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.

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