The beautiful risk of Physical Education

The beautiful risk of education, by Gert Biesta, has been one of the most challenging books I have read to date. To call it ‘conceptually dense’ is an understatement. The book is the culmination of over 10 years or more work from Biesta on developing his philosophy of education. By engaging with other philosophical works he explores what he feels teachers are no longer able to talk about; that educating someone is essentially a risk, because it involves a series of encounters between complex human beings. That teaching and the educational process is deeply relational. He feels that ‘the risk aversion that pervades contemporary education’ puts teachers in a difficult position, preventing them from having authentic interactions with their pupils, and he offers his own thoughts on these matters. I can see this now beginning to pervade non-examined Physical Education. This is not a critique of his work, but a summary of his thoughts, that may raise some possible questions about how we approach teaching core PE.

Creativity

Biesta suggests that education is in itself a creative act. That if we look to control all aspects of the education process, by constantly reducing the risk of failure, we are not allowing our pupils the responsibility of creating something new for themselves. By over controlling the learning environment we prevent our pupils from growing up and taking responsibility. We have to try, where possible, to set up an open environment for our pupils to learn in and empower them. This approach may bring with it the risk that what we might not achieve what we set out for with our students in Physical Education. However autonomy in the PE curriculum has been linked to a higher chance of a life time of purposeful physical activity. A move away from a traditional approach of teaching PE towards potentially a non-linear or models based approach would allow us to create that environment without failing them.

Communication

All education operates through some form of communication. For us as a PE teacher this must be in the oral form. The traditional way we communicate with our pupils in PE is by transmitting information from us to them. We do this to prevent a lack of understanding and ensure our pupils know what to do, what they are doing wrong and how they can improve it. However this approach would take away the dialogical potential of communication, not allowing the students to share in the process. When we communicate with our students is it shared and open? Do we participate together with our students when communicating with them, ensuring the quality of the dialogue and having a shared meaning and understanding?  If we did, then this would mean our communication with students is an ongoing, open process that carries the risk of them not learning the ‘right things’. This is one of my key worries about the overuse of technology within PE. By over relying on technology, we may actually be hampering the development of our own communication skills as a teacher, which is essential in high quality PE teaching.

Teaching

Teaching is a necessary component of education and that the teacher must bring something new to learning situation, that previously wasn’t there. Biesta implies we should make a move from learning to teaching, putting the teacher at the centre. That schools aren’t solely a place of learning, for if one wishes, you can learn anywhere. What makes it unique is that it is a place of teaching. This means that we have a responsibility as a PE teacher to be more than someone ‘who creates a learning environment’ or facilitates learning, that as teachers we have something to teach and that students have something they can learn from us. The difficulty is, he suggests, is that we are unable to teach without the student accepting the ‘gift’ of our teaching. So creating an environment where they accept this gift is key. This in turn suggests as PE teachers we need to question what to teach. What can we offer our students, that they themselves could not get without us? Do we work actively and constantly on the distinction of what is desired and what is desirable for the children within our PE classes? Do real PE teachers give pupils something that they couldn’t have without them?

Learning

‘Learning is something natural, something we cannot not do’. However Biesta asks us to reject this notion of learning as a natural process, or as a duty, but to see it as a constructed process. That when we refer to learning we are actually making a judgement about change. Promoting the idea of ‘natural learning’ runs the risk the risk of learning being oversimplified and having power over us, when we should be looking to have the power over learning. I get the feeling that Beista would prefer us not to talk about learning at all, but focus on education. That learning is the output, which means we do not focus on the purpose or process of the activities.

Biesta suggests three domains of educational purpose. Firstly of the domain qualification, which is the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values and dispositions. Secondly the domain of socialisation, which is where through education individuals become part of the existing social, political and professional order. The third and final domain is subjectification, where individuals become autonomous subjects of action and responsibility. While the first two contribute greatly to the empowerment of the individual, without the third we create a uneducational space. It is finding the right balance of the three that is the art of teaching, and is something that cannot be pre-programmed or reduced to a recipe. As PE Teachers are we making wise judgements when it comes to deciding our educational actions?

The book has left me with the following questions with regards to my teaching within PE:

  • In my role as a PE teacher, am I always the transmitter of knowledge, or do I engage my students in a rich open dialogue and try to share meaning in their understanding?
  • If my students can learn anywhere, what do I bring in my role as a PE Teacher and my teaching that they wouldn’t get elsewhere? What do I bring to the educational process that is not yet there?
  • How do I as a PE Teacher give greater autonomy and responsibility to my students to empower them, but without failing them or creating an environment that is unsafe?
  • How often do I question the purpose of the activities I deliver in PE and make professional judgements about its worth to my pupils?
  • When talking about PE with my department or students am I process or results driven?
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6 thoughts on “The beautiful risk of Physical Education

  1. A thought provoking blog and one that requires more than a few moments consideration (so much so that I read this yesterday and am responding today). I like the ideas of creativity, communication, teaching, and learning but would have a slightly cautious and different take on teaching I feel. I certainly feel that the ideas of creativity and communication have real currency. How many times do we really and truly afford our students this/these opportunity/opportunities? This “talks back” to the expectations we have of PE but I think it reflects many of our aspirations if not our actions. I do like the idea that the teacher is someone who creates a learning environment but I think we need to give careful consideration of what a teacher is and what teaching is. I think a significant problem is that we have engaged in schooling and not in educating and until we do the latter then we run the risk of teaching being too much about the act and not enough about the outcome. This links to your/Biesta’s that idea of learning as something that brings about change and is educative. I think the questions you are left with are helpful but I would expect them to take a career to answer – I wish you luck on your first steps (I’m right behind you).

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    1. Hi Ash. Thanks for taking the time to reply. It was a challenging book that also looks at emancipation, democracy and virtuosity. Whilst I struggled to fully comprehend a lot of his arguments, his main one, that educating someone is a risk and the more we try to control those risks, the less chance we have of properly educating them is one that continues to play on my mind. I feel this sits idea sits well with current thinking of non-linear pedagogy in PE. However I always worry that this could be used as an excuse. As you say this will take a long time for me to personally answer (or perhaps never).

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      1. I would doubt that anybody who takes the time and effort to read Biesta would ever use his work “as an excuse.” One would have to be sufficiently committed in the first place to even engage with his stuff…. 😉

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      2. Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Bergson, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, Eleanor Metheny, Fromm, Deleuze, Polanyi, Derrida, Thomas Hanna, Frieire, Ranciere, Maslow, Carl Rogers…as far as scholars with a philosophical orientation (like Biesta), I would suggest Ovens, O’Connor, Fitzpatrick, Stolz, Phil Wood, Giroux, McLaren, Parker Palmer, Pat Kane, Thomas Henrick, Rupert Wegerif, Bernie DeKoven. Sorry…. that’s a lot.

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