Physical Education: The Antidote or the Poison?

I have come to a frightening conclusion. I am the decisive element in the classroom. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated, and a child humanized or de-humanized.” Haim Ginott

PE is in a state of crisis or so social critical theorists would have us believe.

David Kirk believes that physical education is in crisis because the ‘dominant practice of physical education as ‘sport-techniques’ is resistant to change’. Andrew Hawkins believes that ‘philosophical dispositions and societal trends are conspiring to rob our profession of its soul’. Richard Tinning believes that the ‘perceived threat of irrelevance‘ as a subject is a key cause of the crisis.

Each of the crises mentioned above and the many others in the academic literature aren’t meant to be a negative view of our subject, although that’s how they might come across. They are meant as a way of highlighting and defining a problem, helping us to reflect on it and potentially to bring about positive reform and change in practice.

There is a lack of consensus about what the purpose of physical education is, which could be at the heart of many of the crises. However I can’t see many in the profession disagreeing about school based physical education being a potentially significant vehicle for enhancing young people’s engagement with a physically active life style, in their leisure time, over the course of their life.

A tweet by Dr Matthew Sweet last year and the thread that follows provides evidence of physical education not meeting this aim. Therefore my personal belief is if our subject is in crisis, it is one of our own making.

The tweet and its thread spawned a BBC Radio 4 documentary called PE – a History of Violence where Dr Sweet takes up his question with regards to humiliation as a learning tool, exploring the history of PE in England and current and future trends in an entertaining and informative way. During the show he interviews Dr Anne Elliott, sports scientist and senior lecturer at Middlesex University, about her work investigating physical activity in middle-age. She found that ‘sedentary, exercise-averse individuals aged 45 to 65 reported poor experiences of physical education in secondary school, whereas those who were active provided a different narrative. When delving deeper into the reasons why, it was clear that the individual’s relationship with their PE teacher being was the biggest signifier and influence on later physical activity. Bad experiences of physical education don’t just impact the middle aged. A similar narrative was found in research by Matt Ladwig and colleagues where they found childhood memories of PE are associated with PA attitude, intention, and sedentary behaviour in adulthood. As Dr Elliott says in the radio documentary “The minute you say PE…. everyone has got a story….” They certainly do and often it is not a positive one: Gym Class Is So Bad, Kids Are Skipping School to Avoid ItLetters: ‘The P.E. I Was Exposed to Was Not Evil, Just Sad’ and ‘I forget my PE kit deliberately’ – the boys who hate sport

Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of the subject that provides me a job and should be a better advocate to what we are currently doing well. Doug Gleddie makes this point very well in his blog post Ticked, Conflicted and (eventually) Motivated which is a response to Ladwig and colleagues research, asking us to “celebrate those PE teachers who work hard every day to make PE meaningful for each and every kid in their underfunded, overcrowded, under-resourced, undervalued program that has to fight tooth and nail for every minute they have with those kids.” This is echoed by Stephen Thorpe who questions the meaningfulness of crisis discourses within physical education.

As I said previously though, being critical isn’t necessarily being negative, as long as we are using it as a method to drive forward our subject and the profession. There are lessons to be learnt from people’s past negative experience of PE, to ensure that we as teachers do not create a culture of fear, pain, shame and humiliation. Experiences create memories and memories shape behaviour. It can often take 100s of positive experiences of movement for children to build a habit of daily physical activity, it can take just one negative experience to break it, potentially forever. To paraphrase the wonderful Margret Whitehead in her interview with Dr Sweet – PE experiences should be about what we can do, where we celebrate success, capitalise on our physical potential and are meaningful and self-affirming. We teachers can improve PE by creating meaningful experiences but this can be challenging. We can also improve PE by avoiding harmful experiences. Progress can occur through addition and subtraction, perhaps the latter is the easier place to start?

PE is such a rich and complex field of study, both for the child in the school and the academic at university. It claims many legitimate outcomes; fighting obesity, changing sedentary behaviour, developing character and assisting academic achievement to name just a few. PE is expected to solve some of the issues of our wider culture. There isn’t a day where a news outlet or government minister isn’t making a proclamation of PE fixing some perceived physical or moral problem. However before we look to PE as an antidote to the ills of modern society, we need to make sure that the experience of PE itself isn’t poison.

6 thoughts on “Physical Education: The Antidote or the Poison?

    1. Thanks Nate…I keep having thoughts about three types of experiences in PE; meaningful, meaningless and harmful. Whilst I’m committed to helping create the first, perhaps an easier way forward is to reduce the second and get rid of the third. That way we at least do no harm?


  1. The problem IS the academics! How about they get out of their hallowed halls and books and watch a 40 year veteran take kids through some real P.E and how they are challenged, engaged and made inclusive!!!! Sport is the medium through which so much incredible learning can be achieved. The challenge is to break the paradigm clog and look at what you do and how you do it. But then what would I know …. I’ve been doing it for 40 years and constantly challenge myself to make my P.E challenging, relevant and engaging not to mention inclusive …. and all with a bit of fun thrown in! The teacher and how they engage with kids is central to this discipline. Break the mould.


    1. Hi Glen. Thanks for responding. I would love to know more about how you achieve all the things you mention in your comments. Just wondering how its the academics fault that PE teachers create such negative and harmful experiences for children. Could you give me an example?


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