Intelligence, practice and virtue: prospects for physical education by Dr. Malcolm Thorburn

Dr. Malcolm Thorburn is a Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. This post offers a highly thought-provoking critique of the role and value of physical education; a very topical issue in light of recent curricular developments in Scotland, UK and worldwide.

Intelligence, practice and virtue: prospects for physical education

When I was studying to be a teacher in the late 1970s there was a lot of talk about status and physical educations marginal curriculum presence. When I returned to be a lecturer twenty years later there was an awful lot of talk about exactly the same things. The problem all along was physical educations cognitive value claim, or more precisely its lack of cognitive value claim. For example, McNamee (2009, p. 17) claimed that ‘anyone attempting to argue for the educational value of physical education on the grounds that the playing of games conferred a wide-ranging cognitive perspective on the world would be barking up the wrong tree.’cognitive

Many of the difficulties physical education has faced arose from Peters (1966) highly influential analytical philosophical treatise which prioritized the development of the rational mind, and which considered games playing to be non-serious and morally unimportant. Peters (1966) discourse on educational values often merged with Hirst’s forms of knowledge critique, and this led to secondary school curriculum being framed according to categories of subjects: a development which posed two serious problems for physical education.

Firstly, for the newly emerging examinations awards, claims for curriculum worthiness were mostly based on concurring that the Peters-Hirst academic conception of education was essentially correct, yet with some careful adjustment and redefinition, physical education could be accommodated within it. This has not been without its challenges e.g., course arrangements which often encourage practically-based learning experiences but then rely for much of the assessment evidence on learners’ language-based written answers; a remit which has proved difficult to handle for all but the most capable learners.

Secondly, as far as the ‘core’ versions of physical education are concerned, it often placed the subject in a rather weak position with only limited learner contact time and modest school support. As if this outlook was not gloomy enough, physical educationalists often appear to confirm the Peters case by producing shallow, introductory-level, technique-laden, repetitive and rather anodyne and ineffective multi-activity curriculum programmes, where activity choice (rather than the drive to aspire) is the device used to try to keep learners interested (Kirk, 2010).y8x_curriculum_plan_peHowever, all is not necessarily lost: Julia Annas (2011) a leading philosopher has resurrected in a modern guise the ancient-historical idea that practical skills are similar to practical virtues. Therefore, as one becomes more skilful and expert through intelligent practice, the more one is able to make virtuous decisions. Virtues are not defined by measurement against a set of idealized rules but rather governed by the gaining of skills which are beneficial to our happiness and flourishing. Moreover, if we are sufficiently motivated, we will be keen to seek out ways of using our practical skills intelligently, just as we will be enthusiastic in thinking through our reasons for making the decisions we do as we interact with others.

At a stroke, the attractiveness of this line of thinking should be clear for physical educationalists: as arguments cultivated on this basis endorse the case that physical education can have both an intrinsic (in-subject) and instrumental (beyond-subject) value claim. This form of critique would be predicated on arguing that skillful practice can lead to the realization of higher performance and sporting standards and also that learners can develop expertise through practice, and as a result are more capable of making virtuous decisions in their lives.

The critique of Annas is of course not without its contested claims e.g. on whether there is a greater gap between skill and practical wisdom than Annas (2011) acknowledges and also whether the virtuesaccount of virtues provided by Annas (2011) is overly intellectualist, founded as it is on deliberation and certainty rather than more flexible, experiential and habituation accounts of skill.

In terms of curriculum planning, the most evident implication of the skills and virtues theorizing of Annas (2011) is in recognizing the importance of time, experience and practice for developing expertise. Therefore, curriculum that wished to apply the theorizing of Annas (2011) would typically contain fewer activities and a longer and deeper engagement with those that are part of programmes.


Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kirk, D. (2010). Physical Education Futures. London: Routledge.

McNamee, M. (2009). The nature and values of physical education. In R. Bailey & D. Kirk (Eds.),The Routledge reader in physical education (pp. 9-28). London: Routledge.

Peters, R. S. (1966). Ethics and Education. London: Allen & Unwin.


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