Start with Who

An incident from a Year 9 parents evening many years ago continues to inform my thinking and practice. I was just about to leave when a parent popped their head around the door to see if one of my colleagues was still there. They had already left, but I offered to talk to her about her son, even though I had never taught him. Mother, father and son sat down at my table and then mother and father spoke non-stop for 10 minutes about their son. Their son was no good at PE. Their son was no good at sport. Their son was lazy. Their son wasn’t interested in exercising or getting fit. Their son was only interested in playing computer games. They had tried everything. What can they do as they are worried about him and his health? When I could finally speak I asked them if they had ever asked their son what he might be interested in doing. My response seem to confuse them, so I asked their son on their behalf. There was silence as we all looked at him and waited for his reply, which was surprisingly quick and to the point – rollerblading. Together we spent the next 10 minutes in dialogue about rollerblading, formulating plans and actions and promises, then the family left.

The question this incident raised that was on my mind on the train journey home that night, and continues to be on my mind many years later is “How could we get to a point in a child’s life, at the age of 14, where he hadn’t been asked about his preferences for movement?” Quennerstedt (2019) states that teaching is a continuous act of making judgements and decisions about the whys, whats and hows of (physical) education. Good answers to these big picture questions are incredibly important, as they will guide the professional judgements and decisions we make about curriculum, teaching and assessment. In my mind, the clearer we become about the answers to those questions, the more likely the provision of PE will improve. However what it misses out is an essential question. A question that if we can obtain better answers to, then our answers to the whys, whats and hows of PE will be better informed. That question we need to consider is who?

David Ausubel (1968), an educational psychologist, suggests that the most important single factor that influences learning is what the learner already knows. Teachers should, in his words, “ascertain this and teach accordingly“. Knowing what knowledge and skills the young people we teach already bring to our subject will help us to better further develop their capabilities. Capabilities that will assist in the nurturing of physically educated people (MacAllister, 2013). The more we know of them, the better we can ensure our teaching is developmentally appropriate. 

However the physically educated person isn’t just an individual with an accumulation of domain specific knowledge and skills, but is also a person who values forms of movement and sees a place for it in their life. This is why I see our subject as unique to others. It isn’t just about the (re) production of a body of knowledge but also about a way of living. If our goal is to either increase the quantity of movement in a young person’s life or to improve the quality they already find in their participation then we can’t only focus objectively on what they can and can’t do as that misses out a really important part. We leave out the young person and their experiences and they are central as the reality of movement, sport and physical activity is that they are fundamentally experiencing activities (Rintala, 1991).

If we wish to know and understand young people in PE, then not only do we need to know what they already know but also what they have experienced. If we wish to know what their experiences of movement are, then we must give them an opportunity to reflect on them and describe them to us. As Fahlberg and colleagues (1992) warn us, if we wish to intervene and ensure those interventions are positive (and at the very least not harmful), then knowledge of their reality is not a luxury but is vital to our mission. We may want young people to move on a daily basis, for all the many benefits that might bring them, but that is an ideal destination. We can’t start that journey only by doing things to them that we as teachers think are of utility. We need to do things with and alongside them and that requires us to find out where they are, who they are, and guide them to where they might want to go (Saeverot, 2013).

When I started blogging I wrote a post about whether PE had lost its way and 7 years later I still feel that way. PE is a contested subject in a never ending tug of war over its educational and schooling purposes (Arnold, 1988). Defining the whys, the whats and the hows of our subject are hugely important, but if we continue to start there then I think we will continue to be a subject lost in conflict. We need to start with the who and that means we need to start being attentive to the community we serve by understanding and working with them. A continual spiral of attending to and honouring the needs and wants of the young people we teach, which will better inform the whys, whats and hows of our subject.


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

Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1968). Educational psychology: A cognitive view.

Fahlberg, L. L., Fahlberg, L. A., & Gates, W. K. (1992). Exercise and existence: Exercise behavior from an existential-phenomenological perspective. The Sport Psychologist6(2), 172-191.

MacAllister, J. (2013). The ‘physically educated’person: Physical education in the philosophy of Reid, Peters and Aristotle. Educational Philosophy and Theory45(9), 908-920.

Quennerstedt, M. (2019). Physical education and the art of teaching: Transformative learning and teaching in physical education and sports pedagogy. Sport, Education and Society.

Rintala, J. (1991). The mind-body revisited. Quest43(3), 260-279.

Saeverot, H. (2013). Indirect pedagogy: Some lessons in existential education (Vol. 58). Springer Science & Business Media.

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