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Conceptualising sociocultural orientations in physical education including post-critical possibilities

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21st century shifts in conceptualisations of knowledge and learning present new opportunities and challenges to the way in which physical education (PE) is conceptualised. As a physical education teacher educator, I undertook a self-study project that sought to critique the opportunities and limitations of three varying sociocultural orientations in PE: humanistic, critical and post-critical.

Autor(es):Bruce, Judy
Entidades(es):University of Canterbury College of Education
Congreso: congreso de la asociación internacional de escuelas superiores de educación física (AIESEP)
Úbeda A Coruña, 26-29 de Octubre de 2010
ISBN: 9788461499465
Palabras claves:sociocultural, physical education, self-study

Conceptualising sociocultural orientations in physical education including post-critical possibilities


21st century shifts in conceptualisations of knowledge and learning present new opportunities and challenges to the way in which physical education (PE) is conceptualised. As a physical education teacher educator, I undertook a self-study project that sought to critique the opportunities and limitations of three varying sociocultural orientations in PE: humanistic, critical and post-critical. In particular, as a pedagogue comfortable operating within humanistic and critical paradigms, I explored a post-critical orientation responsive to 21st century shifts in knowledge and learning in a physical education teacher education (PETE) context. This exploration led to epistemological and ontological shifts that were challenging and difficult for me as a teacher educator. This shifting process is described in some detail in this paper. Additionally, a critique of the varying sociocultural orientations to PE and their uses are presented here.


As physical education (PE) in industrialised nations developed throughout the 20th century, two significant shifts emerged. Away from solely learning the physical skills of movement, PE in the mid and late 20th century began to embrace humanistic ideals that placed importance upon learning cultural norms and values and social skills through participation in the physical (Hellison, 1973; Kalakian & Goldman, 1976). Challenging the limitations of this, the PE curriculum released in New Zealand and other parts of the world during the latter part of the 20th century, boldly suggested an embracing of the critical (Culpan & Bruce, 2007; Fernandez- Balboa, 1997; MacDonald, 2003; Tinning, 2002).

Thus PE would encapsulate learning ‘in, through, and about movement’ (Arnold, 1979) that included a socio-critical orientation drawing on critical pedagogical approaches to learning. Recently however, 21st century shifts in conceptualisations of knowledge and learning have presented new opportunities and challenges to the way in which PE is conceptualised (Andreotti, 2010; Gilbert, 2005; Wright, 2006). The purpose of this project was to explore through a self-study process, varying conceptualisations of PE with a particular focus on a post-critical orientation responsive to 21st century shifts in knowledge and learning. The purpose of this paper is two-fold. Firstly, the self-study process I engaged with is described here, with a particular focus given to the difficult and challenging process of experiencing epistemological and ontological shifts in conceptualisations of knowledge and learning. Secondly, the implications of 21st century shifts in conceptualisations in knowledge and learning are explored through a critique of varying sociocultural orientations to PE.


In this self-study I incorporated the five key elements LaBoskey (2004) suggests when using this approach to research. That is, that self-study is self-initiated and focused; improvement aimed (and transformational); interactive; includes multiple, mainly qualitative methods; and defines validity as a process based on trustworthiness. Additionally, I sought to ensure trustworthiness consistent with Loughran and Northfield’s guidelines (1998). They suggest that a report “[includes] sufficient detail of the complexity and context of the situation for it to ‘ring true’ for the reader; provides and demonstrates some triangulation of data and a range of different perspectives around an issue; and makes explicit links to relevant educational literature…” (p. 13).

The interactive elements that contributed to this self-study included journeying with a mentor and with a team of participant researchers, journal writing, taped interviews, and writing for academic publication. Trustworthiness, variation and depth in the self-study were created by collecting data through these multiple, interactive processes (LaBoskey, 2004). Throughout this process I became explicitly and acutely aware that I was voyaging through an ontological transformative process. The varied interaction processes were important factors that contributed to the shifting process. They created dissonance, tensions, challenges and opportunities as I attended to difference in perceptions and understandings. Ellsworth (1997) describes engagement with differences in perceptions and understandings as practicing ‘foreign knowledges’ as a way to extend and shift her teaching practices, and through participation in this study I too found myself engaging with ‘foreign knowledges’ that contributed to epistemological and ontological shifts.

The shifting process that I experienced centred on engagement with 21st notions of knowledge and learning. In particular, as a critical pedagogue, I began to consider not only the strengths but also the limitations of a critical pedagogical approach to PE and PETE, and I began to engage with post-critical possibilities. This shifting process was unsettling and difficult as I was confronted not only with epistemological but also ontological challenges to my world view and consequential teaching practice. Berger (2004) articulates much of what I experienced through the shifting process. She describes the process as one of moving toward the edge of knowing and reflects on both the cognitive and emotional challenges of engagement while being on the edge. For me, being on the edge of knowing was an emotional journey that was difficult and frustrating, but also freeing as I began to conceptualise new ways of knowing and seeing, and therein new possibilities. Being on the edge was also a time of intense inconsistencies, contradictions and confusions.

It is no wonder that many people resist the shifting process and pull back from the edge (Berger, 2004). In a journal entry I noted To be honest most of the time I am confused. When people ask me how the research is going, or what the project is about, I actually don’t know what to say. I stumble and trip over words. On one level I know, but its’ intuitive knowing. If [my mentor] explains things from a ‘post’ perspective, I’m like, yes that’s it. But I don’t know how to explain things myself. The confusion I experienced and the inability to articulate tacit knowing is consistent with transformative processes (Berger, 2004; Keegan, 1994; Polanyi, 1967). Part of the difficulty was not having a new language to express what I implicitly knew. Polanyi, when exploring the possibility of tacit knowledge, reportedly said that “one often reaches a [conclusion] and only later constructs an argument that leads up to it” (Scott & Moleski, 2005, p.208). This resonated with me as I existed on the edge of new possibilities, excited about what was within reach, yet unable to articulate things clearly.

Another part of the difficulty of engaging with transformative processes is of course the fear of letting go of what is normative and habitual, in order to engage with what is only partly unknown. As Berger (2004) notes “the hardest piece of transformation is the ‘neutral zone’ when the past is untenable and the future is unidentifiable” (p.344). This certainly reflected how I felt as a critical pedagogue. Through an interrogation of the critical, I could now see not only the opportunities and uses, but also the limitations and yet I was unsure of what the post-critical implications for my work in PETE would be. Through this self-study project that included active engagement with post possibilities, I increasingly embraced the opportunities that were inherent within an epistemological pluralistic paradigm (Andreotti, 2010). What I found in this place was freedom. A freedom to make mistakes, a freedom to sit with the messiness of complexity and uncertainty, and a freedom and openness to explore new possibilities without a dogmatic fear of getting it wrong! For PE and PETE this meant that I began to explore varying sociocultural orientations, not in search of what was right or wrong, but for what each conceptualisation could offer. I was interested in both the opportunities and limitations of each conceptualisation; for the ‘uses’ in a particular context.


The results of this study primarily centred upon two main themes. Firstly, epistemological and ontological shifts were explored as a process that resulted in different ways of conceptualising knowledge and learning processes in PE. Secondly, and more specifically, critical pedagogical approaches previously adopted by myself as a PE teacher educator were challenged and post-critical approaches were engaged in and explored. Varying sociocultural conceptualisations of PE were explored and both the opportunities and limitations inherent within each perspective were considered (Table 1). The latter theme is the focus of this paper.

Varying conceptualisations of sociocultural orientations to physical education

Working in a curriculum area with a long history of positivist traditions, it has only been recently, at least during the last 20 years or so that we have seen a gradual shift toward sociocultural orientations in PE (Jewett, 1994; Lawson, 1992; Sage, 1993). While Cliff, Wright and Clark (2009) position sociocultural PE within the critical paradigm, I suggest here that a sociocultural orientation may also be structural functionalist and/or humanistic in its positioning. In this paper I suggest that a sociocultural orientation to physical education places value and importance on the social and cultural elements of the movement culture. The aim of a sociocultural orientation to PE is for students to develop social and cultural skills, knowledges and attitudes through both direct participation in movement contexts and through learning about the movement culture.

It is possible for pedagogical approaches drawing upon a sociocultural orientation to be either structural functionalist and/or humanistic or socio-critical in positioning. Responding to 21st century shifts in conceptualisations of knowledge signals a move toward exploring new possibilities for PE. My own journey through this self-study led me to consider the possibility of a postcritical approach to PE and this is explored in some depth here, preceded by an articulation of humanistic and critical orientations.

The 3 varying conceptualisations are presented below as a way of seeking to understand both the opportunities and limitations inherent within each construct. While I acknowledge here that there may also be other sociocultural orientations to PE, I have intentionally selected humanistic, critical and post-critical, as these are directly applicable to my own context and to this self-study process. Additionally, it is important to note that there is not the scope here to give an exhaustive description of each conception including limitations. A more detailed analysis is forthcoming.

Humanistic physical education

During the mid twentieth century PE programmes began to emerge that focused on learning not just the physical skills of movement, but learning through the physical also. Learning through the physical valued the educative role of movement, and was concerned with intellectual, social and emotional development rather than purely the physical. Such an approach to PE gathered popularity throughout the twentieth century, although the ideas were not particularly new. Ancient Athenians have been credited with applying learning through the physical and these ideas re-emerged during the Renaissance period. Furthermore, public schools in England during the mid nineteenth century accredited modern sport to the development of muscular Christianity and to the learning of British, colonialist values and dominant cultural ideals. The common thread of a humanistic orientation toward PE running through these varying periods was the promotion of and concern for the transmission of valued cultural practices.

A humanistic PE curriculum is learner centred and relevant to student needs, interests and capabilities (Kalakian & Goldman;1976). Regarding the curriculum focus, Kalakian and Golman suggested the following five lessons of life could be taught through movement: fairplay, dedication, cooperation, loyalty and competitiveness. Hellison (1973) proposed four goals for a humanistic PE curriculum that included the development of self-esteem, self-understanding, interpersonal relations and moving toward self-actualisation. Teaching methods appropriate for a humanistic approach to PE tend to be more student centred. In a shift away from the technical teaching of movement, Van Dalen and Bennett (1971) suggested that humanistic physical educators considered “how to teach as much as what to teach” (p. 131). Examples of humanistic pedagogies within PE include the Sport Education model (Siedentop, 1984) and the Social Responsibility model (Hellison, 2003).

While there are a number of key opportunities and benefits in implementing a humanistic approach in PE, there are also limitations. Humanistic PE is credited with the promotion of harmony, consensus and the transmission of dominant cultural norms and ideals. Advocates argue that through participation in PE, students are prepared to participate in society as they develop highly desirable characteristics including cooperation, competitiveness, loyalty and respect for themselves and others (Hellison, 1973; Kalakian & Goldman, 1976). It could be argued that this orientation toward PE may make a valuable contribution to a structural-functionalist world view. It could also be argued that developing the aforementioned characteristics and values will enable students to contribute more fully as consumers within and contributors to a capitalist society. Critics of this orientation are concerned with the contribution that this approach may make to advancing neo-liberal ideals (see for example, Culpan & Bruce, 2007). Additionally, a humanistic approach subscribing to universal, fixed and Eurocentric ideals is unlikely to be able to create space for diversity, difference and Other ways of knowing and being. The nature of knowledge within a humanistic framework tends to be certain, is based on Western reason and has utility within a neo-liberal agenda. A critical PE orientation has developed in recent years, in part, responding to these criticisms.

Critical physical education

Whereas humanistic PE is perceived as learning through movement, drawing on the work of Arnold (1979), critical PE is perceived as both learning through and learning about movement. A critical orientation to PE is concerned with questioning taken for granted assumptions relating to power imbalances and injustices within PE, schools and the wider movement context (Fernandez-Balboa, 1997; McKay, Gore & Kirk 1990; Kirk 1988; Kirk & Tinning, 1990; Sage, 1993). In particular, drawing on critical theory, a critical approach to PE questions the role of PE and of the movement culture in contributing to injustices that exist in schools and in society, and in contributing to a neo-liberal agenda.

A critical approach to PE may contribute to challenging a previously dominant scientised view of PE that essentially sees ‘man as machine’ to be finetuned for economic productivity (Charles, 1979). A critical approach to PE may also contribute to challenging the “alarming exploitative nature of many of the industries associated with the [movement] culture” (Culpan & Bruce, p.2). Furthermore, a critical approach may challenge the traditionally hegemonic nature of PE and the movement culture through the adoption of critical thinking and critical action regarding injustices reproduced through issues such as sexism, racism, able-ism and homophobia. Sparkes (1996) summarised critical PE as an approach that contributed to the following understandings:

  1. The physical education culture comprises groups with power and privilege and groups without power and privilege.
  2. Social structures within the culture of physical education perpetuate this power imbalance.
  3. The power and privilege people have in physical education is a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
  4. The powerless and under-privileged in physical education have a vested interest in social change.
  5. The competing interests within physical education create an inherent tension that lies just beneath the surface of harmony and contentment.
  6. The critical position in physical education asks questions that will lead to change. These questions are designed not for mere description but for raising consciousness.
  7. Critical theorists believe that in changing individual and group consciousness towards PE, change will occur (p.40).

Within the PETE context I have worked hard as a critical pedagogue to engage students in critical discourse relating to PE and to the wider movement culture. This critical position is partially due to the shifting nature of the PE learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC) (Ministry of Education, 2007) that was amended slightly from the original curriculum document (Ministry of Education, 1999). These documents positioned PE as socio-critical in nature (Culpan & Bruce, 2007).

Reflecting this socio-critical orientation, the PE learning area within the NZC is concerned with developing within students, “a sense of social justice” (p.22); creating spaces, “in which students [may] contribute to healthy communities and environments by taking responsible and critical action” (p.22); and facilitating learning that, “fosters critical thinking and action and enables students to understand the role and significance of physical activity” (p.23). Critical pedagogy provides a pedagogical approach to implementing a critical orientation to PE. The role of the teacher when utilising this approach tends to be one who is able to develop within students critical thinking skills that challenge existing power imbalances (see for example, Gillespie & Culpan, 2000).

Additionally the critical pedagogue seeks to establish learning environments that are accepting of difference and are inclusive in orientation. While a critical orientation toward PE presents the opportunity to challenge previously held hegemonic practices within the movement culture, through engaging in this research project, I have begun to consider some of the limitations of this pedagogical approach. The following section presents some of these limitations and offers the possibility of a post-critical contribution to the field of PE and to PETE.

Post-critical physical education

Through participation in this self-study, I began to explore the ways in which 21st century constructs of knowing and being morphed depending on the theoretical orientation employed. Andreotti (2010) when tracing ‘post’ readings of 21st century curricula, outlines two varying orientations of knowledge and learning: cognitive adaptation and epistemological pluralism. She notes that both perspectives conceive of knowledge as contextual, partial and changing; however the orientations have different theoretical origins, and thus curricula and pedagogical implications will also vary. Cognitive adaptation draws upon postmodern ideas, considering ‘post’ as after modern (Claxton, 2008); whereas epistemological pluralism considers post as an ‘interrogation’ of modernity.

The point here is that any reading of 21st conceptions of knowledge and learning will be undertaken through a particular theoretical lens. Cognitive adaptation is likely to support a neo-liberal project, requiring the development of citizens who are instrumental in the building of a ‘knowledge economy’. Epistemological pluralism, conversely engages with difference, critical literacies and explorations of other possibilities. It was through this latter lens that I began to consider post-critical possibilities for my own teaching practice. Exploring a post-critical orientation toward PE may be primarily understood through an interrogation of the critical. The purpose of this section therefore will be to firstly deconstruct a critical orientation of PE through an exploration of the limitations therein, and secondly to suggest aspects of a post-critical approach to teaching and learning that emerged as a result of this self-study project.

Regarding an interrogation of the critical, and of particular relevance to this project, is the exploration of varying conceptualisations of knowledge. From a critical pedagogical perspective, knowledge is conceptualised as fixed and certain. There is an understanding that there is a single truth and a right response. There are for example, universal ideals of justice and equity and there are fixed and certain truths relating to concepts such as oppression and power. Furthermore, it is generally understood that binaries exist relating for example to right and wrong, to those who have power and those that do not, and to justices and injustices that occur. These fixed notions and understandings of knowledge lead to an often predetermined and right response. Critical pedagogues tend to know where they are heading and the end is a given. This approach, Todd (2009) argues, is heavily ‘scripted’ and as such limits possibilities and resists complexities.

Conversely, a post-critical perspective proposes that knowledge is uncertain, fluid, contextual, complex and situated. Within a post-critical paradigm, Duncum (2008) noted that, “knowledge is partial, values are ambiguous, dilemmas are profound and resolutions are rare” (p.254). Rather than holding a world view as fixed and certain, a post-critical approach does not have a predetermined solution. Primarily through open dialogue, varying contradictions, problems and possibilities are explored and solutions negotiated. These significant differences regarding conceptualisations of knowledge impact directly upon my own teaching practice. I have had in the past a very strong agenda about right ways of thinking and being, and during my teaching I have facilitated discussions with a critical orientation to PE as a foundation.

Such an orientation significantly affects pedagogical practices; in particular the role, place and nature of dialogue in the classroom. Freire (1998) explored the possibility of the importance of open dialogue and the partiality of knowledge when he wrote that in order to safeguard against the pitfalls of fixed ideology it was important to …allow myself to be open to differences and to refuse the entrenched dogmatism that makes me incapable of learning anything new. In essence, the correct posture of one who does not consider him- or herself to be the sole possessor of the truth or the passive object of ideology or gossip is the attitude of permanent openness.

Openness to approaching and being approached, to questioning and being questioned, to agreeing and disagreeing… knowing that I am learning to be who I am by relating to what is my opposite. (p. 119) This openness – the ability to be open to possibilities – is at the heart of post-critical perspectives and is in contrast to critical pedagogical practices. This place of openness is a place of humility where students and teachers learn together through conversations that are created in open, honest spaces. These ideas directly confront and challenge my own teaching practice. I have noted that there is reluctance within classes that I teach, for open and honest dialogue.

If a student’s views are oppositional to my own, I would readily debate. Given the power dynamics implicit within a traditional student teacher relationship, few students have continued to openly oppose views that I have expressed. At the heart of such discussions, from my perspective as a teacher is, I think, the need to make meaning from what a student says and believes; where their views may differ from my own. For example, if a student holds views that are racist or sexist, my response could be to explore the reasons for this, rather than to present arguments refuting their claims. Furthermore, my role could be to ask questions, framed in a way that invite the student to consider other possibilities and other ways of viewing a particular perspective.

This ideal, though I think, is a possible limitation of the post-critical; the illusion of a democratic space. Given the nature of student teacher power relationships it is unlikely that dialogical spaces may be created that are authentically honest and open. However, post-critical conceptualisations of knowledge and learning are likely to take teachers further toward this ideal, than perhaps the critical. Drawing on the work of Baktin, Duncum (2008) noted that dialogical pedagogy as a post-critical approach, acknowledges multiplicity of views and the constant interaction of meanings. Spaces are sought that enable an exploration of conflicting opinions and beliefs without judgement or ‘higher ground moralising’.

When learning ‘about’ the movement culture in PE curriculum, this shift toward post-critical openness, dialogue and meaning making, may contribute more to student learning, than resistance often experienced in the critical pedagogical space. Exploring the possibilities inherent within this shift to post-critical possibilities I recently wrote the following journal entry, after a critical session with PETE students: Rather than seeking to represent myself as knower and ‘expert’, I allowed the student voices to speak through the redirection of questioning. For example, when a student asked me for a ‘right’ response, I redirected this question to another student, who had raised the scenario. He was at first silent and I wanted to jump in, but I held back and he eventually spoke with insight and wisdom offering rich dialogue to the discussion.

Andreotti & de Souza (2008), drawing upon poststructuralist and postcolonialist theoretical positions developed a pedagogical approach that could be significant in constructing postcritical dialogue in PE programmes. While the pedagogical approach (Through Other Eyes1) draws upon four inter-linked processes, of particular relevance to this discussion both for teacher and students are the notions of learning to listen and learning to learn. Learning to listen requires that students and teachers develop hyper self-reflexivity through keeping “perceptions constantly under scrutiny, tracing the origins and implications of our assumptions”

(Andreotti & de Souza, 2008, p.28). Learning to listen means being truly open to other epistemological and ontological thought, understanding that these are social constructs and as such are historically and contextually variable. Learning to learn, through a state of humility allows students and teachers to imagine other possibilities and to begin to expand their comfort zones through the taking in of different thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and understandings. The tradition of critical pedagogy as learning about the Other, is reframed within post-critical thought to learning from the Other (Todd, 2003).

A further critique of the critical is concerned with an exploration of the notion of morals as fixed and ethics as contextually dependent. Where the critical tradition offers a moral compass that is largely fixed, defined and certain, the post-critical engages with possibilities of ethics as ethical responsibility toward the Other. Andreotti and Dowling (2004) drawing on the work of Spivak, Foucault and Levinas, convey ethics as, “an ideal of relationship – a way of defining ourselves in relation to others” (p. 606). They go on to distinguish the difference thus, “Ethics, then, deals with what type of human relations we envisage as desirable or possible. From this perspective, it is not the same as morality, which describes universalisable principles of normative behaviour” (p. 606).

While continuing to explore post-critical possibilities, a discussion took place in a critical PETE class about an ethical dilemma a PE teacher experienced. I wrote the following journal entry: When the ethical dilemma presented the class was divided and discussion became heated. Again I held back. I didn’t have to be the knower, the expert; I allowed the discussion to close without having to “tie up loose ends”. Instead we sat with the messiness, the complexities and the contradictions. I didn’t feel the need to give the “right answer”. The distinction been morals and ethics outlined by Andreotti and Dowling (2004) has significant implications for my own practice when considering shifts from critical to post-critical pedagogies. Rather than being guided by a fixed, predetermined moral code, I may consider ethical responsibility toward others as contextually dependent. There is freedom to move within varying possibilities guided by responsibility. Additionally, this ethical compass provides direction that is responsive to criticisms of post-traditions as an ‘anything goes’ approach.

Table 1. Sociocultural Orientations in Physical Education

Tabla 1. Conceptualising sociocultural orientations in physical education including post-critical possibilities

Contenido disponible en el CD Colección Congresos nº 16


Table adapted from Andreotti, V. and Souza, L. (2008) Global learning in the ‘knowledge society': Four tools for discussion. Journal of International Educational Research and Development Education,31, (1), 7-12.


This study suggests that there is a need to explore other sociocultural orientations in PE that are responsive to shifting conceptualisations of knowledge and learning in 21st century contexts beyond traditional humanistic and critical paradigms. A post-critical orientation presents one such possibility. Bullough & Pinnegar (2001) note that “The aim of self-study is to provoke, challenge and illuminate rather than to confirm and settle” (p. 20). This idea of self-study is consistent with 21st century constructs of knowledge that also resist a settling. The varying sociocultural conceptualisations of PE and PETE presented in this article, are by no means exhaustive of what is available, but they do reflect variations available to myself as a teacher educator within a New Zealand context. Through this self-study I have concluded that the orientations each have strengths and limitations and as such are valued for their usefulness within a given context.


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