The Place of Learning and Literacy in Physical Education

Sprake, Andrew orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-5164-770X (2022) The Place of Learning and Literacy in Physical Education. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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Background: Debates about the role and educational value of physical education have become a consistent feature in the subject’s historical landscape. As a marginal subject occupying the lower strata of the traditional subject hierarchy, physical education has long strived for educational legitimacy, but with the spiralling downtrend of allocated time for physical education in the curriculum, these struggles are swiftly intensifying. Meanwhile, the physical education community seems oblivious to its own role as part of the problem, and proponents of physical education often declare with dogmatic certainty the subject’s unique and vital contribution to the holistic development of children and young people. For instance, it is argued that physical education fosters not only the physical, but the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils. However, insofar as these wider aspects of learning are either facilitated or evidenced, the rhetoric significantly outweighs the reality. In other words, the dearth of meaningful learning evidence emanating from physical education reduces many of its purported educational outcomes to unsubstantiated claims. In order to redress this incongruence, the physical education community must demonstrate a genuine commitment to these holistic educational claims through an integrative pedagogy of plurality. One way in which this might be achieved is through literacy. Literacy is a fundamental educational currency through which all subjects, apart from physical education, demonstrate that learning has taken place. Literacy is a vital conduit for learning and an invaluable vehicle for producing evidence of meaning-making. Therefore, pedagogical approaches underpinned by literacy could help to solve the ‘PE problem’ from within.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to investigate the learning culture of physical education, to scrutinise the subject’s supposedly holistic contribution to pupils’ learning, and to explore the place of literacy for learning in physical education. By challenging the educational rhetoric of PE and by exploring the role of literacy in learning, this study has both iconoclastic and heterodox foundations - that is, the research interrogates cherished beliefs about the educational contribution of physical education and questions the lack of literacy in the subject. The research idea is that physical education is a goldmine of untapped educational possibility and this study hopes to go at least some way towards excavating it.

Methods: This research employs a qualitative methodology, drawing on a combination of methods pertaining to ethnographic visiting. More specifically, the study draws upon various ethnographic tools to collect data in educational settings that progress from primary to secondary levels, including participant observations, field notes, interviews and focus groups. The inquiry occurred in three phases. Phase one presents a preliminary scoping exercise comprising postal surveys sent to pupils and teachers, interviews and focus groups with both primary teachers and secondary teachers of physical education, and a reflexive ethnodrama which illuminates a personal account of the researcher’s lived experiences. Phase Two is informed by eight episodes of data collection: episode one comprises three focus groups with different primary and secondary teachers and school leaders; episode two contains a narrative account of a literacy coordinator in a secondary school; and episodes three to eight are informed by a twelve-week period of data collection using ethnographic tools in a primary school in the North West of England. Finally, Phase Three encompasses a nine-week period of data collection using ethnographic tools in a secondary school, also in the North West of England.

Findings and Implications: This inquiry revealed that the holistic educational claims made in the name of PE are, at best, overstated and, at worst, non-existent. Claims of producing wider educational outcomes might best be described as a set of rhetorical claims as opposed to holistic pedagogical realities. However, the use of literacy for learning in physical education has demonstrated how the subject’s holistic, but hitherto invisible, learning claims can be facilitated and evidenced by producing tangible learning products born of the physicality of experience. Both the pupils and staff in the primary school were highly receptive to literacy for learning in physical education; the pupils seized upon the opportunity to engage in literacy relating to physical education and the staff fully embraced, supported and utilised it to their advantage. Pupils in physical education were enthused by, not resistant to, the widening of pedagogical practice. Moreover, this work helped to raise the profile of PE in the school. Contrary to this, the secondary physical education teachers in this study displayed strong resistance to what they perceive as the encroachment of literacy for learning in their subject. They tended to view literacy as either a burden on their workload or as the responsibility of other colleagues in the school. As a result, this study has exposed a chasm between primary and secondary teachers’ attitudes toward literacy for learning in physical education.

Nevertheless, the learning evidence produced by the pupils in this study are testament to the learning power of the amalgamation of physical education and literacy. Therefore, one way in which to address the ‘PE problem’ is to embrace literacy for learning and, in doing so, recognise that this would not denote a conceptual abandonment of traditional physical education. Instead, it would serve to bring about evidence of the subject’s holistic contribution to learning and, in so doing, would enhance the educational status of physical education in schools. The physical education community would benefit from introspective practices and by revisiting the fundamental purpose of education, thus the educational purpose of physical education. This study calls for a conceptual recalibration of physical education, one which seizes upon the holistic educational value of literacy for learning in physical education. Literacy for learning in physical education presents new and fresh research opportunities, offering a new branch of inquiry exploring how literacy can enhance, not hinder, the educational value of physical education. The writing is on the wall, so to speak, but the decision of whether to read it lies with the physical education community.

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