Lead the Change with Osnat Fellus and Helen Janc Malone

Osnat Fellus is a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa. Her PhD work focuses on learning and teaching with a specific concentration in theories of identity in mathematics education. Dr. Helen Janc Malone is Director of Education Policy & Institutional Advancement and is National Director of the Education Policy Fellowship Program at the Institute for Educational Leadership. She is also an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer at American University.

This Lead the Change issue captures a qualitative analysis of the first 70 issues of the series. These findings were presented at AERA 2017 in the Educational Change SIG symposium. Malone and Fellus offer a reflective notion of the series’ potential as a site for considering and reflecting on educational change:

One venue for engaging in conversation about educational change has been the Lead the Change Series (Educational Change SIG, 2011-present). The Series features both established and emerging educational change experts from around the globe who have engaged in groundbreaking scholarship. The Series serves to offer an opportunity to identify common challenges across contexts, to highlight promising research, to offer insight on small- and largescale educational change, and to spark collaboration across the educational change community.

This Lead the Change report, unlike the majority of issues, provides a broad overview of the series and reflects on its ongoing work. It explores many previous interviews, but also points to future trajectories for the series.

Change Series (Educational Change SIG, 2011-present). The Series features both established and emerging educational change experts from around the globe who have engaged in groundbreaking scholarship. The Series serves to offer an opportunity to identify common challenges across contexts, to highlight promising research, to offer insight on small- and largescale educational change, and to spark collaboration across the educational change community.

This Lead the Change report, unlike the majority of issues, provides a broad overview of the series and reflects on its ongoing work. It explores many previous interviews, but also points to future trajectories for the series.

Further Lessons with Pasi Sahlberg

                  Since its release in 2011, Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons (a version 2.0 was released in 2015) has galvanized researchers and practitioners working in fields of education–some coverage of this interest and reflections on Finland’s education system can be found in IEN’s archives over the past few years. Sahlberg’s book explores the evolution of Finland’s educational system into a world-class system. Many saw Finland’s story as offering a direct rebuke to increasing the standardization and increased testing occurring in the U.S. at that time. As Sahlberg traveled and spoke widely on the book, he began to notice ways in which these “lessons” were taken up or ignored. Building on these new “lessons,” Sahlberg recently came to Teachers College, Columbia University to discuss his new book, FinnishED Leadership, with Sam Abrams, the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College. Jordan Corson, a Managing Editor of IEN, had a chance to attend this discussion and share some key takeaways with us here. Teachers College has also recorded a video of the event, which can be accessed here.

Sahlberg and Abrams began their conversation by exploring some of the surprising reactions to Finnish Lessons. Sahlberg was shocked by people who seemed to intensely seek reasons to discount the success of Finland’s education system. For example, some suggested that Finland’s success is easy to achieve given its small population. Sahlberg retorts that little changes when shifting the unit of analysis to something like the state level in the U.S. Additionally, Sahlberg found that many people began cherry picking ideas from Finnish Lessons and developing myths about the Finnish education system, something on which he elaborated later in the talk. Other people, greatly inspired by the book, wanted to know how to simply copy this system. Given that Finland’s success is rooted in a specific context, Sahlberg has tried to warn, “don’t try this at home.” At the same time, he does see potential in creating educational change inspired by the Finnish system. It was this type of response that spurred Sahlberg’s thinking for his new book.

FinnishED Leadership begins with what Sahlberg calls an “accidental lunch”—an anecdote about an encounter with former New York governor George Pataki before the two spoke at a conference. As Sahlberg describes it, he and the governor met at a lunch and discussed solutions to schooling problems in the United States. While the governor initially reiterated common refrains about the need to kick out bad teachers and hire good teachers or create more competition through school choice, he also appeared taken with some of Sahlberg’s insights into how Finland achieved its success and reputation. As they rode to the conference, Sahlberg wondered what it would mean if someone with the influence of Pataki suddenly took up and promoted these ideas. He pondered what it would mean if Pataki walked into the conference and said, “I have another speech written, but I’m not going to read that…”. While Pataki ultimately stuck to common thinking about education reform (Abrams reminded the audience that Sahlberg intentionally calls this movement a Global Education Reform Movement), this experience inspired Sahlberg to imagine other leaders taking up Finnish lessons. He wondered what the world could learn from educational changes in Finland.

After this anecdote, Sahlberg spoke to the main points in his book. First, he argued for more of a break in the school day. Breaks mean recess and time off for the kids, but they also mean a break for the teacher. Altering the rhythm of work, he argues, including providing specific spaces like break rooms, creates a much better work environment. Both students and teachers have more time to mess around and hang out, things that allow for rest but can also lead to productive learning. Second, Sahlberg argued for what he calls “leading with small data rather than big data.” What happens inside the classroom is something complex. It is often something for which there is no algorithm. Additionally, if attention is paid to the small data of everyday classroom life, then teachers gain more agency in decision making and a school’s direction. Sahlberg also cautioned that big data can lead to spurious correlations. He provided multiple examples, but perhaps the most intriguing is that increased ice cream consumption correlates to higher PISA results.

Third, Sahlberg pointed out that Finland’s success is rooted in notions of equity. He decries the notion that school must choose between excellence or equity, arguing that education systems can have both. He suggests that a system with high learning outcomes can and should also be an equitable system (and equity means enfranchising teachers, looking at whole learners, and attending to equity in areas such as socioeconomic status). Furthermore, Sahlberg contends that curricular equity relies on schools being able to make their own choices. Fourth, and concluding by returning to the earlier conversation about responses to his first book, Sahlberg talked about issues of “urban legends about Finnish schools.” For instance, he found that many people believed that Finnish students do not have homework. “Of course,” he told the audience, “Finns have homework. It’s just different. And it looks different.” Such myths relate to the broader idea of cherry picking ideas and applying them in isolation. Sahlberg argued that places that want to achieve Finland’s success focus specifically on outcomes but do not look at the many potential paths toward getting there. Speaking specifically about the U.S., he pointed out while the U. S. clamors for the secret to Finland’s success, Finnish schools borrow new research and practice from places like Canada and the U.S.  For instance, Finnish schools integrate Howard Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences into everyday classroom life. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not deeply explored or incorporated such ideas, or even made steps to move beyond isolated ideas.

Sahlberg highlights these elements of the Finnish educational system, but also acknowledges the difficulties in their broad application. During the Q&A, Diane Ravitch interjected with a question of where we might find state level politicians who listen to these four suggestions. Another audience member asked about the difficulty of leading with small data in the face of international agencies (e.g. Sahlberg’s former employer, the World Bank) that increasingly focus on big data. Sahlberg noted these difficulties but affirmed the possibility of using work like his new book to influence such policymakers. Abrams also pointed to a number of examples of success: Dallas schools have begun to focus more on recess and play time, Orange County schools have emphasized science education, and the state of West Virginia has shifted its approach to standardized testing.

Ultimately, Sahlberg’s goals here are help lessons from Finland’s success translate across contexts. To do so in the U.S. and elsewhere will require complex coordination. The ideas may be deceptively simple; Sahlberg reminds us that the true difficulty is in their implementation.

-Jordan Corson

The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

In the latest post in the Leading Futures Series, edited by Alma Harris and Michelle Jones, Pak Tee Ng reflects on productive paradoxes driving Singapore’s apparent success and future direction. Pak Tee Ng is an Associate Professor in the Departments of the Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning and Policy & Leadership Studies at the National Institute of Education in Singapore, and Associate Dean, Leadership Learning. He is currently leading several projects on topics related to educational change in Singapore, including teacher mentoring, teacher motivation, and school leader perspectives toward change. Pak Tee Ng has also been interviewed in the Lead the Change series, featured on IEN in 2015. His latest book, Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes, expands upon the ideas raised in this post.

The Education Paradoxes of Singapore

The excellent results in various international comparative tests put Singapore into a select group of countries and jurisdictions hailed as shining examples of educational success. On the PISA 2012 tests, Singapore students excelled not only in mathematics and science, but actually did better in English reading and comprehension compared with those from English speaking countries (!). For a country in Asia, a continent where students are thought to be rote-learners rather than thinkers, it is against the grain that Singapore students also topped PISA’s 2012 computer-based assessment of problem solving. Interested parties from many countries and jurisdictions visit Singapore to find out its key success factors.  They are also curious as to where Singapore could possibly be heading next, if it is already at the top.

Key Success Factors

Many international experts have analyzed the key success factors of Singapore’s education system.  Generally, Singapore’s success is attributed to shrewd educational policies that take a long-term view, and that are implemented with high levels of fidelity by the schools. Its meritocratic system ensures that students’ advancement in the education system is not based on race, religion or family background, but on their academic merit.  Singapore invests heavily in education, not just for children but for the teachers as well.  It cultivates professional capital systematically by employing high quality teachers, supporting professional development, developing systematic career paths, and grooming promising educators to become leaders. The curriculum is rigorous and there are support programs for students who are lagging behind. There is strong school accountability through a sophisticated school self-evaluation system.

However, some people who know something about Singapore still find aspects of its education success puzzling.  Many people have asked me how Singapore could possibly develop students who were the best problem-solvers in the world, when these students were gearing themselves to do well in standardized tests. Others who have actually visited Singapore schools remarked to me that it was strange that all school leaders in Singapore they have spoken with seemed so proud about how they aligned themselves tightly with national policies and at the same time claimed that their school programs are different from other schools!  When I was overseas, one person asked me why some Singapore parents would want to send their kids to schools overseas if the Singapore school system was so good. Another from the same country asked me how she could get her children into Singapore government schools.  So, there seems to be a richer reality to these generalized key success factors. These are Singaporean paradoxes to be appreciated. That is why in my latest book, “Learning from Singapore: Power of Paradoxes” I shared the Singapore story, told from the lens of paradoxes, rather than the ‘usual’ key success factors.

To understand Singapore, one has to appreciate the multiple pictures of the country that sometimes appear contradictory.  You get a different picture depending on with whom you speak and the perspective that you take. For example, if you talk with the parent of a high performing student, you may get one picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student, you may get another picture. If you talk with the parent of a high performing student, who disappointingly did not achieve perfect scores, you may get yet another picture. If you talk with the parent of a low performing student who surprisingly achieved better-than-expected scores… you get the drift. Also, because Singapore’s education system is undergoing change, both new and old paradigms exist at the same time. So, you can find examples of activities that reflect the new paradigm. You can also find those that reflect the old one.  Singapore has students who are problem solvers and those who are rote learners, and even those who are both problem solvers and rote learners.  Therefore, there are many different pictures of Singapore, each focused on a different part of the rich tapestry of realities. That makes Singapore sometimes paradoxical.

But these paradoxes are sources of creative tensions. A key strength of Singapore is that it is able to embrace and draw strength from the creative tensions generated by these paradoxes. They drive dialogues, rather than wedges, because its educators are united in the moral purpose of education.  The result is positive change, albeit non-linear and non-clinical.

There are many paradoxes in Singapore, but I explored four in my book. The first paradox is ‘Timely Change, Timeless Constants’. Singapore pursues change relentlessly, especially in moving away from a system that is obsessed with examination results, to focus on holistic education and providing more pathways to success for children. Yet, it is also resolute in holding on to certain timeless constants – values that serve as the foundation for change. Singapore exhibits the courage to change what needs to be changed, and the wisdom to hold invariant what should not change.

The second paradox is ‘Compassionate Meritocracy’. Singapore adheres strictly to its governing principle of meritocracy. A person’s success should be based on merit, not on race, language or religion.  However, the meritocratic principle in the education system can also mean fierce competition among schools and among students.  Therefore, Singapore has been developing a compassionate side to the meritocratic system, where pathways are built to help children who may be left behind to find success too.

The third paradox is ‘Centralized Decentralization’, an approach of school system management that centralizes strategically to achieve system-level synergies, and decentralizes tactically so that each school may cater more specifically to its students.  That is why Singapore school leaders align their school tightly with national policies and at the same time design programs that are different from other schools to suit their own context!

The fourth paradox is ‘Teach Less, Learn More’, an exhortation to teachers to reflect on their pedagogies to engage students fully in the learning process. The idea is that if teachers teach less but teach better, students should learn more and learn better! In this way, Singapore tries to improve the teaching and learning dynamics in the classroom.

Future Direction

Where is the Singapore education system heading in the future? Although Singapore ranks highly on international comparative tests, it is keen to improve the quality aspects of education and to open up more pathways for young people with different strengths and aspirations to find success in their own ways.  Singapore aims to be an excellent school system for all, rather than a system with good schools for some.  In 2012, Heng Swee Keat, who was then the Education Minister, presented a vision of ‘Every School, a Good School’ for the education system. Actually, in Singapore, the baseline standard of all schools is held high enough so that any school is good enough to offer their students, regardless of socio-economic status, a good chance of future success.  Current Minister for Education (Schools), Ng Chee Meng, said in Parliament that “in many countries, parents are not optimistic that their children will have a good education if they come from the lower socio-economic quartiles. In Singapore, this is not the case. In the 2015 PISA results, about half of our Singaporean students in the bottom socio-economic quarter were found to be resilient, performing better than what their socio-economic status would otherwise predict. This is almost twice the OECD average.”  The current challenge is to get Singaporeans to embrace the idea that any school that their child may go to is a good one, and to reduce the competition in the country among parents to get children into ‘elite schools’.

The education system also hopes to develop in students an entrepreneurial spirit, so that they have the courage to pursue their passions beyond the classroom and the well-trodden paths in the future.  It starts with improving curriculum and pedagogy, so that children find joy of learning and will be intrinsically motivated to learn. The end result is a generation of young people with deep skills, expertise and zeal for lifelong learning. At an MOE awards ceremony in 2017, Minister Ng wore a bow tie and told the audience that it was special bow tie as it was made by a secondary four student from a local school.  Using cut-offs from tailors to make bow-ties suitable for different occasions, this student had won the 2016 National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge and represented Singapore in the 2017 Network for Teaching Enterprise (NFTE) Global Showcase in New York. Minister Ng said “A Secondary Four student, who was inspired by his school and had the foundation of knowledge to see what is possible, started a journey to chase his dreams. I do not know if he will succeed, but I will certainly make sure I support him. I hope our whole system will support his journey of discovery and exploration to chase his dreams.”

But, this change in education does not stop in schools.  Lifelong learning is what Singapore needs of its people.  Minister of Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung shared in Parliament the story of one of Singapore’s top film-makers, who went to a Polytechnic for an Advanced Diploma in Film Production, after fulfilling her parents’ wish for her to complete her university education.  Pursuing her passion, she would later win a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance film festival.  Minister Ong commented that the story was one “of pragmatism and passion; of meeting parents’ expectations but still chasing your own dream; of lifelong upgrading yet not conforming to the notion that what follows a Degree must be a Masters degree or a PhD; of venturing beyond Singapore while remaining Singaporean at heart” and that this “is a story about what education can and should do for Singaporeans, for all of us, across every field.”


Singapore’s experience with educational change show that paradoxes can be powerful in driving positive change, provided people are united in a common purpose, and there is commitment and tenacity to see through meaningful and long-term education reform.  Despite achieving what would appear to be great success in education, Singapore is choosing to ditch its past success formula for the sake of the future.  It recognizes that every country or jurisdiction is different and each will have to find its own path.  For a small country that has survived against the odds for five decades, it has the gumption to chart its own path and every intention to thrive for many decades to come.

“Brand-name” teachers in Finland?

New York Times’ reporter Natasha’s Singer’s recent article on “brand-name” teachers, created quite a stir.  Reaction in the Times and elsewhere in the US focused on “topdog” teacher Kayla Dalzel and what EdSurge called the “murky relationship between edtech developers and the educators who tout their products.” For me, the emergence of “brand-name” teachers in the US (and “super tutors” and “celebrity tutors” in places like Singapore and Hong Kong) also highlights both long-standing tensions between private gain and the public good and the way that cultural and economic context shapes education systems.

The discussion reminded me of a conversation I had this summer with Pekka Peura, a Finnish high school math and physics teacher who could be described as an “entrepreneurial teacher.” Peura takes advantage of Finland’s celebrated autonomy for teachers by regularly trying out new ideas in his classroom.  At first, he simply experimented with changing his homework assignments, giving all the assignments to students in 7 week blocks rather than every single day, and letting students decide when and how to complete their work. Now he doesn’t use exams (almost unheard of in the highly exam-driven context of Finnish high schools and in math and physics courses in particular), and he doesn’t do any grading – the students evaluate themselves. Peura explained that he made these changes in his classroom in order to create learning activities and environments where students want to work hard and can evaluate and direct their own learning.

Peura surprised me, however, when he told me that, at the same time, he works systematically to build his reputation and “brand” among educators in Finland. He does that by making his teaching visible and sharing his plans and tools (like a seven week plan for teaching vector calculus) in his own blog, Facebook page, and YouTube videos, as well as in a new book, Flipped Learning, by Marika Toivola, Markus Humaloja, and Peura (the book will be published in English this fall).

Peura’s efforts to “build his brand” have paid off. His Facebook page now has 13,000 members, and he regularly receives invitations to speak at conferences and visit other schools and other countries. He’s gained access to other noted educators and those who wield power and influence in education, and his books and other works certainly have a bigger audience than he would otherwise have had.

Since my Norwegian and Finnish colleagues consistently emphasize the importance of equity and common identity – and not building an “individual brand” – Peura’s approach seem more American than Nordic. But Peura has always had a larger goal in mind: changing the traditional, academic focus of the whole Finnish education system.  As Peura explained, building his reputation is a key means of encouraging other teachers take advantage of the autonomy offered in the Finnish education system and to pursue and share their own efforts to change conventional instruction. “We just need a lot of teachers that are creating their own books, and blogs and leading their own subjects,” he told me.

From Peura’s perspective, Finnish teachers need to go public precisely because it is so counter-cultural. Although the Finnish education system is well-known for supporting teachers’ autonomy and independence, Finnish teachers are not particularly prone to collaborate or share their work. Furthermore, although many know the Finnish education system is high-performing, as Saku Tuominen (an expert on innovation and founder of HundrED) regularly points out, few people can name a single innovative educational tool or practice developed in Finnish classrooms (but everyone seems to know that Angry Birds was launched in Finland).

Given these circumstances, Peura explained to me that he feels that he not only needs to go public with his own work, he needs to help build an audience that is interested in hearing from educators and to encourage other educators to make their work and ideas public as well.  As he put it, “if you have some good tools or ideas to share, there is no one to share with unless people will listen to you.”

At the same time, Peura makes it clear that the relationship between commercial enterprises and classrooms in Finland is also dramatically different from the US.  As he wrote to me:

In Finland we don’t promote companies very easily. I don’t know any teacher, who gets money from some company to advertise them. But it is familiar that some companies give technology hardware or software for free for some classrooms to test them. But we give fair feedback, if the product doesn’t work in the classroom, it is said out loud.

From my point of view it is really important NOT to connect your name-brand with some one company, because we are a very small [community] and teachers know each other, especially if you are a well known teacher, and it eats into your credibility as a change maker. And one thing that is also quite common in Finland is that we try to seek open/free solutions, so if there is a free and a commercial product/solution, we promote the free one. It is crucial for your credibility to promote commercial products only if it’s the best and only solution for some problem. 

There are teachers like Kayla Dalzel and Pekka Peura all over the world, and all have to contend with the tensions between personal gain and the public good, but the context is different.  In this case, when it comes to the US and Finland, it all comes down to trust.  In Finland, they trust teachers.  In the US, we don’t.

We sometimes forget why that’s the case.  As Peura points out, trust, visibility and reputation are inextricably linked everywhere, but Finnish educators work in a system designed to build trust in teachers. US educators do not.


Tom Hatch

This post can also be read at thomashatch.org

Lead the Change Interview with Kenneth Russell

Kenneth Russell is an Education Specialist with UNICEF, currently focusing on education reforms in Zimbabwe. Previously, he worked in Sri Lanka and in Jamaica, where he studied community participation in schools. He holds an Ed.M. in International Education Policy and Ed.D. from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

In this interview, part of the Lead the Change Series of the American Educational Research Association Educational Change Special Interest Group, Russell shares his perspective on the vital role of public education in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially as governments are strapped for resources and for-profit and non-governmental organizations appear to offer more successful services in the short-term. While acknowledging the importance of cross-sector partnerships, he emphasizes the need to support sustainable, systemic changes that respond to particular African cultural and political contexts. Russell argues priorities should be on comprehensive reform, such as curriculum and teacher preparation, and meaningfully including youth in the process of educational change. As he puts it, reflecting on the AERA 2017 theme of “Dreams, Possibilities, and the Necessity of Public Education”:

The dream, which we should all share, is for public education systems to develop robust curricula and provide the investments that allow all children to complete a high quality basic education. This education should help young people develop the range of skills and competencies required for 21st century citizenship. This requires strong, and in some cases, non-traditional partnerships within a robust public education framework. This education framework should allow for flexibility in how education is offered and who provides educational services; it should be creative and innovative in terms of how content is developed and delivered; it should be robust in regulation, supervision, and support for service providers, teachers and students, and; it should be unflinching in the drive to ensure the most marginalized get priority access to education services.

This Lead the Change interview appears as part of a series that features experts from around the globe, highlights promising research and practice, and offers expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change. Recently Lead the Change has also interviewed Nic Spaull, himself based in South Africa.

Summer Hiatus

Here at IEN we are taking a short break at the end of summer so that we can gear up for the new school year. Please check back with us in September when we will share new posts on the development of new educational opportunities both inside and outside of schools, as well as interviews with researchers on international education improvement efforts. As always, we will continue to share links to international news articles from around the world on Twitter.

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.