Physical Literacy Meditations


I have spent quite a bit of time recently thinking, reading and talking about physical literacy. Going back to the literature, being involved in a research project, through a online forum and then further thoughts being prompted by Nathan Horne’s and Shane Pill’s recent blog posts on the topic. Physical Literacy certainly is gaining traction both with international and national agencies around the world and also with PE Teachers online. The more I learn of it the more questions I have:

1. For what purpose?

I tend to ask this question a lot recently, for everything I do. Purposeful implies that what a PE Dept. provides for their students demonstrates that they are clear about what and why they are providing as learning and meaningful opportunities. That there are good reasons for their choice. If we are to promote physical literacy within our departments we need to ask for what purpose? From observations it seems that many practitioners are beginning to think that developing physical literacy is the purpose for physical education. How many are asking what is the purpose of physical literacy? In the US the current definition of Physical Literacy is “the ability, confidence, and desire to be physically active for life.” Succinct and to the point, but for what purpose? In Margret Whitehead’s book, Physical Literacy: Throughout the Lifecourse, the purpose is deeply explored. It is to make a significant contribution to the quality of an individuals life. As a embodied capability, development of this capability has the potential to make a positive impact on other capabilities we possess. Without discussing a purpose, we fall into circular reasoning; physical literacy makes you physically active and being physically active develops physical literacy. Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to McAllister’s definition of the physically educated person “those that have learned to arrange their lives in such a way that the habitual activities they freely engage in make a distinctive contribution to their wider flourishing.” At least with this definition I can engage in a dialogue with the children I teach what “wider flourishing” might mean to them in their context and hopefully go deeper than just the shallow responses of “health” or “fitness”.

2. Can we reduce it?

Our natural reaction with something complex, like physical literacy, is to reduce it’s complexity. The definition has changed multiple times (and exists in multiple versions) each time becoming easier and easier to understand. Through the defining and redefining of physical literacy, we may end up with a more easily understandable term, that brings more people on board, therefore we can begin to measure it and to assess it within our programmes. In doing this does it lose it’s attraction and power? Physical Literacy is a rich, holistic and profoundly deep concept that sees the body as more than just an object, that we can mechanistically do things to, to get a desired output. It describes beautifully something we can observe in humans who enjoy movement and appreciate what it brings into their lives. That it’s component parts are irrevocably interrelated and interdependent. A quote by Paul Valéry sums this dilemma up well for me:  “Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.”

3. How does physical literacy influence pedagogy and practice?

How does the concept of physical literacy change our PE curriculum, its content, its assessment and its delivery? Of all the questions for PE Teachers and practitioners to ask about physical literacy this is the main one. The daily interactions we have with the children in our care are the only things really in our control. How does it change what we do in the gymnasium or the sports field for the better? Or do we just continue to teach the same things in the same way but rebranded as physical literacy? Some of the literature on physical literacy describes it as a disposition. A disposition is abstract, context-free, not directly observable, assessed through self-report questionnaires, and dominated by genetic influences. If this is the case and it isn’t an ability as defined in the US, can we even teach it? Is the dialogue about physical literacy essentially a distraction to the PE teacher from the real conversation about what is happening in our classrooms, or can it act as a better guide to decision making than our national curriculums?

Perhaps physical literacy is THE legitimate outcome of quality PE provision, or perhaps it is just another way to legitimise PE. Either way as teachers I think we need to ask theses sorts of questions if we are going to adopt it as a goal of our PE programmes, as the implications could be huge. Rather than praise and implement it uncritically, let us stick it under the microscope and ask difficult questions of it. However we are unable as PE teachers to think critically about something unless we improve our knowledge on something. As Daniel Willingham says  you don’t know what you don’t know. Unless we build a solid base of core knowledge about physical literacy, how can we possibly think about it or discuss it in a sufficiently critical way? If we as individual teachers are going to implement physical literacy within our schools, then it is our responsibility to find out more. To understand it more deeply than a quote on a t-shirt or a tweet on Twitter, as ultimately we are the ones accountable for what happens in our classrooms.

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6 thoughts on “Physical Literacy Meditations

  1. Now that is some damn good meditating on Physical Literacy right there!!! Such important questions to ask and such beautiful ways of asking them! Excellent contribution to the PL dialogue. Bravo!!!

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    1. Cheers Nate. So much to like about PL. So many questions about it’s practical application. What would be your key questions to answer as a teacher of PE before applying PL into your curriculum?

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  2. Just when I felt good about the whole Physical Literacy thing, and then I read this post! It all seems so simple, but yes, let’s take a closer look. Do we want to create a PL proficiency test – I shudder to think. I don’t want my students to be worried about being physically literate either, but how does it fit into the larger picture? We know that the physical being is ultra important – we would be extinct if it weren’t, but before we get ahead of ourselves let’s take this slow and really think it through. Thanks for sparking this discussion!

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    1. Hi Wyatt. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think we as a profession need to ask these difficult questions before we wholesale adopt PL as our saviour. Are we sure it isnt just what we’ve been doing dressed up so we can get PE a seat at the big boys subject table, or is it something deeper than that. If so, what is it. If you find the answers to your questions please let me know.

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