Physical Literacy: The Philosophy

“Physical literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”

(Whitehead, 2014)

In his recent webinar on the UNESCO Guidelines on Quality PE, Dr Dean Dudley made the statement that ‘physical literacy could be a game changer in Physical Education.’ I happen to believe him.

In the last few years I have been asked to teach Philosophy. In my reading to prepare to teach this subject I came across this fine gentleman:


His name is Rene Descartes. In his Meditations on First Philosophy, he argues that the mind and the body are two separate substances. There is ‘thinking stuff’ and ‘material stuff’, and although they may be connected in the every day, they are in fact fundamentally worlds apart. This is a dualist philosophy and as teachers of PE it is something we fight everyday just to justify our subject. The reason being is that with dualism comes a pecking order and usually in this case the mind is at the top. Cogito ergo sum. I think; therefore I am. The intellect wins.

So in Descartes eyes we are purely cognitive beings and this thought is now so ingrained in Western Philosophy and education it is hard to overcome. Therefore as PE teachers we go one of two ways. We either try to fit into this philosophy or we rally against it – the classic case of the pendulum swing. This leads to some practices which I feel undermine our profession, devalues our subject and has a negative impact on the children we teach. When we try to fit PE as a cognitive subject we start implementing ideas from other subjects to validate our own. Multiple worksheets, shoehorning tenuous cross-curricular links and implementing technology for the sake of it are some examples of this practice. Whilst we may think this makes our subject more educational we are in fact doing it a disservice, as it is practical in its essence. For those that fight against it, they swing the other way and totally embrace the body through physical fitness, measurement and testing and this denies any intellectual rewards our subject can bring to the child. It also denies the social learning that can come through PE.

Physical Literacy in essence rejects a dualist philosophy and sees Physical Education, as well as education itself, as holisitc. It sees the child as a whole with neither the body or the mind given priority over each other. I’m all in favour of schooling providing a rigorous academic education focused on imparting knowledge, but let us not forget that knowledge can be both procedural and tacit, which is taken for granted, and PE can provide elements of this knowledge within education. We may ‘be’ because we think, but we are also the embodied actions of our thoughts. Our thoughts are shaped by our interactions, through our body, with the environment around us.

Therefore Physical Literacy as an outcome of Physical Education sits well with me philosophically. It sees education of the mind and the body together. It sees it as an inclusive and individual journey where lifelong physical activity as its ultimate goal. It sees progress as being specific to the individual child, with no ‘end level’ to achieve, but the understanding that it is part of education beyond schooling, unlike Physical Education.

No matter my overwhelming positives about the concept of Physical Literacy I’m trying not to get carried away on the current buzz that this term is generating. There are some questions that I think need to answer it, before I fully embrace it:

1. Clarity. It seems to mean lots of different things to different people, especially those who are in the business of making money through education, physical activity or sport. As PE Teachers we need to be specifically clear about what we mean by physical literacy and have a shared understanding within the profession. This will take time and engagement with those that are classroom practitioners.

2. Framework. I despise boiling philosophical ideas in education down to a checklist, but a framework needs to be developed for practitioners to ensure some understanding and consistency in their approach. We aren’t able to inform our practice as teachers through philosophical ideas alone. It will also allow teachers the chance to see whether they really buy into the concept of physical literacy or not.

3. Observation. The key for me in PE, to assist students in becoming self aware and making progress, is through observation and feedback. How do we observe physical literacy in a child? What dialogue do we have with them to help them become aware of their current place in the journey and what paths they have next to take? For me this is fundamental in delivery of any quality PE programme and without it it becomes practically impossible to deliver Physical Literacy within school. I know that Dr. Dean Dudley is going to publish a paper on this in the near future, so as a practitioner I welcome him trying to answer this question.

4. Subject Knowledge and Subject Specific Pedagogy. If as current teachers of PE we embrace Physical Literacy as our overarching outcome of our programme, how do we implement it in our day to day teaching? Will this require a significant amount of re-training and professional development to understand how to achieve this? Do we have current subject specific pedagogical practices that would allows us to promote Physical Literacy within a child or do we need to be innovative in our teaching? Do current practitioners have the time and energy to adopt, adapt and embrace PL? Is the shift achievable with teachers already within the profession or does this need to start at ITT?

5. Motivation and Confidence. These are fundamental to achieving Physical Literacy and life long physical activity. With limitations in place at schools of funding, facilities and equipment, no clear consistent message from government and senior leadership about the importance of Physical Literacy and also a lack of support from parents how feasible is it for teachers to achieve this? Also motivation and confidence are two very complex psychological areas. Do we understand enough about them as classroom practitioners to ensure they are developed through our teaching? These are big potential barriers to overcome, that doesn’t just prevent physical literacy but the health and wellbeing of all children in our education system.

Whilst I am encouraged by Physical Literacy and have brought this concept up within my department for the last 4 years, there is still much to debate. As a profession we have a long way to go before Physical Literacy will become a legitimate outcome of PE, however I greatly value its philosophical foundations based on its rejection that the mind and body are two separate entities and a school education should only exists to develop the intellect alone.

21 thoughts on “Physical Literacy: The Philosophy

  1. Response to Im Sporticus blog

    Taking the Next Steps

    I shall address the final part of his your and provide some new perspectives to ponder.


    Of course there are currently any different interpretations of Physical Literacy and this is especially true in the way that FMS is seen as essential to Physical Literacy. Though a number of people have expressed concern at this association and demonstrated serious misguided ideas embedded within it use.

    Clearly, more clarity is needed as my blog on tried to set the ball rolling by inviting people to contribute to a shared understanding of Physical Literacy. I am sorry to say that there have been no responses. However, it is a very big issue that we have yet to address adequately so perhaps this can only happen if a range of ideas are made available on the IPLA website for debate and distributed via twitter.

    How do we bring other ideas in to the argument. Capability theory (Sen and Nussbaum) and Embodied cognition/Enactionism can make a substantial contribution to the conceptual thinking behind Physical Literacy? This is another example where substantive ideas can illuminate the potential if Physical Literacy.

    But, what do they mean in practice and what are the implications for schools? This work is being done with some teachers but it needs a bigger collective to generate momentum.


    Once again I agree in principle with this suggestion but we need go much further. I am not convinced that we actually understand how to enable teachers to translate complex ideas into their everyday practices that they value and feel that it improves learning. Academia has tended to drive a wedge between themselves and teachers by insisting that ideas are translated into practice by the teachers who can use their suggestions (not all academics are like this). This should be a shared task and I have tried to outline some suggestions in my blog ( The reference to Polanyi is significant because he believed in dialogue and an open community.

    These points are related to item 4 (Subject knowledge and subject specific pedagogy). We have to recognise the reality of the situation that professional development is a luxury in today’s world but this is not to say that it cannot happen. We simply need to look at the problem in a different way and address personal responsibility and self- directed learning. This is beginning to happen but we need the profession to take it on board in a more rigorous way.


    I am assuming that student means pupil as opposed to students in higher education. In this case, we need to think very differently. Let me pose 2 questions.

    How can a learner who does not know what there is to learn manage to learn anyway?

    In other words, how can babies who could not walk or talk become toddlers who can do both?

    These two questions have been a focus of all my recent work with early years practitioners in developing an appropriate pedagogy and I am becoming more and more convinced that their implications have to be addressed. Hence, my other questions that we work with.

    Do practitioners (in early years or primary education) understand the significance and relevance of these questions for their practice and children’s learning capabilities?
    Do children lose this capacity for self-directed learning?
    Do educational establishments stifle (or inhibit) this capacity in young people?
    Why are some children/young people not as successful as others in developing this capacity?

    I am becoming more and more convinced that self-directed learning and self-management is a distinct possibility beyond the early years but it needs a different way of thinking. Observation of practice is key. How you choose to look rather that what you are trying to see is important. There needs to be less concern for specifics and more about learning the process of exploring and seeing connections. It is not about accumulating factual knowledge but in understanding the process by which one can learn and acquire capacities.

    We must begin to understand the world of teaching in a more respectful way and acknowledge the complexities that they face and this means being in this world and sharing the realities as equals.

    There is a lot to learn about Physical Literacy and even more to learn about making it accessible to teachers in ways that they can understand, value and feel confident and motivated to achieve high quality physical education.

    Thank you for responding in this way and lets hope that it stimulates further discussion and a community that values each other’s perspectives with a desire to improve practice.

    Posted on behalf of Professor Len Almond @lenalmond


    1. Liz, thank you for taking the time to read and post such a comprehensive response.

      With regards to the PE Community online, which is considerable, they are happy to make and share resources, but aren’t willing to debate their position. I think this may be the reason behind no one engaging in your blog. I have started working my way through the posts on the IPLA website, which are beginning to help me shape a better understanding of PL as a concept. I shall do my best to try and share them to a wider audience as they do need to be read and engaged in. However I do feel as a country and a subject we have researchers working hard to open up their fields of study with classroom practitioners. Accessibility and interaction between teachers and researchers in education is increasing, but we have to be open minded and skeptical when discussing theory into practice.

      I have only recently come across Polyani, by accident, when preparing for my Philosophy classes. His ideas on tacit knowledge and embodied cognition, where we are interacting within the world, sit well with my view that education should be for the whole the child. The embodied dimension of pupil development is as worthy as any other and our provision for education should ensure opportunities for that development.

      With regards to delivery of PL as an outcome of a high quality PE program, I’m beginning to see that a Multiple Models Based Approach can help build not just the physical aspects, but also the affective, social and emotional as well. I think there is a lot of scope for models like co-operative learning and teaching personal and social responsibility to be able to focus on all key aspects of physical literacy. What is your view point on this?

      Your question asking do educational establishments stifle or inhibit the capacity of young people to self-directly learn in our subject? Probably. My feeling is though is we do not provide the opportunity to build enough of the basic movements at a young age, to allow them to explore. There is a increase literature that supports a non-linear pedagogical approach of learning sports, and I see this in terms of self directed learning. I recently had a lesson with Year 12 A-Level PE students on the topic of ‘play’. It was a practical lesson where I gave them a wide variety of equipment and asked them to play. They couldn’t manage it. Some needed rules and regulations, other saw no point as a method of learning. Perhaps schooling as a way of delivering an education does do this to students.

      I will continue to read you blog posts on this topic, so I can gain a deeper understanding of the term, which hopefully will allow me and my department to put it into our everyday practice. Can you recommend some reading on this area to help?


  2. Interesting blog that deserves a reply

    I think that I should challenge the idea that “when we try to fit PE as a cognitive subject we start implementing ideas from other subjects.” It is similar to the idea that PE has a theory component for examination purposes. I don’t believe that we need to go down this road. There are sufficient intellectual challenges within PE and this is why I am interested in the idea of a Thinking Curriculum core as part of Physical Education: not as theory but actions in performance. Here are a few examples to consider and I am sure that readers will be able to identify far more

    • Scenario based learning – solving puzzles in a game (practical)
    • What would you do in situation x or y?
    • Can you give me an explanation of why that happened?
    • Analysing different types of games
    • Games making/inventing games
    • Intelligent performances in games
    • Self-corrected practice

    Planning and leadership
    Expeditions and adventurous activities

    • Creating a group presentation for an audience
    • Appraising dance/gymnastic performances
    • Devising routines

    Sport Education

    Athletic Challenges approach (see example in this comment)

    These examples illustrate just how much thinking goes into participation in PE.

    However, these ideas are related also to a feature of education that PE doesn’t fully embrace; the idea of self-directed and self-management of learning. I do not mean problem solving or discovery instead I am speaking of exploring how I can learn to learn and give them control over their own learning

    In a demonstration of teaching hurdling to 11 year old children where I provide the end result – run over three hurdles with three strides in between and I want to see you hurdling over an 12 inch height (or higher). The children work in twos matched for height. All I do is provide them with canes and plastic bricks. They can ask me any questions but I will not tell them what or how to do it. The children complete the task. If they want a competitive challenge, I simply identify the starting line and the finishing line and they can place their hurdles anywhere in between. This approach is central to the Athletic Challenges (where there are lots more examples like this) that apply the principles of modification from TGFU and the idea of shaping learning.

    I am interested in your reactions and comments.


    1. Hi Len. Thanks for your comment. Sorry for the delay but it seems that many comments were automatically filtered for some reason.

      Firstly I wholeheartedly agree with you that PE is a cognitive subject, without the adding of anything else to it. Psychomotor skills are hugely taxing on the brain and require a great deal of thinking to improve them. Verbalisation of performance either of self and peers also gets pupils thinking deeply. You are right, we don’t have to seek other cognitive challenges, when our subject provides so many. Your idea of a ‘thinking curriculum’ embedded into PE appeals to me, and many of the examples you give, especially of ‘self management’ I find my department does already without thinking about it. In fact we our finding self management one of the key concepts we want from our students, as this will allow them to engage in purposeful physical activity beyond the classroom. Can you direct me to any further reading on these ideas?

      The one area I find myself disagreeing with you is on the ‘theory’ component to PE. I personally believe that educating students about this can add depth and understanding of wider issues of engaging in a healthy and active lifestyle and makes sense of knowledge they learn from other subjects. What I don’t like though is that when delivering this theory through core PE, it takes away from the practical nature of the subject. I still believe you can deliver this knowledge in a practical way if it is incorporated across your curriculum, without requiring pupils to write things down, or fill in work sheets.


  3. Well stated. The philosophy behind the concept is critical, as is the practice. Therefore, the critical juncture is at the praxis – the meeting of the two. Your cautionary words are wise and needed. Been crafting a PL post for awhile – guess it might be time to finish it up!
    Happy Trails.


    1. Hi Doug. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully supportive of the term of Physical Literacy and I see it as an outcome of a good quality PE Curriculum and provision. The difficulty is always combining theory and practice, because in the end I feel teachers have to ‘bastardised’ the true meaning behind a concept to ensure that it fits in the structures of school. I look forward to reading your post.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find it intriguing that the embodied nature of physical literacy (almost) always focuses upon the pupils and their experiences of PE, yet rarely upon the embodied aspects of teaching or (importantly), the teacher.


  5. This was just something that made me think. The idea that bodies are acting upon bodies to develop bodies. To what extent do teachers themselves need to be physically literate? And, importantly how do they embody this? For example, are the embodied aspects of ageing, injury, (dis)ability, gender, social class etc and their influence upon the teacher ever considered when it is them tasked with developing physically literate pupils? How does this in turn shape the ways in which physical literacy is conceived, and indeed facilitated? As teachers ‘living bodies’ (McMahon and Huntly, 2013) (and physically literate bodies’) change over time, and in different spaces, in turn how does this impact upon them developing physically literate pupils?

    Another (similar) thought was around the idea of PETE educators developing physically literate students whom in turn would strive to develop physically literate pupils. How might this process work, particularly from a pedagogical perspective?

    To be fair I have little interest in the concept of ‘physical literacy’ itself, and therefore was not looking for any answers – they just seemed interesting questions to ask. My main area of interest is around teachers’ bodies and the embodied elements of teaching.


    1. Hi Alan, your thinking is on another level to mine (possibly more than one level) . I need to try and understand what you are saying. My physical literacy can interact and shape the physical literacy of the children that I am teaching, as we are bodies acting upon each other? As physical literacy is a disposition and therefore changes over time, does an ageing PE teacher have a different impact on the physical literacy of the children they teach?


  6. For what it is worth (and there are those much better qualified than me to support or challenge my points), I do agree with your interpretations. As well as the ageing PE teacher, I wondered about the other embodied aspects such as injury, (dis)ability, gender, social class etc as well. As each of these intersect and impact upon our bodies in different ways (even though there may be similarities), and as these can change over time, does this influence the physical literacy of the children we teach? Does it influence how the children embody their physical literacy (in different times and spaces)? Do they have the knowledge, understanding, experiences, skills, movement capabilities to do this? Not sure if I’m tying myself up in knots here as I don’t have a great deal of interest in the concept of physical literacy, but issues around teachers bodies are currently at the forefront of my thinking. Probably not the insightful response you were looking for, but it is the middle of the marking season and my head is pretty wrecked. I will try and think of something that may be more comprehensible when I shift the workload.


    1. How does the embodiment of the PE Teacher (old/young, sporty/not sporty, able bodied/disabled) impact on the pupils teaching and learning within PE (and possibly impact their PL?) That would be something fascinating to find out.


  7. Haha – succinctly put! I would be interested in flipping the question around – also examining the embodiment of the pupils upon the teaching/learning (delivery) of the staff.


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