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Room to grow: Teachers, physical education and physical literacy

Alexandra Stoddart, University of Regina Louise Humbert, University of Saskatchewan

A quality physical education (QPE) programme is unlike the stereotypes of a ‘gym’ class often seen in popular culture. So, what should a QPE programme look like?

QPE includes well-planned lessons, developmentally appropriate learning tasks, and inclusive instructional strategies that allow each and every student to develop and experience a joy and love for moving, and this is only scratching the surface. In the past decade or so, the concept of physical literacy has become quite popular in various sectors, from education to sports and recreation. In 2015, Canada shared its Consensus Statement on Physical Literacy. Influenced by the work of the International Physical Literacy Association and Margaret Whitehead (2010), this statement identified four interconnected and essential elements of physical literacy:

  1. motivation and confidence
  2. physical competence
  3. knowledge and understanding
  4. engagement in physical activities for life.

The subject of physical education (PE) provides an opportune avenue to develop children’s physical literacy. In fact, UNESCO identified that ‘the outcome of QPE is a physically literate young person, who has the skills, confidence, and understanding to continue participation in physical activity throughout their life-course’. The connection between PE and physical literacy may appear clear, but is it really that clear for teachers?

This blog post is based on a recently published article (Stoddart & Humbert, 2021) that explored what six Canadian teachers of PE understood about physical literacy and how physical literacy was operationalised in their instruction of PE. Teachers (pseudonyms used) were either elementary PE specialists (for instance, they had training and/or a background in the subject) or generalists (such as classroom teachers with limited to no training or background in PE).

Regardless of being a PE specialist or generalist, most teachers in this study generally misunderstood the concept of physical literacy. While one PE specialist provided a definition of physical literacy focused on competence and confidence in different environments, other teachers either focused on the ‘literacy’ aspect of the term physical literacy or did not have a comprehensive understanding. One participant, Olivia, expressed that she had, ‘never really used that word [physical literacy] before’, echoing similar findings (see for example Robinson et al., 2018).

‘Regardless of being a PE specialist or generalist, most teachers [in the research study] generally misunderstood the concept of physical literacy.’

Despite physical literacy being explicitly defined in the provincial Ministry of Education’s PE curriculum document, the vast majority of teachers were not aware of the connection between physical literacy and PE. While speaking about the PE curriculum, it was apparent that many teachers in this study did not value physical education. Lucy shared where PE was on her priority level: ‘It’s definitely my last planning. It’s definitely the curriculum I know least.’ Interestingly, Lucy and another teacher did not make a connection between their own perceptions of PE (that it is not being a priority in relation to other school subjects) and the value that parents/guardians placed on PE.

Many teachers held conflicting perspectives about the aim and goals of PE. Some generalist teachers showed their lack of understanding of PE when they suggested that daily physical activity could meet the required weekly PE curriculum instructional minutes. Noreen also noted, in reference to what would happen in PE classes, that ‘a lot of the times we just kind of have to go with the flow’. At the other end of the spectrum, teachers spoke about how professional development and their undergraduate education positively impacted their knowledge around the purpose of PE. This knowledge was showcased in their teaching practices.

While this study was focused on physical literacy, it is obvious that a critical first step is to ensure all teachers understand the goals of physical education. There will be no room to discuss physical literacy until the goals of PE are clearly understood. Many teachers have a desire to learn and have room to grow regarding their knowledge of PE, physical literacy, and how the two are connected. With the right support, they can help their students develop physical literacy through PE. Teachers in this study wanted to learn more about PE and physical literacy, but they needed assistance to do so. Teachers need to be supported to unpack PE and physical literacy before moving on to next steps.


This blog is based on the article ‘Room to grow: Teachers’ knowledge and understanding of physical education and physical literacy’ by Alexandra Stoddart and Louise Humbert, published by the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free-to-view for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Robinson, D. B., Randall, L., & Barrett, J. (2018). Physical literacy (mis)understandings: What do leading physical education teachers know about physical literacy? Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 37, 288–298. https://doi.org/10.1123/jtpe.2018-0135

Stoddart, A. L., & Humbert, M. L. (2021). Room to grow: Teachers’ knowledge and understanding of physical education and physical literacy. Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.107

Whitehead, M. (2010). Physical literacy: Throughout the lifecourse. Routledge.