18 SES 03, Ability and Assessment in Physical Education
In his agenda-setting article Making a difference? Education and “ability” in physical education, John Evans (2004) argues that our thinking about “ability” has become a taken for granted absent in PE. Evans (2004) raises critical concerns about the profession’s little skimpy attention to deal with these issues. In a similar vein, Hay (2008) proposes that studies of ability and assessment have received little attention in PE literature, and consequently, need more empirical work (Hay, 2008). Moreover, Evans (2004) argues that “ability” must be considered as something negotiable, and dependent on the discursive context. The context of PE is particularly influenced by discourses of healthism (Johns, 2005; Webb & Quennerstedt, 2010), sports (Hunter, 2004; Kirk, 2010), and masculinity (Wright, 1996; van Amsterdam, Knoppers, Claringbould, & Jongman, 2012). However, according to Hay and Macdonald (2010), scant research is evident in the academic PE literature on how such discourses shape the constitution of the students` abilities in PE. In this matter, the aim of our study is to investigate how “ability” is constituted in PE teaching practice.
How do the “able” and “less-able” students appear in PE teaching practice?
This study draws on material from the first-author’s Ph.D.-project, in which the main aim is to investigate how “PE” is constituted in teaching practice. Drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, discourse is a central concept in his Ph.D.-project. Foucault (1972, 1977) was exceedingly concerned with analysing how discourses produce knowledge/“truths” about objects, for instance, madness or punishment. Even though Foucault used discourse in several ways, we consider discourses as “practices that systematically form the object of which they speak” (Foucault, 1972, p. 49). In his works from the 1970’s, Foucault establishes a link between truth and power, arguing that “truth” is produced by systems of power (Foucault, 1980). Furthermore, Foucault argues that “it is in discourse that power and knowledge are joined together” (Foucault, 1978, p. 100). Thus, power-knowledge relations work through discursive practices, and produce “truths”. In other words, Foucault’s concept of power is related to how certain ideas and practices become accepted as normal and taken-for-granted, within a socio-cultural context. Thus, ideas and definitions concerning “ability” in PE, within a socio-cultural context, are accepted and often taken-for-granted as the norms or “truths”, by the agents (teachers, students, teacher educators, etc.) operating within this context. In our study, following Foucault (1977), we are attentive toward how discourses embedded in teaching practice produce what is considered as ‘truths’ on student ‘ability’ in PE, and thus how the classification of students as “able” / “less-able” unfolds in teaching practice.
First-author conducted fieldwork in four upper secondary schools in Oslo during spring 2015. We selected the schools by convenience sampling. However, we strived for as much divergence as possible in our sample, and succeeded in recruiting older schools and newer ones, as well as schools in both lower socio-economic areas of the city and higher socio-economic neighborhoods. Eight teachers participated in the study: two females and six males. Their age ranged between 30 and 55. Each of the teachers had at least 180 ECT credits in sports/PE. Informants were provided with oral and written information before they gave their consent to participate. The fieldwork included observations and semi-structured interviews with each of the teachers. The observation material consists of 92 PE lessons. Besides observed teaching practice, first-author also interviewed the teachers about their teaching practices and personal understanding of PE. The questions that guided first-author while conducting his fieldwork were; what concepts are in use, and which concepts are often repeated? Does the teacher present the aim of the lesson, and, if so, what is it? What content/activities are emphasized in teaching practice? Which student activities/performances do teachers praise or correct? What does the teacher say to their student about assessment/grading? When the observation period was concluded, qualitative interviews were conducted. The interviews were often based on situations that arose during teaching in which the teachers were encouraged to comment or elaborate on. The interviews also dealt with how the teachers ranked important knowledge/skills in PE, and which common features the skilled/less-skilled PE students have. We followed Carabine’s (2001) suggestions on how to complete a Foucault-inspired discourse analysis. The first formal step in the analytical process was to get to know our data by reading the transcripts of the empirical material, to identify situations where issues about assessment, grading, etc. were located. Second step was to identify themes related to constitutive elements of ‘ability’. Further, we used literature on the history of PE in Norway, and previous literature on ‘ability’, to inform ourselves as to which discourses are of central importance regarding ‘ability’ in teaching practice. Based on this, we sought to identify how teachers’ statements were related to various discourses that were brought into play in teaching practice (Foucault, 1972).
Findings We present only one of our preliminary findings briefly. "I like spunky girls!" In one lesson, Lars had some end of first-term conversations with his students regarding assessment and grading. While talking to the first author after lesson, he referred to a female that would achieve grade A. Lars: She is skilled, particularly in volleyball. Her skills in football aren’t that good, but she performs well against the boys on the field, so she will achieve grade A. Fucking machine. I like spunky girls! There are two main reasons to give her grade A. ‘She has good skills, especially in volleyball’. Secondly, ‘she performs well against the boys in football’. We link his first argument to a sport discourse. Drawing on this discourse makes it logical and reasonable to Lars that sporting skills constitutes ‘able’ in PE. In the second argument, Lars explained that the female student is able and willing to compete against the boys in football. When a female performs well against males, Lars described her as ‘a machine’, adding that ‘he likes spunky girls’. Spunky girls are associated with descriptions like toughness, fearlessness, aggressiveness – characteristics traditionally associated with males and hegemonic masculinity. This shows ‘ability’ as a gendered practice in PE (Hunter, 2004; Redelius, Fagrell & Larsson, 2009; Wright, 1996). The valuation of traditional masculinity in assessing student performance seems to represent a normalized and taken for granted way to understand ‘ability in PE (Hunter, 2004, Redelius et al., 2009). In this regard, the Norwegian context with co-ed PE require girls to take up characteristics traditionally described as masculine to be deemed able in PE.
Carabine, J. (2001). Unmarried Motherhood 1830-1990: A Genealogical Analysis. In M. Wetherell, S. Taylor, & S. J. Yates (Eds.), Discourse as Data. A guide for analysis (p. 267–310). The Open University: Sage publications. Evans, J. (2004). Making a difference? Education and «ability» in physical education. European Physical Education Review, 10:1, 95-108. Foucault, M. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books. Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. London: Penguin Books. Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books. Foucault, M. (1980). Power/Knowledge. Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977. New York: Vintage Books. Hay, P.J. (2008). The social construction of abilities and conduct of assessment in Senior PE. Doctoral diss. The University of Queensland, Brisbane. Hay, P. J & Macdonald, D. (2010) Evidence for the social construction of ability in physical education. Sport, Education and Society, 15:1, 1-18. Hunter, L. (2004). Bourdieu and the social space of the PE class: reproduction of doxa through practice. Sport, Education and Society, 9:2, 175-192. Johns, D. P. (2005). Recontextualizing and Delivering the Biomedical Model as a Physical Education Curriculum. Sport, Education and Society, 10:1, 69-84. Kirk, D. (2010). Physical Education Futures. London & New York: Routledge. Redelius, K., Fagrell, B., & Larsson, H. (2009). Symbolic capital in physical education and health: to be, to do or to know? That is the gendered question. Sport, Education and Society, 14(2), 245-260. Van Amsterdam, N, Knoppers, A., Claringbould, I., & Jongmans, M. (2012) ‘It's just the way it is…’ or not? How physical education teachers categorise and normalise differences, Gender and Education, 24:7, 783-798. Webb, L., & Quennerstedt, M. (2010). Risky bodies: health surveillance and teachers’ embodiment of health. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23:7, 785-802. Wright, J. (1996). The Construction of Complementarity in Physical Education. Gender and Education, 8:1, 61-80.
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