How many kids walk out of their lessons and leave experiences and say “but…”? We need to help young people understand the ‘why’s’ but often we don’t and expect it to happen. This week’s blog is about worth and relevance and highlights the important of explaining and developing an understanding of ‘why’ we do this and ‘why’ we don’t do that.


Volume 2.12 (Blog 107):

Makopoulou, K., Ntoumanis, N., Griffiths, M., & Francois-Xavier, L. (2014). Tony: In serach of meaning and relevance in physical education. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 156-170). London: Routledge.



At age 14, Tony doesn’t see the relevance of PE. Its not that his teachers are mean or his family are inactive, it’s just that he feels he is learning things that he can’t use in his everyday life. He’s fat and he’s terrible at sport –that’s how he describes himself – and while he thinks his lessons are good and his new teachers are supportive he doesn’t feel he can exercise and be active. His is clever but he doesn’t feel he can explain why he doesn’t want to be active. His perception is that he’s no good at PE and doesn’t make any progress. Even if he does make some progress in a lesson it don’t matter because he doesn’t want to participate.

The exercise Tony likes – walking, swimming and weights – isn’t ‘done’ at school and rather than engage in activities at school he’d prefer to be invisible. A lot of his attitude towards PE comes from his last school. His PE teachers wanted everyone to be healthy but they went about it the wrong way: at least not a way that worked for Tony.

When asked to explain this Tony said that he was the worst football player and was more or less ignored during the lesson  - except when he made a mistake when other kids got mad at him (not that the teachers cared enough to interject). His disinterest in learning put his teachers off and his lack of ability made him the focus of everyone’s attention at all the wrong times. When he had to run – as part of group fitness test – he didn’t look good and everyone ran past him and he hated it. He certainly didn’t want to take part again. Yet, his cleverness and tactical awareness – the two things Tony feels he has going for him in PE – are seldom used and he has little or no say in what is done.


The Pedagogical Case

Makopoulou and colleagues explore Tony’s case from psychological, sociocultural and motor control perspectives. They conclude by examining the role that Tony’s PE teachers might play, through their pedagogical choices, in engaging Tony in PE and physical activity.

From a psychological perspective Tony is amotivated and, as such, he lacks intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to participate in PE. It is likely that Tony is experiencing “social physique anxiety; that is, he becomes anxious when others observe or evaluate his physique”. His body related concerns – exacerbated by “rules and arrangements regarding clothing, changing and showering” – mean that Tony associates PE with having his body on display. Softer or more flexible rules might help with some of these feelings of anxiety.

Tony actively avoids exerting effort because he doesn’t value PE. That said he does, to some extent, value physical activity. “The devaluation of PE, and the associated reduction in effort, is due to previous unsuccessful experiences”. Using a “strategic decision known as self-handicapping” Tony is aiming to protect his self-worth in the case of failure. Like other overweight and obese children Tony feels that both his teachers and peers in his last school stigmatized him due to his weight. Indeed research has shown that teachers “have moderate levels of anti-fat attitudes and hold lower expectations for achievement for overweight versus normal weight pupils”. When these attitudes and expectations are coupled with poor motivational strategies then PE teachers can undermine pupil motivation.

Taking a sociocultural perspective Tony’s perceptions of PE are shaped and influenced by his family’s activity levels and other out of school physical activity experiences. These act as a filter through which he interprets and defines what he thinks is important. Makopoulou and colleagues suggests that three concepts “appear to mediate Tony’s amotivation towards PE…authenticity, constructed meaning, and facilitating cultural (individual and organisational) change.

Authenticity: When alignment is established between activities inside and outside of school then ‘things’ appear authentic.

Constructed meaning: These messages come from policy makers, teachers and the general public and yet are often translated, in schools, to mean fitness testing. Consequently the meaning of health is constructed as fitness.

Cultural change: What might “an authentic/relevant PE curriculum look like for Tony”?

Looking through a motor control lens, and exploring the areas of biomechanics, musculo-skeletal, coordination and cardio-vascular deficiency research, Makopoulou and colleagues explore the long-term consequences of Tony’s lack of physical activity. The most obvious consequence is on his weight. Mechanically this will lead to increased inertia and difficulty starting, rotating and stopping. Furthermore his joints are subject to higher forces and he is at increased risk of injury. Non-weight bearing exercise (such as swimming which he prefers) is less affected than weight bearing activities such a running.

While it might seem counter intuitive “Tony is, in absolute terms, comparatively strong” however his weight to power ratio is low and his strength is not uniformly spread. Furthermore his low level engagement with physical activity means that his tendons and ligaments have, in all likelihood, been negatively impacted. His coordination is also likely to be poor as the key interactions between perception and action – so vital in adolescence – haven’t been occurring.  Finally Tony is unlikely to have “developed his aerobic system optimally” and he is therefore disadvantaged when performing the types of endurance-based activities that might help him lose weight and therefore he avoids them. 

Pedagogically his teachers need help to understand how they might reach all their pupils. Significantly Tony is unlikely to be alone in his school as statistically three in ten boys between 2 and 15 are likely to be either overweight or obese. A starting point for change and development is the idea that “all learners are fundamentally different” and all “are entitled to meaningful PE experiences”.  It could be argued therefore that teachers need to debate and consider their own perspectives and the perspectives of others when planning their teaching. Another starting point might be the different pedagogical models that have emerged into the general vocabulary of teachers. Models such as Sport Education would allow Tony to use his analytical skills and make the friends that he is currently missing. He could begin to be viewed as more than a performer as he gave constructive feedback and guidance to his peers.

Fundamentally Tony’s teachers need to ensure that he feels valued and they need to contest any “traces of fat phobia” that exist in themselves and their pupils. There are lots of ways of supporting Tony to be healthy but these need long-term support and lifestyles changes. At the heart of this discussion is the ways in which PE has failed Tony. While the subject (and his teachers) can’t shoulder the entire blame it is clear than they have played a part in his belief that he learns about things he can’t use in his life.


What’s next? As part of this 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. Her 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.