The previous blog looked at the strength of the knowledge and beliefs that new recruits brought to a physical education teacher education (PETE) programme in the US. It followed them through their journey and argued that the ideas formed in school, about what a good teacher is and what good teaching looks like, are hard to change. It showed that pre-service teachers are good at filtering the messages they receive in PETE through their existing beliefs. Furthermore, it showed that they keep only the ideas that fit their belief system around teaching and discard those that don’t. This makes teacher education in schools and universities a much more difficult challenge; especially if we want to change our subject for the better.

In this week’s blog I talk about gender and its apparent place in PE as “the elephant in the room”. It asks if it is OK just to laugh it off and play dumb. It considers if strong emotional responses to the idea of gender discrimination – both positive and negative – are suitable in the modern age. I conclude by asking what can be done to help us talk about issues of gender in a mature and adult way.


Dowling, F. (2008/2012) Getting in touch with our feelings: The emotional geographies of gender relations in PETE. In D. Kirk (ed.) Major Themes in Education: Physical Education: Volume III. (pp. 119-141) London: Routledge.

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

Don’t mention the war might be an inappropriate title for this week’s blog - given the number of times Basil Fawlty actually mentions it – but it does seem that the advice that Basil gave to Polly (“what ever you do, don’t mention the war) is an apt metaphor for this week’s blog and my summary of Dowling’s paper. It seems that whatever we do in PE (in this specific case in PETE but I will generalise given my own experiences) we mustn’t mention gender.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a small workshop with Professor Anne Flintoff on feminism. Anne is an expert in diversity, equity and inclusion research and one of the first questions she asked the group was “why have you come to a session on Feminism?” Two of my colleagues were feminist researchers and they cited their reasons as wanting to develop their knowledge and learn from one of the experts. When it came to my reasons for attending, I had to try and explain. I went because I like to challenge myself and because I was – in my own words – ignorant of what feminism was and did.

Truth be told, I didn’t feel I had much need for feminism. I was a man after all and a man’s man at that. I played “man sports” and did “man things” and was a nice guy with it. I opened doors and held chairs for women and while I may have sung inappropriate songs in the company of my man friends, I wasn’t a sexist, so what did I need with feminism? I respect women’s rights to equality and don’t consciously discriminate – hey I even cried when I left my last job (in front of the whole school) so I must be sensitive.

What a load clap trap!

Truth be told I don’t know much – if anything - about feminism. I told Anne the truth. I was there because I didn’t know anything, and I wanted to. Part of that was because I had – somehow – been invited to write a book chapter on gender and I didn’t want to do it from a position of complete ignorance. The other part was that I don’t like ignorance. I started this blog to challenge myself to read and understand some of the best research in my field and some of that great research is about feminism, gender, diversity and inclusion.

Yet as I look at what I teach now and what I taught previously (as a teacher) I am a specialist and I don’t do generalism. That means I know about action research but not about phenomenology, I know about constructivism but not behaviourism, I know qualitative but not quantitative research. I have colleagues who can deal with femininity and masculinity and I can just leave it to them. I don’t understand the difference – if there is one - between gender and sex but this is not something I am proud of. Yet it is something that I might have laughed off in the past or dismissed as being irrelevant to me. Yet in doing that I am as guilty as my peers in this paper of avoiding the issue.

In our actions and inactions we show our ideals. There is no such thing as not making a decision because that is a decision in itself. We can either talk about gender or not but in not talking about it we are making a deliberate decision to do that. Ignorance is not a defence that holds any water. Not anymore. So, what do I/we do? Can I/we continue to ignore the elephant in the room and refuse to “mention the war” or do we have to admit to our ignorance and do something about it. We can be ostriches if we want but that doesn’t make the problem go away. I don’t want to be an ostrich but that means being front up and admitting my ignorance. Done. But that’s not the hard bit. I now need to start to learn what gender and feminism is and play my part in changing the world that I live in.

The Paper

Dowling opens her paper by asking to what degree she positions herself clearly within her collective group of peers. In other words, she asks how she has allowed herself to be positioned with regards to her knowledge and outlook about issues of, in this case, gender. She does this because of the apparent reluctance of colleagues to engage with issues surrounding the construction of femininities and masculinities and “discriminatory practices in physical activity and sport”. In particular she explores how emotion – be in humour, anger, ridicule for example – is used as a smoke screen to hide people’s true feelings and expectations around the issue (or apparent non-issue) of gender in physical education teacher education.

This paper is interested in a number of issues: (a) why feminist research continues to be the cause of ridicule, (b) why sexist and homophobic talk continues to enter the discussions and actions of PE(TE), and (c) why policy making has little effect on the creation of more equitable learning environments. While this paper is certainly interesting in terms of what is said, it was made even more poignant and troubling to me because of what wasn’t said or what was covered over and excused through almost pure strength of emotion. As I have already acknowledged it was disturbing (and in that word I ask you to read multiple meanings for disturb) because I could see elements of past and present me’s in these conversations. I’m not sure anyone likes to be put face-to-face with the truth about themselves and that certainly lead to some degree of personal disturbance. But it wasn’t just that. I was also disturbed because it made me realise that I need to be more aware of how my emotions are located with regards to different discussions and how I might have said more than I meant through a giggle or a moan.

The very idea that knowledge is transferred - particularly in this case around gender relations and equity – through a non-verbal expression of understanding (or ignorance) seems obvious now but I know that I hadn’t really thought of it like that before. Had you?

What Dowling does in this paper is bring to light some of the instinctive response that were given by colleagues and peers to questions about their own gender identities. Amusement featured strongly - as if they could laugh of the question – along with embarrassment. Yet the men and women on this study displayed “traditional norms of masculinity and femininity”. Men saw themselves as breadwinners and natural leaders while women saw themselves as sporting tomboys and worriers. The dominant or controlling belief was that gender was a biological given and that it was predetermined and unchangeable. Women were the flexible ones while men were the stronger ones or women were emotional/irrational and men were unemotional/rational. That was the way of things and what could/should be done about it?

These ideas of gender were seen in the educators’ practices. Firstly, they saw themselves as specialist i.e. physiologists or outdoor educators and that is what they taught. They weren’t, in contrast, critical theorists or sociologists and therefore they left that field to others – including gender. Secondly, they were “deliverers of pre-defined knowledge and skills” and not meaning makers concerned with democracy. In other words, they covered their content and didn’t stray into anyone else’s field of expertise. They felt that they lacked the theoretical knowledge so would always rely on an expert – maybe like calling for a plumber when difficulties arose (and then complaining about the cost). When asked about gender one respondent replied, “I’d presume those interested in gender might include something.”

In the main gender wasn’t seen as an issue. Educators, who worked predominantly alone in their area of expertise with scores of students (too many to really learn their names), had a largely harmonious relationship with gender and were happy with the status quo. To them it was a non-existent problem and for those who found gender an issue – well they were the abnormal ones.

So, when gender is seen as a biological given and when it seen as a ‘non-problem’ what do we do? Is a lack of the necessary theoretical grasp of the arguments a good enough excuse? Is it OK to keep our self-identities to ourselves? How do we confront and address the strong emotional responses that we get when we talk about gender? Especially when they seem to be a “powerful mechanism for sustaining practices of gender discrimination.” 

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- ThinkActChange (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) 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.