Back to the future: Plato, play and physical education by Dr. Malcolm Thorburn

In this blog, Dr. Malcolm Thorburn from the University of Edinburgh discusses the value of PE and sport, and the potential they hold for the development of character, health and wellbeing.

Back to the future: Plato, play and physical education

We seem to be living in unexpectedly precarious times, where good intentions towards protecting young people are having counterproductive effects. Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) in writing about ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ highlight that the post millennial generation (those children born between 1995 and 2012 – frequently called the iGen or Gen Z generation) are less autonomous and more anxious and depressed than previous generations. Social comparisons and social media are not helping health, and this along with the culture of safety and ever more paranoid parenting are leaving many young people more fragile and less resilient than previously. Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) outline that in some Universities students are being provided with safe spaces ‘equipped with cookies, colouring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets, and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as student and staff members purportedly trained to deal with trauma’ (p. 28). Alarming news and not a time to be making undue assertions about how these multiple concerns can easily be overtaken. That said the fact that Lukianoff & Haidt (2018) mention in detail that the decline of play is making young people less competent physically and socially, and less tolerant of risk and more prone to anxiety disorders should be of interest to the physical educator.


A contrasting way to consider these play-related matters is presented by Carr (2010) who has drawn on Plato’s writing in the Republic to reconsider the value of physical activities, as Plato offered a highly distinctive account of the value of physical education for developing the part of the soul which Plato characterises in terms of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’ and/or ‘initiative’. And while Carr (2010) goes onto have some philosophical reservations regarding the role of spirit in the explanation of agency this should not obscure the fact that there is much to be learned about character formation from reviewing Plato’s arguments about the value of physical education and sport. Thus as Carr (2010, p. 13) notes, ‘Plato introduces the idea of spirit as a desire to do what is right – a desire that is, in short, internally related to action – and secures a role for physical education in the training of right dispositions.’


On this view, the value of the physical educator would be to bring the physical aspects of being into an intelligible moral order. And in so doing, well-conceived physical education programmes can play a constructive part in emphasising the everyday gains of practical activities where cooperation and dispute resolution are fundamental to participation and to being resilient within our broader daily lives. Thus, the enduring capacity of well taught physical education to provide students with experiences which help them get winning and losing in perspective, improve self-awareness, be responsible, accept decisions and realistically evaluate ability should not be underestimated in terms of their contribution to wellbeing. Furthermore, from a health perspective, developing a healthy level of body/mind fitness which is resilient and deep-rooted enough to withstand other school and societal pressures will benefit regular exercising and attitudes towards physical activity.



Carr, D. (2010) On the Moral Value of Physical Activity: Body and Soul in Plato’s Account of

Virtue, Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 4 1, 3-15.


Lukianoff, G & Haidt, J. (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind. Allen Lane: London.


Plato (1987) Republic. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

An insight into teaching Physical Education with a disability by Andrew Horrell

Andrew Horrell is a Senior Lecturer in Physical Education at the University of Edinburgh. In this post he provides an insight based on research which explored the experiences of a teacher of physical education with a physical disability. Click here for the link to the full paper.

An insight into teaching Physical Education with a disability

The extract below from Ben’s journal provided an important frame of reference for the study as it establishes that he wanted others to know about his experiences and consider what these might mean for them and their practice.

“I pursue this research in [the] hope that other educators and schools take notice of the world around them. “Normal” is a matter of perspective: Every student, every person comes from a different background with different challenges.”

Ben’s experiences as a student teacher of physical education working in a school located in New England, USA, provided a unique view of what inclusion means in policy and practice. Born with spina bifida, he was small in stature and wore braces on his lower legs for stability. He had worked to develop his upper body strength, which he used to his advantage whenever possible. Ben entered the Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) programme as a recruited athlete for the sled hockey team.

Teacher identity

Ben wanted to explore his teacher identity as part of his studies and I became involved in the study after visiting colleagues working at the University of New Hampshire. After securing ethical approval from the University, Michelle and I undertook additional analysis of a range of data sources. We worked with Ben with a view to providing a unique insight into how teaching physical education with a physical disability had led him and his school mentor to find new ways of meeting the challenges of a placement experience.

The medicalised view of the body has a strong influence in shaping our thoughts regarding individuals with disabilities, leading to the belief that a disability means that a person will be unable to function in the same manner as their nondisabled counterparts (Davis, 1997; Lee & Rodda, 1994). Ben knew that he faced challenges, but he had expectations about what he wanted to achieve. Operating in an inclusive environment which valued his capabilities he worked with his mentor and colleagues in the school to find a way to meet the standards expected of a student teacher and challenge pupils’ perceptions of what being a physical education teacher “should be”.

The Capability Approach

I want to acknowledge the debates in the literature of special education and disability studies about the practice of labelling. As teachers, we know the power of words, ideas and discourses that can shape for good or ill what we do and how we and others think. There are occasions where having a label or a name for something is essential because for shared understanding, it aids our communication. It is also the case that labels can operate and function in ways that restrict, not just communication, but more importantly our ability to understand and act in ways that would be productive and inclusive. Ben knew that he had a physical disability, but he also knew that he had abilities, and, in the study, we drew on the capability approach to inform our theoretical framework (Sen, 1999).

Capabilities are the conditions under which people can “help themselves and influence the world” (Sen, 1999, p. 18). In the context of physical education, Evans (2004) problematises the concept of ability and the privileged status that “physical ability” has in the relationship between physical education teachers and learners. There is an expectation that teachers are required to embody the curriculum, their ability to teach is enmeshed with their knowledge of content and the performative act of pedagogy.

As a teacher with a physical disability, Ben challenged the dominant perception of “ability” and competence by his decisions on how and what to teach. There were areas of the physical education curriculum that he may not have been able to teach, but Ben, working with his mentor found a way to create a curriculum that enabled pupils to learn and meet the requirements of his placement. The capability approach is not necessarily based on the availability of resources but rather the extent to which they enable optimal performance.

Concluding thoughts

I hope that you will read the paper and reflect on its findings. In physical education, planning and teaching lessons which engage all pupils requires teachers to skilfully adapt tasks and be creative to achieve the aim of inclusion. Ben was able to demonstrate these skills and the school and pupils were able to recognise his capabilities as a teacher, he was an agent of change for his own practice and for the school community. There was a fluidity to the disability discourse and there were episodes during his placement where he and his classes did or did not achieve what they set out to do. There were lessons and days when Ben’s physical disability enabled him to achieve more than others or he expected. There were times when the opposite was the case. Overall, in our analysis of data sources “Doing things my way” emerged as a strong theme and became the title of the paper. This did not mean that Ben did “whatever he wanted to do” it simply reflected that he knew what his capabilities were and working within the context of the school, the support provided and the resources available he found a way to teach physical education. He did so in a way that meant that the pupils in his classes learned more than just what was stated on the lesson plans.

What do you think?

This is an area where to date there have been limited opportunities to undertake research. I would be interested to know if there are other teachers of physical education who consider themselves to be disabled, perhaps you would be prepared to share your experiences with members of PERF.


Davis, L.J. (1997). Constructing normalcy. The disabilities studies reader. New York: Routledge.

Evans, J. (2004). Making a difference: Education and ‘ability’ in physical education. European Physical Education Review, 10(1), 95–108. doi:10.1177/1356336X04042158

Grenier, M. A., Horrell, A., & Genovese, B. (2014). Doing Things My Way: Teaching Physical Education With a Disability. Adapted Physical Activity Quarterly, 31(4), 325-342. 10.1123/apaq.2013-0089

Lee, T., & Rodda, M. (1994). Modification of attitudes toward people with disabilities. Canadian Journal of Rehabilitation, 7(4), 229–238.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as freedom. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.


Primary Physical Education Curriculum Development: Teacher and Pupil Experiences of ‘Student Designed Games’ by Kevin McKenzie

Kevin McKenzie is a class teacher and a PE teacher at Brunstane Primary School in Edinburgh. In this blog, he presents an overview of his practitioner enquiry that explores the ways in which his pupils engaged with the curriculum model – ‘Student Designed Games’.

Primary Physical Education Curriculum Development: Teacher and Pupil Experiences of ‘Student Designed Games’ by Kevin McKenzie

Enquiry Focus and Questions

Within Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence has provided an opportunity for schools to develop their own individual curriculum to reflect their context. With this in mind, I wanted to design a practitioner enquiry to support the development of the primary P.E. curriculum, relevant to my current context.  Working in a small city primary school with a primary 5 class, the following questions guided my enquiry:

  • In what ways does the ‘Student Designed Games’ (SDG) curriculum model support children’s engagement within physical education across the four domains of learning; social, emotional, physical and cognitive?
  • How can children’s perceptions of this curriculum model be captured and incorporated into curriculum development?

Background Literature

Four Domains of Learning

Recent literature on primary P.E. has emphasised the valuable contribution it can make to holistic learning across the four domains of learning social, emotional, physical and cognitive (Carse, Jess and Keay, 2017). At first, I was unsure about the appropriateness of using the specific language of the four domains with the children, but I found by using images and clear descriptions of them during active demonstrations and teaching input, they were able to grasp them, and it helped them to frame their thinking.

Student Designed Games

As a physical education curriculum model, Student Designed Games (SDG) aims to promote strategies for creativity, cooperation and skill development. Hastie (2010) suggests that this is achieved by setting up a sequence of lessons which help pupils plan, design, test and refine a game that they have either created themselves or adapted from an existing game. SDG can support learning across all four domains by challenging pupils to ensure their games are inclusive, clear, cooperative and competitive.

 Curriculum Development

There has been recognition within educational change literature of the valuable role that teachers and pupils play in curriculum development (Drew et al., 2016; Carse 2015).  Therefore, in this research it was important to capture both my thoughts, as the teacher, and the children’s thoughts about our learning and experiences through SDG.  By capturing our learning and experiences my aim was to then respond to this to further develop the P.E. curriculum.


To encourage the children to reflect on their learning in relation to the four domains of learning, I adapted Wall’s (2008) pupil view templates to incorporate each of the domains of learning.  Pupil view templates are a cartoon prompt with thought and speech bubbles to facilitate pupil response and reflect their thinking of their learning experience.  Wall (2008) describes pupil view templates as a visual method with the “aim to be a research tool that can be empirically influential and powerful, while also having an impact upon the pedagogical processes within classrooms” (p. 25).  Pupils completed pupil view templates at three points within the sequence of student designed games lessons, one at the beginning, middle and end.  To complement the pupil view templates, after every lesson I completed a teacher view template. The aim of this method was to capture my observations and thinking about the children’s engagement and learning in the lessons.

To support the children to reflect on and engage in discussion about their experiences and learning in physical education I used photographs and videos from lessons, which had been recorded by pupils.  These resources acted as an assessment tool, a stimulus for reflection and a further form of data.

Findings and Discussion

The findings from my enquiry suggested that, for this group of children, SDG supported their learning across the four domains. This is evidenced in their discussion and the pupil view templates where the children recorded their thoughts on their learning within the four domains.  Furthermore, some children could provide specific examples of how they had progressed their learning within the domains.

The children’s responses on the pupil view templates were refreshingly honest and candid.  The children expressed their enjoyment of SDG, but a key issue emerged in the difficulties the children faced in their social and emotional learning.  The children reflected that they often found it difficult to interact in their groups, this is something that I had also noted from my observations.  Reflecting on the data from the pupil view templates at the beginning of the sequence of lessons it was evident that the children encountered difficulties in their social and emotional learning.  These difficulties manifested in the children finding it difficult to interact and communicate within their groups and impacted on their physical and cognitive engagement with the lessons.  In response to the difficulties the children were having in their social and emotional learning, I intervened to offer support through my teaching.  At the end of the sequence of lessons, when the children had the responsibility of teaching their game to others, it was evident that interaction and communication between the children in their groups had improved.  I think that this may partly have emerged from the ownership the children felt for their learning by sharing their game with others.

The pupil view templates, video and photographs were an effective way of capturing pupil learning and reflections on SDG and I could then use the pupils’ responses to develop the curriculum.  Casey and Hastie (2011) suggest that SDG provides pupils with a positive way to develop their understanding of P.E., to challenge themselves at an appropriate level and to take ownership of their learning.  The findings from my enquiry reflect this and lead me to conclude that in my school context SDG is an approach which can support children’s learning across the four domains and therefore, has a key role to play within the P.E. curriculum.

For my next enquiry, I decided to build on the findings from this enquiry to continue looking at pupil and teacher view templates, but this time using ‘Teaching Games for Understanding’ with a ‘Central Net’ focus as a curriculum approach and with a Primary 3 class. Watch this space…

For any questions about this blog, please email Kevin at:


Carse, N., Jess, M., & Keay, J. (2017). Primary physical education: Shifting perspectives to move forwards, European Physical Education Review (special edition on primary physical education)

Carse, N. (2015). Primary teachers as physical education curriculum change agents. European Physical Education Review, 21(3), 309-324, DOI: 1356336X14567691

Casey, A. and Hastie, P. (2011) Students and Teacher Responses to a Unit of Student-Designed Games. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy. Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 295-312.

Drew, V., Priestley, M., & Michael, M. K. (2016). Curriculum development through critical collaborative professional enquiry. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(1), 92-106.

Hastie, P. (2010) Student-Designed Games: Strategies for Promoting creativity, Cooperation, and Skill Development. Human Kinetics: United States.

Wall, K. (2008) Understanding Metacognition through the Use of Pupil Views Templates: Pupil Views of Learning to Learn. Thinking Skills and Creativity. Vol. 3, pp. 23–33.

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.