carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Pedagogies for social justice in Physical Education: what should student teachers learn?

There is a wealth of research evidence that suggests newly qualified teachers of Physical Education  (PE) tend to have high levels of subject knowledge but a relative paucity of pedagogical expertise.

Published on 21 Jun 2019
Coach 5

In other words they know a lot about what to teach but less about how to teach it in flexible ways. Of course this is not confined to PE: a lack of pedagogical guidance is notable from most subject areas including in the National Curriculum. To compound this issue, as newly qualified teachers in our first teaching post, we often find ourselves reverting to ‘survival’ strategies rather than feeling empowered to adopt flexible approaches to learning in PE and School Sport (PESS) (Capel, 2008).

In the Carnegie School of Sport students and staff have been exploring the theory and practice of Critical Pedagogy as applied to PESS. We have considered what types of learning experiences might make a difference and take us beyond our current practices. Much of our work has been based on principles of social justice, empowerment and collaboration, centred around the work of Paulo Freire. We have applied these principles and discussed recent examples from our own staff’s research in PESS with disadvantaged groups such as care-experienced young people, (Quarmby, 2019), South Asian Muslim girls (Stride, 2018).

As we have found, this is challenging work both theoretically and practically for students and staff but there has been some exciting learning for us all. Students have mentioned that exploring this type of work has ‘helped them to think more about how they teach’, and to consider ‘how to adapt pedagogy to both suit and benefit their future practices’.  When asked about the value of looking at principles of social justice, empowerment and collaboration students have noted coming to recognise better the interrelated nature between teaching and learning. For example, one student reflected that ‘teaching and young people’s experiences are complex issues to tackle’. Having had opportunities to explore such challenges has highlighted to us and our students the need to ‘not take things for granted’. In this way, some students have talked about how they now think beyond their own experiences, consider PE in different ways and recognise diverse groups of learners. We were particularly pleased when students advocated recently that thinking about social justice has, on the one hand, helped them in their ability to reflect critically but has also encouraged them to become change agents: ‘challenging the status quo is good’.

Most research in pedagogy, cautions us that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is doomed to failure, including in PESS. As you can see above, our students have concluded that we need to start with developing a better understanding of our diverse groups of learners in PE, before we can adopt appropriate pedagogies. Key scholars in PE pedagogy also remind us that universities need to start from where teachers are, drawing on their existing knowledge and experiences, if we are to be able to work together effectively to improve young people’s experiences of PESS (Neumann 2013). ‘Teaching is as much about compromise and the imperfect reconciliation of competing imperatives as it is about implementation of ideals’ as Alexander (2008) reminds us (p.84) . Therefore we have been mindful of the recent call from Francis et al. (2017) for research and practice which can make a constructive contribution to both ‘utopian’ and ‘pragmatic’ approaches to improving educational equality.

We would be very interested to receive some ‘real world’ examples of PE pedagogy challenges or even some ‘competing imperatives’ which we could explore with our final year PE students. Belinda Cooke ( and Michelle Dillon (

Belinda Cooke

Head of Subject / Carnegie School Of Sport

Belinda is Head of Subject for Physical Education. She has over 30 years experience in teaching and management in Higher Education. Belinda’s key focus is on learning and teaching.

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