Promoting Social Justice in Physical Education Around the World

Revitalizing the physical education social-justice agenda in the global era: Where do we go from here?” examines the impact of increasingly globalized education policies and standards of health and fitness on physical education (PE). In the article, an international group of authors — Laura Azzarito (Teachers College, Columbia University, NY), Doune Macdonald (The University of Queensland, Australia), Symeon Dagkas (School of Health Sport and Bioscience, University of East London), and Jennifer Fisette (Kent State University, Ohio) — explores the ways in which policies of accountability, standardization, and competitive performance, alongside idealized images of body and health in popular culture and public campaigns, can have a detrimental effect on ethnically diverse young people. The authors’ recommendations for curriculum policy are of particular relevance for educators, curriculum developers, school leaders, and policy makers in an international context. They highlight the following examples of culturally relevant, affirming health and physical education (HPE) curricula that help counter the potentially detrimental effects of standardized PE curricula.

  • In Australia’s national curriculum, “key ideas in the curriculum (educative intent, strengths-based approaches, development of health literacy, valuing of movement, inclusion of critical inquiry) together reflect priorities for a futures-oriented HPE experience for every student. These key ideas, which are intended to build personal and community capacities for lifelong, healthy active living, are complemented with national cross-curriculum priorities (e.g., Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures) and capabilities (e.g., personal and social capabilities; intercultural understanding)”
  • In the U.S. context, “the implementation of a Body Curriculum might engage young people to become active agents in negotiating issues of inequalities, Whiteness, bodies, and identities .” A body-focused curriculum is key to enabling young people to critically consider and negotiate health and fitness demands on  their bodies. The Body Curriculum uses strategies of visual storytelling to have students reflect on their experiences of difference, exclusionary media representations, and body issues.

We followed up with author Laura Azzarito, with a few more questions for IEN readers.

How has the international perspective shaped the findings of this article, in a way that a solely US-focus would not have allowed?

Internationally, scholars committed to the pedagogical aspect of physical culture and social justice have advocated for the development of critical, culturally-responsive curricula that might potentially tackle complex social justice issues and challenges generated by globalization. For instance, around the world, school PE is under increasing pressure to adopt standardized, packaged curriculum to address public concerns about the “obesity epidemic” and the decline in young people’s exercise, fitness, and health by managing and disciplining students’ bodies. Such curriculum often fails to respond to diverse cultural perspectives on health and fitness, and works counter to social justice goals. Top-down fitness interventions in schools to address the obesity epidemic, such standardized testing, measurement of body weight, and fitness-driven practices in PE (i.e., fitness testing, Body Mass Index, FITNESSGRAM) reduce learning outcomes to simply behavioral change.  This is problematic for young people’s learning for a number of reasons. First, disciplinary approaches to young people’s education of the body deny young people the enjoyment, playful expression, and pleasure associated with physical activity. Second, such fitness practices and testing simply aim to measure young people’s fitness performance, without attention to the complex ways in which young people (especially ethnic-minority young people) embody and negotiate issues of body size, shape, muscularity, gender, social class, and race; and without attention to ethnic-minority young people’s upbringings, locations, and cultural experiences of fitness and health in their own communities. Third, fitness testing can have a damaging impact on young people’s self-perceptions, self-confidence, and self-worth, and thus detrimental consequences on their health. Forth, when fitness success is not achieved, the current individualistic, monocultural, colorblind, and gender-neutral approach leaves ethnic-minority young people to self-blame for their failure to make the “right” choice in fitness and health.

The international perspective also allows us to explore efforts to promote social justice in PE around the world. Key ideas in the Australia’s national curriculum (e.g., intercultural understanding, critical understanding, educative intent) and the Body Curriculum in the USA offer examples of constructivist school curricula that integrate a sociocultural view into fitness and health, taking into account young people’s diverse cultural backgrounds, upbringings, and experiences of fitness and health.  Such curricula have the potential to promote and nurture young people’s meaningful, positive, and educational engagement with fitness and health as well as to address body issues and inequalities. They can also create pedagogical spaces for students to critically engage with issues of the body, size, shape, and muscularity, gender and race as well as to construct meanings about their body that are positive, affirming, and culturally relevant.

What do you hope policy-makers or educators take away from this article?

First, the rise of fitness testing and practices in school can be very detrimental to young people’s learning in school PE, and in particular, it discriminates against ethnic minorities’ experience of their bodies. Second, we know that students do not see the point of fitness testing and performance. We need to move away from a hidden curriculum in school that aims to shape young people’s bodies into a standardized idea of what it means to look ‘fit’ without regard for their cultural backgrounds. Fitness and health mean different things to different people. Thus, if we are seriously committed to address persistent issues of social inequalities in health, fitness, and physical activity, we need curricula in schools that promote critical and intercultural understanding of the body; create pedagogical spaces for young people to share their own “stories” in fitness and health through self-representations of their bodily experiences; and help all young people imagine themselves as “fit” and “healthy” bodies in affirmative, empowering, and culturally relevant ways.

Could you help us imagine forms of visually presenting this research, to make the key insights and recommendations accessible to a broader audience?

The Moving in NYC photo exhibition of students’ work at the Macy Art Gallery at Teachers College provided a site for visually sharing part of the research findings of the implementation of the Body Curriculum. One of the aims of the exhibition was to educate the public about ethnic-minority young people’s embodiment of fitness and health. The Moving in NYC photo exhibition aimed to challenge the deficit thinking of the body-at-risk discourse that labels ethnic-minority young people as “unhealthy” “bad” or “lazy.” In doing so, it aimed  to create a public space to bring ethnic-minority young people’s photo-narratives, ideas, and experiences alive.  In this exhibition, ethnic-minority young people’s visual representations of their own body storytelling and experiences of fitness and health in their local communities offered narratives of the body that countered and resisted the media’s dominant gendered and racialized representations of the idealized body, raising self and social awareness around issues of inequalities and difference.


For more on physical education in a global context from IEN, see A “Right to Play” in Daily Education.


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