Social Justice in Physical Education
The field of education more broadly has an increased focus on “righting” social inequities that plague our students, teachers, schools and society. By inequities, we mean the patterns in our society that favor some individuals over others.
For example, we know that according to the United States Census Bureau, African Americans make up approximately 13.4% of the country’s population. In prisons, however, African Americans make up 38% of inmates. Given this, we know that African Americans are overrepresented in prison populations. This is a pattern of inequity that unfavorably (and systematically) works against African-American populations.
We believe — as do other educators — that education (and we argue physical education) has a role to play in creating a more equitable future for ALL persons. We argue that focusing on social progress is just as important as individual progress — and will outline potential avenues to do so below.
We also aim to provide teachers with some outline information and reflexive questions so they can reflect on their own teaching in physical education.
Importantly, these critical approaches are framed around social issues and therefore are framed by eight strands of social justice:
- Race and ethnicity
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic status (social class)
While our explanations below may give the impression that these issues are separate, we want to emphasize that inequity is not singular and therefore all of these topics are interrelated.
Race and Ethnicity
There is a difference between race and ethnicity. A person’s race is based on common ancestry and shared physical characteristics. Ethnicity includes shared cultural factors, for example, a person’s heritage, national identity, and background.
Within our society, people of color have been historically discriminated against. Unfortunately, that means that our schools have inherited structures that conceptualize “white” as normal and anything else as “different” (Eurocentric).
In an effort to de-center whiteness, we question you to think about whether your curriculum and pedagogy is cognizant of diverse ethnicities:
- What is your school’s discipline policy? Does it expect black and brown minority students to behave in historically Eurocentric ways?
- What games do you play that emphasize Hispanic, Latino, Indigenous (Native American), African, and other marginalized cultures?
- Is your school re-segregated or integrated? And how do you do you promote the benefits of integration?
- What historical racial minorities do you celebrate in class? For example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos when teaching track and field?
In PE, we tend to only talk about physical activity in relation to students’ current age and physical condition. This is ironic because we want to promote a physically active life (which includes more than just young adulthood).
Given this, consider the following questions:
- Have your students participated in games and activities they can do later in life?
- Are your students aware of the barriers within their own community that limit the ability of elderly populations from participating in physical activity?
- Do your students think of elderly populations as inactive, non-competent or unskilled? If so, how have you challenged this?
There is a difference between sex and gender. Sex is a biological classification (male, female, intersex, etc.). Usually, this is based on the external reproductive body parts (e.g. penis, vagina, etc.). Gender, on the other hand, has to do with the cultural meanings that are given to bodies.
In the United States, for example, girls have traditionally been seen as feminine, which could include traits such as being more caring, dainty or less competitive. Boys, on the other hand, have been viewed as masculine — more aggressive, muscular and competitive.
While these stereotypes are often not true, PE tends to align their practices with them. For example, think of these questions:
- Do you require different fitness or skills scores for your boys and girls?
- Are your teams/classes/groups split by gender?
- Does your sports program only allow men to coach boys’ teams and women to coach girls’ teams?
- When you teach specific sports, do you only teach the version for boys? For example, do you teach girls’ and boys’ lacrosse?
An ability can be defined as things we are able to competently do. Consequently, inabilities are things that we are not able to do. Ability is seen as favorable in our society and in PE. Subsequently, PE has adopted practices that strive for students to constantly become “abler” (more skilled, more fit, etc.) in their physical motor competencies. Reflect on whether your curriculum is focused on able-bodied students and consider these questions:
- Do you cover any disability-awareness education?
- What disability-focused sports do you integrate into your curriculum? (Examples might include goalball into soccer units, seated volleyball in a volleyball unit.)
- Is your gymnasium accessible to all students?
- Are your students made aware of their own community barriers that limit persons with disabilities from participating in physical activity?
Research has shown that PE, and sport more broadly, are not positive places for LGBTQIA students (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual). This is because our society tends to assume everyone is straight (heteronormativity) and that their gender (cultural) aligns with their sex (biological).
We also know that because of the stress placed on LGBTQIA students in their everyday lives, they prefer cooperative learning environments compared to competitive activities. Consider the following questions:
- Do the activities you do in PE stress competition (having a winner and a loser)?
- Are topics like homophobia, heteronormativity, and gender diversity taught in PE?
- Is your class set up around the belief that there are only two genders and sexes (think of fitness/skills tests, how activities are split, posters and cue cards, etc.)?
- Are students aware of the different LGBTQIA organizations in their communities? If there are none, do they consider how this may impact the health of LGBTQIA people?
Although English is the most commonly used language in the United States, many of our students speak a variety of other languages, such as Spanish, French, Korean, and American Sign Language (ASL), to name a few. Furthermore, language influences how we think in our world (e.g. gendered language, geographical language, etc.).
Therefore, to be inclusive in PE we must consider how much we “enforce” spoken English within our classes and whether we celebrate other forms of language:
- Are your learning objectives/standards only in one language?
- Do you force students to speak English?
- Do you allow students to teach different languages in your class?
United States culture has been heavily influenced by Christianity. Take for example the holidays that many schools celebrate (e.g. Christmas, Easter, etc.). However, there are many different religions practiced in the United States, such as Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, as well as a growing sect of the population that is secular.
As a teacher, it is essential you appreciate and acknowledge the beliefs of all students in your class:
- Are your students aware of the diverse religions in your own class?
- Do any of your students need accommodations during certain months (e.g., Ramadan, etc.)?
- Do any of your students require different attire in PE (e.g., burka, burkini, etc.)?
- Are there any activities that you teach that may have religious meaning or connection?
Students come from all different backgrounds. Some of our students are monetarily privileged and others are not. Being aware of access to resources outside of school is very important for our students because access to physical activity is a social justice issue.
If you assign a task to students such as going out for a jog outside of school, but a student is not able to leave the house due to safety concerns, this may be inappropriate. Furthermore, physical activity is structured by social class. For example, expensive sports (e.g., hockey, horseback riding, etc.) provide barriers that limit participation. Fortunately, many communities provide different opportunities to students at little or no cost through recreation programs. Consider this:
- Are the activities you’re teaching in PE actually relevant to the students’ lives within their communities?
- Do you provide students with the opportunities to learn activities that may not be “valued” in their socioeconomic status, but can make them aware of other socioeconomic statuses?
- In your projects, do you discuss the role of socioeconomic status on physical activity throughout the lifetime?
- Do you provide alternative ways for your students to participate in PE if they cannot afford the basic requirements?
The only way to make PE socially relevant is by spending equal time on social issues (e.g. access, race, gender, service learning, etc.) and individual progress (e.g. skill development, goal setting, etc.). If this blog has sparked your interest, be on the lookout for our article forthcoming in the Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance (JOPERD) titled, “The A-Z of social justice in PE.”
- SHAPE America’s resources on transgender inclusion
- Greg Curran’s podcast on social justice and making sports inclusive
- ProPublica’s article on segregation
- Road to Racial Justice board game
- History of Black Power salute
- GLSEN posters/guidelines for PE teachers and LGBT-inclusive curriculum
- Teaching Tolerance’s resources on gender and sexual identity, ability, religion, and class
- TED Talk on “How Language Shapes the Way We Think”
- EduColor resources
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