“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.”
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.