Volume 2: Learners and Learning in Physical Education

In the previous blog we explored Kirk’s discussions around the need to invest in the physical education experiences for young people aged 7-11. Without specialists in primary schools and with a particular focus on training children in adult forms of activities, he argued that young people are discriminated against and they are ‘robbed’ of the forms of development that could encourage lifelong participation in physical activity. In responding to his own paper, Kirk then suggested that this would still be and important and much needed step towards improving PE and the way children experience it.

In this week’s blog we ask what types of experiences we present to children in a) our choices of activity and b) the pedagogical approaches that we use. It suggests that authenticity is important in PE so that children begin to understand what it means to be involved in physical activity. In concentrating on decontextualised skills in a climate that values a child’s ability to replicate these skills, are we helping him or her to understand what lifelong participation might look like or are we asking them to decide, early in life, if they can or cannot do these things? Or indeed if they even like them?


Paper 35:

Kirk, D. & Macdonald, D. (1998/2012). Situated Learning in Physical Education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume II. (pp. 190-204) London: Routledge.


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

What does school physical education prepare kids to be? The much-voiced aim of physical education is to inspire kids to be physically active adults and to engage in healthy living throughout their life course. Yet, does it? I look back on the thousands of lessons that I taught as a teacher and wonder how I thought I might be able to achieve this? Five years (per year group) of rugby prepared a good handful of kids to play at many different levels but for bucket loads of others it did little or nothing. In using approaches that advocated for creativity rather than compliance and cooperation rather than/or as part of competition, I feel had a more lasting affect on my pupils. And yet they were all couched in sport and not exercise or recreation.

I don’t think that that was a bad thing but `I now wonder “did any of it prepare my students for life after school?” Did I create an environment of “sport for all” but the sense that it was sport (i.e. games) or nothing?

Kirk and Macdonald’s paper challenged me to think about the type of communities we create in PE and to think about how we might change our own, and other peoples, ideas around the experiences we try and create for our students and ourselves. I have long been an advocate of pedagogical approaches such as Sport Education and consider them to be more authentic environments in which to nurture children and develop their feelings and responses to physical education, exercise and recreation. This means – as you will see from the paper – challenging what it means to be accepted as a legitimate participant in PE. If ability remains the only gauge then how to we help children feel like they belong and to feel that they can succeed in PE?


The Paper                                        

Kirk and Macdonald asked their readers to consider physical education through the lens of situated learning theory. Writing fifteen years ago, they suggested that while research in physical education was developing – rapidly expanding even – it had focused on teacher behaviour as the key indicator (via its influence on student behaviour) of successful student learning. In other words researchers seemed to suggest that what the teacher taught and how her or she taught it was the best way of a) understanding and b) subsequently enhancing student learning. While this might sound like a feasible and defendable position, Kirk and Macdonald argued that learning occurs as a consequence of more than just a teacher’s actions. They held that learning was situated within a social environment where many other facets impacted on the end result i.e. what is learned.

The authors argued that learning is more than the interaction of teacher and student. They suggested that that learning is developmental in nature, as it depends on the growth, maturity, and prior experiences of the learner. They argued that learning is multidimensional as the learner learns more than one thing (not only the intended learning outcome but also other hidden and under-considered aspects of social interactions and social spaces). They extolled the idea that learning is “an active and creative process involving individuals in interaction with their physical environment and with other learners.” In other words learning, they believed, is about much more than just an interaction between teacher and student.

In considering this idea, it is worth asking, “what are the interactions that might occur in physical education?” And, “how do they impact on what children learn? Furthermore, “what are the interactions that might occur in physical education?” And “How might these interactions impact on what children learn?”

In answering these question Kirk and Macdonald suggested that learning is a social practice that occurs in a social setting. It occurs in a particular set of circumstances and in a time and a space that is unique to that context. They argue that a physical education lesson might be considered as a ‘community of practice’ in which a group (containing teacher(s) and students) collectively contribute to a shared and public practice. Yet they also hold that legitimate participation in this community is not a straightforward process. When issues of ‘ability’ and ‘skill’ are positioned as the prime requirements for legitimate participation then many students miss out. More than that however, they asked what PE prepares students for. Is it participation in lifelong physical activity or is it something else? In interpreting this idea, and putting my cynical head on, I wonder if we are often best at teaching them how to stand in a queue in an orderly manner and wait their turn.

If we want children to engage in physical activity outside of school then, Kirk and Macdonald suggest, we need to give them authentic experiences in these communities. Sport education is presented as an example of a possible approach that allows children to experience sport authentically. They can be a player or a coach, an administrator or a referee, and in doing this they can find a community that allows them to better understand what they might encounter outside of school and in adult life. So when you next consider your programme, think about that the type of community experience you are preparing them for and how it might reflect on your desire for lifelong participation.


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.