Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

Original published 22nd March 2013

In the previous blog I explored the need to not only think about learning outcomes for for we teach but the need to express them to our students. Furthermore, we need to do so in a language that not only tells them what they will be doing but also why and in what ways it may help them in the future. In their study in six Swedish schools, Redelius and colleagues, found that some teachers weren't able to articulate the learning outcomes for their lessons (to the researchers) and when they could they didn't then go on to tell their students what they were doing and why. It was only in openly sharing that the students themselves could communicate what they were learning and why it might be beneficial now and in the future. 

In this week’s blog I explore the idea that we need to look forwards at what physical education, indeed education, ought to be. In other words, how can we envision a future for physical education that supases the norm and places it at the heart of the lives of young people, their families and their communities. It challenges us to think of the networks in which we engage and to acknowledge the values that such ‘communities’ hold and champion. In doing we are asked to consider how we might be catalyst for change.


Paper 12:

Lawson, H.A. (2009/2012). Paradigms, Exemplars and Social Change. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 186-210) London: Routledge.

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

At first sight - well my first sight at least - this paper looked like it was going to be about research and I wasn’t sure how I could work it to fit the aims of this blog. However, when reading it from cover to cover and considering the messages that Lawson is putting across I am now convinced that it carries a poignant message. In fact, I am positive that the underlying message is one that relates to all of us as practitioners - whether than be in physical education, coaching, sports science, health etc. We are guilty (me, probably you) of living in our own silos. I did it as a games teacher (I use this term deliberately as that was certainly what I aspired to be in my early career), and I guess I do it now as a physical educator. I am not a scientist, a coach but I ‘do’ physical education. When I set out to be a physical educator I wanted to teach rugby and cricket. When I set out to be a PhD I wanted to learn to teach through pedagogical models. When I set out to be an academic I chose my specialisms - I would be a teacher educator but I would not sit in an ivory tower. In all of these cases I set out to learn more and more about the ideas and concepts that were important to me and from this position of expertise I have sort to inspire people to my cause. I have followed the work of great people in my field, but have I looked forwards or backwards?

Research (being a researcher) teaches you to build your ideas on what has come before. To “stand on the shoulders of giants” and to justify your claims through the findings of others. As a teacher I did this with my lessons (what has so and so done? Is there a book on that?). The only time I looked forward was in my PhD research. I wanted to do what had never been done before. Use a models-based approach to teaching secondary physical education. I wanted to be the first person to use a multi-models approach (Cooperative Learning (CL), Sport Education (SE) and Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU)) and I think I managed it. But since then I have been trying to establish myself as an academic and have been looking backwards again, to find out what others have said. I have done this to broaden my research and to better understand why people have said what they have said about physical education. I have explored the professional learning and the occupational socialization of teachers, the use of visual methodologies, and the use of CL, TGfU, and Health-based Physical Education by real teachers in real schools in multiple contexts. But why? Because I am interested in how to build school-university partnerships around research and wish to use my practice-informed knowledge to create theory-informed practice and practice-informed theory. Yet, a lot of this involves looking backwards in order to learn from it (not a bad thing if you take David Kirk’s response to the last blog) but at some stage we all need to look forwards to where we are going and make choices about our journey. What Lawson’s paper suggests (and I now see that the programme we are building at work around research is already doing this) is that we need to look forwards and we need to envision a unique future and then work to find ways of making that happen.

But it won’t happen by chance. Teachers need to take responsibility for blue skies thinking and actively seek collaborations with universities and other agencies. Equally academics need to leave their ivory towers and really engage with teachers and other agencies. In the words of Joey Feith we need to build bridges (what Dean Dudley would prefer to call pathways) between different establishments. Personally, I have been concerned with my own practice, is it too narrowly focussed on pedagogical models? Are these only one possible future or one aspect that needs changing? How can I influence cross disciplinary change?

 One way to begin to think of this is to engage in cross disciplinary thinking. I need to better understand that the fields and segments I work in have been created around certain expectations and examples of what counts as physical education, teacher education, teaching etc. I need to look outside of these. I need to work with schools, agencies and other universities to do some blue skies thinking and then some blue skies doing. I need to reconsider my vision of physical education. Where does it come from? Who are the main players in its conceptualisation? What ideas underpin it? What can a break be made that might make it stronger? What am I prepared to break? What is so steadfastly fixed that I cannot break it or wouldn’t be allowed to break it? Physical education, for me, is a silo. It is one I understand (I’ve worked in it for half my life now) but it needs to be challenged. How can you challenge what physical education is? Can you work with other agencies to reconsider what physical education is and does? Can you see and then be the blue skies?


The Paper

Much of Lawson paper explores the development of fields (or paradigms) of research in physical education. He argues that there are a number of key aspects (exemplars, segments, networks and gatekeeper) are needed that make any field or paradigm successful (and by that I mean enduring). He warns that we need to be more aware of the social context in which research exists and that, when we read and internalise research we need to be aware of the wider context in which is written and be more discerning in our judgements of what is good research capable of social change and what isn’t.

The first of the aspect Lawson explores are exemplars i.e. examples of how research can and should be done. Physical Education research (in contrast to Sport Science research) relies predominantly on qualitative methodologies and this ‘type’ of research has come to define the exemplar. Within this there are expectations about how the research will be conducted, how rigour will be judged and what counts as valid and useful knowledge. The second aspect forms around segments of the wider field. So within physical education this might be around health, or games, and within some of the bigger fields or paradigms around Sport Education (SE) or Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU). Those who write and work in these segments promote their vision for the segment within the wider field. Research serves as a vehicle for winning an audience, and potential converts, to certain vision of physical education. The third aspect, networks, are those social groups that are formed around different segments. These groups are invisible to everyone but their members and there is an expectation from those outside looking in that these networks share a sense of unity and a consensus of opinion i(for example, in fields such as SE and TGfU). The final aspect is the presence of a gatekeeper or gatekeepers. These “paradigmatic leaders” are advocates of the paradigm through their visible research productivity, recognition in terms of awards and keynotes, the development of influential doctoral programmes and therefore future researchers and network members. The leaders are opinion shapers and are instrumental in the formation of networks.

All four of these aspects shape the research environment and, Lawson believes, constrains innovation and limits the development of both cross-network, even cross-paradigm, collaboration and eventually ‘sees off’ innovative researchers who don’t conform to the expectations of the field. All of these ideas are explored through the autobiographical experiences of Lawson as a researcher but I won’t explore these further here at it would take too long and I don’t think it is relevant to the core purpose of this blog. However, Lawson’s key message in this paper is that we need to be asking new research questions and to do this we need to create a new paradigm or field aimed at developing innovative physical education programme prototypes that are aimed specifically at being capable of ‘working’ within the social, cultural, economic, political, and demographic “realities-as-challenges” of the 21st century. To do this we need to be asking “ought questions”

Ought questions are those challenges that look not at what works but at the future. In looking forwards and not backwards these types of questions force us, as a community, to consider the values and ideologies around physical education that best serve its capacity to create a good and just society in a sustainable world. Core to this message is Lawson’s belief that PE has suffered by being modeled on other schools subjects and squeezed into the timetable. Indeed he firmly holds that “efforts to make it [PE] conform to them [other subjects] has been counter-productive and ill-advised”. The future of PE lies not in conformity but in uniqueness and the special contributions it can make to the life quality and well being of young people, their families and their communities. Physical Education is currently disadvantaged in the competition for the hearts, minds, identities, bodies, behaviour choices and “lifestyles” of young people (See my Kirk and Houlihan blogs for a fuller consideration of these ideas). However, it is also uniquely positioned to have an impact. If it could be designed and configured using lifespan framework that works for young and old alike (and those in between). If it could stand alone from other subjects and work within a social context to educate the community, the family and the individual through school-agency-university partnership then it could serve a much fuller role in our societies. But to do this, Physical Education needs to create a new paradigm: one that works with colleagues from the wider field of kinesiology (sports science for example), from nursing, nutrition, social work, juvenile justice and public health). If it can do this and we can ask the ought questions then perhaps there is a future for the unique subject that is physical education.


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.