Masculine identities in physical education: a comparison of S1 and S4 boys in a Scottish secondary school

Sean Stewart has recently completed his final year of the MAPE Programme at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, he provides a summary of the research he carried out for is Educational Studies 4 Independent Research Project.

Masculine identities in physical education: a comparison of S1 and S4 boys in a Scottish secondary school by Sean Stewart

Research suggests that the PE domain is male-dominated (Parker, 1997), often expressed through the curriculum and activity content (Hickey, 2008). Thus, a particular form of masculinity is valued in PE, while others are oppressed. Hegemonic masculinity (HM) theory (Connell, 1987) proposes that masculinity is hierarchical, with typically masculine (or ‘orthodox’) behaviours such competition, ability and homophobia viewed favourably (Parker, 1996). Unfortunately, research suggests that the PE environment can foster these ‘orthodox’ traits and can result in the disengagement from PE of those boys who cannot conform to such masculine norms. Yet, HM theory has come under scrutiny (de Boise, 2015), leading to the introduction of more contemporary theories of masculinity. For example, Anderson’s (2009) inclusive masculinity (IM) theory suggests that males, regardless of their place in the hierarchy, can engage in feminine or homosexual behaviours without stigmatisation. However, although Wellard (2006) also suggests that males can engage in a range of ‘feminine’ behaviours, these are often only available to those males who embody a high degree of physical and social capital, or exclusive masculinity (EM). Campbell et al. (2016) investigated masculine identity in a Scottish school and found evidence of EM among adolescent males (age 16-17) the PE context.

In my research, I aimed to extend the work of Campbell et al. (2016) by exploring the masculine identities of both first year (S1: age 12-13 years) and fourth year (S4: age 15-16 years) boys and to understand the role of PE in the construction of their identities.  During a 10-week investigation, I observed the student’s behaviours within the PE environment. Towards the end of the study, I carried out group interviews with four boys from each class. These boys volunteered to participate in this study and where of middle and working-class backgrounds. Critically, the boys all played sport, the most prominent being rugby, and were present for every lesson observation.


Popularity. The S1 boys valued effort and learning, with boys being picked for teams because of their effort, regardless of ability. These values allowed S1s to gain popularity, and those who exhibited more orthodox values were deemed unpopular. By contrast, the S4s students called boys who gave effort ‘keenos’. They valued ability and competition, for instance, in the beep test where pupils disregarded it as an ‘individual marker’, instead seeing it as a ‘battle’.  Popularity for the S4 students was given to boys who displayed more orthodox behaviours, referring to them as ‘top of the pack’. However, reflecting Wellard’s (2006) concept of EM, the S4 boys also exhibited more feminine behaviours in PE, such as dancing or showing emotions, yet seemed to remain at the top of their perceived hierarchy.

The body. The S1 boys did not appear to be influenced by the body, they did not normalise a particular form of embodiment and therefore did not marginalise ‘other’ bodies. The body was important in the construction of the S4 boy’s masculine identity and was strongly influenced by the local rugby culture in the area. Consequently, they situated their bodies around the idea of an athletic rugby body which they described as being like a ‘tank’. If boys did not possess this body they were called ‘small boys’ and appeared to be oppressed.

Homophobic discourse. The S1 boys showed signs of inclusive masculinity, for example, rejecting aesthetic activities as being gay and stating they did not care about a peer’s sexuality. The S4s contradicted this, with homophobic discourse being the most generic form of oppression. Interestingly, the boys also used homophobic language towards each other, adopting what McCormack (2011) describes as ‘gay discourse’, a form discourse that is not perceived to be negative or homophobic.

The PE curriculum. The S1 curriculum consisted of a range of both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ activities where the teachers used innovative, learner-centred pedagogies. The S4 boys participated in a choice-based curriculum, often choosing a team sport. The teachers suggesting that this allowed the “boys to be boys”. Importantly, the game of rugby and the boys that played rugby were highly privileged within the whole-school structure.


The results from this research suggest that multiple masculinities do exist in this school, but that as the male students move from S1 to S4, masculinities become more exclusive, to the detriment of those boys who do not display orthodox, rugby-oriented characteristics. There are several implications for PE teachers. For example, if teachers aim to challenge orthodox norms and create a safe space for multiple masculinities, then they need to consider the impact of their PE curriculum and pedagogies on boys of all age groups. Developing and sustaining a diverse and inclusive curriculum, as well as innovative, learner-centred pedagogies may be a first step towards achieving this aim.


Adams, A. (2011). “Josh wears pink cleats”: Inclusive Masculinity on the Soccer Field. Journal of Homosexuality, 58:5, 579-596

Anderson, E. (2009). Inclusive Masculinity. London: Routledge

Campbell, D., Kelly, J., Gray, S. & MacIsaac, S. (2016). Exclusive and Inclusive Masculinities in PE: A Scottish Case Study. Sport, Education and Society, 1-13

Connell, R. (1987). Gender and Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press

de Boise, S. (2015). I’m not Homophobic, I’ve got Gay Friends: Evaluating the Validity of the Inclusive Masculinity. Men and Masculinities, 18:1, 318-339

Hickey, C. (2008). Physical Education, Sport and Hyper-Masculinity in Schools. Sport, Education and Society, 16:1, 1-16

McCormack, M. (2011). Hierarchy without Hegemony: Locating Boys in an Inclusive School Setting. Sociological Perspectives, 54:1, 83-102

Parker, A. (1996). The Construction of Masculinity within Boys’ Physical Education. Gender and Education, 8:2, 141-158

Wellard, I. (2002). Men, Sport, Body Performance and the Maintenance of ‘Exclusive Masculinity’. Sport, Education and Society, 11:2, 105-119


Promoting equality and respect for LGBT pupils in Physical Education: ‘activist’ students’ perspectives

Zack Williams is in his final year of the MAPE Programme at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, he provides a summary of the research he carried out for is Educational Studies 4 Independent Research Project.

Promoting equality and respect for LGBT pupils in Physical Education: ‘activist’ students’ perspectives

For many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pupils, repeated acts of bullying, prejudice and intolerance make school a place of hostility and fear (Kosciw et al, 2012). Physical Education (PE) is highlighted as a subject that is traditionally challenging for LGBT youth. This is because the environment can perpetuate social norms of hyper masculinity and homophobia leading to a negative climate in PE (Clarke, 2006). There is a dearth of research that focuses on LGBT pupils’ experiences in PE and fewer studies that have analysed these perceptions through the eyes of pupils. Consequently, I carried out a study that explored the views four pupils who formed an activist group that aimed to give a voice to the young people in the school and support their rights. Importantly, of these four ‘activist’ pupils, two identified as LGBT whilst the remaining two identified as heterosexual and cisgender. The aim of my study was to gain a deeper insight into their perceptions of how LGBT pupils experience PE and to understand the ways in which they think PE could promote equality and respect for LGBT pupils. Analysis of the data generated from the focus group interview I conducted resulted in four main themes: Homophobia in PE, Supportive PE, Hegemonic Masculinity & Identity and finally Future changes in PE.

Homophobia in PE

The group believed that homophobia remains a big issue for LGBT pupils in PE, especially verbal abuse and derogatory slurs that were experienced or witnessed by the pupils. For these young activist pupils, the demographic of the school was a contributing factor to the frequency and the severity of homophobic victimisation for LGBT students. The school is situated in a rural part of the UK and the group believe that this contributed to a more traditionalist outlook on society and a less tolerant attitude towards the LGBT community.

Supportive PE

Previous research has shown most PE teachers will have witnessed, to some degree, homophobic abuse throughout their careers. However, research suggests that limited action has been taken towards dealing appropriately with incidents, and many have been brushed off as insignificant (Morrow et al., 2003). However, in this study the group disagreed with the literature and highlighted the positive impact their supportive PE department has on the wellbeing of LGBT students, not only in PE but in their wider school life.

Hegemonic Masculinity and Identity

This theme highlights that male pupils who have their identity questioned are stigmatised if they do not conform to societies perceptions of specific activities, especially when a male takes part in activities that are perceived to be feminine (Atkinson and Kehler, 2012). The group discussed their own experiences in PE, emphasising that boys who participated in activities that were perceived to be feminine led to negative reactions from peers. Similar to Buston and Harts study (2001) the group highlighted that people who were perceived to be gay were subject to verbal and physical abuse and therefore believed pupils refrain from taking part in less masculine sports or activities for fear of being ostracised.

Future Change in PE

It was extremely valuable to listen to the group discuss ideas surrounding what could be done to create a more equal and respectful PE for LGBT pupils. The group highlighted that homophobia was prominent in changing rooms therefore they believed that introducing gender neutral changing rooms as a strategy to prevent this. Furthermore, the group agreed with much of the literature advocating for further professional learning opportunities for PE teachers in LGBT inclusiveness. They believed that this would give teachers the knowledge and confidence to handle sensitive and challenging issues. Finally, and arguably most importantly, the group believed that more has to be done in PE to raise the awareness of LGBT pupils’ experiences in PE and to educate the wider school. They believe that this could be achieve by establishing a group with straight allies and supportive teachers.

Concluding Comments

I hope that this study encourages more consideration in the PE and Education worlds towards the experiences of LGBT pupils in PE. With PE in Scotland positioned at the forefront of Health and Well-being now, more than ever, is an appropriate time to investigate the PE climate for LGBT youth. I believe that gaining an insight from these activist students on their perceptions of LGBT students experiences in PE has been an invaluable learning experience for myself as I can start to use some of the ideas discussed in this paper in my own practice, to make PE a more inclusive and equal environment.

Reference List

  1. Buston, K. and Hart, G., 2001. Heterosexism and homophobia in Scottish school sex education: exploring the nature of the problem. Journal of adolescence24(1), pp.95-109.
  2. Clarke, Gill. 2006. Sexuality and physical education. In The handbook of physical education, ed. David Kirk, Doune Macdonald, and Mary O’Sullivan, 723 –39. London: Routledge
  3. Kosciw, J.G., Bartkiewicz, M. and Greytak, E.A., 2012. Promising strategies for prevention of the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. The Prevention Researcher19(3), pp.10-14.
  4. Morrow, R.G. and Gill, D.L., 2003. Perceptions of homophobia and heterosexism in physical education. Research quarterly for exercise and sport74(2), pp.205-214.


How do teachers learn to use TPSR to develop social and emotional skills in PE? By Shirley Gray et al.

How do teachers learn to use TPSR to develop social and emotional skills in PE? by Shirley Gray with support from Paul Wright, Stuart Robertson and Richard Sievwright

In previous blogs on this site, writers Prof. Paul Wright and Richard Sievwright have given accounts of their perspectives on teaching social and emotional skills in PE through their use of Hellison’s model, Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility. For more detail about these posts and TPSR see: Teaching Social Wellbing in PE  and Social and Emotional Learning in Physical Education: From Policy to Practice 

My interest in TPSR came from my early discussions with Prof. Paul Wright, an expert in TPSR and, at the time, a visiting scholar at the University of Edinburgh. In our discussions, we began to articulate the relationship between TPSR and the PE curriculum in Scotland. In Scotland, PE teachers are guided by a broad curriculum framework aims to develop not only physical competences, but social and emotional skills such as confidence, self-esteem, respect and leadership (Education Scotland, 2017).  Similarly, TPSR aims to encourage pupils take responsibility for and develop skills related to the ways they conduct themselves (effort, control, self-determination) and interact with others (respect, care, leadership).

It was around the time of these discussions with Paul that we met two PE teachers from secondary schools in Scotland (Stuart and Richard). Paul had delivered a TPSR CPD session which both teachers had attended and afterwards, they approached us to discuss the connections that they could make between TPSR and their own experiences, values and aspirations. The result of this conversation was they each embarked upon an action research project to learn about TPSR, projects that both Paul and I were keen to be involved in. We were interested to know how the teachers learned to use TSPR, what it looked like and how it was experienced by their pupils.

As they embarked upon their action research, Paul and I became their critical friends, and were given opportunities to observe their lessons, support their reflections, offer advice and help them to interpret and understand their findings. The methods that the teachers used to gather data for their research included structured and collaborative reflections, peer and researcher observations and pupil interviews. The data from their research were analysed by the teachers and then discussed at length with Shirley, Paul and with each other. Below is a summary of some of the themes that emerged from these discussions.

A different approach

The teachers had to think differently about how they planned and taught their lessons. They became more explicit before, during and after their lessons about the social and emotional skills that they aimed to teach. They praised positive behavior and created numerous opportunities for their pupils interact positively with others. Both teachers also began to understand and embrace what they described as ‘teachable’ moments. In other words, they began to see social and emotional behaviours (both positive and negative) as opportunities for pupil learning, rather than as moments to be ignored, or moments were pupils had to be punished.

 A more democratic and positive learning environment

Both teachers believed that one of the main benefits of using TPSR was that it encouraged them to talk to their pupils more. This then helped them to develop more positive and respectful relationships that involved listening and responding to their views.

Pupils’ understanding of TPSR

Many of the pupils in Richard’s class were aware of his learning intentions and he observed small changes in levels of self-control and respect for some pupils. The boys in Stuart’s class recognised that this was a different experience from their ‘usual’ PE lessons, one that aimed to improve their behaviour in PE and the wider school context. This had a positive impact on their behavior in PE, although they struggled to transfer this to other contexts in the school.

Challenges, doubts and discomfort

Both teachers explained the difficulties they had in moving away from an approach that they were comfortable with. For example, they highlighted the discomfort they felt initially when ‘let certain behaviors go’ to create teachable moments so that they could deal with behaviors in a more positive and democratic way.

Learning and change over time

Richard and Stuart discussed how they felt like the change process was much slower than they expected, and that they have become more aware and accepting of the fact there may be significant periods of difficulty and challenge to overcome before any noticeable change takes place.


Despite these challenges, both teachers were (and still are) very positive about TPSR, describing how it aligns well with their values and beliefs about the goals of PE. Their experiences using TRSR have been challenging but have enabled them to explore their own learning and teaching. As a result, they now have the knowledge and skills to create learning experiences in PE that have the potential to develop not only physical competencies, but also social and emotional skills. Furthermore, both teachers continue to apply and investigate their use of TPSR, creating time to reflect on their learning with their pupils and their colleagues.


Hellison, D. (2011). Teaching responsibility through physical activity. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.



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’ 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.


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.



Social and Emotional Learning in Physical Education: From Policy to Practice by Paul M. Wright

Prof. Paul M. Wright is the Lane/Zimmerman Endowed Professor at Northern Illinois University in the United States. He is currently on sabbatical to conduct research as a Visiting Scholar in the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. This post describes the research he is conducting during his time in Scotland. This study, conducted in partnership with Dr. Shirley Gray of the Physical Education faculty at University of Edinburgh, has to do with the promotion of social and emotional learning in the context of practice. Scotland, like many other countries, includes such learning in the physical education curriculum, but how it is delivered by teachers and experienced by pupils is not well understood.

Expectations for physical education (PE) and its contribution to the overall curriculum are changing in many countries. For example, in the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, PE teachers are charged with promoting mental, social and emotional well-being (Scottish Government, 2004, 2009). While PE has traditionally included affective learning objectives, Scotland and other countries are making such expectations more explicit in educational policy and curricular mandates. Scotland, the US, New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore, to name a few, have integrated a range of social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies in their national PE curriculum/standards. SEL competencies relate to self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, social skills, and responsible decision making (see The promotion of SEL competencies through PE is a major focus of my scholarship (e.g. Wright & Burton, 2008; Wright & Craig, 2011; Wright & Li, 2009; Wright, Li, Ding & Pickering; 2010) and I am currently on a research sabbatical to study this phenomenon in the Scottish context with Dr. Shirley Gray at the University of Edinburgh.

Research and practical experience tell us that changes in educational policy are not always implemented as planned. I have studied this issue in the US as it applies to PE policy changes intended to combat childhood obesity. In that research, conducted with Dr. John Amis of the Business School at University of Edinburgh, we found the way policy is formulated and interpreted greatly determines how it is implemented in the context of practice (Amis, Wright, Dyson, Vardaman & Ferry, 2012). Previous investigations by Dr. Gray and her colleagues in Scotland indicate the mandate for PE teachers to promote SEL was formulated with minimal involvement by practitioners and is perceived as somewhat ambiguous (Gray, Mulholland & MacLean, 2012; Horrell, Sproule & Gray, 2011). Therefore, we are conducting school-based research that will help us understand (1) how educational administers and PE teachers interpret this mandate, (2) how PE teachers promote SEL in their current practice, and (3) how pupils experience SEL in PE.

Our research approach involves mixed methods and include multiple stakeholder perspectives. We are working with several schools in Edinburgh and East Lothian. Data sources will include interviews with educational administrators, head teachers, PE teachers and pupils about SEL in PE. We will also be doing systematic observation of teaching practice and giving out surveys to pupils. We hope our findings will enable us to describe current practice regarding SEL in Scottish PE and to make recommendations for professional development and program improvement relative to this aspect of learning. More broadly, we hope to generate insights and recommendations regarding the translation of educational policy changes into practice. An exciting feature of this project is that we will use parallel methodology in the US and New Zealand so we can conduct a cross-cultural analysis of our findings.

This topic is of great interest to me as my primary line of scholarship has to do with the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model (TPSR: Hellison, 2011). This model is strongly aligned with the SEL framework (Jacobs & Wright, 2014). I believe my practical experience designing, implementing and evaluating TPSR programs will be an asset in conducting the current study and interpreting our data. Another advantage is the opportunity I have to learn about the Scottish culture and context. I am eager to learn about best practices in Scottish PE by interacting with teachers, researchers and policy makers. I am also hoping to share my experiences and provide workshops or lectures on topics such as SEL and TPSR pedagogy.


For more information:

Dr. Wright will be giving a presentation on this project for the Scottish Physical Education Research Network. The presentation will be at Strathclyde University in Glasgow on September 21, 2016. More details will follow via this blog, twitter and email.


To learn more about Dr. Wright’s perspective on the importance of social and emotional learning, see the following recent article on Voices, the British Council’s online magazine



Amis, J., Wright, P.M., Dyson, B., Vardaman, J., & Ferry, H. (2012). Implementing Childhood Obesity Policy in a New Educational Environment: The Cases of Mississippi and Tennessee. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 1406-1413.

Gray, S., Mulholland, R. and MacLean, J. (2012). The ebb and flow of curriculum construction in physical education: A Scottish narrative. The Curriculum Journal. 23, 59-78.

Hellison, 2011. Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility through Physical Activity, 3rd edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Horrell, A., Sproule, J., & Gray, S. (2011). Health and wellbeing: a policy context for physical education in Scotland. Sport, Education and Society, 17, 163-180.

Jacobs, J.M. & Wright, P.M. (2014). Social and Emotional Learning Policies and Physical Education. Strategies, 27, 42-44.

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

Scottish Government. (2009). Curriculum for excellence: Health and wellbeing: Experiences and outcomes. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Wright, P.M., & Burton, S. (2008). Examining the implementation and immediate outcomes of a personal-social responsibility model program for urban high school students. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 27, 138-154.

Wright, P.M., & Craig, M.W. (2011). Tool for Assessing Responsibility-Based Education (TARE): Instrument Development and Reliability Testing. Measurement in Physical Education and Exercise Science, 15, 1-16.

Wright, P.M., & Li, W. (2009). Exploring the relevance of a youth development orientation in urban physical education. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 14, 241-251.

Wright, P.M., Li, W., Ding, S. & Pickering, M. (2010). Integrating a Personal-Social Responsibility Program into a Lifetime Wellness Course for Urban High School Students: Assessing Implementation and Educational Outcomes. Sport, Education, and Society, 15, 277-298.


Learning to use an Activist Approach to teaching adolescent girls in physical education by Cara Lamb and colleagues

This blog is written by Cara Lamb, a PhD student, and Prof David Kirk, both from Strathclyde University. They write about their Activist project with Glasgow City Council teachers: Carrie MacDonald, Aisling Loch, Vicki Smedley and Rachael Ewing-Day, who have all contributed their reflections on using this approach with their PE classes.

Learning to use an Activist Approach to teaching adolescent girls in physical education

Between September 2015 and June 2016, five teachers in four Glasgow schools participated in a pilot project to implement an Activist Approach to working with adolescent girls in physical education. Kim Oliver and David Kirk developed a pedagogical model for this approach in their book Girls, Gender and Physical Education: An Activist Approach (Routledge, 2015) based on 20 years of Oliver’s work with girls and their teachers in school physical education. Four of the teachers continued with this work during the 2016-17 academic year.

The purpose of the project was to find out if teachers could learn to use this distinctive pedagogy with its four signature features: it is student-centred; it requires a focus on pedagogies of embodiment; girls are engaged in inquiry-based education centred in action; and teachers are supported to listen to respond to girls over time. The overarching goal for an Activist Approach is that girls will learn to value the physically active life, with an emphasis on valuing. They do this through learning to identify and name, critique, negotiate and where possible overcome barriers to their participation in physical activity. This emphasis on valuing in itself requires a particular pedagogical approach in which teachers and pupils co-construct the school physical education experience.

What the teachers learned from this study

Each of the teachers were able to articulate how this approach impacted them professionally as a teacher as well as the pupils they taught. Below is a brief statement from the teachers:

Carrie, Holyrood Secondary

They (the girls) enjoyed the fact that I had listened to their issues, for example, they did like taking part in competitive games but did not like the boys to be watching. They didn’t mind getting changed for PE but required a bit more time at the end of the period to get changed. They didn’t like the teacher screaming at them to work harder when the genuinely felt they were working hard but would appreciate more praise from the teacher and their peers. They felt respected that I had taken these points on board and acted upon them.

Aisling, Notre Dame Secondary

Taking part in the girls in sport project afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my current practice and be more student focused in my teaching. It was challenging at the beginning to let go of my own preconceived ideas of what a PE lesson should look like and be more open to new ideas. Being part of the project has had a big impact on the way I approach my Physical Education lessons. It has been a positive experience for all of us and I have learned a lot about myself and my teaching along the way. Pupil voice is key to understanding what the girls want to achieve and in turn ensures they will have a lifelong commitment to physical activity.

Vicki, Rosshall Academy

Using an activist approach to increase girls’ participation in my S3 class proved to be very successful. The main reason for this was the negotiation that took place between the group of girls themselves as well as between the girls and me. We reached a point where we were able to negotiate every aspect of their lessons and activity blocks. Spending time gathering the views of the whole class and subsequently allowing them to have responsibility for the creation of a class code completely changed the class dynamic. Previously I had been the one making all the decisions about the activities they did and how the lessons were delivered so this shift towards a student centred approach was very much welcomed by the girls and they responded openly and positively to it.

Cara, Lourdes Secondary

As a teacher when I was learning to use this approach myself, I worked with a small group of girls who were deemed as ‘disengaged’ from physical education. For me, it was necessary for me to really listen to what they had to say about what motivated them to be more active in both PE lessons and their daily lives. I soon learned that being in a class with boys made them feel very uncomfortable; that having teachers force them to wear particular kit turned them off of participating; and that continuing to do the same activities year on year was boring and repetitive. For me, it was necessary to create an environment where the girls were able to overcome some of these barriers and begin to find some joy in movement. However, this did not happen overnight. It was a process that took time. It took time for me to get to know them, it took time for them to learn to work with each other and it took time for the girls to understand how they could be more physically active in their daily lives

Rachael, Inverclyde Academy

Working alongside other teachers on the pilot offered me some much needed professional support and a network to share ideas. At first, the learners were very sceptical of the approach and it  did take me longer than other teachers to break down some barriers and build relationships. Nonetheless, in the end there were more positive aspects in my class environment than before. Personally, I believe the use of this approach strengthened my pedagogy and relationships with my learners. I was able to see that they felt more empowered (as they were given a voice) and more motivated to try in lessons. It certainly helped me to understand the reasons behind the girls lack of engagement and this, in turn, altered the strategies I used to address this.

What the research team learned from this study

This study sought to explore the experiences of school-based teacher professional learning (TPL) for these five teachers. Since no two schools are exactly alike, there can be no ‘magic formula’ for TPL or, as Liebermann (1995) states, no one-size-fits-all approach. Our findings demonstrated that TPL of an Activist Approach was both contextualised and a multi-dimensional process. Teachers learned that a positive class environment was vital to the girls feeling safe to fully engage in physical education and to trust others not to judge them. Furthermore, the learning culture shaped and was shaped by teachers’ everyday experiences as they worked with their colleagues and pupils to implement an Activist Approach and this was not always a simple process. Engaging in this process allowed the teachers to learn more effectively with and from each other rather than from ‘experts’ external to the school, which is consistent with Armour and Yelling’s (2007) claims. The teachers often found themselves pushing against the status quo of traditional forms of physical education in relation to specific aspects of their day-to-day work. As they were learning to use an Activist Approach, they found themselves challenging common and widespread assumptions about practice.

We set out in this project to create a network of Activist teachers in Glasgow schools who participated voluntarily, made their own choices and were agents in constructing their own versions of our Activist pedagogical model in order that they had ownership of their practice (Day and Townsend, 2009). The teachers were willing to share their experiences with us and each other and to learn from them. But we doubt that we managed to create a community of practice where collaboration is central to TPL on a day-to-day basis. Given the nature of school-based TPL as contextualised and multi-dimensional, we have learned from this that we cannot underestimate the challenge that creating networked communities of practice presents. One focus of our future research in school-based TPL will be then to explore ways in which such communities might be formed and sustained over time.


Armour, KA and Yelling, M (2007) Effective Professional Development for Physical Education Teachers: The Role of Informal, Collaborative Learning, Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 26, 177-200.

Day, C. and Townsend, C. (2009) Practitioner action research: building and sustaining success through networked learning communities, pp. 178-189 in Susan E. Noffke & Bridget Somekh (eds.) Handbook of Educational Action Research, London: Sage

Leiberman, A (1995) Practices that support teacher development, Phi Delta Kappan 76.8 (Apr 1995): 591.

Oliver, KL and Kirk, D (2015) Girls, Gender and Physical Education: Towards an Activist Approach. London and New York: Routledge.

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.




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.


‘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.