Traditions of PE vs. Traditional PE


Traditions of PE vs. Traditional PE

Alex Sporticus


Traditional PE.

Traditional“. A description of the way we have always done PE against more contemporary approaches. A qualifier that is used as a pejorative. Employed indiscriminately – within the academic literature, on social media and in discourse around PE – as a substitute for practice we don’t like. I have used it often, in my words in this blog and in my words when working with stakeholders in PE, but no more.

There has been a growing personal awareness that individuals who advocate for a certain approach within the PE landscape attempt to further their own vested interests by mischaracterising a rival perspective. I’m guilty of this, but I want to change. Rather than act in bad faith when critiquing an opposing approach, which draws upon the creation of the worse possible version of it, I’m trying to apply the principle of charity. To see alternatives in their best possible light and critique from there. Just because I have an opposing point of view and therefore advocate for certain approaches in PE that I’m bias towards, doesn’t mean I have to do that by mischaracterising opposing perspectives, practices and approaches.

The qualifier of ‘traditional’ needs to be removed from PE to do this well. Tradition is neither inherently good or bad. However poor practice is poor practice whether it’s ‘traditional’ or ‘contemporary’. Therefore I need to stop using traditional as a catch all phrase for miseducative practices. It’s easy to use, but its ease hides the details and specifics of purpose and practice within PE. It is these that need to be articulated, made explicit, explored and critiqued sensitively together if I want to be a more principled custodian of the subject.

Besides, what is traditional PE? A static and singular approach to PE? How long do we go back in time to consider something traditional? The start of the National Curriculum for PE? After the Second World War? The start of free state schooling? The Ancient Greeks? Here I have found the work of Steven Stolz (2014) insightful in developing my understanding from traditional PE to traditions of PE. Firstly traditions are dynamic, as they evolve and develop over time. Secondly there are numerous competing but also complementary traditions within PE. Thirdly even within those traditions there are a diverse array of practices which cause much discussion, debate and disagreement.



Conceptual map of (Health (H) and) Physical Education (PE) Traditions from Stolz, S. A. (2014). The philosophy of physical education: A new perspective. London: Routledge.


Above is a conceptual map of some of the most influential traditions in Health and PE that Stolz (2014) puts forward. For example The Games Ethic Tradition stems from the idea that physical exercise can lead to character development. We can see its influence within the education system of the Ancient Greeks, the English public school system of the 1800s and now in the promotion of “life skills”. Even an approach to PE that I advocate for – Meaningful PE – is part of an evolving and dynamic tradition that Stolz (2014) categorises as the Phenomenological Tradition. This tradition sees that PE can act as a mechanism for finding meaning in movement and deals with phenomenological, humanist and existential questions related to who we are and what a good life is. MPE is the latest version of this tradition, building on and evolving the work of Bain, Jewett, Ennis, Chen, Arnold, Kretchmar, Metheny and others in PE and to Dewey within education.


“The task of interpreting the purpose of PE is not just part of the job of a PE Teacher but a principle part. The purpose is not separable from the means it is achieved. It is not just teaching what needs to be learnt, but interpreting what is sought from PE more fully.”


There is no general consensus to the purpose of PE and this has been positioned as a crisis of identity. However this perspective of traditions of PE, rather than traditional PE, suggests that this conflict and contestation (between traditions and within traditions) is a sign of a healthy subject. Stolz (2014) states that PE will always be incomplete due to its dynamic nature and will be “forever evolving in its pursuit to understand what physical is and ought to be and what physical education is.” So rather than calling bad practice within PE “traditional PE” I need to better understand the influential traditions of PE, to be clear and explicit about their purpose, whether that purpose is underpinned by sound educational justifications and whether the practices that are implemented in the name of that tradition are good, bad or downright harmful to the children and young people the subject is supposed to serve.


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