thus overt value within the school system. What knowledge is of value and how this value is expressed dominates the power relations. Having said that, my students have enjoyed the everyday 'realness' of the modules they are following and can see the importance of engaging learners an understanding, conceptual approach to e.g. games and athletics. There is a chink of light here, where despite low status, huge classes and minimal space and equipment there is a will to do the tough and unrewarded job of making sport and PA come to life. I take my hat off to them! Doing the job that needs doing in PE is mostly the one which has no monitory value but a huge humanitarian value.
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On Thursday 15 May at 06:44 Gavin Ward said
Tinning in various places argues for subject matter content knowledge. He acknowledges that knowledge of sports and physical activity is important but this knowledge has to be located within a curriculum and a school context. Historically society has valued different dimensions of human movement, the specific techniques of different schools of gymnastics in the early 20th century through to performative sport. It is only recently that significant momentum has enabled educationalists within the profession to establish a voice for the value of understanding. This has been driven by the need to engage young people with meaningful learning rather than photocopying what has been valued in the past. GCSE and A Level PE still value study of the sports science of subject, so we still have more to go in changing the perception of quality subject matter and what counts as quality learning. Varying prosaic views amongst practitioners muddies the water here. Which is why I favour Movement Culture as a conceptual map. It is difficult to see a time when the PE teacher will be valued as an educational equal alongside the scientists and mathematicians. We should never overestimate the power of our subject, but understand its cultural location by recognising teachers have to work with a system of valued knowledge. However, we must also develop their tools to do the real humanitarian job of helping young people to engage with the world of movement cultures. It is like helping a child appreciate different foods, they will prefer some but not others, but trying and being open to new tastes is important. When they do take a liking, then using our understanding we help them explore the dish more deeply. I therefore come back to Tinning's point of the cultural dimension of pedagogy, I believe all teachers should remain students of their subject and be prepared to explore all forms of movement culture and to be prepared to drill down as deep as they can so they can help children do the same when the time and context presents itself.

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