I had the privilege a few years ago to go back into my old school and talk to what remained of two classes of the students I worked with throughout their compulsory physical education experiences (aged 11-16). I asked these twenty-five or so young men what they remembered of Mr Casey’s PE and what they remembered of PE and Games. Their memories of PE and Games were limited and revolved around Rugby (unsurprisingly given that they did it for the majority of their time at the school) and skills and drills. Some remembered being in the squad or ‘A’ group and others in the non-squad or ‘B’ group but for most of them it was about some skills and maybe a game. They remembered PE and games as players and not as learners and their experiences were about being better rugby players or about disliking these lessons (or both).

In contrast when I ask them about Mr Casey’s PE, they had rich memories of structured lessons and learning about ideas and skills that would serve them beyond the confines of PE. They talked about the teams they had played in five or six years earlier in some cases, and the mascot they had and the games they invented. Their memories were rich, and their conversations impassioned. They saw PE as a place to develop and a place where they were trusted. They remembered their sport education units and cooperative learning Olympics and they looked back on these sessions fondly.

As a teacher I couldn’t have been more disappointed on the one hand and delighted on the other. I had taught rugby and had to take some responsibility for the poor memories they had of these lessons and yet I was also Mr Casey. In this guise, and in some lessons,  I had rethought the way that these kids were learning and I had trusted them in ways I hadn’t before and they hadn’t been before. I had rewritten physical education in their minds and reconceptualised, at least in some lessons, the way that it was taught.

In my last year of teaching I used some of the same ways I had taught the boys with some girls’ classes. We used games making and moved away from 6-week units to 12-week units of games making and Sport Education. Some of the girls, who hated PE, talked about PE as a positive experience perhaps. It took a new approach to teaching to (re)engage these girls with PE. I had to see that my previous approach (our previous approach) was about incapable of achieving the goals we set for it. I had to reconceptualise and rethink my teaching and find a better way of engaging our students.

This is what this week’s paper suggests. We need to think about the very structure – the multi-sport approach– that dominates our subject and begin to ask if it’s ‘fit for purpose.’ Experience and research suggest that it isn’t but just realising that is only the first step. 

The Paper

Ennis divides her paper into two sections. She starts by exploring the inherent weakness in the multi-sport approach before exploring the impact a ‘Sport for Peace’ model (a hybrid of the sport education model and education for peace) had on student learning.

Beginning with the multi-sport approach Ennis holds that “no curriculum in physical education has been as effective in constraining opportunities and alienating girls as that found in co-educational, multi-activity sport classes.” While she lists many notorious characteristics (such as little or no accountability and public displays of ability) as reasons why this approach doesn’t work the most telling reason against multi-sport curriculum was the need for the “teacher to intercede continuously, advocate for low-skilled players, and overly control the level of competition and the tenor of relationships.” Why? Because unlike in other approaches there is nothing built into the multi-sport curriculum other than sport and the teacher that structures learning. In other words, the teacher is the structure and it is only through their efforts that anything is achieved.

The problem then is that learning is teacher dependent. Highly competent teachers who are motivated and energetic have used multi-sport curriculum successfully for many years yet, as Ennis shows, this occurs mainly through their strength and dedication. These teachers gain their success in spite of the curriculum and not because of it. However, this constant battle is not conducive to learning and is tiring and demoralising for teachers and has been attributed to the early retirement.

The arguments that Ennis makes are certainly compelling and are supported by a depth and breadth of research and yet the multi-sport curriculum endures. Subsequently, it maintains the expectation in PE that girls “won’t be permitted to participate equitably in most multi-activity, team-sports curricula” and furthers the idea that “boys see girls as the problem” because they get in the way of their aspirations to play competitive sport with their peers. “Boys”, Ennis wrote, “believe that to be selected for future teams and respected by their male peers, they had to demonstrate their aggression and cool moves, regardless of the impact on less able classmates.”

In contrast Sport for Peace was designed (through its use of sport education and education for peace) to “enhance students’ opportunities to participate within an equitably structured environment.” Building on research that suggested that girls were willing and able to engage in sport education the sport for peace model included an additional emphasis on “conflict negotiation, self and social responsibility, and care and concern for others.”

Ennis reported that students felt increased ownership, engaged in authentic cooperative environments, felt that the model afforded them second chances (where other lessons didn’t) and allowed the boys to change their responses to girls’ participation. Because students were given particular responsibilities for many decisions responsibility for the lessons (and learning) was “dispensed horizontally throughout the class rather than vertically through a few influential students.” Players started to understand their responsibilities, could resolve team conflicts and provide opportunities for all students to improve and enhance the success of the group.

Ennis suggests that while it wasn’t an easy process it was a successful one. Most importantly, perhaps, “boys received a new and different message about girls’ potential for skill development, their level of motivation, and the positive and important contributions that girls could and would make to their teams in an appropriate setting.” However, it required boys to share ownership of the sport with girls.

The message running through this paper is that we tend to put content before the students. By placing content (i.e. sport) first we assume that all students will enjoy PE simply because they have the opportunity to play games. Many curricula still emphasise sport and focus on short units of activities. The questions then are “how could we organize a curriculum differently?” and “what would this look like for the students we teach?”

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, maybe 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 then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Ennis, C.D. (1999). Creating a culturally relevant curriculum for disengaged girls. Sport, Education and Society, 4:1, 31-49