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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Aims - what's the point of PE and sports coaching?

‘Cheshire Puss,’ she began, rather timidly … ‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’  ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.  ‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice.  ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.  ‘So long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.  ‘Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, ‘if you only walk long enough.’ (Lewis Carroll, 1865, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’)

To help understand the importance of aims within sport teaching, consider two encounters.  In the first, the teacher/coach uses her knowledge, skills and understanding to prepare young children for elite competition.  She draws on state-of-the-art scientific knowledge to ensure that her young players develop extraordinary physical and mental skills, and uses her excellent communication and motivational skills to keep the players training and their parents quiet.  By the nature of such training, lots of these players are injured or burnt out, and whilst the teacher/coach is upset for the children, she consoles herself that the situation is probably necessary if she is to achieve her ultimate goal: medals.

On the second encounter another teacher/coach uses her scientific knowledge to help the young people in her charge to have sporting experiences that are enjoyable.  For her, sport should be ‘fun’, whilst she knows that fun for six, sixteen and sixty years olds will take quite different forms.  This teacher plans her sessions with the intention of maximising enjoyment for all, and considers a session a good one if everyone leaves with a smile of their face.

These teachers/coaches are clearly involved in sport pedagogy, but who have markedly different conceptions of the role and value of sport in people’s lives.  The first teacher seems to think of the aims of sport mainly in social terms; for her, the purpose of sport is as a vehicle to win medals and glory, whether for the club or for the country.  The second teacher understands the point of sport in terms of personal satisfaction or enjoyment.  Casual observations in schools and sports clubs reveals that there are many teachers and coaches who assume the latter position, and who feel they have achieve their goal if everyone is ‘busy, happy and good’.  And, it is also not difficult to find evidence of the former approach, too, whether in the form of the brutal training of Chinese infant gymnastics or in the ‘survival of the fittest’ mindset of youth squads in many professional football clubs in the United Kingdom.

So, we can see two teachers with very different conceptions of the aims of sport, and these aims result in completely different ways of thinking of sport. 

Much like a rudder directs a boat, aims direct the uses to which a teacher’s/coach’s skills, knowledge and understanding are put.

As we have seen, aims can be framed in terms of social or individual outcomes.  This is not to suggest that there are only a small number possible aims!  On the contrary, the list of aims is probably endless  For example, an international review of the stated aims of educational systems from around the world came up with the following composite list (Tabberer, 1997):
  • Excellence
  •  Individual development
  •  Social development
  • Personal qualities
  •  Equal opportunity
  •  National economy
  •  Preparation for work
  •  Basic skills
  •  Foundation for further education
  •  Knowledge/skills/understanding
  •  Citizenship/community/democracy
  •  Cultural heritage/literacy
  •  Creativity
  •  Environment
  •  Health/physical/leisure
  •  Lifelong education
  •   Parental participation

It would not be difficult to show how each of these can be translated into an aim for sport pedagogy (with a little imagination!).

It is worth noting that the list above was gleaned from curriculum documents.  Philosophically speaking, therefore, they represent what are called explicit aims.  These are aims that are stated for all to hear or published for all to read.  The moment a government or agency publishes the aims of a strategy or scheme they make them explicit, and consequently, open to discussion, criticism and rejection.

If aims are not made explicit they remain implicit, or hidden.  There is nothing sinister about this: implicit aims are not hidden to conceal.  Often, they are just too obvious to discuss.  Take as an example the question of mind-body dualism.  For many people (probably most people) the superiority of the mind over the body is simply taken for granted, and so any educational aims related to the development of the body will be inevitably be affected by this assumption.

One of the most valuable jobs that philosophy can offer is to help make implicit aims and assumptions explicit.  This is important because it is impossible to discuss, criticise and reject ideas until they are out in the open.  Lots of bad ideas grow and thrive only in the dark!

It is worthwhile examining both explicit and implicit aims because both will influence the way people act.  The explicit aims might reflect things like policies and formal guidance, and these are obviously relevant to teachers and coaches.  However, implicit aims are likely to reflect unquestioned assumptions and practices.  Our implicit aims will probably be more powerful precisely because we never question them.

So what?  Why does this talk of matter?

You may have already met Julie Myerson’s memoir ‘Not a Games Person’.  It is a frank account of a young woman who gradually changes from a general distain for sport and exercise to someone who hates them, largely due to her experiences at school.  At one point Myerson describes a lesson that might be familiar to many of us.

“This is me.  Six years old and standing in a sack in the middle of a field somewhere in the middle of England a long time ago.

 I don’t know why I’m here or what I’m doing – I don’t have any idea what the purpose is of standing in this field.  All I know is that they want me to jump – hold the sack as tight as I can and jump jump jump to the finishing line.

 I’m surrounded by people but all alone.  There’s a horrible feeling in my tummy and an itch on my leg, like a fly crawling over it.  I shiver and wait for the whistle to blow.”
(Julie Myerson, 2005, ‘Not a Games Person’)

We have no way of knowing the aims of Myerson’s teacher, but we can guess.  Perhaps the teacher felt that it was important for her pupils to get out of the classroom, to ‘burn off excess energy’.  Or maybe the motivation was competition (it was a sack race, after all).  Or perhaps her planning was inspired by the aim to make her children fitter and healthier.  Or was this lesson just an easy way to fill some time before the real business of school starts again?

Some of the teacher’s aims might be reasonable; others might seem weak or illegitimate.  In other words, different aims are of different value, and such value is only judged by making the aims explicit and by critically discussing them.

Strangers on a train You are on a train occasionally chatting to a charming person sitting opposite. Your new-found friend has just been reading an article in the newspaper that reports research findings that many children around the world have no regular sport or physical education lessons whilst at school. “Oh well”, your companion says innocently, “thank heavens it is only sport they are missing out”. You smile to yourself, and educate the stranger.

What do you say?

1 comment:

khel Sahitya Kendra said...

This was a useful post and I think it's fairly easy to see in the other reviews, so this post is well written and useful. Keep up the good work.

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