Best in Show is a mockumentary that takes a comedic view of dog shows, by following a number of participants and their dogs through a prestigious competition. During the competition judges not only compare dogs to each other, they also judge each dog against the parameters of the idealised version of its breed. In other words, when the judge looks at a beagle, he is comparing that beagle to the written standards of the ideal beagle. Physical characteristics, attitude and gait are taking into account when making a decision which dog is the best in show.
Much of what I have observed in PE over the last two decades mimics this. Each isolated movement has to have an ideal form, especially if that movement is linked to a game or sport. Any deviations from that ideal form is seen as as bad.
Take the forehand overhead clear in badminton as an example. When teaching an over head clear, we tend to compare children’s attempts to the ideal image of an overhead clear. Not whether it is successful or good enough, but whether it is perfect. Is the grip correct? Is the body facing sideways? Does the non-racquet hand extend for balance? Does the racquet hand withdraw behind the shoulder to prepare for the shot? The list goes on and on and on. Any differences from the ideal overhead clear are regarded as an error, with the child having the smallest amount of error being proclaimed the best at PE.
This then turns PE into a conformation competition, deciding who can best achieve a movement that closely resembles the ideal form. The PE Teacher judges children on how close they can be to that hypothetical ideal. The closest is the best. They get the praise. The others don’t. Even worse they might get humiliated for not being close to perfect. On top of that we then might add the condition of not allowing children to play the game, until they have the ideal over head clear. And smash. And serve. Playing becomes a reward for those that can get close to the ideal. For some children, who only ever experience games and sports within their PE lessons working on and failing perfecting a movement is all they ever get to achieve. Over and over again. They never get to find out what else games and sports can offer them, the real reasons why many have made them apart of their daily lives. At worse this ‘best in show’ approach can then insidiously slide from ideal movement into ideal appearance and ideal body shape.
We get caught up in the intricacies of the technique and how close perfect it can be. Focusing all the time on the details means missing the bigger picture. PE can’t only see movement as one big dog show, where any movement that deviates from the ideal is an error. Of course we have a duty of care to make sure the movement is not dangerous, we have a responsibility to ensure movement competence improves towards an optimum, but not to a point where everything that is less than perfect is wrong. That just sucks all the fun and joy out of movement. It also frames movement as something only a select few who are close to an ideal can do and gain something from. If we want children to find a place for movement in their lives then a ‘best in show’ approach to PE is not the best way to achieving that aim.