Exploring social justice pedagogies in health and physical education through Critical Incident Technique methodology | A summary

Rod Philpot1Wayne Smith1Göran Gerdin2Lena Larsson2Katarina Schenker2Susanne Linnér2Kjersti Mordal Moen3Knut Westlie3
1 University of Auckland, New Zealand; 2 Linnaeus University, Sweden;
3 Inland University of Appkied Sciences, Norway

Since the 1980s, advocacy for teaching for social justice in school health and physical education (HPE) has featured in research in many countries. In the subsequent years, school HPE curricula in a growing number of countries including Sweden, New Zealand and Norway have explicitly identified social justice as a key aim and/or outcome of physical education (e.g. New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2007; Skolverket, 2011; Utdanningsdirektoratet, 2015). Amongst the literature base of advocacy for social justice in HPE, Tinning (2018) suggests that there is far less literature that specifically reports the ways in which teachers address issues of social justice in their own practice.

‘Education for Equitable Health Outcomes – The Promise of School Health and Physical Education’ (EDUHEALTH) was a three-year international research collaboration between researchers from Sweden, Norway and New Zealand that sought to explore how teachers address issues of social justice in their own teaching. The purpose of this paper is to describe the research methodology used in this study and reflect on some of the challenges for ourselves and other researchers exploring how teachers teach for social justice in HPE.

Data collection in EDUHEALTH was based on Critical Incident Technique methodology (CIT) (Flanagan, 1954; Tripp, 2012). A key principle of CIT is that some incidents are more important (critical) to outcomes than others. The strength of CIT is its high degree of focus on ‘things’ that help in a particular activity (Viergever, 2019). EDUHEALTH employed a ‘bottom up’ approach that involved observations of lessons and post-lesson interviews with 13 teachers from four schools in New Zealand, four schools in Sweden and three schools in Norway. The teachers were selected through purposive sampling (Bryman, 2016) as we were seeking to report on good examples of teacher actions that address social justice and the thought processes of teachers rather than striving to make claims about the practices of all HPE teachers.

Through a research design based on the principles of CIT, we ‘captured’ incidents of HPE teaching practice that appeared consistent with teaching for social justice. The list of captured incidents was generated directly after observations when the observers met and discussed what had been observed. To understand the basis of the captured incidents, the EDUHEALTH researchers interviewed the participant-teachers to enable the teacher to suggest incidents for social justice and afford the teacher an opportunity to explicate the thinking behind the practice. Any decision to turn a ‘captured incident’ into a critical incident required a description of the deeper structures that produced the incident (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Constructing a critical incident (adapted from Tripp, 1993).

The strength of our methodology lay in the use of cross-national observer teams, direct observations and teachers and post observation interviews. As we discovered initially in our pilot observations, the cultural outsiders in the cross-national observer teams were able to see taken-for-granted practices through their own culturally located lenses, drawing attention to both classroom practices and the broader school and social contexts in which PE teaching is practiced. For example, through the eyes of the ‘outsider’, we were challenged to re-examine aspects of indigenous culture and language that were infused in the practices of some teachers in New Zealand, while the social-democratic principles of Sweden and Norway were evident in inclusive policies such as free school lunches (Sweden) and the provision of modified equipment to include students with different levels of ability and disability. The second strength of the methodology was the opportunity to directly observe teachers. In the observations we recorded what we called ‘captured incidents’ of teaching for social justice: teacher actions, structures and decisions that we as observers assumed were done in the name of social justice. The third strength of the methodology was the opportunity to interview teachers after the observations to check on the assumptions we had made in naming our ‘captured incidents’. The stimulated-recall interviews, led by research members from the host county, enabled the participant-teachers to articulate the intent and the meaning of their practice (Punch, 2014). The combination of collecting data through observations, artefacts and interviews was critical to the insights into, and examples of, social justice pedagogies in HPE derived from this research project.

To fully embrace the cross cultural perspectives of the international research team, data were analysed through thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2013) in three stages; initially by individual researchers, secondly by country based research teams and finally by a group analysis including all members of the research team to ensure that the themes captured perspectives from our diverse culturally located lenses. The three main identified themes were: (i) ‘Relationships’, (ii) ‘Teaching for social cohesion’ and (iii) ‘Explicitly teaching about and acting on social inequities’.

Reflexively we recognize and share both the challenges of EDUHEALTH and the limitations of the research methodology. The challenges of conducting research included pragmatic issues such as finding the time to meet online when living in different time zones, identifying windows of time to travel to each context while working in different academic year calendars and translating interview transcripts. At a more philosophical level, we debated the primacy of language afforded by one’s first language (many of the Swedish participants answered questions in English to enable the New Zealand researchers to understand the responses) but also the epistemological and ontological questions of how language reflects knowledge and understanding that might not be as accessible in a second language or lost in the translation. A second challenge for the EDUHEALTH project and for any international collaboration is the recognition of, and mutual respect for, the theoretical and culturally located frames of reference through which researchers analyse data. Our initial enthusiasm for the collaborative research project was followed by a recognition that we could not identify a single theory of social justice that could serve as a framework for the collection and representation of data.

We are confident that the methodology used in EDUHEALTH has enabled us to provide insight into both the practices that privilege social justice in HPE contexts, and rich descriptions of the contexts in each country that enable these practices. Moving forward into the next iteration of the EDUHEALTH project we recognise that a limitation of the methodology is that we have not heard from the voices of the students in the classroom for whom the pedagogical practices are being enacted. In future studies we will endeavour to understand what sense the students in these classes make of these practices along with further exploring how both teachers and curricula in different contexts (can) enable pedagogies for social justice in HPE.

Copyright © Rod Philpot, Wayne Smith, Göran Gerdin, Lena Larsson, Katarina Schenker, Susanne Linnér, Kjersti Mordal Moen & Knut Westlie 2021


Braun B and Clarke V (2013) Successful qualitative research: A practical guide for beginners. London: Sage.
Bryman A (2016) Social research methods (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Flanagan JC (1954) The critical incident technique. Psychological Bulletin 51(4): 327–358.
New Zealand Ministry of Education (2007) The New Zealand Curriculum. Wellington: Learning Media Limited.
Punch K (2014) Introduction to social research: Quantitative and qualitative approaches (3rd ed.). London, UK: Sage.
Skolverket [Swedish National Agency for Education] (2011) Curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and the recreation centre 2011. Stockholm, Sweden: Ordforradet AB.
Tinning R (2017) Transformative pedagogies and physical education. In: Ennis C (ed) The Routledge handbook of physical education pedagogies. New York: Routledge, pp. 281–294.
Tripp D (2012) Critical Incidents in Teaching: Developing Professional Judgement. London, UK: Routledge.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.