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

The previous blog suggested that what we say as teachers has an impact on gendered expectations for participation in PE. In other words, how we talk to boys and girls encourages students to believe and re-enforces teachers’ expectations that boys are ‘sporty’ and girls are ‘needy’.  

In this week’s blog we look at professional development (PD) and suggest that, as it currently stands, it is about as useful as more ice would be to a Greenland Inuit. In other words PD fails to deliver anything of real use to teachers and until it does then teachers will be forced to suffer in silence, adopt avoidance tactics or find (and fund) their own PD.


Paper 49:

Armour, K.M. & Duncombe, R. (2004/2012) Teachers’ continuing professional development in primary education: Lessons from present and past to inform the future. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 7-28) London: Routledge.


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

I have written in the past about my professional development (PD) experiences as a teacher but experience (and reading this paper) leads me to believe that they were not unique. Hands on heart I can honestly say that not once, in thirteen years as a teacher, did my PD have a pedagogical focus. In truth it had a focus on safety and cost. I was trained to be a lifeguard so I could teach swimming and use the pool that the school had on site but not once did I take a course in swimming teaching. I was trained to be a first aider so I could support any child who got hurt (a skill I had to call on many times for the inevitable cuts, sprains and pains that occurred both in PE and around the school) but I didn’t know what the word pedagogy meant until I started a masters degree. I learnt to drive a minibus so I could transport pupils to interschool fixtures and did various levels of coaching qualification so I could coach those teams but my teaching – the job I was employed to do – seemed to fall between the cracks in terms of PD.

It was only when I self-funded and time managed an MSc and then a PhD that I began to focus on classroom practice and on student learning. Like the teachers we meet in this paper much of my meaningful development only came when I chose its direction myself. But more than that it only came when I invested years in achieving my goals and changing my practice.  Therefore, I ask, what chance do standalone, off-site, sport focused courses have when changes takes years and not hours?

What is more worrying, perhaps, is that PE is my passion and I have invested years in understanding ‘it’ as a subject and a way of life. Primary teachers don’t do this. It is part of a smorgasbord of subjects – some that they love and some that they don’t – that carrying different expectations and which are valued in different ways. In the grand scheme of things PE is often seen as being unimportant and time and money is not always made available for teachers to develop in this area. However, when money is available and the time is there what is being provided to teachers? PD that, as a PE specialist, I found irrelevant to classroom practice.

So what is the solution?

Inevitably it seems that meaningful PD is a personal-professional responsibility, especially when it comes to pedagogical development. This needs to change but that change takes time (and hasn’t yet been forthcoming) so teachers need to find alternatives. There are many out there but one I would recommend is PEPLC. This initiative is the brainchild of Andy Vasily and it seeks to bring together PE teachers in an interactive learning community that aims to improve classroom practice; one thing that seems to be missing from conventional PD.


The Paper

Recently I have been reading the work of Ken Robinson (Out of our Minds) and Michael Fullan (Stratosphere) and two phrases or ideas resonate from those books with the paper by Armour and Duncombe. All four authors, independently and in different ways, suggests that we need to disenthrall (Robinson) ourselves with finding increasing better solutions to 20th century problems (Fullan; Armour and Duncombe) and instead find new ways of considering the newly emerging problems of the 21st century (Fullan; Armour and Duncombe). This was certainly the key take home message for me from this paper.

While some of what Armour and Duncombe wrote about was (a) specific to the UK and, (b) reflective of a time when increased funding in PE was becoming the norm under the then labour government, many of the general messages are still pertinent today – a decade on.

On the main what they suggested was that PE in primary schools is almost exclusively depended on the prior sporting experience of the teachers charged with teaching it. If they were ‘sporting’ then they were positioned to replicate their own experiences as players with their own pupils. However, if they weren’t ‘sporting’ or if the curriculum didn’t match their own biographies of sport then they struggled. What is more, the school was rarely in a position – either because of funding or priorities around PD that didn’t involve PE – to support its teachers to develop. Finally, even when PD time and funding was available the resulting course was normally one-day, off-site and sport specific. In other words it followed the traditional approach of parcelling up bits of general knowledge and some activities about one traditional sport and giving it to the teachers (similar to my own lifeguarding courses).

Unsurprisingly while the course itself was remembered as something that was attended, the teachers remembered little of the information provided. Two of the three teachers interviewed in the study (including Duncombe herself) recalled they had been on these course but that these had been a long time ago and had often occurred in the teacher’s own time and their own expense. The third teacher considered himself so unsure of himself in the PE context that he actively sought to avoid PE and PE PD.

Much has been written about the importance of primary school experiences in PE as a foundation for future activity and yet it would seem that we are abandoning our colleagues in primary education to scratch out an existence in PE. When teachers themselves hate or fear PE (even if it just a little) then how are they supposed to “inspire a generation”? When teachers barely remember the content of courses they go on then how are these courses supposed to have an impact on either teacher or pupil learning? If teachers attend the same sport-based standalone courses then how is PE in primary schools ever going to change?

So what is effective PD?

Armour and Duncombe suggest that it involves the teacher as both a learner and as teacher and to this end recommend that PD is brought back into schools and involves working with both other colleagues and pupils. Such a move to bring PD back into schools allows teachers to struggle with the uncertainties of being both a teacher and a learner and gives them a sense of autonomy and relevance towards their personal PD. Expertise in delivery is important but above all PD needs to be bespoke, challenging and up-to-date and therefore usable in the context that the teacher finds themselves in day after day. Would you agree with these recommendations? What would you consider to be effective PD?


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 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.