What is recognised as ability in physical education? A systematic appraisal of how ability and ability differences are socially constructed within mainstream secondary school physical education

Academic Research in PE

What is recognised as ability in physical education? A systematic appraisal of how ability and ability differences are socially constructed within mainstream secondary school physical education

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Wilkinson Littlefair Barlow-Meade 2013

Abstract

In sport, schools and physical education (PE) ability has invariably been understood as an inherent

and relatively immutable capacity, amendable to varying degrees by interventions such as training

regimes and education. Differences in achievement are assumed to be an inevitable consequence of

natural variations in ability and an indication of motivation or effort. Drawing on the theoretical

tools of Pierre Bourdieu, Evans, in 2004, proposed an alternative socially constructed perspective

of ability. Evans suggested that an individual’s embodied dispositions can function as capital and thus

be ‘perceived as abilities when defined relationally with reference to attitudes, values and mores

prevailing within a discursive field’ (e.g. PE). Drawing on the data of existing socially critical

research on the social construction of ability, this paper takes the form of a systematic appraisal.

Systematic searches were conducted in numerous electronic databases and electronic journals and

contact was made with authors to identify relevant studies. Nine studies in total complied with a

pre-determined inclusion/exclusion criteria. The data for the studies included in this appraisal are

for the most part located in Queensland, Australia and to a lesser extent Sweden. Therefore,

importantly, the Australian and Swedish contexts are the focus of this report. The aims of this

systematic appraisal are to investigate how ability is socially constructed (conceived of and re/produced)

in PE and how conceptualisations of ability in the subject influence students’ learning,

experiences and potential achievement. The conclusions of this paper suggest that teachers and

the PE curriculum in Queensland, Australia and Sweden play a significant role in (re)producing

particular discourses around the body which reward (with ‘high’ ability identification) only those

few (mostly male) students whose abilities are consistent with the values prevailing within the field

(e.g. being competitive and aggressive). The limited acknowledgement of a ‘range’ of abilities in the

subject leads to many students (both male and female) perceiving themselves incapable of being

successful, not because they lack ability per se but rather because their abilities are not recognised

or transactable for high achievement grades in the field.

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