Volume 1: The Nature and Purposes of Physical Education

In the previous blog I explored the idea that sports and games are not things we do to ‘escape’ life or something we do just after work in our social time. Instead play should be seen as a central focus in both adults’ and students’ lives. Flipping the metaphor of ‘work to live’, the last paper considered that instead we should ‘work to play’ and that everything we do allows us the time and resources to play.  

In this week’s blog I explore what it means to be a physical education teacher in a ‘world’ that seems focused on the continued diversification of our knowledge base. It asks if it is still OK to have one idea of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘does’ when its teachers are coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds and with widening experiences and understandings.

Paper 16:

Newell, K.M. (1990/2012). Physical education in higher education: Chaos out of order. In D. Kirk (ed.) Physical Education. (pp. 267-284) London: Routledge.

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

What is ‘physical education’? If you asked a hundred PE students/teachers that question you might get a set of answers where the similarities and differences are equally distributed. If you asked a teacher who graduated from a sport and exercise science degree her answers would be different, you would expect, from someone who graduated from a sport education course or a physical education course. Given the number of different faculties, departments and degrees that students can now graduate from, how do we know that what we say is “physical education” is the same as what our colleague, employer, neighbour, or student would call ‘physical education”?  Consequently, have we lost our way a little? Has our enthusiasm to explore different paths as a means to be a physical education teacher served to highlight the differences, and bury or silence the commonalities? Have we splintered apart and in doing so risked our very existence?

Imagine you are a prospective PE teacher and you are just finishing up in a school and want to go to university. Now imagine you are trying to make a choice where you are going to go to study and start on the university application site (UCAS in the UK) and search for all PE courses. You are faced with 50 results and none of them appear to be the same: Sport and Physical Education; Sport, Physical Activity and Health; Sports Science and Physical Education; Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy; Physical Education with QTS; Children’s Physical Education; Physical Education and Sports Coaching Science (to name a few). How do you choose? When I choose my degree route into teaching I didn’t do PE (even though had the offers) and did sports studies - just in case I decided in the end that I didn’t want to teach: which I did.

Let’s look three or four years ahead. A graduate from each of the courses names above applied for a position in your school. How do you know what they know? Does the split that occurred at undergraduate level simply repair itself or are the notions of what physical education ‘is’ and ‘does’ so strong that we paper over the cracks that exist in our shared knowledge base?

To me, these gaps are the very reason why teachers can no longer be considered ‘trained’ when they leave higher education. The disparity of knowledge is such that we need to keep learning just to catch up with the field. If a teacher has linked sports science with their physical education degree then they need to learn about sport pedagogy, and visa versa. The issues above are ones that need to be addressed by universities (as I will discuss when I explore the paper below) but they need to be considered by practitioners. What do you know? Believe? Ignore? How can you be happy that you know enough? Does a rose by any other names smell as sweet? You need to keep learning to find out.


The Paper

“There was a time when PE was PE”. It was recognised globally in higher education, the school system and in society as a subject, influenced by education, medicine and the military, that had an educative focus. Teachers were trained in courses designed specifically for them and with one intention in mind - to work in gymnasia.  They learnt about pedagogy (although they wouldn’t have called it that) and they were in a career for life. However, as Newell argues, these halcyon days are gone and physical education has been swallowed in a vast field of disciplines and subdisciplines that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Whilst the field of physical education has both split and expanded into a patchwork of alternatives the subject itself has declined. The need for PE teachers has shrunk. Its importance on the timetable has diminished and the number of kids in schools has also reduced. The combined effect of this is that PE is smaller than it once was. Simultaneously, there has been growth in areas that were once seen as the children of PE - physiology, psychology, biomechanics to name but a few. This has been fuelled by the rapid growth in alternative careers for graduates, and supported by a move away from a professional emphasis on teaching and into a disciplinary focus around the components of physical activity (PA). Yet at a time when societies focus on PA was an all-time high, Newell argues that the disciplines of PA were increasingly diversifying, which in turn was plunging the area into chaos.

The question “who are we” has become increasingly prevalent and this was reflected, in the USA in 1990, in the names of departments that offered course in PA. Seventy or more different connotations at Newell’s count. Seventy different ways of saying what was once ‘physical education’. Would any other subject tolerate (even survive) the splintering of its core knowledge domain in this way?

In this ‘diversification’ - Newell argues - subject areas have been keener to justify their position by stating the differences rather than celebrating their commonalities. While this has afforded some a place in higher education, it is at the expense of the consumer. How do students know the difference between exercise physiology, biodynamics, and movement learning if we don’t? We need to find the common ground and give up these artificial boundaries. We need to respond to the marketplace and make the decisions of potential students simple. We need to respond to what the marketplace is telling us and meet the needs of society and not just our own silos. As subjects we need to throw off the shackles of independence and come together to play the long game. We need to identify what our common core of study is and celebrate our similarities rather than continuing to fragment the field. 

So I ask you to consider – what was your route into physical education? Look around in your department do you hold the same beliefs and values to your colleagues whose route differed? Does this impact what you and your department do? How can you learn from one another and pool the different things that you know? How can you operate together rather than recognising the differences?


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.


Orginally Published 19th April 2013