PE is an empty vessel

A week does not go by without some big claim being made about the positive developmental benefits of PE. PE will sort out children’s behaviour, better prepare children for the work place and create a fit and healthy nation. This week’s big claim is that PE will improve children’s academic achievement. These claims are misleading and dangerous. It results in advocating for more PE rather than better PE. It means PE is positioned as instrumentalist rather than educative. This can lead to PE becoming a simple bandaid to societies more complex problems rather than as a school subject which contributes to nurturing the physically educated person.

Left unchallenged, these claims create an almost myth-like narrative that just by providing PE (and more PE) we will automatically gain these positive outcomes. Similar narratives are rife in youth sport, and it is from the positive youth development in sport literature that I draw upon in writing this post. Jay Coakley is a Professor in Sport Sociology and he questions this essentialist view in which sport is a “fundamentally positive and pure essence that transcends time and place so that positive changes befall individuals and groups that engage in or consume sport.

Coakley believes these universal claims of the benefits of sport sit upon a number of unquestioned effects. The first is that sport has a fertiliser effect and that if it is mixed in to children’s early experiences then we can build character. The second is the car wash effect where participation in sport can wash away children’s character flaws meaning they are better able to fit into society. Finally the guardian angel effect meaning that involvement in sport provides a guide to democratic engagement with the community. With each effect you can simply replace sport with PE and these succinctly summarise the current discourse about our subject. I would add one more – the brain training effect – that participation in PE automatically leads to academic attainment and achievement. The problem of seeing PE solely as good is that it can shape policy, curriculum and practice without it being organised around sound developmentally appropriate pedagogical approaches.

The title of this blog post has been ‘borrowed’ from John Amaechi. In the aftermath of the US gymnastics abuse scandal, he was interviewed on CNN about the role of sport in our society. When we see sport as purely good it brings with it a dangerous assumption that what is happening in the name of sport must also be good. Amaechi makes the point that sport is neither good nor bad, it is an empty vessel. The outcomes of sport are dependent on how we shape that vessel and what and who we fill it with. Therefore we need to be intentional and vigilant with how we do that. The same must be said for PE. Yes PE can be positive – it literally has provided me with purpose and meaning in my life – but it can also be harmful – negatively influencing people’s relationship with their bodies and movement well beyond their time in PE has come to an end. The point is that PE has both the potential to grow and diminish an individual’s personal development.

I’m not anti-PE. As a child, student, teacher and now as a teacher educator, PE has and continues to be a central part of my life. I care about the subjects welfare and the welfare of the children it serves deeply. But truly caring about and for something can never ever be achieved through blind evangelism. In A Wider Social Role for Sport Fred Coalter challenges the logical rhetoric around sports casual powers for positive outcomes, and if we care about PE we must do the same. It isn’t that PE can’t contribute to these positive outcomes but it is the manner in which PE is structured and taught. It is the processes, pedagogical decisions, the experiences of participation and the social relationships that are grown that are key. These are missing when we advocate for PE, but they are essential in achieving what we want from PE.

Those of us who are custodians of PE – be that the PE Teacher, Headteacher, PE Teacher Educator, PE Academic or the PE policy maker – must ask better questions of it. Those of use who are stewards of the subject must challenge uncritical assumptions of its benefits, not because we don’t believe they can be achieved, but because it is only through challenge that they might be achieved by all. Yes we have a responsibility to advocate for more PE, but if we really do believe that PE has a positive role to play in a child’s life, then we all also have a responsibility to ask difficult questions of it. To paraphrase Coalter we need to ask what type of PE and PE processes produce which outcomes for which sections of the student population & under what circumstances. We must make sure that we intentionally shape the empty vessel that is PE.

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