Primary Physical Education Blog


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Supporting pupils to appreciate their bodies by Dr. Sarah MacIsaac

Most of us have been there: we have been handed notes that tell us Lucy can’t swim for the 3rd week in a row; we have felt conflicted when slim pupils have asked us, the ‘body experts’, how they can get rid of their ‘muffin tops’ or ‘bingo wings’; we have had to intervene upon overhearing John being called a ‘fatty’ and we may have a Jack in our class who refuses to change his t-shirt after a lesson in case the other boys call him chubby. Yes, we are aware that issues relating to bodily appearances can impact pupils’ experiences of, and engagements with, PE and we want to try and make things better for our pupils. But how? We may feel up against it, especially in an age where our pupils are surrounded by images of bodily perfection. We know that many of our pupils are constantly browsing Instagram, seeing those ‘gym selfies’, serene yoga poses and strong bodies performing Olympic lifts. Many of our pupils just do not feel that their own bodies are good enough. We also know our pupils are conflicted. They see images and slogans telling them to love their bodies but they are still trying to negotiate a context where the social rewards are given to those who look ‘good’.  In amongst all this, we have to consider whether or not PE is just another space that makes things worse or whether PE can be a context for transformation and empowerment. Research tells us that there are pupils who feel physically sick with anxiety before coming to PE, especially before entering the PE changing rooms (Atkinson and Kehler, 2012). However, research also alludes to the potential that PE teachers have to transform pupils’ relationships with their bodies and with each other (Fitzpatrick and Russell, 2015). Some papers suggest that we should encourage our pupils to become more critical of the body messages and images that they are exposed to and help them to question why certain bodies are valued by deconstructing dominant meanings and stereotypes (Oliver and Lalik, 2004). These papers give us lots of ideas: group projects, discussion and debate, reflective diaries and so on. However, many of these interventions are classroom based and, in Scotland, the majority of our PE is practical in nature. This is where we have an opportunity to really make a difference. Although these ‘thought based’ interventions have potential to help pupils change their perceptions, there is also research showing that critical interventions may be much more effective if they are embodied, focussing on mind and body (Liimakka, 2011; Scott and Derry, 2005). For example, it may be through activities such as dance that we can help pupils to question and disrupt bodily norms and express themselves and tell stories in new ways. We also have great opportunity within PE to support pupils to ‘re-learn’ to appreciate their bodies for the sensory experiences and feelings that their bodies afford them and we can help pupils discover that their bodies can perform physical skills that they never thought possible. These pupils, who are often immersed in an environment where they feel the need to look strong and fit, can feel strong and fit. It may be that we need to prompt them more to realise this. For example, a pupil who finally manages to vault over a box will feel amazing flying through the air but when they land, we are the ones who can reinforce to them just how awesome their bodies really are. We can remind them of the strength and coordination that was required and of how each of their body parts allowed the movement to ‘flow’. Nevertheless, if we are to have the opportunity to do any of that we need to first foster a safe social environment for our pupils. That is, an environment where our pupils do not feel fear of judgement or ridicule if they mess up and of where pupils work cooperatively to support and encourage one another. We also must continue to work on developing fitness and practicing skills, our bread and butter, if our pupils are going to be able to have these bodily experiences. It all seems very idealistic and we cannot change things overnight but, in my opinion, PE is one of the very best places to start.

Further reading:

Atkinson, M. & Kehler, M. 2012. ‘Boys, bullying and biopedagogies in physical education.’ Journal of Boyhood Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, pp 166-185.

Fitzpatrick, K. & Russell, D. 2015. ‘On being critical in health and physical education.’ Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, vol. 20, no. 2, pp 159-173.

Liimakka, S. 2011. I am my body: objectification, empowering embodiment, and physical activity in women’s studies student’s accounts. Sociology of Sport Journal, vol. 28, no. 4, pp 441-460.

Oliver, K. L. & Lalik, R. 2004. ‘Critical inquiry on the body in girls’ physical education classes: a critical poststructural perspective. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, vol. 23, no. 2, pp 162-195

Scott, B. A. & Derry, J. A. 2005. ‘Women in their bodies: challenging objectification through experiential learning.’ Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 1/2, pp 188-209.




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Dealing with the diverse needs of practitioners in complex social-ecological settings by Prof. Mustafa Levent Ince

Professor Mustafa Levent Ince is a Professor of Physical Education and Sport at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey and is one of the four keynote speakers at the AIESEP World Congress hosted by the University of Edinburgh in 25th-28th July 2018. In this blog, he gives us a brief insight into the complexity of learning in social-ecological settings.

Dealing with the diverse needs of practitioners in complex social-ecological settings

During my professional career, my practitioner research interests have revolved around one personal grand challenge: how can I better support the learning of my students?  Along this career journey, I have worked with three main groups of learners; a) students/athletes (middle-high school students, university students, youth athletes), b) physical education (PE) teachers/coaches (prospective PE  teachers, PE teachers, PE teacher educators, youth sports coaches), and c) postgraduate students/researchers. My study setting with those learners has been quite chaotic due to the influence of high social-economic, cultural, and physical variations. This has been further complicated by the presence of conflicting educational and sports policies in a developing country context.

As my knowledge of subject matter has expanded by studying research, doing research, and observing in the field, I recognized that effectively meeting the learning needs of those groups requires critical knowledge of both educational settings and how to make educational decisions in practice. More specifically, this involves: 1) identifying the learner subsets and their specific needs, 2) having a comprehensive view of  the educational setting by considering the impact of social, physical, and policy settings over the learner and their learning, 3) connecting PE stakeholders (in my case, above mentioned learner groups and local policy makers) with the same ideals/aims to support each other meaningfully, 4) creating, sustaining, and supporting institutional, local, and global professional learning communities, 5) being future-oriented in educational decisions, and 6) being data-driven in the practice.  In my keynote presentation at the AIESEP World Congress in Edinburgh 2018, I will explore each of these issues in-depth. In this blog, I will briefly summarise my position on two of them: identifying the needs of learners and viewing the educational setting from a social-ecological perspective.

Identifying learner subsets and their needs

Learner subsets are usually categorized in the literature by gender, age, prior knowledge and skill levels, learning styles, and motivation. However, unique learners may have other specific subset characteristics that are not well defined, and we may need to analyze them in depth to understand better their needs 1, 2, 3, 4. Recently, we identified that learner subsets are very susceptible to local social-ecological changes (e.g., learners’ expectations, health and digital literacy, and social changes by immigration, economic crisis, and technological advances). Each subset also has variations that require an inclusive strategy to meet learners’ needs. Practitioners may develop a better understanding of their own learners by examining the learner characteristics that have been identified in this literature. This may also support them as they make decisions about how to adapt their instructional practices and monitor the impact of those practices.

Having a comprehensive view of educational setting by using social-ecological model

The social-ecological model provides a holistic view of the educational setting. Mapping learner characteristics solely in the educational setting to make instructional decisions is a reductionist approach, and may result in limited outcomes for learners. Our studies indicated that community mapping by using the social, physical, and educational policy setting, as well as the learner characteristics are efficient to improve the learners’ learning.5 Teachers and their learners, therefore, may benefit from taking account of all the layers of the social-ecological framework.

At the AIESEP World Congress, 2018 in Edinburgh, I will present a more in-depth analysis of all six issues identified at the beginning of this blog. I hope to see you there.References

  1. Muftuler M & Ince ML (2015) Use of trans-contextual model-based physical activity course in developing leisure-time physical activity behavior of university students. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 121, p.31-55.
  2. Kilic K & Ince ML (2015) Use of sports science knowledge by Turkish coaches. International Journal of Exercise Science, 8, p.21-37.
  3. Ince ML & Hunuk D (2013) Experienced physical education teachers’ health-related fitness knowledge level and knowledge internalization processes. Education and Science, 38, p.304-317.
  4. Semiz K & Ince ML (2012) Pre-service physical education teachers’ technological pedagogical content knowledge, technology integration self-efficacy and instructional technology outcome expectations. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28, p.1248-1265.
  5. Cengiz C & Ince ML (2014) Impact of social-ecologic intervention on physical activity knowledge and behaviors of rural students. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 11, p.1565-1572.


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‘Physical Education – What’s in a name?’ by Dr. Malcolm Thorburn

The rather lengthy two-volume, Report of the Royal Commission on Physical Training in Scotland, ‘enquired into the requirements for physical training as a branch of national education’ (HMSO, 1903, p. 8). And, following numerous UK-wide school visits and 127 witness statements, the Commission decided over the course of 28 meetings that ‘improvement in regard to physical training will be brought about chiefly by a more intelligent conception of the proper aim of education, by recognition of the fact that the education cannot be based on sound principles which neglects the training and development of the bodily powers, and by judging results as they are shown over the whole of school life …’ (HMSO, 1903, p. 36). And so a subject was born. All that remained was to finalise the name. And in due course, just as the Carnegie Dunfermline College of Hygiene and Physical Training morphed into the Dunfermline College of Hygiene and Physical Education in 1914, so it was that in schools, ‘Physical Education’ became the settled subject name. And over the last century or so, nearly all young people in Scotland have experienced Physical Education, and some have moved onto study it and spend entire careers teaching it.

The concern now is that Physical Education has for many decades moved on from focusing on training and hygiene and warning of the catastrophic events which will be-set one’s life if exercise is not taken. As the great American philosopher John Dewey long ago noted, ‘A truly healthy life would indeed ‘prevent’ many troubles but it would occur to no one that its value lay in what it prevented. … Being better signifies something radically different to having less of a trouble. … Only education and re-education in normal conditions of growth accommodates anything positive and enduring’ (Dewey, 1923/1983, p. 44). These strengths-based health and wellbeing intentions are reflected in the holistic view of integrated physical mental, social and emotional wellbeing set out under Curriculum for Excellence. And, it is this development (as well as the various names used for new faculty management arrangements) which casts some doubt over the adequacy of the name ‘Physical Education’. For it might be that the name ‘Physical Education’ rather underappreciates the value of the integrated learning and teaching taking place in schools nowadays. Language is part of the problem in all of this, for as John Dewey again noted, there is ‘no word by which to name mind-body in a unified wholeness of operation’ (Dewey, 1928, p. 6). Consequently, when discussing body/mind relations ‘we still speak of body and mind and thus unconsciously perpetuate the very division we are striving to deny’ (Dewey, 1928, p. 6). Other languages have less of a problem, for example, in German it is possible linguistically to describe the lived body (Leib) separately from the physical body (Korper). So what to do? Is it really possible that ‘Physical Education’ could be renamed ‘Body/Mind Education? Maybe not, however, the distinctiveness of holistically-informed body/mind thinking and what it might mean for appreciating better the specific contribution of ‘Physical Education’ in the years ahead is a point worth communicating (and celebrating) at every opportunity.


Dewey, J. (1923/1983). Journals articles, essays and miscellany published in the period 1923-1924. In: J.A. Boydston (Ed.) John Dewey: The Middle Works (1899-1924) Volume 15, (Carbondale, Southern Illinois Press), 42-46.

Dewey, J. (1928). Anniversary Discourse: Body and Mind, Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine: 4 (1) 3-19.

Royal Commission on Physical Training in Scotland. (1903) Volume I: Report and Appendix. Volume II: Minutes of Evidence and Index. HMSO: Edinburgh.


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You get what you teach, and quality counts…

Dr. Drew Miller is a Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Newcastle in Australia. In October, he came to visit us at the University of Edinburgh to share some of his ideas around teaching PE in the primary school context, and to initiate a collaborative project with staff here at Edinburgh. This blog describes his research with primary class teachers in Australia, and how they developed their games teaching through engaging in a programme for teacher learning that focuses on ‘quality’ teaching. We hope that you find this blog interesting and stimulating. Please share any comments you have about this post and get in touch if you would like more information about the programme.

You get what you teach, and quality counts…

Over the last decade the purpose of practical physical education (PE) in primary schools has shifted towards a focus on health. This focus comes from a progressive decrease in physical activity (PA) and an increase in sedentary time among children. From a health perspective PE is an opportunity to develop the fundamental movement skills (FMS) linked to higher PA levels, and to increase the weekly PA of children. Whilst these are very valuable outcomes within PE classes, we may be missing the forest for the trees, with children missing out on the skills that contribute to involvement in play. By skills, I am not just referring to the ability to throw, catch or kick (physical skills), but also the skills of how to play the game (game skills), and the social skills that encourage participation (socio-cultural skills).


If we accept that PE should be more than a focus on health, then physical, game and socio-cultural skills should all be valued within PE. The question then comes up, how do we make this happen?

We recently ran several studies called Professional Learning for Understanding Games Education (PLUNGE), in which we helped generalist primary school teachers to teach whilst valuing physical, game and socio-cultural outcomes through the teaching of games. We gave information, then worked with them in their classes, with the focus to improve the student outcomes through the promotion of high quality teaching. These programs involved:

A positive classroom environment:

We spoke to students to redefine what PE was about. In our classes, a quality activity was one where:

  • Everyone was valued and involved, regardless of skill level or gender
  • Students are supported if they make a mistake


The games we used:

  • promoted throwing / catching or kicking / receiving
  • never excluded players
  • started as simple games (throwing at moving targets) and got more (3 attackers vs 1 defender) complex through the program
  • (mostly) involved decision making (one or more defenders) and team-work

PE content knowledge:

We worked with the teachers to recognise learning opportunities within the activities, based around:

  • physical skills – mature version of a movement (e.g. rotating when throwing long)
  • game skills – support (e.g. can they be passed to), and decision making (e.g. looking for open players)
  • socio-cultural skills – participating fairly and supporting each other (e.g. giving encouragement rather than groaning at mistakes)

Pedagogical knowledge:

We worked with teachers on the way the games were undertaken, promoting that:

  • games start as quickly as possible and are modified to provide a fair and flowing activity
  • after evaluation (above) games were stopped to promote learning about the identified opportunity by:
    • questioning students (e.g. why did the game stop? How could we change this?)
    • recognition of quality performance in relation to an outcome (e.g. everyone was helping the ball carrier, behaviour was in line with our definition of quality PE)

This program had a broad focus on the outcomes that could be developed within games-based PE classes, and the use of quality teaching to achieve these outcomes. The program resulted in lessons considered to be higher in quality, and as a result, students significantly improved their FMS (throw, catch & kick), significantly improved their game play skills (support & decision making), and students undertook significantly greater PA during classes. The message here is that a focus on the quality of teaching and a valuing of multiple outcomes that contribute to a child’s involvement in PE also achieved the outcomes considered important from a health perspective. The teachers told us of changes within their students as a result of the focus on a positive environment within PE. Teachers also spoke of far greater involvement from many students, and that these children were also getting involved in activities during break-times at school. Children learnt physical skills, skills to play games, and developed the socio-cultural skills we would like to think bring people into games and sports, and this transferred into participation. In these classes, quality mattered, and non generalist primary teachers were able to produce quality lessons that bought about tremendous positive change.

Dr. Drew Miller, University of Newcastle, Australia


Useful Reference:

Miller, A., Christensen, Eather, N., Gray, S., Sproule, J., Keay., J. and Lubans, D. (2015). Can physical education and physical activity outcomes be developed simultaneously using a game-centered approach? European Physical Education Review, doi: 10.1177/1356336X15594548

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PE Research Digest: engaging teachers with research in physical education

Introduction and Welcome cropped-leonards-3.jpg

Hello and welcome to our research digest: engaging teachers with research in physical education (PE). You can see what it is we are trying to do from our title. We hope that over the next twelve months, our brief (but hopefully informative) monthly posts will introduce you to us and our research, and encourage you to think about how this research might impact on your knowledge and practice in PE.

Over the past year, I have had a number of discussions with many PE teachers and PE students from around Scotland, all telling me that they have an interest in research and a desire to engage in research. However, they also told me that they simply don’t have the resources or the time to devote to this, especially the time to read research articles. We hope that the short excerpts that we will post for around the next 12 months (sometimes in a video format) will support those of you who have this interest in engaging with research. We aim to inform you about the types of research that we do here at the University of Edinburgh, and of the research that is taking place in the field of physical education around the world. We also hope that this ‘blog-type’ format will enable and encourage you to engage with us and with our research. We would like you to read our posts with a critical eye and let us know how you feel about our research. Does it confuse or inspire? Will it make you think or act differently? Do you want to know more? Whateveryour question, dilemma or comment is, please let us know.

Over the months to come, you will see that our research themes are relatively broad and varied – but ultimately, we all have similar aims: to understand more about our subject so that we develop a knowledge base that promotes high quality teaching, learning and positive student experience. It seems appropriate that I begin by telling you a little bit about one of my research projects. As I have already mentioned, please read on with a critical eye so that we, or you, can begin to engage in discussions about what this means for you.

Pupils’ perceptions of and experiences, in team invasion games: A case study of a Scottish secondary school and its three feeder primary schools (Gray, Sproule and Wang, 2008)

Background to my research

The research project that I am about to describe was a small and introductory part of my PhD thesis, stemming from my personal interest in teaching and learning team invasion games. As a ‘younger’ adult I was a very keen, but not a very good rugby and hockey player. I could perform all the ‘taught’ skills during practice, but my decision-making abilities were always very poor. I just never knew what to do with the ball when I had it. As a PE teacher, a hockey coach and then a teaching fellow, I could see that many of the students that I worked with had similar problems. They didn’t know what to do when they had the ball and often lost it under pressure. Many of them did not cope well with this and ultimately came to dislike team invasion games and PE. I then began to get quite anxious when about 10 years ago, there was a convincing rhetoric from PE policy makers that team games were no longer relevant for students in schools, and that they should be replaced with more ‘life-time’ activities such as yoga and skateboarding. This was a concern because, for me, physical education has always been about student learning and it is my belief that team games – when taught well –  provide a rich, challenging and rewarding context for student learning, perhaps more so than ‘life-time’ activities. However, more worryingly, I could find no concrete evidence that this is what young people in schools in Scotland actually thought about team invasion games PE. Consequently, I decided to find out for myself.

What sort of research did I do?                      

I was clearly interested in asking students if they valued and enjoyed team invasion games in their PE curriculum, but after reading some of the literature in these areas, it also became apparent that one of the key factors in terms of motivating students in PE was their perception of competence in games. I selected a sample of students from a local secondary school (all the S2 and S4 students) and all of the P7 students from its three feeder primary schools to ask them to what extent they valued and enjoyed the team games in their PE curriculum. However, based on what I had learned from my reading, I also aimed to find out how competent they felt in team games and what experiences they had in PE that contributed to their perceptions. To do this, I used a mixed method design that involved collecting both quantitative and qualitative data relating to the themes of value, enjoyment and perception of competence. I surveyed a relatively large number of students (n=285) to get a general impression of their views and to see if there were any relationships between the various themes that I ‘measured’. However, from this larger group, I also selected a smaller sample of students (6 from each year group) that I could talk to face-to-face to gain a deeper understanding of the factors that affected their feelings about team invasion games within their PE curriculum.

What did I find?

As you might have expected, the primary school students valued team invasion games more than the secondary school students and the male students from all age groups valued team invasion games more than the female students. However, the questionnaire data also indicated that for all of the year groups in this study, there was a relationship between the value they placed on team games, their enjoyment of team games and their perception of competence in team games. In other words, regardless of the students’ age or gender, those students who felt that they were competent games players, enjoyed games more and valued games more. Those who felt less competent, enjoyed games less and valued games less. These findings were elaborated further by the qualitative data. Students talked about enjoyment in team games in relation to being involved, being challenged at an appropriate level and experiencing success. By contrast, they talked about negative experiences caused by negative evaluations by others and playing with or against more able students. In general, they did not enjoy being in situations where they were not experiencing any success. Interestingly and importantly, none of the students who were interviewed said that they did not value team games. They all recognised the important opportunities they offered for being part of a team and learning skills that would support their continued participation in PE, sport and physical activity.


So what? What do you think?

I’m really interested to know what you think about these findings, however, here are just a couple of the conclusions that I have come to. Firstly, they make me think very carefully about how I read policy. I am now forced to ask a number of questions when I am presented with a policy document. What evidence is policy based on? How involved have students and teachers been in the development of policy? What are the implications of rolling out policy based on a top-down model of policy development?

My second conclusion is more about what this means to you as a PE teacher and how you deal with disengaged students. I can’t help feel that often, when something is too difficult, we choose an easy option. As a PE teacher said to me not too long ago:

Team games are too difficult, especially for girls, so let’s just give them something that they can do. As long as they are moving then that’s enough?


Team invasion games are difficult and you can put in a lot of effort for not very much return. They are prime sites for experiencing negative feelings, including feelings of incompetence, especially when taught in a way that glorifies skill development, scoring and winning at all costs. I can see why in contexts like this, students can become disengaged from games and PE. Herein lies the challenge for PE teachers. How should team invasion games be taught so that all students can be successful? In my article, I make the suggestion that PE teachers should consider alternative approaches such as Teaching Games for Understanding (TGFU) for the development of positive learning experiences in PE. I don’t wish to be prescriptive about how PE should be taught and I know that many teachers have adopted this approach already. However, I do think that there are some principles associated with TGfU that are worthy of further exploration. For example: the development of off-the-ball skill and decision-making, offering a meaningful and contextual rationale for each task, promoting a broader concept of ability (teaching/evaluating/praising social, cognitive and emotional skills), accepting mistakes as part of learning (developing patience and resilience), collaborative problem solving and so on. Not only would this exploration provide a more in-depth understanding of the pedagogical factors that contribute to student learning in games, but also the affective outcomes associated with positive and successful learning in games – something that is critical in a context where the promotion of student health and wellbeing is so important.

Shirley Gray, Lecturer in Physical Education, University of Edinburgh

Useful references:

Gray, S., Sproule, J. and Wang, C.K.J. (2008) Pupils’ perceptions of and experiences, in team invasion games: A case study of a Scottish secondary school and its three feeder primary schools European Journal of Physical Education, 4 (2), 179-201.

Gray, S., Sproule, J. and Morgan, K. (2009) Teaching team invasion games and motivational climate. European Journal of Physical Education, 15(1), 64-89.

Gray, S. and Sproule, J (2011) Developing pupils’ performance in team invasion games. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 16 (1), 15-32.


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