Why Is Physical Literacy Not Just Physical Education?

We should have more blogs like Tim Lynch’s, Semantics: ‘physical education’ vs ‘physical literacy’, because it stimulates discussion about the pros and cons of a particular perspective and encourages a dialogue about possibilities rather than certainties. We tend to see things through specific lenses that are honed over time through exposure to certain ideas and our choice of readings. As a result, our understanding of possibilities can be limited. If I use the ‘jigsaw’ metaphor to illustrate this: over time we develop an incomplete jigsaw of ideas to understand issues and unravel the big picture. We cannot see how pieces have inter-connections and relationships that can blind us to other positions or alternative views. There is precious little time to pursue a variety of readings and absorb different perspectives but we can be very selective and easily use ‘confirmation bias’ to reinforce our perceptions.

However, we need to respect these positions because all of us have incomplete jigsaws in the way that we view the world: to address this, the sharing of ideas becomes important. We need to use opportunities, like this blog, to seriously consider how we can develop a more effective informed discussion.   To start this process I shall raise a number of points that appear to be overlooked in current debates.


What distinguishes Physical Literacy from Physical Education? Just a few thoughts as a starter

Physical Education is the name of a subject whereas Physical Literacy is an overarching concept that embraces principles that can guide practice.

Physical literacy is not confined to school aged young people or sports clubs: it is associated also with babies, the early years, adults and older adults.

Physical literacy has a conceptual foundation (not simply with monism and phenomenology) that appears to be missing within Physical Education

Most of the concepts within Physical Education can be contested, are confusing and misunderstand, yet we rarely spend time resolving these and clarifying principles that we share.

In England, Physical Education as a national curriculum subject has only a minimal framework that hardly provides the subject with a sense of direction or a vision of what is possible.   As a result, what is taught in schools is misdirected, misunderstood and open to fads and commercial pressure.

Schools cannot be saddled with the aspiration of preparing young people for life-long participation, the ‘here and now’ is far more important and something in which we can be held accountable if it is failing. The international problem of low levels of participation in purposeful physical pursuits is one example and a very complex issue. In England, in the early years 91% of young children fail to meet the National Guidelines, yet it is not seen as a major concern in national policy.

Adoption of Physical Literacy

The adoption of Physical Literacy by countries like Canada, Australia, United States and the home countries in the UK can be seen simply as a status symbol to make ‘old wine’ look like a new label.

It is interesting to explore the different interpretations of Literacy and its use. Health Literacy and Eco-literacy (especially Capra) are the best available because they are informative and are process orientated but not the others.

The conceptual framework that underpins Physical Literacy is rarely considered or addressed yet it is the most important aspect. Dualism permeates all Physical Education and the Sport/Exercise Sciences and their research yet this is never debated properly. Physical Literacy has brought together other conceptual frameworks to the forefront especially the Capability Approach and Embodied Cognition (which has brought to the forefront the idea of the Primacy of Movement). There is a need to explore these ideas for their relevance for enhancing the value of Physical Education for school-aged young people and adults.

All of the current debates are operating only at the surface level and never penetrate the complexity of the real issues. This indicates the need for a critical dialogue and a sharing of ideas.

Finally, perhaps we can reframe the debate and recognise a variety of titles because they illustrate the complexity of the debate. We don’t need to choose one title over another because each one can offer different insights. This may help so long as we can acknowledge key principles that inform and guide practice to generate appropriate pedagogies and content that can truly engage young people and adults in meaningful pursuits.


Len Almond