National Disability Association Ireland
Physical Literacy and its importance to every individual.
Margaret Whitehead PhD
University of Bedfordshire, England
What I want to share with you today is:-
firstly the concept of Physical Literacy, its roots in philosophical thinking and its support from cognitive scientists and sociologists. This will demonstrate that Physical Literacy is an attribute open to, and important for, every individual.
secondly the implications of these views to the practice of physical education.
What I find exciting in sharing these views with you is that they emanate from highly respected academics who are looking at the human condition as a whole, and who have no brief to support work in the area of physical activity. One of my tasks over the last ten years or so, has been to interrogate these views and consider the implications they have to the work in physical education.
The concept of Physical Literacy (which is under constant review) has been developed over the years as I have studied different writers – existentialists and phenomenologists.
I am going to share with you some are of their views related to:-
- the holistic nature of a person
- the importance of our relationship to the environment in which we live
- the role of movement/embodiment in cognitive development
- the role of movement/embodiment in developing a sense of self
Holistic nature of a person – or monism i.e. the refutation of dualism (that is the body and mind being separate)
A number of philosophers argue:
For human reality, to be is to act ( Sartre 1957 p 476)
Prior to the Cartesian I think, there is an I can (Burkitt 1999 p 74)
It is not ‘I think therefore I am’ but ‘I can therefore I am’
The mind is inherently embodied ( Lakoff and Johnson 1999 p 3)
The concept of a person is logically primitive and is not derived from mind and body( Strawson quoted in Gill 2000 p 18)
We do not have to struggle with putting mind and body together to create a person.
Each one of us is a person, comprised of inter-dependent and inter-related dimensions and capabilities.
It is no surprise that it is all but impossible to find a way of explaining how body and mind collaborate, because the mind is as it is because it is embodied, and the body is as it is, because it is a dimension of a ‘minded’ person.
This refers to every human being. In no situation can we forget our embodiment.
Actually I try to use the word ‘embodiment’ as far as possible, to get away from dualism and seeing this dimension of ourselves as an object
(Chinese have 3 words for our embodiment shen– the embodiment we live, ti the embodiment as an object and shi the dead body)
Claxton coins a lovely phrase – he says man is a verb not a noun – a doing, not a thing.
The importance of our relationship to the environment in which we live
Our relationship with the environment is critical to the debate as it is as a result of this interaction that Existentialists and Phenomenologists, argue that we create ourselves. For these philosophers we are essentially 'beings-in-the-world' We create ourselves from our interaction with the world. The richer this interaction the more fully we will realise our human potential.
A number of philosophers express the notion of our nature as beings-in-the-world succinctly. For example Burkitt writes (1999 p74) '...prior to thought and representation, then, there is a primordial coexistence between the body and its world, which grounds the possibility of developing conscious awareness and knowledge.' while Lakoff and Johnson (1999 p 566) express the view that ' The environment is not an "other" to us. It is not a collection of things that we encounter. Rather, it is part of our being. It is the locus of our existence and identity. We cannot and do not exist apart from it.'
Similarly Johnson (1987 p207) expresses the view that -'It is a mistake, however, to think of an organism and its environment as two entirely independent and unrelated entities; the organism does not exist as an organism apart from its environment. The environment as a whole is as much a part of the identity of the organism as anything "internal" to the organism.' He goes onto quote Levins and Lewontin who write '... the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other.'
With respect to interaction with the world, views are also expressed concerning the way that the more we interact with the world and come to know it, the more we know of ourselves. Burkitt (1999 p 76) writes 'The original sense of 'I' is the 'I can', a practical sense of the body's active possibilities, and therefore the sense of identity possessed by humans is not based on disembodied thought, nor in early visual representation of the self. Instead, the sense of self we develop is primarily based on the feel we have of our body and the way it connects us to the world.'
This follows from the view that we create ourselves from the interaction with our surroundings. From the standpoint of the physical dimension it is surely true that the richer the range of environments with which we interact the better we will 'know' ourselves as embodied. No matter the extent of our embodied abilities, they are an essential access to the world and to individual development.
The Role of Movement/embodiment in Cognitive Development
We need to start one step back here
Writers begin by asserting the pivotal role played by our embodiment in life as we know it, for example:-
The perceiving mind is the incarnate mind (Merleau Ponty 1962 p 3)
As Gallagher ( 2005 p 247) says ’…. nothing about human experience remains untouched by human embodiment: from the basic perceptual and emotional processes that are already at work in infancy, to a sophisticated interaction with other people; from the acquisition and creative use of language to higher cognitive functions’.
If we move on to focus on cognitive functions, it is very interesting to see what some of these writers say. I have selected three quotes here:-
Cognitive development, it is concluded, cannot be usefully treated in isolation from issues concerning the child's physical embedding in, and interactions with, the world. A better image of child cognition (indeed of all cognition) depicts perception, action and thought as bound together in a variety of complex interpenetrating ways.
(Clark 1977 p36)
'...what we call 'mind' only exists because we have bodies that give us the potential to be active and animate within the world, exploring, touching, seeing, hearing, wondering, explaining; and we can only become persons and selves because we are located bodily at a particular place in space and time, in relation to other people and things around us.’ (Burkitt 1999p 12)
Our embodied dimension is the ongoing axis of thought and knowing. (Gill 2000 p 130)
There is a great deal of exciting work around this theme that demonstrates how our embodied nature sets the parameters for our development, and that nurturing this aspect of our personhood has significant impact on our all round development.
Sense of self and the self concept
Experience of working with pupils in school as well as our own experience of movement, would seem to indicate that what has been loosely called body awareness together with a realisation of mastery of movement, engenders a heightened awareness of self and the development of a secure confidence in our embodied abilities. We also know that this confidence in embodied abilities very often has a far reaching effect on the individual’s total self esteem and self confidence. There is also some evidence that enhanced mastery, in the physical domain, even if this is at a modest level, can affect performance and achievement in other areas of the curriculum.
From a monist perspective this should come as no surprise, with the holistic nature of all human experiences.
However until recently there has been little support from philosophers or psychologists for the centrality of embodied nature to the sense of self. The only reference has been to the notion of the ‘mirror image’, which refers to the recognition by a child between I and 2 years, of him or herself as a discrete person. The image is, of course, at first purely bodily but the importance of the embodied dimension is left behind as other aspects of the developing child are discussed.
It is therefore exciting to read views of philosophers and psychologists who are intent on stressing the over-riding importance of our embodiment in the realisation and development of a sense of self both in the early stages of childhood as well as throughout life.
For example Gallagher (2005 p 83) writes:- The first exclusively visual notion of self may be tied to the later mirror stage, or a later form of imitation. However, self recognition in the mirror is only one measure, one aspect of a broader concept of self. The phenomenon of newborn imitation suggests that much earlier there is a primary notion of self, what we might call a proprioceptive self – a sense of self that involves a sense of one’s own motor possibilities, body postures, and body powers, rather than one’s visual features.
and Gallagher(2005 p3) says:-
In some fashion, quite obviously, the human person is embodied in human form and matter. The human body, and the way it structures human experience, also shapes the human experience of self, and perhaps the very possibility of developing a sense of self. If the self is anything more than this, it is nonetheless and first of all this, an embodied self.
He goes on to say (p9) that ‘It may even be possible to say that bodily movement, transformed onto the level of action, is the very thing that constitutes the self.
It is very interesting to see that he appreciates the differing attitudes individuals can have of their embodiment.
He writes (p29) Not only do I perceive, I also remember, imagine, conceptualise, study, love, or hate my own body. And he goes on to say(p30) The body image itself can …. at the same time, be both the result of intentional (perceptual, conceptual, and emotional) experiences, and an operative determinant of such experiences. For example, my negative appraisal of a particular part of body may, consciously or unconsciously, enter into my perceptual or emotional experience of the world.
With reference to our work he writes (p144) Exercise, dance, and other practices that affect motility and postural schemas can have an effect on the emotive evaluation of one’s own body image. In these studies, subjects who improve in neuromuscular co-ordination, strength, and endurance, or who experience increased co-ordination, balance, agility, and improved posture through exercise, gain a perception of body competence and achieve a higher degree of satisfaction with their own bodies and motor capacities. Thus changes in the control of movement associated with exercise alter the way that subjects emotionally relate to and perceive their bodies. It is not difficult to imagine that such positive effects can change one’s attitudes toward and perception of the surrounding world.
From these views it is not hard to argue that a physically literate individual, endowed with confidence in his/her embodied dimension, will have a clear sense of self as embodied and that this confidence will permeate the individual’s global self confidence.
Is physical literacy a universal concept? That is, does it refer to every human, and would the manifestation of physical literacy be the same in whatever period of history or place in the world in which the person lived.
I have debated at length how living at different periods of history and in different cultures will affect the expression of physical literacy, but not in any way negate its critical importance.
The issue of the physically challenged opens up the whole area of how far the capacity to be physically literate will be characterized by a person's unique motile potential. I argue that each of us has a different motile potential, a unique embodiment, and that we can all achieve physical literacy at a level related to our capacities. No matter the level, the benefits are comparable.
To be fully human we are all reliant on the motile capacities with which we are endowed. What I am advocating is that we should capitalise on our embodied state or motility, to reap the benefits available from this form of interaction with the world. The ability to use our motility to the greatest effect is what I have called physical literacy.
If physical literacy is the ability to use our motility to the greatest effect and we accept that everyone's motile potential will be specific to him/herself, then physical literacy itself will have a different potential, specific to each individual.
All can achieve their potential capacity in respect physical literacy. At root physical literacy will be of the same nature – with different degrees of expression.
Implication of these views to the practice of Physical Education.
I want to advocate that the goal of all physical activity in school should be to promote physical literacy.
This will involve subtle but important changes, which I believe align closely with work with young people with disabilities.
With the intent of physical education as the nurturing of physical literacy there would need to be a move away from a prescribed activity-centred performance model, to a person centred participation model.
Work would be far more tailored to individual needs and less to achievement of a particular standard of what could loosely be called ‘sports skills’.
Experience within this aspect of the curriculum would be focused on becoming physically literate, through a realisation of embodiment in its widest experiential sense.
A significant goal would be that all young people would develop the motivation to continue with physical activity – a motivation founded on the enhanced self confidence and self realisation they have experienced in physical activity settings in their childhood and youth.
The achievement of physical literacy involves embodied capacities and a positive attitude to physical activity.
What would that mean?
A curriculum focusing on Physical Literacy would not be a re-presentation of the current National Curriculum, nor a return to an earlier ‘Laban’ approach. The curriculum would have a different focus.
In essence it would be concerned with:-
- the individual as an embodied learner
- the individual and his/her experience of embodied learning
- the individual developing movement competence and confidence
There are implications for content and method.
Looking at the definition, content will need to
A. enable all to realise motile aspects of physical literacy
that would include coverage of, inter alia:-
i) body management itself with only gravity to contend with
ii) moving in different environments
iii) moving in relation to fixed obstacles, manipulating objects during movement, moving in response to moving objects
iii) moving in relation to others
B. include work that helps pupils to understand the nature of movement and its contribution to health
C. be broad to cater for all and be relevant to opportunities for physical activity throughout life
Each of the above sections warrants detailed consideration and a group of us are working on this.
For example in relation to A i) we suggest the following attributes that relate to poise, economy and confidence:-
- spatial awareness – own space, general space, others’ space
- effective movement at different speeds
- self awareness, knowing the body
The attention given to the movement attributes signalled in A as well as constituents of B and C above, needs to be planned within a clear structure.
Our current thoughts have resulted in a modular structure for work in school for children aged 3 to 11 years. Modules would comprise approximately six sessions. We anticipate 6 modules in a year, working, developmentally, within the following titles.
Confidence in the Outdoors
Moving with Others
Exploring Movement across the Curriculum
Planning my own module.
These are being designed not only to cover the range of movement capacities mentioned above, but also to embrace the use of language, working with others, creativity, self assessment, decision making and issues concerned with health and well being. It is planned that the modules will give clear guidance without being narrowly prescriptive. The range of physical activity contexts through which the modules could be delivered will be proposed.
Much of what is to be experienced, understood and mastered has been inherent in the activity centred work that is usually the focus of Physical Education practice.
The development of physical literacy or movement competence and confidence has been the outcome (or not been the outcome) of skill development in specific activities. In a curriculum based on Physical Literacy, skilful participation in activities would draw from the foundation of physical literacy.
The raison d’etre of the outline is not to develop proficiency in specific physical activities but to foster the development of a basic grasp of a wide range of movement capacities, an appreciation of the significance of movement in many avenues of life and a motivation to accept the exciting and rewarding challenges that taking part in physical activity can provide.
While the content and the organisation of the content is of key importance nothing will be gained, Physical Literacy will not be developed unless the teaching methods used and the teacher approach adopted are sensitive to the needs of the embodied pupils with whom they are working.
I cannot stress too much the integral nature of their embodiment to children, and the enormous amount of care we need to take in asking them to exercise this most personal aspect of themselves in so public a forum.
I would argue that while the capacity to find physical activity profoundly rewarding is common to all, attention directed to this dimension of an individual has the potential to be experienced as embarrassing and humiliating.
Methods will need to:-
- be inclusive/individualised
- be clearly planned/focused
- be purposeful and have clear intent
- offer opportunities for all to experience success/satisfaction/pleasure/enjoyment
- be varied in freedom/direction
- allow time for repetition
- incorporate assessment for learning
- give opportunities for pupils to take responsibility
- encourage self awareness/promote pupils’ awareness of own learning
- enhance self esteem/self confidence
The teacher will need to be
- be ready to recognise both effort and success
The teacher is patient, caring and empathetic, but is also challenging, demanding and sets high standards.
Overall work in the physical area must be carried out in lessons where enjoyment comes from success and from the actual experience of mastery, maybe at a modest level. The sheer joy of successfully managing one's embodied dimension is hugely rewarding. It is an experience open to all. Progress and achievement are available to all, at every level. The development of self-confidence and self-respect are palpable in such lessons.
Activity centred on our embodied dimension is a powerful holistic experience, taking us back to our roots.
Developing Physical Literacy is a crucial aspect of education, and some would advocate that there should be life-long opportunity for this element of education. The goal of movement work in school must be to develop the physical literacy of all young people.
M.E.Whitehead February 2007
The current working definition of physical literacy is:-
- Physical literacy can be described as the ability and motivation to capitalise on our movement potential to make a significant contribution to the quality of life.
- As humans we all exhibit this potential, however its specific expression will be particular to the culture in which we live and the movement capacities with which we are endowed.
- An individual who is physically literate moves with poise, economy and confidence in a wide variety of physically challenging situations.
- The individual is perceptive in ‘reading’ all aspects of the physical environment, anticipating movement needs or possibilities and responding appropriately to these, with intelligence and imagination.
- A physically literate individual has a well established sense of self as embodied in the world. This together with an articulate interaction with the environment engenders positive self esteem and self confidence.
- Sensitivity to and awareness of our embodied capacities leads to fluent self expression through non-verbal communication and to perceptive and empathetic interaction with others.
- In addition the individual has the ability to identify and articulate the essential qualities that influence the effectiveness of his/her own movement performance, and has an understanding of the principles of embodied health, with respect to basic aspects such as exercise, sleep and nutrition.
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