Primary Physical Education Blog


Click here to read blogs by Mike Jess on Primary Physical Education.

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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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“Ready or not? Investigating PE graduates preparedness to teach” by Elaine McCulloch

Elaine McCulloch is a Lecture in Physical Education at the University of the West of Scotland. In this blog, she shares some findings from her PhD about how ‘prepared to teach’ her graduates felt as they embarked on their probationary year in the profession.

Ready or Not?

As a PE Teacher I was always interested in how to be the best teacher I could be. Teaching in a different country (namely America) opened my eyes to the different ways in which PE teachers are educated internationally. This curiosity continued as I returned to Scotland in 2009 to be met with new routes into teaching and a looming new curriculum. In the evolving education climate, Health and Wellbeing has been given prominence in Scotland, with the responsibility for Health and Wellbeing across the curriculum being given to all adults who interact with our young people (Education Scotland, n.d).  Despite this it has been reported that this ‘responsibility of all’ frequently falls on the shoulders of the PE department and the teachers within it. While we acknowledge that the policy ideals and the practical realities of promoting and developing young peoples wellbeing are not always aligned, it is imperative that the next generation of teachers are prepared to deliver ‘learning through health and wellbeing that promotes, confidence, independent thinking and positive attitudes and dispositions’ (Scottish Executive, 2006).


As a graduate of a 4-year B.Ed. programme in PE I once naively thought this route was the ‘only way’ and the ‘best way’ to prepare our future PE teachers. Now as a lecturer on a PGDE programme and a PhD student there has been a shift in my perspective.  This has been a direct result of my current work, which is specifically focussing on examining the factors that influence the perceived levels of preparedness in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) graduates in Physical Education. Participants in the study were invited to reflect on their ITE course and in particular assessed their levels of preparedness for entering the profession as a result of their participation in the ITE Course.

Across three years, 42 participants engaged in the study and they were all Physical Education graduates from the PGDE route. A range of methods were used (Survey and Focus Groups) to elicit and discuss the participants’ feelings of perceived preparedness as they graduated and began their probationary year. The participants then returned to reflect on their feelings of preparedness at the end of their probationary year.

Interestingly the participants identified that while they felt ‘ready’ they were not fully ‘prepared’ due to the ‘fear of the unknown’: they didn’t know their classes, their timetable and most importantly their pupils. Despite successfully graduating and meeting the GTCS standards the young teachers in the study indicated that this does not necessarily equate to the students feeling fully prepared to negotiate the evolving curriculum within Scotland. The study highlighted some key positive contributors to feelings of preparedness as they moved into their probationary year; Initial Teacher Education courses are only one of multiple contributing factors to the level preparedness within graduates. Elements of good practice were highlighted within the participants’ accounts; these were placement experiences and support from their university based Physical Education tutors.  Most participants felt that that they were prepared to meet their responsibility to deliver Health and Wellbeing. Although when reflecting at the end of their probationary participants did attribute this to their views that Health and Wellbeing and PE were being synonymous, therefore it was just part of what they did as PE teachers.

While it is important to consider whether our routes into teaching are successfully contributing to the preparation of our young teachers, it is also wise to recognise that we are the initial step in a career long journey of learning and developing. Emphasising this with our young teachers may lead to increased feelings of preparedness in our graduates.


Education Scotland (n.d) Health and Wellbeing Across Learning: Principles and Practice. [Online] Available: Education Scotland. [Accessed: 1st May 2014].

Scottish Executive (2006) A Curriculum for Excellence – Building the Curriculum 1: The Contribution of Curriculum Areas. [Online] Available: Education Scotland. [Accessed 2nd May 2014].







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Let’s Embrace the Complexity of Primary Physical Education by Mike Jess

Dr. Mike Jess is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. He is also the Director of the Developmental Physical Education Group.


Over the last decade I have been working with colleagues to see how we can use complexity thinking ideas to better understand and practice physical education.  It’s been hard work but the journey has certainly helped me make better sense of the way I think about and approach my work.   While most of the early work in complexity was academic in nature, we have started to make good progress in the way we use complexity ideas to explicitly inform our practice.   As a first step to share these ideas, this blog presents 6 ways that we have been using complexity to develop our work in primary physical education.  While there may be little new, the ideas will hopefully offer a frame of reference to help make more sense of the primary physical education experience

1. Develop Primary Physical Education as a Connective Hub

Primary physical education should be the hub that acts as the catalyst for children’s life-wide and lifelong physical activity.  While physical education classes are held in the gym or field, these classes should be sued to make connections with children’s lives.  We need to look for the real-life connections across the rest of the school and beyond the school gates.  To make primary physical education this connective hub we need careful planning, collaborative working and a good understanding of the context in which we are working

2. Forget the ‘Quick Fixes’: prepare for an uncertain future!!

While primary physical education logically focuses on children’s current experiences, any long-term success is ultimately measured by the impact these experiences have on children’s lifelong learning and lifelong engagement in physical activity.   Of course, the future is uncertain so primary physical education should be about taking children from where they are at the present time and working to build a solid foundation that will help them cope effectively with this uncertain future.  This doesn’t happen with a ‘quick fix’ programme!!

3. Understand Your Starting Point    

Primary physical education is not just about teaching specific physical activities, so don’t start there.  Simply deciding the physical activity content that you want to cover in lessons is a ‘pot luck’ experience.  We need to start with learning intentions that are appropriate or realistic for our context.  If we genuinely want to help children build a solid foundation for the future we need to start off with as much information as possible.  Most importantly, are the children ready to engage with the physical. cognitive, social and emotional learning experiences you intend to offer?  Are the facilities, equipment, school timetable and national policy of the day in line with your intentions?  Do you, as the teacher, have the knowledge and skills to support this intention?  The future might be uncertain so it would seem sensible to give the children, and you, the best possible starting point.

4. Nurture Adaptable and Creative Learners

While some teachers may see the focus of primary physical education being about movement technique, others see it as play.   Neither of these polarised viewpoints are particularly helpful.  If we want children to develop the solid foundation discussed above, children need to be supported to develop a complex mix of technical movement competence AND the capacity to be adaptable and creative in both their movement and general behaviour across a range of different contexts.   Building this technical, adaptable and creative foundation may be a significant challenge but it is one we must work towards.

5. Revisit and Signpost Connections

Children don’t learn by simply sampling activities.  If we chunk our programme into short blocks of physical activities, we need to ask ourselves two important questions.  Are we setting up situations that help children develop the technical, adaptable and creative foundation they need for now and for the future?   Do the experiences we offer help children signpost the connections across the physical education subject area, the school and into the community setting?  If the answer to these questions are negative, action is needed.  We need to concentrate on learning experiences that help children build the physical, cognitive, social and emotional foundation that will help them develop, build and consolidate their technical, adaptive and creative learning.    At the heart of this capacity building exercise is physical education programmes that help children revisit important learning opportunities on a regular and progressive basis and also help them draw the connections with many different aspects of their life and their learning.  Again, this may be a challenge but it is so important for the future of the subject area.

6. Oversee Progress with Adaptive Teaching

Orchestrating the ideas presented above will need teachers who are adaptive in their practice.   Understanding starting points and regularly checking children’s engagement and learning in a formative way will help teachers track progress and adapt their teaching in response to the children’s efforts.  We learn so much by standing back and observing and by asking appropriate questions.  As we build this bank of information about the progress being made, we will be able to reflect ‘in action’ and later ‘on action’ to make professional judgements and decisions about next steps……but more about that in a later blog!!

Yes, primary physical education is complex….let’s embrace it!!

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“PE won’t give me abs”: Understanding Factors Influencing Girls in Physical Activity and Physical Education by Iona Holmes

Iona was a BEd PE student at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in July 2017. This blog is a summary of her year 4 Investigation that explored the experiences of physically active girls in PE, and in their after-school physical activity contexts.


Girls’ low levels of engagement in both Physical Education (PE) and physical activity (PA) has been a particular concern for society and teachers over the years (Pate et al, 2007; Whitehead & Biddle, 2008). Sociological research in this area has been dominated by Foucauldian inspired studies that explore girls’ how girls (re)produce dominant gender discourse (Paetcher, 2013), where a slim, attractive and feminine ‘look’ claims superiority (Barr-Anderson et al., 2008). However, feminist research has acknowledged the impact of modernism on a shift in discourse and production of new femininities in the PA context. Here, women strive to be healthy, fit and powerful and excel in conventionally male contexts (Azzarito, 2010). This is important because, while young women’s involvement in PA is increasing, the literature continues to report that young females remain disinterested in PE (Brooks & Magnusson, 2007; Flintoff & Scraton, 2001). Understanding the factors that motivate girls to participate in PA, may be useful in the development of PE contexts that aim to be more positive and engaging for female students. Consequently, this investigation aimed to explore the factors that influence physically active adolescent females’ motivations and experiences of both PA and PE.


Welks’ (1999) Youth Physical Activity Promotion model was adopted as a social ecological approach to provide understanding of young people’s PA behaviour in relation to individual, social and environmental factors. Three focus group interviews were carried out with physically active girls (n=10) from one state secondary school in Scotland.



The girls in this study were reflective of modern femininities, empowered by PA, yet also influenced by fitness and health discourses. These girls did not express feelings of restriction in their PA, although their motivations for PA were unequivocally to get fit, lose weight and get in shape. These societal pressures were linked to desires to display competence in this new era that expects girls to be athletic yet remain desirable. An interesting finding was the value the girls ascribed to PE. The subject was largely discredited due to its’ inability to produce sufficient exercise or induce bodily changes. Several girls outlined the need to ‘sweat’ and work hard in order for exercise to be ‘worth it’ otherwise risk feeling guilty.

Social and Environmental

Recreational PA was facilitated by friendships and relaxed settings, for example- the gym. Spaces such as the gym offered the girls anonymity where they could exercise without the pressures of judged by people they knew. By contrast, their PE classes were subsumed by peer culture, social capital and expectations to publicly demonstrate competence. These active girls did not entirely dismiss PE but explained how they reduced the amount of effort they put into it because of the social nature of the subject, and because of its position in the timetable. Getting ‘sweaty’ during exercise was considered essential but not plausible in a school environment where the pressures of looking good for the rest of the day were more important.

Social Media

As social ecological models are often used in these types of studies, the aim of this investigation was to explore any contemporary social or cultural influences that may impact adolescent girls. Social media was immediately highlighted in the girls’ dialogues. It served as a source of inspiration for girls who would look at pictures and videos of fitness models and attempt to replicate their workouts. However, equally, girls used it as a platform to showcase their fitness efforts and monitor others with one participant claiming, “If you didn’t take a picture of it, did it really happen?”


Although the sample size of this study was small, it highlights some of the factors that positively impact adolescent girls’ participation in PA, and the factors that constraints their participation in PE. Teachers who are able to recognise the modern discourses surrounding girls’ engagement in PA and PE, will have a better understanding of the ways in which they can act on students’ experience, and foster more positive and engaging learning environments for girls.



  • Azzarito, L., (2010). ‘Future Girls, transcendent femininities and new pedagogies: towards girls’ hybird bodies?’, Sport, Education and Society.15 (3) 261-275.
  • Barr-Anderson, D, J., Neumark-Sztainer, D., Lytle, L.,Schmitz, K, H., Ward, S, D., Conway, T, L., Pratt, C., Bagget, C, D., Pate, R,R., (2008). ‘But I Like PE’, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 79 (1), 18-27.
  • Brooks, F., and J. Magnusson. (2006). ‘Taking Part Counts: Adolescents’ Experiences of the Transition from Inactivity to Active Participation in School-Based Physical Education.’ Health Education Research 21 (6): 872 –88
  • Flintoff, A., and Scraton, S., (2001), ‘Stepping into Active Leisure? Young Women’s Perceptions of Active Lifestyles and their Experiences of School Physical Education’, Sport, Education and Society. 6 (1), 5-21.
  • Paetcher, C. (2013). ‘Girls and their bodies: approaching a more emancipatory physical education’,Pedagogy, Culture & Society. 21 (2), 261-277.
  • Pate, R, R., Dowda, M., O’Neill J,R., Ward, D, S., (2007) ‘Change in physical activity participation among adolescent girls from 8th to 12th grade’. Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 4, 3–16.
  • Welk, G, J., (1999). ‘The Youth Physical Activity Promotion Model: A Conceptual Bridge Between Theory and Practice’, Quest, 51:1, 5-23.
  • Whitehead, S. and Biddle, S. (2008). Adolescent girls’ perceptions of physical activity: A focus group study. European Physical Education Review 14(2), 243-62.


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Developing Social Wellbeing within Physical Education by Katheryn Walker

Katheryn is a year 4 BEd PE student at the University of Edinburgh. In this blog, she provides a brief account of her final year Investigation that explored the way teachers understand, and attempt to develop, social wellbeing in PE.

Developing Social Wellbeing within Physical Education

Researchers within education have become increasingly interested in studying children’s health and wellbeing, especially in the context of attainment (Bradshaw et al., 2007). Although many agree that the term health and wellbeing incorporates interrelated dimensions of physical, mental, emotional and social wellbeing,  researchers have paid relatively little attention to studying the dimension of social wellbeing (Muller, 2012).

Arguably, the development of social wellbeing could be an educational goal in itself. This is particularly the case in PE, where ‘effectiveness’ is often associated with social interaction and collaboration between learners, their peers and teachers (Bailey et al., 2009). However, studying social wellbeing in the context of education has been complicated by the debate about how it is defined, given the wide range of contextually-based concepts, skills and attitudes it encompasses. Within the Scottish context of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) (Scottish Government, 2009), social wellbeing is defined as “being and feeling secure in relationships with family, friends and community, having a sense of belonging and recognising and understanding our contribution in society” (p.19) .

This description reflects the three dimensions proposed  by Keyes (1998), namely: of social integration, social contribution and social acceptance

The issue of what constitutes social wellbeing gives rise to questions of how it can be developed and formed the basis of a study exploring the perceptions of PE teachers, within a Scottish secondary school, in relation to the efficacy of a models-based approach to promote pupils’ social wellbeing. The results of this qualitative study indicated that the teachers defined social wellbeing in terms of skills, attitudes and qualities such as leadership, confidence, communication, self-regulation, problem-solving and the ability to work cooperatively within a group. These skills are described as “personal qualities” within the Scottish CfE Benchmarks document (Education Scotland, 2016, p.19), a key resource which some of the teachers identified as ‘driving’ the development of social wellbeing. Creating an ethos of social integration, inclusion and peer acceptance within PE classes was recognised by the teachers as being a key role in the development of social wellbeing within and beyond school.

The teachers within the study all emphasised the shift in their pedagogy towards more learner-centred approaches. Integrating core learning with different pedagogical models such as Sport Education (Siedentop et al., 2004) and strategies from Cooperative Learning (Casey, 2016) was viewed as being a highly effective way to promote the skills which contribute to social wellbeing. The underlying principles of individual accountability, responsibility and team work, which are shared by both models, was attributed to the promotion of interpersonal skills such as leadership, communication and cooperation.

Although CfE policy documents recommend using a “variety of approaches” to promote effective teaching and learning (Scottish Government, 2009, p.6), the teachers in the study highlighted a number of practical constraints which influence the approaches they use.

Factors included limited availability of resources and the amount of time required for curriculum planning and differentiation. This was viewed as being particularly relevant for PE within the context of CfE, as pupils are given an increasingly wider choice of physical activities experienced across varied learning contexts which can have implications for teachers’ own professional development needs. The teachers emphasised the need for more opportunities for professional development, dialogue and observations of colleagues using different models to promote social wellbeing through interdisciplinary learning. Access to research which supports teachers to implement changes to their pedagogy was also highlighted.

Although the scale of study was small, the data nevertheless can be used to inform those responsible for the development of Initial Teacher Education, and perhaps points to an area for further research to understand the perceptions of pupils in relation to their social experience of models-based learning within the PE setting.


Bailey, R., Armour, K., Kirk, D., Jess, M., Pickup, L. and Sandford, R. (2009) The educational benefits claimed for physical education and school sport: An academic review, Research Papers in Education, 24(1) 1-27.

Bradshaw, J., Hoelscher, P. and Richardson, D. (2007) An index of child wellbeing in the European Union, Social Indicators Research, 80(1) 133-177.

Casey, A. (2016) Models-Based Practice. In: Routledge Handbook of Physical Education Pedagogies. London: Routledge.

Education Scotland (2016) Benchmarks Physical Education. Retrieved January, 2017 from:

Keyes, C.L.M. (1998) Social Wellbeing, Social Psychology Quarterly, 61(2) 121-140.

Muller, M.L. (2012) Social Wellbeing: Investigating the relation of social aspects to optimal functioning in society. Retrieved January, 2017 from:

Scottish Government (2009) Curriculum for excellence: health and wellbeing: experiences and outcomes, Glasgow Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Siedentop, D., Hastie, P.A. and van der Mars, H. (2004) Complete guide to sport education. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics.


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Re-engaging disengaged pupils in physical education: success stories from the field by Shirley Gray

In a recent post about primary PE, Dr. Mike Jess made a plea for PE practitioners to share more of their success stories. While this blog is not specifically about primary PE, it is my attempt to ‘Accentuate the Positive’.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to spend much of my career working with PE teachers and PE students in schools in Scotland. Part of my role is to understand what it is that they do, why they do it, and how their practice impacts on the experiences of their pupils. Through my research, and the research of my colleagues (see PERF), I have learned that many teachers have positive stories to tell, inspired by their endeavors to ensure that all of their pupils have successful and meaningful learning experiences in PE. To give an example of this from my own research, along with my colleague Dr. Jenn Treacy, we recently worked with PE teachers from three local secondary schools to understand the ways in which they attempted to motivate and re-engage those pupils who had become disengaged from PE. We also aimed to explore the impact that their engagement in the project had on their professional learning.

What did we do?

Over a period of around 6 months, we invited PE teachers from 3 secondary schools to explore and share their ideas about how they had successfully re-engaged pupils who had been previously disengaged from PE. We also asked their ‘previously disengaged’ pupils to share their positive experiences in a series of focus group interviews. The teachers from all three schools were then invited to work together to share their findings, discuss the pupils’ perspectives and to create new ideas that would build on their success stories.

What did we find?

We found that the teachers were already engaging in pedagogies that focused on the needs of their learners. They were adopting learner-centered and problem-solving pedagogies, facilitating learner-designed programmes and offering contemporary activities such as ‘capture the flag’ and trampolining. There was also a distinct emphasis on differentiated learning to ensure the successful learning for all of their pupils. However, what was really interesting, were the reasons why the teachers applied these strategies. For example, the teachers explained that they planned pupil-centred teaching approaches, or pupil-designed programmes, to encourage the pupils to take responsibility for both what they learned and how they learned. They emphasized the importance of ensuring that all pupils had opportunities to be successful – a socially relevant form of success that mattered to them. Key to this was that the teachers listened to their pupils and involved them in the decision-making processes. In fact, time and space for discussions with pupils were embedded into many of the programmes in each school. In order for this to work, both the teachers and the pupils emphasized and recognized the efforts that were made to develop positive relationships. Trust was an extremely important factor, and the teachers frequently discussed how they attempted to build trust by, for example, talking to, listening to and responding to their pupils’ views, feelings and ideas. Importantly, this was also evidenced by the pupil discussions about their positive experiences in PE, where they clearly recognised their teachers attempts to engage with, listen to and respond to them.




Learning from the research process

The teachers involved in this study were already making attempts to understand, evaluate and change their practice in order to re-engage their disengaged pupils in PE. Therefore, it came as no surprise that they might invest effort to create time and space to talk to the researchers, talk to each other and engage in personal reflection. Importantly, this investment appears to have encouraged them to engage in a level of reflection that has led a greater understanding of their own practice and pupil experience. This was evidenced in their personal reflections and in the group discussions, where the teachers reported how much they valued the opportunity to investigate and reflect on their practice. Additionally, all of the teachers said that they would create more time in the future for personal and collaborative reflections. Their involvement in the research process also encouraged them to be involved in a follow-up study to examine their pedagogy in line with the development of pupils’ social and emotional learning (see Paul Wright).


This study was not an ‘intervention’ to test the effectiveness of a particular method or model. Nor was this study an attempt to expose current teaching practice as something to be ‘fixed’. On the contrary, we understood the teachers to be engaging in practices that had the capacity to re-engage disengaged pupils. In doing so, we were introduced to teachers who were highly motivated and committed to all of their pupils. The teachers had already completed a ‘first-draft’ of their success stories, but now they have enhanced their stories, and importantly, share their stories with others. This may encourage other teachers to make efforts to develop or change their practice, but I am sure that for many teachers, this will simply reinforce the fact that they are already engaging in innovative, meaningful and learner-centered practices. There are many more success stories out there (for more see the SATPE website) and while, like Dr. Jess, I agree that PE teachers have many challenges to face – I also believe that “not all is broken”. On the whole, PE in both secondary and primary schools in Scotland is in good hands.

For more information about this project and others, contact:

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Pedagogy: Exploring Definitions by Dr. Paul McMillan

In a previous blog post, entitled ‘The Rise of Pedagogy’, I tracked the way in which the term pedagogy has started to surface in Scottish education (click here to view my October 2016 entry). ‘Pedagogy’ has become “ubiquitous” in the field of physical education (Tinning, 2010). With so much talk about pedagogy it is not always easy to understand different definitions. At the risk of oversimplification, this blog post briefly examines two popular ways in which pedagogy is defined in physical education. It closes by contemplating how these definitions could start to inform the practices of teachers and researchers in schools.

 Who Has The ‘Real’ Pedagogy?

Given the ubiquity of the term pedagogy, and the diverse definitions that feature in the literature, readers of this blog may be inclined to ask, “Who has the ‘real’ pedagogy”? The answer is: no single, all-embracing definition exists. I am sorry to disappoint those seeking to find the ‘real’ pedagogy. It has progressed in so many overlapping directions that it is impossible to identify a unifying definition. While I will not be able to unveil the ‘real’ pedagogy here, I will move on to look at two of the main ways in which the term tends to be defined in physical education.

One popular way to define pedagogy is to recognise that a dynamic interplay exists within and between the teachers, the pupils, and the settings where educational activities take place. These types of definitions acknowledge that a teacher has to make sense of a great number of local and wider influences to decide on appropriate courses of action for her or his classes (see Armour, 2011). Another popular means of defining pedagogy is to recognise the need to actively challenge the ways in which education, knowledge, and politics shapes what happens (and what does not happen) in school settings. These types of definitions have become particularly prominent in the 21st century, bringing a ‘transformative’ edge to ideas about pedagogy. These definitions lead teachers to not only question the agenda(s) of those individuals endowed with the power to make decisions in educational settings, but also to investigate these norms with pupils to create a more democratic society (see Tinning, 2010).

I have outlined two popular ways in which pedagogy tends to be defined in physical education:

  1. Pedagogy as a dynamic interplay between teachers/learners/educational contexts.
  2. Pedagogy as interrogating the connections between education/knowledge/ politics in schools.

Moving from this theoretical overview of pedagogy, I want to consider briefly how these two quite different definitions could start to inform the thinking of teachers and researchers at an applied level.

Pedagogy: Possibilities For Practice

There is much ‘good’ practice currently taking place in physical education (McMillan, 2017). However, I do, also, understand the complex (and challenging) nature of teaching and learning. Indeed, the complexity is such that Ovens et al. (2013) question if it is even possible for teachers and researchers to grasp “the ‘messiness’ that is inherent in complex educational settings” (p. 1). In response to Ovens and colleagues, I suggest that definitions of pedagogy could provide helpful frameworks for teachers and researchers to better understand the “messiness” of teaching and learning. The definitions outlined in this blog post could provide similar, but slightly different, insights about teaching and learning for both parties.

For teachers, these definitions could, individually or collectively, provide a means to think about practice:

  • by presenting different insights into teaching and learning to those currently featuring in their practices;
  • by offering a shared language to discuss practice with colleagues (including researchers), and;
  • by making explicit the key features of practice – responsiveness, negotiation, and adaptability – required to bring these definitions to life.

For researchers, these definitions could, individually or collectively, provide a means to think about practice:

  • by recognising a more complex picture exists in educational settings than is currently conveyed in the literature;
  • by fostering a shared language to discuss practice with colleagues (including teachers), and;
  • by offering a lens for tolerating the ‘messy’ nature of practice and support efforts to capture the ‘good’ work currently taking place in schools.

Closing Remarks

While I stressed there was no all-embracing form of pedagogy, I shared two main ways in which the term tends to be defined in physical education. I suggested that there is scope for teachers and researchers to engage with the two definitions featuring in this blog post to throw light on the complex nature of our work in schools.

In this blog post there was limited scope to consider what either of these two definitions might actually look like in practice; that is, when teachers and pupils come together in a class. I could provide an outline sketch of these ideas in a future blog post about pedagogy: I’ll be back!



Armour, K. M. (2011) Sport Pedagogy: An Introduction for Teaching and Coaching. Harlow: Prentice Hall.

McMillan, P. (2017) Understanding Physical Education Teachers’ Day-To-Day Practice: Challenging the ‘Unfair’ Picture. In M. Thorburn, (Ed) Transforming Learning and Teaching in Physical Education. London, Routledge.

Ovens, A., Hopper, T. and Butler, J. (2013) Reframing Curriculum, Pedagogy and Research. In A. Ovens, T. Hopper and J. Butler (Eds.) Complexity Thinking in Physical Education: Reframing Curriculum, Pedagogy and Research (pp. 1-13). London: Routledge.

Tinning, R. (2010) Pedagogy and Human Movement: Theory, Practice, Research. London: Routledge.


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Teaching Social Wellbeing in PE: a self-study by Richard Sievwright

Richard Sievwright is a PE teacher in an urban state secondary school located in Central Scotland. He is also currently undertaking a MEd in Leadership and Learning at Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh. In this blog, he describes how his engagement in a self-study project as part of his Masters degree has encouraged a shift in his philosophy about what PE is and for.

Teaching Social Wellbeing in PE: a self-study

My teaching philosophy has always been to promote lifelong participation in physical activity through positive experiences and enjoyment in PE. This thinking is not uncommon and has perhaps been influenced by pervading political messages about the economic importance of addressing health issues relating to inactivity as a result of increasing cardiovascular disease (Johns, 2005). However, I have recently come to recognise that this can be problematic from a pedagogical perspective:

“When PE teachers uncritically accept and reproduce this healthism discourse, it can result in  a very narrow form of PE, one that focusses on developing skills and practices that primarily aim to promote physical activity participation for the improvement of physical health.” (Gray et al. 2015, p165).


I have always taught towards promoting physical wellbeing and, through engaging in a self-study project as part of my Masters degree, have become more aware that my lessons regularly focus on physical learning intentions, usually involving the development of skills and techniques through the game. Prior to engaging in a Masters degree, I had a very simplistic view of PE believing that as long as my pupils were engaged in physical activity, then a broad range of educational outcomes could be achieved. I now find myself questioning this belief – is it good enough to assume that personal qualities (motivation, respect, tolerance, communication, leadership) will be developed as a result of the social nature of PE? I would describe my teaching of these personal qualities as reactive, unlike my teaching of physical skills in PE when I am very explicit, and nurture pupils’ skill development in an environment appropriate to individual needs.

The Sport Education Model (SEM) is used to teach the broad general education phase in my school (age 12-14 years). Considering the roles that are assigned to pupils in SEM (coach, warm up leader, kit manager etc), the personal qualities that pupils bring to lessons are central to its success. Unfortunately, I often find myself reverting back to behaviourist pedagogical approaches to manage pupil behaviour, which often distracts from the aims of SEM. I recognise this is in contrast with how I teach physical skills and wondered how I could help pupils improve their personal qualities. It was this stage of my self-study that I was introduced to a different approach to developing the personal qualities of my pupils –Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (Hellison, 2003).

Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) is a pedagogical approach that was developed with the explicit intention of using the contexts of physical activity and sport to help students to become more personally and socially responsible. The purpose of TPSR is to empower pupils to take responsibility for their own development and consider the wellbeing of others. There are five Levels of Responsibility that help teachers deliver the model; (1) respect, (2) effort and cooperation, (3) self-direction, (4) leadership and (5) the transfer of learning to other areas of students’ lives (Hellison, 2003). TPSR makes the social learning intention explicit and gives clear expectations of the way pupils should conduct themselves.  It takes into account attitudes, beliefs and values that can be discussed, and has provided me and my pupils with a context to evaluate learning and set targets for the future.

“One prominent model that appears to be almost a natural partner to TPSR within physical education is that of Sport Education.” (Gordon, 2009, p.13).

My early experience of teaching TPSR alongside SEM have been positive and helpful in identifying clear social responsibility learning intentions in exactly the same as I would teach physical skills. SEM has been useful for engaging pupils in my lessons and making it fun with situational learning experiences. TPSR has enlightened me to be proactive with the promotion of prosocial behaviour, and has encouraged me to set clear expectations which allow conversations to unfold with pupils in relation to the five levels of responsibility.

My self-study has led me to re-evaluate my teaching philosophy, which is now: to promote lifelong participation in physical activity and develop transferable life skills in a supportive environment. As part of my self-study, I carried out some interviews with my pupils and I found that they perceive PE as inherently physical and, after using TPSR, they recognised the value of the life skills that were being developed. If all pupils understand these values and recognise that PE is not solely about competition and games, then this could have long standing positive implications for some schools.

If you would like to contact Richard, you can email him at:


Gordon, B. (2009) Merging teaching personal and social responsibility with sport education: A marriage made in heaven or hell? ACHPER Health, Lifestyles Journal, 6(3/4),13-16.

Gray, S., Macisaac, S., & Jess, M. (2015). Teaching ‘health’ in physical education in a ‘healthy’ way. Retos, 28, 165-172.

Hellison, D. (2003). Teaching responsibility through physical activity. 3rd Edition Campaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Johns, D. P.(2005). Recontextualizing and delivering the biomedical model as a physical education curriculum. Sport, Education and Society, 10(1), 69-84.

Scottish Government (2004). A Curriculum for Excellence. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.








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“Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life” by Dr. Mike Jess

Mike Jess is a senior lecturer in the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh.  His areas of interest include primary physical education, complexity thinking, curriculum, pedagogy, professional learning and policy.

This blog is the first in a series of primary physical education blogs. In this series, Mike sets out to develop and expand key ideas that are part of a shifting perspective agenda that supports the case for primary physical education as a significant part of children’s educational experience and lives.  The blogs will focus on a wide range of topics in an effort to fuel debate and discussion about primary physical education.  Issues to be discussed will include policy, stakeholders, curriculum, pedagogy, professional learning, children’s voices and many more.   However, running through the blogs will be two constant messages about primary physical education.  It is about “Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life”.

Click on this link to access the first and future blogs: Primary Physical Education 

“Learning to be Physical for Life and Being Physical to Learn for Life”images

The last decade has witnessed a significant revival in the fortunes of primary physical education in many parts of the world.   Often positioned on the margins of primary education and playing second fiddle to secondary physical education, the evidence is pointing towards a more optimistic future.  Many governments are showing more support for primary physical education in both policy and financial terms with the result that the professional learning opportunities for primary teachers have become more frequent and, in some cases, are moving beyond the long-criticised ‘quick fix’ short course approach.  In the academic world, primary physical education is also becoming a more regular feature.  The European Primary Physical Education Network (EPPEN) for teacher educators came into being in 2016, while the first world seminar for primary physical education should take place in 2108 or 2019.  Special editions of journals focussed on primary physical education are becoming a more common occurrence, as are academic journal articles, while the first international handbook on primary physical education will be published later in 2017.  Developments certainly seem to be shifting in a positive direction.

From an educational perspective, however, there are a number of key issues that need to be negotiated and addressed before we are able to capitalise on the current good fortune.  While less positive comment about the nature and quality of primary physical education seem to come with the territory, a pressing issue is the need for the physical education profession to collectively come together and advocate to the widest possible audience for the educational value and potential of primary physical education.  Focussing on an educational agenda is critical for the future because the current attention on primary physical education seems to have its roots firmly in health and sport related agendas rather than the educational worth of the subject area.  This creates a ‘Catch 22’ situation for primary physical education.  On the positive side, it is extremely encouraging that primary physical education is receiving such positive support from the sport and health lobbies, particularly because this signposts the potential that the subject area has to connect with the lives of children and young people.  Professionals and volunteers working in these different sectors are great allies for primary physical education.  However, with the outsourcing of primary physical education to sports coaches, private companies and health workers becoming more common in an increasing number of countries it appears to be the sport and health sectors that are the drivers of the primary physical education agenda. pocket hercules 236

My point is quite simple: primary physical education should first be viewed as a valuable educational experience so that it can be used as the catalyst to positively influence children’s engagement in sport, physical activity and associated health-related activities across and throughout their lives.  In essence, primary physical education should be seen as the educational hub for lifelong learning and lifelong engagement in physical activity.  Primary physical education therefore has the potential to do two very important interconnected things.  First, by playing a significant role in the educational life of the primary school, it has the potential to enrich children’s learning across the school, and secondly, it can act as the foundation, or connective hub, for children’s lifelong and life-wide engagement in many different forms of physical activity.



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