Setting the record straight on physical education

It may sound strange but many people, including teachers and headmasters, still fail to understand what physical education (PE) as a school subject is all about. Numerous newspaper articles and political statements, the most recent one being that of the Minister of Sport, Mr Fikile Mbalula (Die Burger, 18 July 2014), bear witness to several misguided notions about PE.

Maybe the time has come to set the record straight regarding certain untruths and facts about PE.

Although people tend to think PE content is only made up of physical activities (PAs), PE is not simply any PA or sport.

An incomplete and indefensible idea of PE is that it only serves to strengthen achievement-orientated competition sport. It has to be stated clearly that PE and school sport are not the same. PE is part of the formal education curriculum, while school sport is seen as an optional extra-curricular activity. Because school sport relies on the skills, knowledge, understanding and attitudes developed in PE, it is often seen as the extended curriculum of PE.

Also, it’s erroneous to view PE as a practical subject that does not contribute anything towards the cognitive abilities of the child. In a learner-centred and experiential-based learning environment, learners can gain knowledge, understandings and skills as a result of focused participation in PA. Self-actualisation will lead to movement literate individuals who can structure their lifestyles around their own physical and motor capabilities.

Physical education also lends itself to inclusivity with regards to race, class and gender and promotes purposeful mass participation with a pedagogical base. Competitive sport at school level cannot promote mass participation, while financial implications make sport participation inaccessible for most South African learners.

So, what is (should) PE (be)?

In answering this question, let me start by saying that the rationale for any subject to be included in the curriculum relates to the values associated with unique content and aims (What), learning programmes (How), and the actuality and merit of the outcomes (Why). According to the Australian physical education specialist, Trent Brown, these core aspects are closely linked to notions of education in, through and about movement, which denotes a holistic approach to teaching PE and underpins several present-day PE curricula.

In PE, what should be taught relates to the motor and physical domains that are unique to PE, while the cognitive, affective and social domains are essential to ensure an educational and holistic approach to learning.

The word “physical” implies active participation which aims:

• to discover, master and refine performance of fundamental movements (for example, running, leaping, jumping, bending, stretching, twisting, and manipulation skills) and a wide variety of specific movement skills and movement forms [learn TO move] and

• to stimulate growth and develop the body through participation in physical activities.

The word “education” implies guiding learners through a formative process:

• to gain knowledge and understanding (cognitive) of the body and physical activity [learn ABOUT movement];

• to develop positive behaviour by gaining personal meaning (affective); and

• to develop social meaning (social) based on sound social and cultural values [learn THROUGH participation]. Learners must have the ability to function socially outside the school and to show an appreciation for cultural values.

How PE should be taught, concerns effective and formative learning programmes that should be:

• child-centred (general needs, abilities, interests, aspirations);

• learner paced; and

• outcome based, domain specific and process orientated.

Teaching-learning strategies with a holistic approach and an emphasis on skills, knowledge and attitudes are required to achieve these programme goals. The teaching-learning experience should take place within the existing and developing context of the movement culture (sport culture) as it exists outside the school.

Why quality PE should be taught, relates to the specific objectives which are based on the various domains mentioned earlier.

We need quality PE because “quality” signifies “high status” and a “high grade of excellence”. The “status” of a subject is often based on the what, how and why. “Excellence” depends on trained specialists, adequate time and frequency and the availability of facilities (Who? When? Where?). Findings of the Worldwide Audit on Physical Education (1999) revealed that neither “status” nor “excellence” is a feature of PE programmes in many countries globally, South Africa included.

Quality PE is dependent on qualified PE specialists, rather than on equipment and facilities. In order to provide quality PE we need well trained and qualified specialists; sufficient time in the curriculum; equipment and space; support for schools and teachers; support for extra-curricular sport and dance; and well-structured programmes aimed at learning TO move, learning ABOUT movement and learning THROUGH participation.

Those who accept the value of PE need to act as activists for its place as an indispensable feature of the education of all children. They must not just argue for the inclusion of PE within the curriculum and for sufficient time on the school time table, but must also stress the meaning of the quality of programmes and share information on the benefits of PE among administrators, parents and policy makers.


Brown, T.D. (2013). A vision lost? (Re)articulating an Arnoldian conception of education ‘in’ movement in PE. Sport, Education and Society, 18(1): 21-37, January.

Brown, T & Penney, D. (2012). Learning ‘in’, ‘through’ and ‘about’ movement in senior PE? The new Victorian Certificate of Education PE. European PE Review, 19(1): 39-61.


Dr Karel J. van Deventer is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sport Science at Stellenbosch University.

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Stellenbosch University (formally University of Stellenbosch; Afrikaans: Universiteit van Stellenbosch) is a public research university situated in the town of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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