Researching Primary Physical Education: Fascinating, Frustrating and Complex by Mike Jess

Mike Jess is Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Sport, Physical Education and Health Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.  He is also the director of the Developmental Physical Education Group (DPEG): a group of teacher educators and researchers whose focus is primary physical education curriculum, pedagogy and professional learning.  This blog gives an interesting insight into how Mike’s research ideas have developed over the years and how his work is now informing (and is informed by) practitioner inquiry, self-study and long term professional learning.images

Researching Primary Physical Education: Fascinating, Frustrating and Complex

Globally, I am delighted that primary physical education is currently experiencing a period of increased political, professional and academic attention.   However, while I have been genuinely fascinated in primary physical education for almost thirty years, my experiences have been such a mix of highs and frustrating lows that I wonder how I am still involved. Consequently, from a self-study perspective (see Samaras & Freese, 2011), my contribution to this series of blogs focuses on my personal reflections on how these different experiences have influenced my attempts to make sense of primary physical education from an integrated conceptual, professional and research perspective.

I came to primary physical education late having taught in high schools for eight years. For four years, I then worked in eight primary schools each month, teaching 2,000 children, liaising with 100 primary teachers and travelling hundreds of miles. I didn’t like it much to begin with: physical education was marginal in the schools, my knowledge of the children and the curriculum made my ‘specialist’ misnomer embarrassing and I felt very isolated. However, during my postgraduate studies, I came across a couple of David Gallahue’s books on developmentally-appropriate practices in physical education and it all changed. My classes became my laboratory as I explored the possibilities of basic movements and movement concepts. I was fascinated by this integrated approach but equally frustrated because I couldn’t see myself spending the next 30 years driving round eight schools every month.  I saw higher education as the route out because it seemed to offer the opportunity to delve deeper into the more conceptual world of developmental and 41HbNQeflVL._UY250_integrated primary physical education.

My opportunity came in 1991. While I received great support from my secondary physical education and sport science colleagues, the physical education community in the UK, with few exceptions, wasn’t really interested in developmental primary physical education. As a result, my first PhD attempt focused on young children’s movement development and I gradually moved into a world of linear relationships, statistical analysis and causality. Over a six year period, as my professional activities as a primary physical education lecturer went in one direction my research interests seemed to be in an alternate universe. I felt like I was living two separate lives and my decontextualized research efforts soon came to a halt.   As I approached my fifties, a potential career as a researcher and writer seemed pretty unlikely.

Conversations with Dawn Penney, David Kirk, Pamela Munn, Matt Atencio and others helped open up a new world of postmodernism, lifelong agendas, complexity thinking and self-study. Re-conceptualising primary physical education as a complex phenomenon became the driver. Between 2007 and 2011 I eventually wrote a PhD using complexity principles to reflect on almost 25 years trying to introduce new ideas into primary physical education. The transition from writing in the third person to the first person was awkward and uncomfortable to begin with but helped me recognise the potential that the individual’s voice has in shaping a more inclusive research agenda for the future. Self-organisation, emergence, ambiguous boundaries, edge of chaos, connectedness and nestedness all became the language of my integrated academic and professional work. More importantly, this language also became the language of the Developmental Physical Education Group (DPEG) at the University of Edinburgh and the catalyst for a collaborative self-study project that has been a regular feature of our work since 2012.


Recently, a joint paper with Jeanne Keay and Nicola Carse (Jess, Keay & Carse, 2014) has set out a complexity framework that now acts as the catalyst for our conceptual, professional and research work and is spawning a flurry of conceptual writing and research activity. Complexity-related papers and book chapters on primary physical education curriculum, pedagogy, professional learning, shifting perspectives and self-study are currently all being written, under review, in press or published and will hopefully act as the basis for professional learning activities with teachers and other professionals. In addition, this complexity thinking is now informing some of our undergraduate courses, being shared with teachers enrolled on the Postgraduate Certificate in 3-14 Physical Education and also with academic colleagues in the global physical education Specialist Interest Network in Complexity (SINC) that meets online on a regular basis.images

Reading back on these reflections makes me realise I am still in primary physical education because I just want to make sense of it and the only way I seem to be able to do this is by constantly revisiting ways to integrate my conceptual thinking, practice and research……with others!!

Useful References

Jess, M., Keay. J., & Carse, N. (2014) Primary physical education: a complex learning journey for children and teachers. Sport, Education and Society. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/13573322.2014.979142

Samaras, A.P., & Freese, A.R. (2011), Self-Study of Teaching Practices, Peter Lang Publishing, New York

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