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11 Abr 2012

PE teacher education – an arena for reproducing traditions, values and norms

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PE teacher education programme has been criticized for that the students’ experiences of their own sporting activities are more important than the education programme and, that it finds it difficult to challenge traditional gender patterns.

Autor(es): Larsson, Lena
Entidades(es):Linneus university
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: PE teacher education, gender, Bourdieu

PE teacher education – an arena for reproducing traditions, values and norms


PE teacher education programme has been criticized for that the students’ experiences of their own sporting activities are more important than the education programme and, that it finds it difficult to challenge traditional gender patterns. The aim of this study is to investigate what happens when the conceptions of physical education (PE) student teachers encounter the value structures of a PE teacher education programme. Special interest is paid to what conceptions of masculinity and femininity are expressed. The study has a cultural-sociological and gender theoretical perspective. Data has been collected using essays written by 52 PE student teachers and in-depth interviews with 8 teacher educators.

The findings paint a picture of a PE teacher education programme where the orthodox is seldom challenged. The “rules of the game” are generally taken for granted and the need for physical activity in the form of sport is the education programme’s underlying doxa. It was a deeper knowledge of sport which the students expected and that is what they feel that it has been about. Even if gender and social issues have been part of the education, the gender habitus which students have embodied during childhood has changed very little during the programme.


This article is based on a study within PE teacher program in Sweden. The starting point for the study is that even if the way the PE teacher education programme is structured is different in the various institutes of higher education, the programme and the students are part of an historic, social, political and ideological context which is important for determining what kind of knowledge is considered valuable and therefore makes an impact. Education is an arena for both reproducing and changing things, a place where struggles for the interpretative prerogative are constantly in progress. In order to understand the development of knowledge and the passing-on of values which take place in a specific social arena, it is important to study which traditions, beliefs, values and norms dominate. The object of study in a study of this type is not particular individuals but rather the relationship between the objective structures and the tastes and dispositions of the individuals.

AREA OF THE STUDY The PE teacher education has been very popular for many years. It has existed in Sweden since 1813 and was carried out at just one institute of higher education until 1966. Today the PE teacher education programme is one specialisation among many others within teacher education and is offered at a number of institutes of higher education. The programme has a long tradition and its value structure is well established. However, both earlier and on-going struggles are evidence that the contents and the structure have been through, and are still going through, changes. Some of these changes are due to changes in the steering documents for the PE teacher education programme, such as the increased demand that it should have a scientific basis, which has led to the theoretical content increasing at the cost of the practical. Other changes can be explained by changes in society; for example, the spread of competitive sports meant that the importance of gymnastics (a legacy from Per Henrik Ling, 1776-1839), which had dominated PE teacher education programmes, declined (Larsson, 2009).

There are a number of issues concerning PE teacher education programmes and the school subject physical education which have been of interest in recent years. These are issues which education wrestles with both in Sweden and abroad. One such, which has often received attention in research into teacher education, is the significance of the student’s own school days in what he or she is like as a teacher. Research shows that the experiences gained from being involved in sport while they were growing up and of PE teaching in school are more important for students than their education when it comes to judging which knowledge is valuable (MacDonald et al., 2002; Matanin & Collier, 2003; Brown, 2005; Tsangaridou, 2008). The PE teacher education programme has not been able to challenge the students’ conceptions to a sufficiently high degree and in this way has been conserving and reproducing. Research involving the PE program also show that students primarily award values such as knowledge in subject matters and methods for practical teaching more than reflections around gender and social matters (Dowling Næss, 1998; Wright, 2002; Rich, 2001, 2003, 2004; Tinning, 2004; Macdonald & Brooker 1999; Kårhus, 2004; Dowling, 2006).

Another issue that is important, and has been important for many years, involves the academisation of education. Although the PE teacher education programme has become successively more academic, and what a teacher should know has changed, there has still been criticism of the education for being too unacademic. On the other hand has the shift from an emphasis on practical skills to an emphasis on academic knowledge been something which many representatives within education have regarded with distrust (Kirk et al., 1997; Macdonald et al., 1999; Tinning, 2004) The PE teacher education programme has also been criticised because it has not been governed by its own aims, instead others outside academia have had an influence. For example, the influence of competitive sports has been obvious. The idea of the education as one of the last bastions against competitive sports, which was the case in the heyday of gymnastics, is now history. Today the content of the PE teacher education programme is strongly linked to competitive sports, and it seems that a background as an active sportsman or sportswoman is a must for a PE teacher.

It is also a background which the majority of PE teachers have (O’Bryant et al., 2000; O’Sullivan et al., 2007; Meckbach et al., 2007; Larsson, 2009). The link to competitive sports with their manly norms is also, according to many researchers, an explanation for the difficulty the PE teacher education programme has had challenging traditional gender patterns and that both national and international research shows that the school subject physical education still is criticised for being taught “on the boys’ conditions” (Wright, 2002; Kirk, 2002; Carli, 2004; Dowling, 2004; Hunter, 2004). Even before they have started their studies to be a PE teacher, students have picked up a gendered ”sports identity” on their way through school and during their sporting activities in their free time, and to reflect about gender and social issues is not something they are interested in.

This, together with the education’s and the school subject’s long tradition of gender separate teaching, and the education’s inability to deal with gender issues has led to the reproduction of inequality between the sexes in the teaching of physical education (Brown & Rich, 2002; Wright, 2002; Brown & Evans, 2004; Brown, 2005; Olofsson, 2005; Larsson, 2007; Rossi et al., 2008; Larsson et al., 2009). Reproduction of knowledge and, above all, reproduction of conceptions about masculinity and femininity are among the PE teacher education programme’s greatest challenges. The aim of the study is to investigate what happens when the experiences and conceptions of physical education (PE) student teachers encounter the value structures of a PE teacher education programme. Special interest is also paid to what conceptions of masculinity and femininity are expressed.


The study has a cultural sociological and gender theoretical perspective. The main point of interest is what conceptions, knowledge, traditions, norms and values are created and recreated in the PE teacher education programme, particularly when they concern gender. Within the education there are both teacher educators and students, who, as well as being individuals, are also part of a social context which has a number of rules for, and conceptions about, what is possible and right. In order to study the relationship between students and the PE teacher education programme, I have used Pierre Bourdieu’s world of concept. Bourdieu was not particularly interested in what knowledge is as such, but rather how it originates and is reproduced in a social context, where having the interpretative prerogative means having the power to define knowledge (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990). Analyses from such a perspective make it possible to understand reproduction and change within education in relation to those who are involved in it. In order to be able to analyse actions and strategies based on the relationship between individual/group and a social context, Bourdieu has developed various concepts as analytical tools.

The concepts are such that they are not particularly useful on their own, but they become effective when they are put together. The concepts which I have judged to be relevant and useful for this study are, above all, habitus, capital, taste, doxa (taken-for-granted assumptions) and social arena. What makes Bourdieu’s concepts useful to “think with” is that they not only make possible a study of hierarchies, polarities and oppositions within a social arena but can also be used to combine social conditions with gender (Bourdieu, 2001; Brown 2005; Moi, 1999) The advantage of using Bourdieu’s conceptual framework as an analysis tool also for studying concepts of gender is that as well as seeing a person’s sex as socially and culturally constructed, his concepts allow studies of the relationship between embodied dispositions and social structures (Bourdieu 1990a, 1990b; Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992).

This includes embodied dispositions about gender which are apparent in conceptions about how boys and girls are and how they ought to be, and what boys and girls do and what they ought to do. In the social construction of gender, power relationships are incorporated as habitus, which becomes something which is obvious and cannot be questioned. The gendered body constitutes physical capital and is the bearer of symbolic value, which makes Bourdieu’s concepts useful also for investigating how conceptions of masculine and feminine are expressed in the PE teacher education programme; an education which, to a great extent, is about the body and physical practices. It is the relational strength in Bourdieu’s concepts, the dialectic between the objective structures and the structuring dispositions, between habitus and the social structure, which I consider particularly fruitful for this study. The practice or practices are not formed or maintained in a vacuum and cannot be studied as isolated objects but are human activities which are the result of interplay and are regulated by their context. It is the relationship between the students’ habitus and the structures they meet in an education which forms and reforms habitus and produces and reproduces practices.

Data has been collected using essays written by 52 PE student teachers during their physical education specialisation and in-depth interviews with 8 teacher educators. The focus in the analysis was on picking up both implicit and explicit expressions which reflected collective conceptions, values, struggles and oppositions, and the taken-for-granted assumptions in relation to the PE teacher education programme and the school subject physical education. From the pattern which emerged, not only common values, norms and conceptions became clear, but also on-going struggles and doxa.


When the results in this study are compared with how the PE teacher education has been constituted historically, it can be said that much is the same as it has always been. The core of the education programme which today’s students encounter involves, as earlier, physical activity. Students need to know about, and be able to carry out, physical activity, and it is taken for granted that subjects which have links to the body in movement should be part of the education.

It is the body movement that is the core, but it is also affected by so many things that I cannot be without. If we remove body movement, then the subject will not be…OK the subject could be theoretical, that would be possible but…. (PE teacher educator)

The social environment students meet is characterised by both dominant value hierarchies and ongoing conflicts. There is a certain degree of mistrust associated with making the educational programme more academic, and an uncertainty about what students should actually learn. Dilemmas arise from the mass of different subject areas and the programmes’ mish-mash of comprehensible and incomprehensible logic. There seems to be no language suitable for expressing the essence of the programme and its subjects.

Subject knowledge is about how you move and how the body functions in movement. It is not OK if I as an English professor do not now how to speak or write English or English grammar. When the name of the education is PE it is essential that I now something about sports outside of school in order to understand the children I will teach. (PE teacher educator)

Body and movement are important and the findings show that the need for physical activity in the form of sport is the education programme’s underlying doxa (taken-for-granted assumption). Certain sports are assigned a value by teacher educators, and the positions of the various sports are based on the educators own sporting background and education. Sporting prowess is the asset which is superior to all others, superior to, for example, knowledge of the subject and knowledge of teaching. The norm for PE student teachers is a student with sporting prowess in many areas and who, in many ways, differs from ”normal” students. PE student teachers are expected to have a background in sport and, above all, want to participate in their sport rather than study to be a teacher. It is sport which the students must be able to participate in, it is sport which they must communicate about and it is sport that they must teach about.

I think that it is important that they can show how to shoot in floor ball to name one example and they will never explain what a clear stroke in badminton is if they haven’t practised it. The students need to know the traditional sports, they need to be able to show them and demonstrate… their skills need to be good. (PE teacher educator)

To be able to test the skills of individuals in sport seems to be a credibility and quality issue for the education; for a teacher it is a kind of guarantee stamp which shows that he/she is a good PE teacher. The findings show that as well as knowledge of sport, outdoor pursuits and knowledge of physical health and the body are also considered superior to other areas of knowledge. Knowledge in the natural sciences commands a strong position.

”It is the natural sciences that are important for PE teachers – they must know how to analyse body movements for example. Yes, in many PE teacher education programme, they may not have as much physiology, anatomy and movement analysis. The danger is when it is very easy to built courses in just pedagogy because there is so much more people to get on the field of PETE. (PE teacher educator)

It is important both as an asset in the lecturers’ fight for recognition and as a mark of quality for the sports teacher. Human biology can be said to be the PE teacher’s badge of status. What the students should learn about fitness, in contrast to sport, is more controversial and more subject to discussion. The subject “fitness” is mostly about the body and physical fitness, but some criticise the one-sided view of fitness. They want students to gain a holistic view of the subject, where fitness becomes a component equally as self-evident as sport itself.

People usually mention that sport is good for your lungs and heart but shouldn’t the social side also be a part of it…. What I mean is that the connection and empathy is just as important. (PE teacher educator)

The change in the profession, which was initiated when the PE teacher education programme began to be taught at institutes of higher education and later qualified students to go on to a doctoral programme, has increased the demand for the subject to be more scientific. This, together with the fact that there is a lack of language to formulate a PE teacher’s practical competence, both the physical and the didactic, has led to concern that the education will result in students being good at ”theoretical physical education” instead of learning physical activity and how it should be taught.

Students who math the education

The formation and structure of the PE teacher education programme, where much of it was about sport and physical practices, are seen as a favourable environment for the incorporation of mutual values and norms and most of the students are satisfied with most of the programme and question neither the content nor the structure. The analysis shows that these students have had a great interest in sport since their childhood.

Sports have always been a vital part of my life. I definitely got the interest from home since my family are what you could call sport fanatics. My dad used to run cross-country and his love for sports rubbed off on my mom. When I was a kid we used to travel to various sporting events and been members in several sport clubs. I have always felt the support from my family and have therefore dared to try a lot of different sports. (Lisa)

It is an interest which the whole family has shared, which has meant that they will continue to participate in sports, and they see that both the education and the job will give them the opportunity to do this. Students’ expectations of their education are to a large extent shortsighted. They think that it is at least as important to enjoy their education as to “learn” how to be teachers. Many have heard that the course is fun and provides many positive experiences, not least during outdoor activities training. Doing something practical and being physically active is considered an extra bonus by many of the students.

The students expected the programme to be about sport and that is what they feel that it has been about. However, they would have liked even more. They take for granted that “sport is good”; they have been successful themselves, both as active participants and as pupils in physical education at school. Their conceptions about the PE teacher education programme match closely their belief in their own sporting prowess. It was not, in the first place, a deeper knowledge of sport which they expected from the programme, rather that which they valued highly was the opportunity to be involved in sport, try many new activities and take part in different forms of socially rewarding outdoor pursuits. In the eyes of the students, the trademark of a good PE teacher is to be good at many different sports, have in-depth knowledge of human biology, and have the ”right” personality. They are less interested in pedagogical theories, and as far as pedagogy and didactics are concerned, they would have preferred the whole course to have served them with ready-made solutions and answers, and to have provided a guide which they could follow and would result in lessons which worked well and were problem-free.

I think that the pedagogical parts have been too fuzzy and unnecessary. I think especially about the recurring moments where questions are asked but there are no right or wrong answers (Karl).

Even if gender and social issues have been part of the education (a much too great a part, according to some students), the gender habitus which students have incorporated and embodied while they were growing up has changed very little during the programme.

I personally think that there is to much focus on gender. We are not the same and that is excellent. I would not prefer that everybody on earth behaved and performed exactly the same. However, we need to be considerate of the things that make us different. Men are physically bigger than women which make it hard to play sports together. (Kia)

Just as they did before the specialisation began, the students still see groups divided according to sex as desirable.

You cannot disregard the gender differences between boys and girls. What I think that the school and I should work towards is to not enhance these differences but at the same time be aware of that they exist. (Kent)The difference is that after the course the students express awareness that this is not a wholly acceptable form of teaching. In order to reduce the effects of men’s physical superiority, it is instead the professional teacher’s responsibility to either hide these effects or accept that there are differences.

PE in school

The way the students see physical education in school is largely the same as it was before the education began, but what appeared to them to be a “pure” sports subject before the course started has afterwards become more a way of “attaining health through sport”. They are not only going to teach about health, but also see themselves as representatives of the healthy citizen, who, because of his/her knowledge, body and position as a PE teacher, can be involved in the disciplining of the pupils’ bodies. According to the students a “a PE teacher is someone that is alert, active and exudes energy”. By recognizing or “misrecognizing” the behaviour of the pupils and by acting as a role model, the teacher legitimises a certain way of life; the ”correct” norms for how one should live are to be forced onto the pupils. Another difference is that after the course the students see what is taught in the school subject as something other than club sports.

What I have learned is that you have to think a little bit deeper so that handball in school is different from handball practised in spare time. (Leo)

It is still mainly the kind of sports practised in clubs which the students intend to fill their future teaching with, but the competitive logic which the students brought to the education programme has shifted towards physical training, physical activity and the encounter with the outdoors.


The PE teacher education programme has in recent years undergone several changes. However, many of the traditions, norms and values which distinguish the education historically can still be said to characterize it today, according to these studies. The findings also paint a picture of a PE teacher education programme where the orthodox is seldom challenged. Both the empirical studies in this study and earlier research suggest that “the rules of the game” are generally taken for granted and there is a shared conception in the value of the education. The structural conditions for the education programme seem to be in harmony with the students’ habitus. That physical activity is seen as providing a favourable environment for the passing-on of values involving a common interest in participating in sport and persuading others to do the same, means that the positive value of sport is never questioned.

It can be said that being interested in sport and having a background as an active sportsman or sportswoman seem to be part of the ”rules of the game”; it is taken for granted that it is a prerequisite for choosing the PE teacher education programme. It is sporting prowess, above all, that is assigned value, and even if the course is a specialisation within the teacher education programme and takes place at an institute of higher education, there is still an emphasis on belonging to the world of competitive sport. That this will give rise to activities which are organised under the banner of sport is taken for granted. Both the teacher educators and the students have an implicit understanding of what makes a competent PE teacher; that is, the kind of qualities such a person must have. On one hand the students must study the physical aspects, focusing on sport and physiological knowledge of the body. On the other hand they must have an academic education and gain knowledge about their future pupils.

However, it is difficult to put into words what a PE teacher must know and be able to do, and until this can be articulated it is not possible to reflect about, challenge, argue for, or fight over what this knowledge is, and its place in the education programme. At the same time academic competence is important for them and they must develop a good sense for what to invest in, in order to get the highest possible return. The paradox is that practical aspects of the course which are seen as central by both the students and the educators are the losers within the framework of a college of higher education. In order to put into words what the subject knowledge and the subject didactics of the PE teacher education programme are, and what should be learned in the school subject, a discussion is needed of questions such as: What is physical knowledge? What does it mean to understand with your body and what movement skills are concerned? For students and teacher educators “practical work skills” and “learning a craft” are stressed as the strengths of the education programme.

Theory and practice are integrated when it comes to subject knowledge in relation to subject didactics concerning the practical details of how teaching should take place in school, but not when it comes to theory in the sense of having a research basis related to, for example, the competence of a PE teacher. The more instrumental view of the job means that some knowledge and competences are sought-after whilst others are not mentioned. This has great significance for how much the view of the school subject which dominates today will be reproduced or changed. Both the struggle concerning whether students need scientific competence as described in the qualitative targets, and the discussions about which scientific discipline the subject belongs to, suggest reproduction is more likely. Using both this and earlier studies as a basis, it is possible to discuss whether teaching about gender can, and should, be structured in such a way that it challenges the dominant gender order.

Even if gender and social issues have been part of the education programme (a much too great a part, according to some students), it seems there is a lack of pedagogical tools for dealing with these issues “in practice”. According to Bourdieu, awareness is not enough to change our gender habitus, instead there needs to be structural and practical changes. As long as the logic for how practical activities should be carried out has club sports as its frame of reference, it will be difficult to challenge the ”order of things” and rise above the tendency to put boys and girls in separate groups. It is not enough to study theories and research concerning gender. The “recipe book” which the students would like to have should also contain a chapter with “gender recipes”. The results can be interpreted in a way that sees teacher educators and students as team mates playing for the same team. The results show, however, that there are those who do not accept this view, both among the educators and among the students.

The idea that the basis of the school subject is physical activity is not challenged during the education, rather the subject is seen as being synonymous with physical activity organised in different sports. There are both educators and students who express a need in the education programme for more focus on social issues and pedagogy. Whether these heterodox views will challenge the doxa remains to be seen, but the results of this study suggest that changes will take time. Indications which suggest this are that the educators’ and students’ norms and values are the same and that verbalizing knowledge criteria in the education programme is missing to some extent. It could be said that much of the subject knowledge is passed from the educator to the students in the physical activities. The educators and the students have a shared body language, which means that values and norms are not discussed to the extent they should be.


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