Towards movement as subject of perception

Ejgil Jespersen
Independent scholar

Øyvind Førland Standal Phenomenology and Pedagogy in Physical Education 169 pages, hardcover. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2015 (Ethics and Sport) ISBN 978-1-138-02408-3
Øyvind Førland Standal
Phenomenology and Pedagogy in Physical Education
169 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2015 (Ethics and Sport)
ISBN 978-1-138-02408-3

Øyvind Førland Standal, professor of physical education at Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, has written a remarkable book about phenomenology and pedagogy in physical education. He is calling for a radical reform of physical education, where a phenomenological pedagogy in terms of critical and inclusive movement literacy is trumping sport and health pedagogy.

Like Kirk in Physical Education Futures, Standal doesn’t want more of the same, i.e. sport and health activities, and neither is he considering the extinction of the subject as a happy end, but, then, how can physical education survive as a habit-able island in an educational system based upon literacy?

Standal is suggesting that at best the learning outcome of movement literacy is “being capable of moving with poise and being perceptive in reading and writing the movement environment” (p. 159, emphasis added). This is what animals are learning by doing in their respective worlds, so the core subject matter can hardly be a bookish one and is not even “so much a matter of specific activities, but more how the activities are practiced” (p. 159).

Standal is trying to solve the paradox of expression by associating the learning outcome with the subject matter through a phenomenological pedagogy “that starts from – and works with – the movement experiences of the pupils” (p. 159). Now literacy or at least orality is coming to the fore in a normal sense, as far as the movement experiences are shareable and shared.

I will briefly address questions of movement and knowledge in this book review, because Standals thoughts are so intricate and, at the same time, formulated in a patient, careful and pedagogical way, almost like straight from the horse’s mouth.

Standal is adopting a phenomenological perspective on physical education and trying to re-conceptualize an understanding of physical literacy (Margaret Whitehead) in terms of movement literacy within the scope of school physical education. The field of interest is, furthermore, restricted to the formal curriculum time and educated physical education teachers, whereby he is leaving sport and health-related physical activity in school settings beyond physical education lessons out of consideration.

Moreover, the main topic in the book is not a preoccupation with what physical education should be, but rather, the moving body as both the knowing subject and knowledge object of physical education. This is how the phenomenological approach is formulated followed by the pedagogical consequences that phenomenology may have for physical education, including filling a gap in the knowledge base of physical education pedagogy. This is, also, why the book might be of more interest for philosophically minded persons than for those who are looking for manuals for bodily behavior in an instrumental way.

Standal has written his book in an evolving way with an introductory chapter, in which he is outlining the main concepts and issues, followed by eight chapters oriented towards the development of a models-based physical education in terms of movement literacy. He is delivering his concluding comments in the last chapter.

Phenomenology is in chapter two mainly introduced as a method to capture the underlying premises for scientific studies, whereas phenomenology as philosophy and as pedagogy is mostly blowing in the wind at this stage. Then, Standal is briefly mentioning some of the most notable authors who have addressed phenomenology in physical education literature for highlighting the educational value of meaning-making, bodily experiences and practical knowledge. He is discussing Whitehead’s concept of physical literacy with a special interest since it serves as the springboard to a model of movement literacy originally proposed by Kentel and Dobson (2007).

While setting the stage for the rest of the book, it would had been worthwhile to ground literacy in a genetic and a generative phenomenology in order to avoid a possible top-down perspective at the expense of the significance of oral culture and – not least – mimetic culture in the cognitive development.

Standal is also overlooking Arnold’s early conceptualization of the moving experience in terms of “knowing without observation”. The kinesthetic sense of self-movement is objectless and, therefore, a distinct way of becoming a bodily self in a pre-reflective manner (Arnold 1979), irrespective of the field of being but valuable in particular in a field like movement education.

Standal is partly remedying these omissions in chapter three by focusing on practical knowledge and acquisition of habits and in chapter four by focusing on the knowledge objects of practical knowledge. However, more work is needed to spell out more clearly the role of the moving body in relation to the central distinction of the knowing subjects and the knowledge objects.

Much of the concern in a teacher setting is the limitations of language when it comes to practical knowledge. Standal, therefore, tries in chapter five to refer briefly to apprenticeship and situated learning approaches in order to sense what is going on in the movement practices, in which the self not only exercises itself but also habituates itself in social settings.

While poise is enacted in the horizontal field of our self-centered experience of the world, balance is sought by orienting our off-centered selves in a vertical field of gravitation

At this point of his endeavor, Standal knows nothing better than to cite Heidegger: “Teaching is more difficult than learning, because teaching calls for this: to let learn” (p. 69). Letting learn is calling for a bodily awareness in terms of passivity and an openness for what is happening rather than an anxious attention of the knowledge object. Learning in this sense is surpassing the realm of decision-making and based more upon the occurrence of desire for movement. If movement activities are not desirable among the pupils or students of physical education, then we are reminded of the old saying that you can take a horse to the water, but cannot force it to drink.

When Standal in chapter five is beginning to explore how movement literacy can be a pedagogical model for physical education, we, therefore, have to ask if he is distancing himself from the primordial sense of self-movement. How is the thirst for knowledge with and especially without observation induced? Is it in terms of learning outcomes like moving with poise and reading and writing the movement environment perceptively? Or, do we in fact need to question the deep-rooted idea that perception is the province of knowledge, a mode of knowing, like the late Merleau-Ponty did in his rejection of philosophy of consciousness?

Already in chapter four Standal introduced Samuel Todes’ notion of poise as a commandment of ‘what’ there is to learn in physical education. For Standal, “the learning involved in poise is to develop knowledge and understanding about oneself as an embodied being” (p. 53), a qualitatively felt experience seemingly independent of nature and social interaction, but this is certainly not the case.

On the contrary, Todes (2001) is treating poise in relation to balance. While poise is enacted in the horizontal field of our self-centered experience of the world, balance is sought by orienting our off-centered selves in a vertical field of gravitation. Without the earth’s gravitational field of stability and “weight” of the body, there would be no horizontal field at all for skillful coping with circumstantial objects. When Standal is highlighting poise without taking balance into consideration, he is offering a half-cooked advice.

Next, Todes is dealing with perceptual knowledge unlike conceptual knowledge, but we are not just seeing or sensing things as they are. Perception is also a matter of learning what is normal in experience and seeing things in the right way, so when Standal is inclined to associate the normal with the actual average of a population in a medical-statistical sense, he is missing the point of normativity in perception (Doyon and Breyer, 2015).

Therefore, when dealing with the subject matter of movement literacy Standal is not only getting into trouble with skillful coping, improvement and expertise, but he is also annoying the sport movement by avoiding or downplaying vertical ideals of movement.

In chapter six Standal presents the phenomenological pedagogy developed by Max van Manen. However, although van Manen is mainly interested in the practical and reflective method of phenomenology, i.e. how to become sensitive to the lived experiences, he remains on the sideline in the models-based movement literacy, in which Standal traces the modes of embodied experiences from the prenoetic operations of the body-schema to objectifying self-distancing.

Most noteworthy in this context is the clarification of body as both subject and object, perceiver and perceived, but with the important adding that the body is a very special object which according to Merleau-Ponty “does not leave me” (p. 93). This is why it is impossible for perception to witness movement, and why perception and movement are synonymous: “In other words, (…)  movement cannot be an object of perception because it is the ultimate subject of perception” (Barbaras, 2000, p. 87). Since the sense of self-ownership or, rather, self-movement cannot be objectified, it is the movement as ”developer of Being” (Merleau-Ponty, 2011, pp. 100-02), which is generating the body as a unity.

The ontological significance of movement for everybody should certainly be noticed and taken into consideration in the school subject of physical education in general and in movement literacy in particular. However, instead of wondering about the miracle of movement Standal is stepping aside to a pragmatic and epistemological approach (Dewey, Shusterman) and is now working on the idea that the body can and should be objectified for educational reasons in physical education.

Experiencing the body as object is the headline for chapter seven, in which Shusterman’s invention of somaesthetics is introduced and celebrated as a much needed supplement if not an alternative to bodily intentionality (Merleau-Ponty) and poise (Todes) in movement. When movement literacy is not only dealing with movement in a literal, positional sense, but based upon lived, situated movement, the problem is not the predominantly motionless handling of the body with closed eyes which the somaeasthetic practice of introspection prescribes. In any case, you cannot see your own body in movement as mentioned above.

This is the first thorough study of the significance of a phenomenological perspective for a critical and inclusive movement education in a Nordic context

The problem is neither that the embodied knowledge gained through a body scan is valuable also for the learning of movement skills. In fact, somaesthetics is a body discipline “designed to improve our somatic experience and performance” (p. 102). The problem is more related to Standal himself, who until chapter seven has abandoned notions of improvement and expertise. Every improvement is obviously acceptable when the movement is introverted. However, when the movement like in sports is outgoing and observable by others, every effort of improvement seems to be a problem for Standal, even though the efforts are not, necessarily, imprinted with an instrumental rationality in human practicing (Aggerholm, 2015).

Apart from this critical remark, it is admirable how Standal succeeds with a little help of Shusterman and especially of Dewey to highlight the practice of thinking and its relevance for the development of movement literacy. The thinking is not only related to becoming better at describing what it is like to move, but also to skill learning in terms of mindful rather than mindless doing.

Still, however, Standal wants to save his horizontal conception of movement literacy by avoiding comparing pupils to an external norm: “Developing skills must be done in such a way that it is always the personal development of the individual pupil which is in focus. Assessments of development must therefore be ipsative (self-referential) rather than norm- or criterion based” (p. 117).

When approaching the challenges of inclusion in physical educational practice in chapter eight and nine, Standal cannot any longer keep normative questions outside his door. The issue of inclusion was gaining political attention with the Salamanca Statement on Principles, Policy and Practice in Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1994) committed to Education for All and recognizing the necessity and urgency of providing education for children, youth and adults with special educational needs within the regular education system. Inclusive actions should substitute exclusive, segregative and integrative ways of handling persons with special needs or disabilities.

However, it soon became clear, that this way of thinking and formulating the problem hides its own paradox or “dilemma of difference” (E. Goffman). It consists in the contradiction between – on the one hand – the intention of ending various forms of discrimination and – on the other hand – that of identifying those who are experiencing discrimination and responding adequately to their individual needs.

In line with such thoughts, Standal is discussing inclusion as a complex concept and trying to find a way out in queering phenomenology as formulated by Sara Ahmed. One of her concepts is the ‘straightening device’ of adjusting what is queer or oblique to a normal or straight line. Standal is finding such tendencies in Ling gymnastics, aerobics and bio-mechanical training regulations in sport and considers straightening devices as potential producers of exclusion, but he also suggests that they can be producers of inclusion. It seems difficult to transcend the dilemma of difference.

Thereafter, Standal is treating the concept of ability in a critical perspective, which he identifies with “understanding how movements and movement cultures are social products that enable and disable different participants” (p. 134).Again, it is difficult to break the code of – in this case – enablement and disablement.

Maybe the most promising perspective is when Standal is following Ahmed’s view of transformation as a form of practical labor leading to knowledge: “In other words, situations in which we confront obstacles that prevent us from advancing in the direction we were going or compel us to stop can generate insight” (p. 135).

That is why losing in sport contests may be enlightening and why the Danish moviemaker Lars von Trier exposed the Danish poet Jørgen Leth for “Obstructions.” That is, also, why Standal is not only stressing the importance of pupils being included, but also the importance of paying attention to what pupils can do to include themselves – in spite of difficulties and obstacles, provided they have opportunities for choice and action in their actual situation – in a human development perspective.

Therefore, Nussbaum’s capabilities approach serves as a framework that is able to ethically guide and assess actions in inclusive physical education. Among the central capabilities Standal is stressing is play in physical education, not merely because of the joyous experience it might provide but also because it might help to expand other capabilities like imagination, the senses and affiliation with others.

Let me conclude by asserting that Standal has done a brave and great work with his book. This is the first thorough study of the significance of a phenomenological perspective for a critical and inclusive movement education in a Nordic context, and it will certainly have a lasting value in the years to come for keen students and scholars of physical education.

The book is, moreover, a comprehensive collection of knowledge and viewpoints in the field of mainly school physical education put together in a pedagogical and inspiring manner. It is an eye opener for understanding the general significance of human movement observable for others. And last, but not least, Standal seems even to be open minded for our kinship with animals in movement as the subject of perception and, thereby, as developer of Being, although we of course cannot become pen pals in reading and writing the movement environments.

Copyright © Ejgil Jespersen 2016


Aggerholm, Kenneth (2015): Talent Development, Existential Philosophy and Sport. On becoming an elite athlete. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Arnold, Peter J. (1979): Meaning in Movement, Sport and Physical Education. London: Heinemann.
Barbaras, Renaud (2002): Perception and Movement. The End of the Metaphysical Approach. In Chiasms. Merleau-Ponty’s Notion of Flesh, ed. by Fred Evans and Leonard Lawlor. New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 77-87.
Doyon, Maxine & Breyer, Thieme, eds.  (2015): Normativity in Perception. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (2011): Le monde sensible et le monde de l’expression. Cours au College de France. Notes, 1953. Genève: MetisPresses.
Todes, Samuel (2001): Body and World. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
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