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Infusing HPE with a Sociocultural Perspective

This is an excerpt from Physical and Health Education in Canada With Web Resource by Joe Barrett & Carol Scaini.

Physical education is said to offer the best opportunity to foster the development of health and physical literacy. Yet it also has a long history of perpetuating inequality and alienation by excluding, marginalizing, or shaming members of certain groups as being "other" on the basis of criteria such as race, ability, weight, gender, and sexual orientation. Think back to your own school experiences in physical education. What is your story? Is it one of glory and enjoyment, or of shame and exclusion, or of indifference? How might this question be answered by some of your classmates? If your own experience of physical education was (thankfully) free from public shaming, consider the following tweets: "PE doesn’t stand for physical education, it stands for public embarrassment" (Popik, 2013, n.p.). "PE is 5% exercise and 95% embarrassment" (Common White Girl, 2014, n.p.). What are some other forms of exclusion found in schools?


Another way to get at the question is to consider what image comes to mind when you think of a physical education teacher, or of physical education students. A teacher’s dress code, norms, and routines - along with curriculum content and instructional activities - all affect students’ participation and, ultimately, their overall physical education experience. With that power in mind, let’s explore some often-unquestioned practices in physical education and look at alternatives for your own practice.


For instance, have you ever wondered why some teachers have students sit in "squads" as soon as they enter the gym, while the teacher stands in front of the class? Though some educators view this approach as an effective strategy for classroom management and grouping, it stems from physical education’s roots in military training and its early focus on calisthenics and physical training. In other words, it provides a means for maintaining order in the gymnasium. What hidden messages might this practice deliver to students? For one thing, the use of squads positions the teacher as an all-powerful figure who makes all decisions and leaves little if any room for choice by students. Thus it does not fit with a sociocultural approach to teaching that seeks to fully engage students in their learning.


What alternatives exist? When gathering students together after an activity, one possibility is to invite them to sit in a circle and then seat yourself among them, as part of the circle. Indeed, in some Indigenous cultures, the circle symbolizes equality and interconnection among all things - "all peoples, all animals, all spirits, all perspectives" (chapter 6). Thus the physical arrangement of the circle is important and requires that everyone be able to see every face without having to lean forward. You might also ask your students why they think you have chosen to use a circle. Then stand up and ask them how they feel now as compared with when you were sitting with them. Notice whether students seem to detect a shift in the balance of power in the teacher - student relationship. Chapter 6 describes the circular world view and how talking circles can be used to give each member an opportunity to share thoughts, feelings, perspectives, and questions - in other words, to be valued.


Another common practice in physical education that we have come to take for granted is the use of a whistle to get students’ attention. Think back to your early physical education days. Did your gym teacher use a whistle? If so, how did you feel when you heard it blow? Did it evoke a feeling of obedience, lack of control, nervousness? Have you ever questioned its use? Emitting 100 decibels or more with each blow, a whistle can produce a sound as loud as a motorcycle or rock concert. Used in excess, it can even damage hearing, and for some students it conjures up the image of a drill sergeant in boot camp. It may also evoke feelings of anxiety or even shame based on previous negative experiences in physical education.


One alternative practice is to use your voice to communicate through words such as stop, hold, look, listen. You can teach the children what each instruction means: stop what you are doing, hold the equipment you are using, look at the person speaking, and listen for instructions or feedback. Students can practice following these instructions in a game-like activity. This is only one alternative; no doubt you can come up with others!


In another common practice, in health classrooms, students are often required to sit and be quiet during an entire lesson. Here again, think back to your own early days, this time in health education rather than physical education. Did you sit while learning about health? If so, did you learn the names and parts of the human body? Did they have much relevance to your life as a student? As Halas and Kentel (2008) have questioned, "Do we consider how painful it can be when we hold young people back from the movement their bodies crave, particularly in schools?" (p. 214). This question is especially poignant when applied to students who are learning about health.


Despite growing support for health education, research has shown that health in schools continues to be taught in ways that are outdated, didactic, and reductionist (Begoray, Wharf-Higgins, & MacDonald, 2009; Lu & McLean, 2011). In other words, whereas physical education is movement oriented, health education continues to be taught in a teacher-centred and physically inactive manner. What can we change to make health education experiential, active, and fun? For example, rather than simply teaching dry facts about specific body parts - say, the human heart - perhaps students could embody the cardiovascular system, thus learning by acting out how it works. In another example, rather than just learning about food groups and the Canada Food Guide, perhaps students could also involvetheir bodies in completing tasks that help them remember the learning. For example, first- to third-grade students could work alone or in pairs to retrieve various food cards that are placed on the perimeter of a large circle at the centre of the gym or field. They would travel to the perimeter of the playing area and place the card in the correct designated food group (e.g., fruit, vegetable, root vegetable, tuber vegetable, grain products, meat and eggs, legumes, dairy, nuts and seeds) location (e.g., a hula-hoop). While traveling, students could explore various locomotor skills and movement concepts at the same time. As the old saying goes, "Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I’ll learn."