Physical education – a complex jigsaw puzzle, almost completed

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Håkan Larsson
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Oslo


Gary Stidder
Teaching Physical Education: Contemporary Issues for Teachers, Educators and Students
202 pages, paperback
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2023
ISBN 978-1-032-18399-2

In the book Teaching Physical Education, Gary Stidder is painstakingly putting together a jigsaw puzzle, as he himself puts it, a complex puzzle with many small parts that all affect the whole in their own special way. The jigsaw puzzle is the school subject Physical Education (PE; in Sweden, idrott och hälsa) as it appears specifically in England (not the United Kingdom, because Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, have their own curricula). The author, Gary Stidder, worked for 15 years as a teacher after graduating from teacher training in the 1980s. Subsequently, he switched over to the academic path. From 2001 he has been active as a teacher educator and in 2008 he defended his doctoral thesis at the University of Brighton, the institution where he is still active. The first time I encountered Stidder’s work was in 2015, when I reviewed his first book, Becoming a physical education teacher (Routledge) for idrottsforum.org.

According to the author, “The aim of this book […] is to establish exactly what the meaning of physical education is, what it has become and what it is likely to be in future” (p. xix). The use of the word ‘exactly’ does not mean that the answer to the question about the meaning of PE is unequivocal. On the contrary, there are many and sometimes contradictory pieces of the puzzle to keep track of. In the final chapter, he concludes that there is a great need for modernization of the subject and that it needs what he calls “agents of change”. These change agents need knowledge of the intricate jigsaw puzzle:

What is certain is that any attempts to modernize the way in which physical education is presented to pupils in secondary schools will rely on the ‘agents of change’ – those who understand the meaning of physical education and how the socialization, competitionization, politicization, marketization and academicization of physical education each have an integral part to play. (p. 159)

It is not enough to have an idea of what PE can become to change the subject. It also requires an understanding of why it has become the way it is, otherwise, any attempt to change the subject risks failure.

In the above quote, a series of processes are listed: socialization, competitionization, politicization, marketization, and academicization. These processes are pieces of the PE puzzle, and in the book they are all covered in separate chapters. Stidder groups the chapters into three categories: micropolitical processes, sociocultural and historical processes, and postmodern processes. The basis of this categorization is not entirely clear to me, but each of the chapters contributes with important insights. Based on some of the headings, it is quite easy to create an intuitive picture of the meaning of the processes, also from a Swedish perspective. This applies in particular to marketization, academicization, healthization and digitalization. They have influenced the development of PE in Sweden as well. But some headings are perhaps a little more difficult to grasp intuitively and I will pay a little more attention to some of these.

However, Stidder clearly illustrates that even in an English context, competitive sports are not entirely unproblematic alongside an emphasis of health and opportunities for all students to become physically confident.

Let me start with competitionization, politicization and militarization. Competitionization is about an increased emphasis of competition and in a Swedish context it perhaps corresponds to the expression ‘sportification’. The competitionization of PE was accentuated in England in connection with the preparations for the London 2012 Olympics but seems to have continued during the last decade as well. According to the 2014 English national curriculum:

A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities. It should provide opportunities for pupils to become physically confident in a way which supports their health and fitness. Opportunities to compete in sport and other activities build character and help to embed values such as fairness and respect. (p. 16)

The emphasis of competitive sports as “character building” stands in rather stark contrast to the ambitions expressed for the corresponding subject in the Swedish national curriculum. However, Stidder clearly illustrates that even in an English context, competitive sports are not entirely unproblematic alongside an emphasis of health and opportunities for all students to become physically confident. The issue has been debated all the way up in the British House of Lords. One difference compared to Sweden, however, is that the country’s head of government – in the form of both David Cameron (prime minister 2010-2016) and Boris Johnson (2019–2022) – in debating PE has expressed the position that competitive sports, talent identification and performance development are important elements of the subject.

The politicization of PE is about the fact that power over the subject has increasingly shifted from the teaching profession to politicians and other stakeholders. The background to this process can be found in the fact that PE was subject to a national curriculum relatively late, only in the late 1980s. Increased politicization has led to restrictions on teachers’ freedom of action and in some cases the teaching staff and school policy are on different sides in central issues related to the subject. One such issue concerns militarization. Historically, connections between military drill and teaching in PE are nothing new. In England, however, the process was accentuated in 2014 with the government initiative ‘Troops to Teachers’, where ex-servicemen have been given opportunities to easily get work as teachers after completing their military service, often as teachers in PE. The process was motivated by then education minister Michael Gove by the need for more of a “‘boot camp’ mentality in our namby-pamby schools” (p. 73; in Swedish namby-pamby means mjäkig, mesig).

(Unsplash+ In collaboration with Getty Images)

Another important piece of the PE puzzle is socialization, which deals mainly with the socialization of teachers. Stidder discusses some features recognizable also to a Swedish audience, for example that the teaching that student teachers experienced during their own schooling affects their own future teaching just as much as, or perhaps even more than, their teacher education. But Stidder also highlights features that differ from the Swedish context, for instance that much of the responsibility for teacher training has been transferred from the academy to the school itself. This arrangement has been motivated by assumptions about quality enhancement. At least in PE, however, Stidder sees increased challenges with this arrangement in breaking with traditional patterns such as the emphasis on competitive ball games taught with teacher-centred methods.

One of the chapters in the book stands out, both because the content was unexpected to me and because it was particularly captivating, perhaps precisely because it was not about what I expected. The chapter is called “The Globalization of Physical Education”, but it is not really about globalization processes in the subject. Above all it is about Stidder’s own work worldwide with Football 4 Peace (F4P), “a University of Brighton-led program that aims to engender a willingness for peaceful co-existence and build cultural bridges” (p. 93). Stidder was one of the initiators of the program and describes in the chapter how it has been successfully implemented in countries such as Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and Colombia.

This is a well-written book, where the jigsaw puzzle metaphor contributes in an exciting way to the presentation. Each chapter gives a clear and easily accessible picture of a single process, but perhaps I would have liked more in terms of the puzzle as a whole. Stidder makes small connections between the different pieces of the puzzle here and there throughout the book and especially in the concluding chapter, “The modernization of physical education”. The reader gets insights into important questions such as “why has the traditional sport-driven, performance-based and elitist teaching of the subject remained resistant to change?” (p. 152). The reader also understands that the subject is characterized by both stability and change. The subject that the author experiences today as a teacher educator and researcher is partly very different compared to the subject he taught after his teaching degree in 1986. Not least does this apply after the extensive Covid-19 pandemic, which boosted digitalization. At the same time, I would have liked Stidder to have commented on the relationship between the puzzle pieces to an even greater extent. How, for example, are politicization, marketing and competitionization related more exactly? And how do these processes, whose connections may not be so difficult to grasp, relate, for example, to healthization (increased emphasis on [public] health) and equalization (increased emphasis on equality and inclusion)? How do school policymakers manage to reconcile issues of public health and equality with an emphasis on competition and performance? Maybe this is a good pitch for another book?

Copyright © Håkan Larsson 2023

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