Since the age of nine, when I first read The Hobbit, my go-to category of writing has been fantasy fiction. I’ve always loved stories of other worlds, of magic and mythical creatures, of wizards and warriors. I’ve read hundreds of books in this area and revel in the narratives of good vs evil and connect most with the idea of the morally ‘grey’ champion who is neither good nor evil but is capable of both. In truth, I like a good dose of reality with my fiction and believe that the best stories shy away from absolutes when it comes to people and ideas and, instead, acknowledge lots of different shades of grey (albeit very dark or very light shades).
When I read this paper, I was faced with a sense of good and bad. I saw lots of opposites, and I was left with more than a little scepticism regarding physical literacy. Are things really so clear cut? Is physical literacy the silver bullet we have been looking for? Am I too focused on my own research and practice that I’ve missed the “cure-all” offered by physical literacy? In facing up to these questions I’ve been forced to ask if things are as bad as I think? I’ve been forced to reconsider the attributes of, for example, the multi-activity, sport technique-based approach? Is it all bad or is good done in its name? And the answer I settle on is “it isn’t all bad but there are better approaches.”
In a podcast or two ago, one of the students I work with asked why authors didn’t just say their approach to physical education was the best. Why did they sit on the fence? Why did they always err on the side of caution? My response was there is no one way of doing PE – which is why we criticise the multi-activity, sport technique-based approach so much. Instead, we need to be aware of the local context and the teachers who work so hard to young people the best PE they can.
I don’t know enough about physical literacy to argue if it is the way we should be going but I do know enough to know that it something we need to continue to consider from all angles. It shouldn’t become a silver bullet or cure-all. It should instead be realistic. It may offer a bright future. It may be an approach to getting things righter. But it isn’t – at least not yet and not in my opinion – the only future we might aspire to and nor is it always bright in the way we might want. A future. Yes. The bright future? No.
Quennerstedt and colleagues acknowledge the need in physical education to idealize the future. PE has frequently been positioned to play a positive role in moral development, a nation’s international performance standard and the health and fitness of its population. As the authors say “the history of PE has seen the embracing of scenarios and visions of the future” that see the end to inactivity and the celebration of “physical, social, affective, cognitive benefits including character building, cooperation, being a good sport and healthy competition for youth who engage in programs to school PE.”
The authors explore the claims and counterclaims made in research and policy about physical literacy. They do this by applying a critical theoretical lens and exploring physical literacy through three logics of critical explanation: social, political and fantasmatic.
Social Logic refers to the elements in any argument that are incontestable. These are ‘things’ that are simply seen as truth. These are the ideas that we would be hard-pressed to argue against. If, indeed, we even wanted to. In terms of physical education, such logics include the desire for children to be active and healthy and to enjoy movement and the common sense logic that we (and they) want to take that active healthy movement into their futures.
Political Logic is contested logic. This is the logic of Democrat vs Republican or Brexiter vs Remainer. This is seen as an “us-and-them” logic where practice is disputed and arguments result. This is the argument, from a physical literacy perspective, that on the one hand physical literacy is a philosophy whilst on the other that it’s an approach. It’s the argument that that is abstract and can’t be measure and the counter-argument that it’s material and can be measured.
Fantasmatic Logics are reasons and argument for why. Why do I believe that this way is good, and that way is bad? Why do I ignore the logic of other practices in favour of my own (and others) logic for this practice? Why do I believe that this will happen if I do this and won’t happen if I don’t? These are ideological. In the words of the authors these are “the primary mechanism through which individuals are rendered complicit in ignoring the possibility of alternative means of an acting that practices.”
Having defined these logics, Quennerstedt and colleagues explore the research and policy relating to physical literacy through each of these logic lenses.
The social logic of research on physical literacy seeks to establish the usefulness of physical literacy. It states that physical literacy impacts the affective, physical and cognitive domains and leads to “lifelong movement; positive affect like self-esteem and motivation to be physically active; and, cognitive knowledge about movement.” Policy is, if anything, broader in its use of social logic. There is a taken-for-granted logic that physical literacy goes beyond the physical and incorporates “knowledge of concepts, principles and tactics related to movement performance”, “knowledge… to achieve health enhancing levels of physical activity and fitness” and an ability to recognise “the value of physical activity for health enjoyment and challenge.”
The political logics that Quennerstedt and colleagues discuss are evident in the research landscape but not in the policy domain. Researchers are, according to the authors, roughly split into two opposing camps: the idealists and the pragmatists. At a basic level these groups are engaged in an “enduring and contentious debate as to whether or not physical literacy can be measured as health-related fitness, movement skills or both… and if physical literacy should be established as a goal of PE or simply replace PE altogether.” The idealists hold that physical literacy is a process across a lifetime and as such cannot be measured. In contrast, the pragmatists believe that evidence-based practice is important and physical literacy should be seen as an outcome. In short, physical literacy is a “valuable determinant of health.”
While rigorous political debate occurs in physical literacy research it is conspicuous by its absence in the field of policy. There is no disagreement or debate and “the difference of interest relating to physical literacy are being articulated as existing separately but amicably side-by-side.”
The fantasmatic logics of physical literacy research focus on what Quennerstedt and colleagues refer to as “benevolent mobility or malevolent morbidity.” The horrific narratives paint a picture of sedentary behaviour in a “movement suppressed culture” where inactivity is the norm. In policy narratives, we are shown an obesity crisis and chronic health conditions which cost society billions every year and which is eroding the sporting prowess of once great nations.
In contrast, the beatific research narratives promise “a perfect life for individuals through better health.” Lifelong and safe engagement in physical activity occurs in these narratives and with this movement culture comes promises of psychological and cognitive gains (i.e., motivation, increased self-confidence or self-esteem). Although policy replicates these narratives the benefits are toned down. That said they do support the place of physical literacy in “supporting healthy and for filling life through movement.”
My summary of this paper misses much of the detail and, in all probability, does a disservice to the work both in this paper and in the field of physical literacy itself but that is the limitation of a blog such as this. That said, my over-riding take home from this paper is beware of silver bullets. The Dictionary.com defines phantasmatic as “the product of fantasy” and I must confess that I am left with this impression of fantasmatic logics. They are, in my opinion, steeped in the realm of fantasy and fiction. That said, there is clearly something about physical literacy that has caught the eyes and ears of the world and that it to be celebrated. I just worry that we are putting all our eggs in one basket if we apply this approach to everything that we do. But the same can be said of Siedentop’s original aspiration for sport education and other such approaches. But that’s a discussion for the future.
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 Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe 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.
Quennerstedt, M., McCuaig, L., & Mårdh, A. (2020). The fantasmatic logics of physical literacy. Sport, Education and Society, iFirst.