Physical Education – a subject for all seasons

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Dr Tony Hall, Head of Education, NUIGBy Dr Tony Hall

The well-known aphorism, 'mens sana in corpore sano/a healthy mind in a healthy body', denotes the reciprocal relationship between physical exercise and mental well-being. The interdependence of the mental and the physical was highly appreciated and valued by one of the 'first educationists', the great Greek philosopher Aristotle.

It might be argued that Aristotle was also one of the first curriculum designers. The Aristotlean curriculum was comprehensive and diverse, comparable in certain respects to modern school curricula. It comprised play, games, gymnastics and foundational intellectual virtues (episteme, phronesis and techne).

In recent times, the place of physical education as a subject has taken on renewed importance as our understanding of learning evolves and becomes more complex, largely as a result of interdisciplinary research.

Beyond supporting healthy living, which is a highly significant outcome, physical education plays a fundamental, intrinsic role in the processes of education and pedagogy. The learning scientist Reed Stevens and colleagues (2002: 525) note how: "exclusively mentalistic conceptions of knowledge are descriptively limited; knowledge needs to be understood as embodied. Embodied knowledge is knowledge that is literally in the body – in the eyes and the hands of the knower."

The fascinating research of the neurologist and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio furthermore demonstrates that in education the various dimensions – affective, cognitive, psychomotor – interact and interpenetrate, necessitating a reframing of how we view human learning and development: "the comprehensive understanding of the human mind requires an organismic perspective; that not only must the mind move from a non-physical cogitum to the realm of biological tissue, but it must also be related to a whole organism possessed of integrated body proper and brain fully interactive with a physical and social environment." (1994: 252)

A worrying trend in contemporary times has been the rising prevalence of sedentary lifestyle, incidences of obesity and related hypokinetic disease. It underscores the importance of PE and cognate subjects, e.g. Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE), to encourage engagement in physical activity and exercise from an early age, and sustain that interest and commitment throughout the lifetime.

Beyond its contribution to supporting healthy living, physical education affords a rich diversity of educational experiences, which create significant scope and impact for the subject.

It is illustrative perhaps, in this context, to compare physical education with another area of the curriculum: languages and literature education. For example, within PE, there is a vocabulary and a grammar of movement; a variety of physical competences and skills. There are the aesthetic and performative aspects of movement, and a rich variety of genres. An exemplar is dance, where there are jazz; modern; ballet; folk and traditional idioms. There is also significant scope for cross-curricular integration of physical education within the diverse curriculum, which includes, for example, the science of exercise (biomechanics and kinesiology); exercise physiology; and exploring social sciences through games for understanding. Physical education also contributes to the development of skills in leadership, and one's capacity both to compete and collaborate effectively.

A very promising technological development in recent years has been the emergence of what might be termed embodied technology. Such physically-interactive technologies are a significant innovation from the traditional interaction with the PC, what Simon Penny calls the 'Cartesian Interface' – where the user interacts with the computer in a physically limited fashion – through point and click using a mouse or typing characters using a keyboard: "This separation [mind-body] is the defining quality of the computer" (Penny, 1996).

These new technological innovations, based on interactive, multimodal surfaces and interfaces, enable whole-body interaction with computer software and visualisation/simulation. Therefore, rather than contributing to a sedentary lifestyle, the technology can now assume the role of supporting physical activity and exercise.

The symbolic power of physical education and sport also holds very significant social and cultural potential. This potential was brilliantly harnessed by Nelson Mandela to heal division and unite a nation in post-Apartheid South Africa, the story of which was conveyed so well by John Carlin in his book Playing the Enemy, which formed the basis of the movie Invictus.

In Ireland, we experienced that nationally during Italia '90 and in more recent times, the Grand Slam victory, and the ascent of the Irish rugby team as champions of Europe.

The personal, social and cultural importance of physical education, new curriculum developments and technological innovations, in concert with a deepening, interdisciplinary understanding of education itself will hopefully lead to a new renaissance for the curriculum and physical education as a subject. Integrated within and across a comprehensive curriculum, physical education is perhaps uniquely positioned to achieve the dual educational aims of being both physically enriching and intellectually rewarding.

Carlin, J. (2008) Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation. London: Penguin.
Damasio, A. (1994/2000) Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. New York: Quill.
Penny, S. (1994/1996) "Virtual Reality as the Completion of the Enlightenment" In Anderson, T., & Loeffler, C. (Eds.) Virtual Reality Casebook. John Wiley and Sons Ltd.: New York, pp. 199-213.
Stevens, R., Cherry, G., & Fournier, J. (2002a) "VideoTraces: Rich Media Annotations for Learning and Teaching" In Stahl, G. (Ed.) Foundations for a CSCL community – Proceedings of Computer Support for Collaborative Learning Conference 2002. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, pp. 525-526.?

Dr. Tony Hall is Head of Education and Vice-Dean (Learning and Assessment), College of Arts, Social Sciences and Celtic Studies, NUI Galway. A former PE teacher, he is a graduate of physical education and English of the University of Limerick. In June 2011, he will deliver a keynote address on the theme: 'Technologies in support of Physical Education, Sport and Physical Activity' at the International Association of Physical Education in Higher Education Conference 2011 at the University of Limerick.

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