The previous blog built on previous work and presented findings from a review of research on sport education to argue that we have the evidence to support our desire to change to using this as an alterative approach to our teaching. It argues that, ten years ago (nearly), we had enough evidence to show that this approach works. The question is: “is this enough evidence to encourage you to change?”

This week’s blog considers the dominance of sport in the PE curriculum. It questions how this ‘one way’ of teaching and learning can promote health and physical activity. Indeed the blog asks us to consider that if sport is the dominant approach, do students learn more about health outside of the PE classroom?


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


Paper 93:

Whitehead, J. & Fox, K. (1983/2012). Student centred physical education. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education: Volume IV. (pp. 409-420) London: Routledge.


My take home message the implications of the research on practice 

Yesterday Blue Jay Bridge, a long-term collaborator on twitter, tweeted me to ask what my opinions on competitive or non-competitive school sport were (I hope you don’t mind Blue but I have used your tweets below).


From @MrBridge204

@DrAshCasey What's best, a competitive or non-competitive model for school sports teams? My personal feeling is non-competitive when...

@DrAshCasey ... it is a school sports team. I feel like we should leave the competitive nature (wins/losses) to club teams. Our school...

@DrAshCasey ...doesn't cut kids from our sports teams and It bothers me to hear of other schools cutting kids from sports b/c of the....

@DrAshCasey ...focus on winning. I'd love to hear your thoughts and what the research says.

Thank you!


I did initial reply (twice):

@MrBridge204 the short answer is I don't think there is a short answer ... Personally I feel school sport should be inclusive

@MrBridge204 could you ask other schools if they would like to enter a non competitive festival where engagement is the outcome?


However, what remains of this blog begins to hint at the fuller answers I might have given had I had more that multiples of 140 characters in which to articulate my thoughts.

Fundamentally (and briefly as the paper does much to answer this question) what is learnt in school is dependent on the priorities of the PE programme. This is, in turn, influenced by a number of variables including: the school ethos, the teacher(s) bias, the headteacher’s/principal’s bias and the current justification given for PE. If these can be aligned or at least prioritised then the possible outcomes for the programme become clearer. There is no ‘one way’ of doing PE and school sport but we seem to have backed ourselves into one way. School Sport has become caught up in wider society’s idea of professional sport and therefore winning and fielding the best team has become vital. If you value Sport as THE outcome of PE then this argument holds some water but if you have more of a lifetime aspiration for your students then it certainly springs some dangerous leaks.


The Paper

“As long as we continue to produce young teachers who know more about cricket than coronary heart disease and who value their first team football results more than the quality of life of their students, we cannot honestly claim full right to the title of ‘physical educator’.”

This is the final sentence of Whitehead and Fox’s paper but it serves as a great opening for this week’s discussion of the paper and sits at the heart of their argument. PE, they believed (and they were/are certainly not alone in that thought), has traditionally centred on sport. It has done so because sport is believed to benefit learners and help them to engage in character building and increase social competence, aesthetic awareness, fitness, and motor skill development. However, the development of these ‘benefits’ is fairly haphazard as it occurs in “the hope that the process, in a mixing bowl fashion, has helped to develop desirable qualities in our students.” 

Whitehead and Fox quite rightly (in my opinion) argue that many good and great teachers exist and work in our schools but they are hindered and constrained by “a system that doesn’t provide us with the best educational tools.” The sports model (as they term the approach to teaching that focuses on sport) has come to master the teacher and the curriculum and has taken control. Whitehead and Fox describe this process as “the dog bit[ing] the hand of the master and becom[ing] master itself” i.e. school sport (once a vehicle for learning) is now in control of PE.

In contrast (and as many after them have argued) Whitehead and Fox call for a student centred model that does its “utmost to help our students to be best prepared for adult life.” For them that means that PE has to offer services that are essential to everyone and not just the elite sport participants. Furthermore the authors argued that we need to acknowledge that although motor development and lifetime fitness are potential outcomes of sport there are better ways of educating children about them.

Taking the example of a health related fitness programme developed in their school (I think from my reading of the paper) they suggest that students needed to develop behavioural and cognitive skills if they were to become lifelong participants in physical activity. Students need to be encouraged to “solve their own fitness problems independently” and to do that they need to know and understand that “exercise fitness” was just one component of physical fitness and well-being. It isn’t about being fit because you are good at sport but is instead about having the “knowledge, skills, competence and motivation to be physical active.”

To do this, Whitehead and Fox wrote, students need to have the theoretical understanding to make intelligent and informed decisions about their lifestyles. They needed to be able to evaluate, diagnose, prescribe and take personal action throughout their lifetime. They (the students) then need to have the experience of what different activities ‘did’ and what they could achieve through them. They need to know what yoga might help them achieve as opposed to running and when this knowledge was lacking then students needed extra support to gain this level of physical literacy (my choice of term).

Currently (both in 1983 when this paper was published and presently) the young people who leave school lack knowledge and feel that “their school PE experiences have done little to help them through [the] adult fitness difficulties [they might encounter]”. If, as Whitehead and Fox suggest, the media do more to educate our children about nutrition than PE then how can we say we fill our essential purpose? Is sport really more important than health knowledge? 

With the increasing developments of communication systems (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Podcasts) do students learn more about how to be physically active online than in the PE curriculum? Has the increase in communication pathways, but yet the lack of change in the PE curriculum made things worse for the status of PE in schools? Or have things changed? And if so what are students learning in PE?


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.