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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