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Chocolate teapots

The previous blog looked at three pedagogical models (Sport Education, Teaching Games for Understanding and Cooperative Learning). It suggested that while we are often comfortable with our daily practices we need to do more, try new approaches and explore new possibilities if we’re going to help students have an authentic experience of physical education. Pedagogical models were positioned as being a ‘wave to the future’ and one way of providing meaningful, relevant and authentic experiences for young people.

This week’s blog argues that, despite our best intentions, a multi-sport curriculum is not capable of achieving the aims and aspirations we have for physical education. Likening the multi-sport approach to a chocolate teapot it shows that despite our best intentions and significant efforts the approach cannot stand up against the heat of competition and the weight of expectations – it simply isn’t built the right way. In concluding the blog shows how models like Sport for Peace are better vehicles for learning in and through physical education.


Volume 4: The curriculum and the subject matter of physical education

Paper 78:

Ennis, C.D. (1999/2012). Creating a culturally relevant curriculum for disengaged girls In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 118-142) London: Routledge.


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

I had the privilege a couple of years ago to go back into my old school and talk to what remained of two classes of the students I worked with throughout their compulsory physical education experiences (aged 11-16). I asked these twenty-five or so young men what they remembered of Mr Casey’s PE and what they remembered of PE and Games. Their memories of PE and Games were limited and revolved around Rugby (unsurprisingly given that they did it for the majority of their time at the school) and skills and drills. Some remembered being in the squad or ‘A’ group and others in the non-squad or ‘B’ group but for most of them it was about some skills and maybe a game. They remembered PE and games as players and not as learners and their experiences were about being better rugby players or about disliking these lessons (or both).

In contrast when I ask them about Mr Casey’s PE they had rich memories of structured lessons and learning about ideas and skills that would serve them beyond the confines of PE. They talked about the teams they had played in five or six years earlier in some cases, and the mascot they had and the games they invented. Their memories were rich and their conversations impassioned. They saw PE as a place to develop and a place where they were trusted. They remembered their Sport Education units and Cooperative Learning Olympics and they looked back on these sessions fondly.

As a teacher I couldn’t have been more disappointed on the one hand and delighted on the other. I had taught rugby and had to take some responsibility for the poor memories they had of these lessons and yet I was also Mr Casey. In this guise and in some lessons I had rethought the way that these kids were learning and I had trusted them in ways I hadn’t before and they hadn’t been before. I had rewritten physical education in their minds and reconceptualised, at least in some lessons, the way that it was taught.

In my last year of teaching I used some of the same ways I had taught the boys with some girls’ classes. We taught games making and moved away from half-termly units to a full term unit of making games and playing them through Sport Education. Some of the girls, who hated PE, talked about PE as a positive experiences perhaps for the first time. It took a new approach to teaching to re-engage the girls with PE. I had to see that my previous approach (our previous approach) was about as successful as a chocolate teapot at achieving the goals we set for it. I had to see that no matter how many times I tried to make ‘tea’ it would simply melt the pot. I had to reconceptualise and rethink my teaching and find a better way of making ‘tea’.

This is what this week’s paper suggests. The metaphor of a chocolate teapot is one that allows of us to think about the very structure – the multi-sport approach– that dominates our subject and begin to ask if it’s ‘fit for purpose.’ Experience and research suggests that it isn’t but just realising that is only the first step. The second is…how do I change? The answer to that question is the one that will set you free.


The Paper

Ennis divides her paper into two. She starts by exploring the inherent weakness in the multi-sport approach before exploring the impact a ‘Sport for Peace’ model (a hybrid of the Sport Education model) had on student learning.

Beginning with the multi-sport approach Ennis holds that “no curriculum in physical education has been as effective in constraining opportunities and alienating girls as that found in co-educational, multi-activity sport classes.” While she lists many notorious characteristics (such as little or no accountability and public displays of ability) as reasons why this approach doesn’t work the most telling reason against multi-sport curriculum was the need for the “teacher to intercede continuously, advocate for low-skilled players, and overly control the level of competition and the tenor of relationships.” Why? Because unlike in other models, such as Sport Education, there is nothing built into the multi-sport curriculum other than sport and the teacher that structures learning. In other words, the teacher is the structure and it is only through their efforts that anything is achieved.

The problem then is that learning is teacher dependent. Highly competent teachers who are motivated and energetic have used multi-sport curriculum successfully for many years yet, as Ennis shows, this occurs mainly through their strength and dedication. These teachers gain their success in spite of the curriculum and not because of it. However, this constant battle is not conducive to learning and is tiring and demoralising and has been attributed to the early retirement of teachers.

The arguments that Ennis makes are certainly compelling and are supported by a depth and breadth of research and yet the multi-sport curriculum endures. Subsequently, it maintains the expectation in PE that girls “won’t be permitted to participate equitably in most multi-activity, team-sports curricula” and furthers the idea that “boys see girls as the problem” because they get in the way of their aspirations to play competitive sport with their peers. “Boys”, Ennis wrote, “ believed that to be selected for future teams and respected by their male peers, they had to demonstrate their aggression and cool moves, regardless of the impact on less able classmates.”

In contrast Sport for Peace was designed (through its use of Sport Education and education for peace) to “enhance students’ opportunities to participate within an equitably structured environment.” Building on research that suggested that girls were willing and able to engage in Sport Education this model included an additional emphasis on “conflict negotiation, self and social responsibility, and care and concern for others.”

Ennis reported that students felt increased ownership, engaged in authentic cooperative environments, felt that the model afforded them second chances (where other lessons didn’t) and allowed the boys to change their responses to girls’ participation. Because students were given particular responsibilities for many decisions responsibility for the lessons (and learning) was “dispensed horizontally throughout the class rather than vertically through a few influential students.” Players started to understand their responsibilities, could resolve teams conflicts and provide opportunities for all students to improve and enhance the success of the group.

Ennis suggests that while it wasn’t an easy process it was a successful one. Most importantly, perhaps, “boys received a new and different message about girls’ potential for skill development, their level of motivation, and the positive and important contributions that girls could and would make to their teams in an appropriate setting.” However it required boys to share ownership of the sport with girls.

I suppose the message running through this blog is that we tend to put the content before the students. By placing content (i.e. sport) in a chocolate teapot we neglect and displace our students desire to learn and think they will enjoy PE through the opportunity to play games. Many curricula still emphasise the sport focus or short units of activities. The question then is how could we organize a curriculum differently and what would this look like for the students we teach.



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. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.



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On Monday 28 July at 13:35 Peter Train said
Hi Ashley, thank you for the reading and provocations. The metaphor of a teapot expands my thinking around physical education in the following way. The void / the emptiness of a teapot may be what makes it work..without the void there would be no possibility of tea. This is very Heideggerian - the thingness of the jug being the void not the jug itself - what the potter shapes is not the clay but the space within it. What the jug offers is a space that has possibilities for bringing people together. As a teacher I might focus on creating space rather than a structure to hold content. What kind of space invites movement? What kind of space invites young people to move? Creating a space may be a better way of teaching than creating a structure. Just by leaving the room i may create possibilities, by not giving instructions i may create openings for students to move through...in this way i might structure the space rather than be a structure. This is the idea of space being essential for movement to occur. Epicurus (from Democritus) says that in the world there is only matter and void and for movement to occur their needs to be space. Using the language of learning, sport and models based practice in physical education tends to align teaching with learning outcomes and close down the perceived space for movement. Is there a danger that by giving what we do a name we are trying to define it and in defining it we might become defined (fixed)? Might we not just focus on the feelings of students? Focusing on pleasure as the aim in my practice as a high school physical education teacher in Canada has challenged my notions of teaching and my way of being as a person. Removing the focus on learning outcomes has created a void that has challenged me to reinterpret what physical education is, what I am doing when I teach. It has allowed me to become less constrained by the language of learning and sport and more conscious of my ways of being with others inside and outside of phys ed. I would like to propose Epicurus (the pursuit of pleasure and diminution of pain) as a provocation to ask what is the best way to live physical education in the moment - (rather than what is the best way to achieve planned curriculum aims). This might be exciting for students and teacher alike. Epicurus posits pleasure as being the highest good ' stranger you will do well to tarry here, pleasure is our highest good'. In what ways might pleasure be more important than learning outcomes in physical education? In what ways might pleasure be physical education's highest good? Epicurus says that pleasure is an absence of (unnecessary) pain. Orienting collective consciousness of this involves asking what are the unnecessary pains of being in physical education and in what ways might activities in physical education be made more pleasurable for all? Peter Train PhD candidate at UBC, Vancouver Every class I teach is different and every day variable
Ashley Casey
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On Friday 01 August at 11:27 Ashley Casey said
Hi Peter, thanks for the thoughtful response to the blog. I love the idea of the void as the 'brewing space' for the tea but without the confines of the pot (chocolate or not) isn't it just a wet patch on the floor? The structure is vital as it contains the tea (or the learning in this analogy) but gives it enough space to percolate. I think that the space - as you say - is vital and regardless of the type of teapot it is what makes a truly great cuppa. That said I do feel that the pedagogical process allows us to refine the quality of the experience for the whole classroom. The Japanese tea making ceremony is as much about the process as it is about the tea and this is where I think we are going wrong. In teaching we think more about 'a builder's cup of tea' for every child (e.g. milk and two sugars) and less about the process. Any old teapot will do - in fact the same one is used over and over again. What we need to do is think of each learner. We all like our tea a different way and so does the learner like their learning varied. In the builder's example you get what you're given but in this example you get what you want and need. I hope the tea analogy hasn't gone too far but I do think we need to think both about the pot and the void. And truth be told our chocolate pot is not much use in this process regardless of the aims of the lesson. Thanks again, Ash.

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