‘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.