PE as a ‘knowledge rich’ subject

If the knowledge we teach in PE divorces the mind from body, thought from action, reason from meaning and the individual from the environment, at the very best we can only ever nurture a physically educatedmind but never a physically educated person. Adapted from Arnold (1991).

In OFSTED’s recent AfPE webinar on PE and the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) there were some key messages provided to the profession; movement should be the focus of our subject, curriculum design should be about learning and not just covering content and the curriculum should honour the needs of the community it serves. However it was the importance of knowledge and that PE is a ‘knowledge rich‘ subject that concerned me. Not because I have objections to either of those two propositions, but I do have a concern to what I perceive to be a growing emphasis on one particular type of knowledge in our subject to the detriment of others. To highlight my concern I’m going to adapt (take liberties with) Arnold’s (1988) three dimensions as he also believed that movement should be the focus of study for PE. The three interrelated dimensions he proposes are education about, in and through movement which I will modify to knowledge about, in and through movement.

Knowledge ‘about‘ movement – this type of knowledge positions movement and the body as an object to be studied. To do this well we can draw upon other subject disciplines such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, psychology, sociology, philosophy and anthropology (Arnold, 1979). Usually this manifests itself in PE as being able to name muscles in the body, the components of health related fitness, the teaching points of technically proficient serve in badminton, or what are the principles of play in invasion games. Its strength is that it can help the child see that movement knowledge spills out into life beyond our subject and into others. It is mainly propositional and can easily be checked and assessed through tests, questions and dialogue. A depth of this type of knowledge can help children to become more analytical, critical and evaluative of aspects of movement. However we need to think very carefully about both the quantity and quality of knowledge ‘about’ movement the curriculum covers. In my opinion we should favour knowledge that can be applied to young people’s lives such as knowing where they could locate appropriate and safe environments for informal movement participation that provide a range of challenges, allow for progression and are stimulating/immersive rather than preparing children to pass a GCSE PE exam (O’Connor and Penney, 2020).

Knowledge ‘through‘ movement – this is an instrumental use of movement, often used to enhance knowledge that is considered useful for work, in particular the promotion of a good character or the importance of physical activity for health and wellbeing. Take the ideal of developing a young person’s character through playing competitive sport for example. It is a pervasive and unquestioned ideal accepted not just in PE but in wider society. We see children lacking in some way that they need to be fixed and moulded. By tilling competitive sport into their formative experiences, there will be a fertiliser effect and young people’s character and potential will grow in socially desirable ways (Coakley, 2011). If this is knowledge that we want them to gain in PE, we need to be intentional in both the outcomes and the methods we use to teach. However knowledge ‘through’ movement doesn’t solely have to serve as preparation for the workplace, or extending life but also for enriching life. Movement forms such as dance and gymnastics can provide knowledge and appreciation about aesthetics, form and beauty. This is valuable knowledge which can enhance people’s quality of life but is often overlooked when designing a PE curriculum.

Knowledge ‘in‘ movement – this is usually positioned as knowing how to engage in culturally relevant forms of movement with a focus on the development of procedural knowledge or skills. However PE often tends to focus on the acquisition of decontextualised sports techniques. For skill and skilful movement to emerge there also needs to be perception, action and decision making when solving problems rather than just accurately trying to replicate adult given solutions. Knowing how to participate in forms of movement also requires more than just physical skill but also the skill to interact within and navigate the sub-cultures that are often associated with the activity. Playing cricket isn’t just a case of knowing the rules, the skills and the tactics but also knowing the language, etiquette and social norms that are part of the game. With an overt focus on sports techniques we also miss what Lambert (2019) believes to be essential knowledge, knowing why we love to move – “the thrill, buzz, flow, joy and indescribable pleasure of being ‘in’ movement.” We can think, have intentions, sense and share ‘in’ movement which can help us to gain knowledge of ourselves, of others and our place in the world that no other way of knowing can provide.

What knowledge does your current PE curriculum value and prioritise at the moment? As a simple exercise draw a number of triangles with about, through and in at each corner (as in the graphic above). One triangle for your overall PE curriculum and then another triangle for each of years within your PE curriculum. Then place a dot in each of the triangles which best fits the type of knowledge which are planned for, taught and hopefully taken away from their experience of PE in your school. Does your curriculum favour one type of knowledge over another? If so, why does it do that and what is your justification for that? As PE Teachers you will know your pupils needs, demands and priorities better than anyone else and your curriculum should honour those needs. I would still question how a curriculum that prioritises rational, scientific and theoretical knowledge about movement over other ways of knowing is better positioned to help young people develop and maintain a positive relationship with movement and see a place for it enriching their lives (Kretchmar, 2000).

I agree that movement and moving is rich with knowledge. My concern is that when we hear that we automatically assume that means knowledge ‘about‘ movement – because as Ingold (2004) eloquently puts it we “bias heads over heels”. Therefore we intellectualise and prioritise the accumulation of facts above other ways of coming to know movement, which in my opinion is strange, as that requires no actual movement itself. In its extreme position a child could know all about movement, but be a complete stranger to movement itself. The specific knowings that PE are supposed to nurture in young people is important and therefore should not be reduced to superficial knowledge ‘about’ movement or the accurate replication of sports techniques as knowledge ‘in’ movement. (Nyberg and Larsson, 2014). That isn’t rich but rather disembodied and impoverished types of knowledge. When planning for a PE curriculum we need an authentic balance between knowledge ‘in’, ‘through’ and ‘about’ movement that nurtures a physically educated person and not just a physically educated mind.


Arnold, P. J. (1979). Meaning in movement, sport, and physical education. Heinemann.

Arnold, P. J. (1988). Education, movement, and the curriculum. Falmer Press.

Arnold, P. J. (1991). The preeminence of skill as an educational value in the movement curriculum. Quest43(1), 66-77.

Coakley, J. (2011). Youth sports: What counts as “positive development?”. Journal of sport and social issues35(3), 306-324.

Ingold, T. (2004). “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived through the Feet.” Journal of Material Culture 9 (3), 315–340.

Kretchmar, R. S. (2000). Moving and being moved: Implications for practice. Quest52(3), 260-272.

Lambert, K. (2020). Re-conceptualizing embodied pedagogies in physical education by creating pre-text vignettes to trigger pleasure ‘in’movement. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy25(2), 154-173.

Nyberg, G., & Larsson, H. (2014). Exploring ‘what’to learn in physical education. Physical education and sport pedagogy19(2), 123-135.

O’Connor, J., & Penney, D. (2020). Informal sport and curriculum futures: An investigation of the knowledge, skills and understandings for participation and the possibilities for physical education. European Physical Education Review27(1), 3-26.

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