Physical education as a support for learning

Castellari’s reflections touch upon many of the ideas I myself have been working on. I would first like to examine the following two aspects:

Limitations within the discipline of physical education, as it is currently defined and practiced.

Physical culture and Physical ‘Intelligence’: Ideas for a broader approach to physical education

A  look at some limitations of current physical education practices

Physical education in our schools consists primarily of sports and games. These give focus and pleasure to exercise and help develop physical skills and teamwork. But this model of physical education is both limited (it focuses mainly on developing the skills needed to play team sports) and standardized (the same games are played everywhere). I would like to consider a few of the problems we encounter in the implementation of this model.

Addressing lifestyle

The lifestyle of most students who live in an urban setting has resulted, even at a young age, in a poor diet, low levels of fitness and relatively low energy throughout the day. Our current PE classes do little to address this in any significant way. PE class, which is often the only exposure that a student has to physical activity during the day, focuses largely on the skills of organized games and team sports. When the same students reach adulthood, team sports become less available, or acceptable, as a part of their daily lives. What takes their place? Often very little: the odd weekend game with friends, maybe a day hike, a gym membership. In other words, sports classes, like examinations, do not prepare students adequately for life ahead.

Comparison: Comparison between students in sports and games is reinforced by the use of a structure that inherently fosters age-based developmental and skill comparisons. Those who under-perform often lose interest in PE class at a young age. Addressing this problem requires creative thinking. Certainly, the verbal reminders ‘not to compare yourself with others’ are ineffective. Structural changes can have some effect. These could include mixed-age or mixed-ability games, in which diversity of skill is an asset rather than a disadvantage. Another structural solution is to create gender-segregated sports groups. Boys can become increasingly competitive in adolescence and girls more physically self-conscious or restrained in their movement by ideas of gender-appropriate behaviour. I have found it easier and more meaningful to address issues of aggression, passivity or body image in separate groups, so that students do not feel scrutinized or exposed in front of the opposite sex.

Competition: The role of competition in sports is perhaps the thorniest area for our schools. We have struggled to address the rivalry and antagonism that seems inherent in competitive sports while also trying to meet the overwhelming demand for team sports from students. As a result, we have tried to encourage non-competitive versions of team sports (eg. by not issuing prizes, not playing in league matches). These have had some effect. But many of our students (and their parents) do not really understand the downplaying of competition, except as part of a vague, gentler, alternative lifestyle (devoid of excitement). In their experience, playing to win is the greatest motivator toward excellence. Even during ‘friendly matches’ between Krishnamurti schools, we do see students wanting to play competitively, and of spectators applauding only their own team, rather than applauding good play, regardless of affiliation. I wonder: do we err in dismissing competition? Do students only seem to comply and that too reluctantly with our strictures without really seeing the dangers of competitive play for themselves? Do teachers react and condemn without taking the time to explore and understand the subtleties and great allure of competition?

Excitement and awareness: Why are sports and games so popular among students? In part it is because children are influenced by television representations of sport, as is evident from their imitation of the behaviour of professional sporting stars on the games field. It is also because most sports activities are based on having fun and a sense of excitement (rather than say, awareness). Students therefore cherish them as an outlet from the rest of the day that has been spent indoors.

Yet, need there really be any difference between having fun and a more ‘authentic’ and attentive experience? Top athletes have spoken eloquently also about the importance of developing sensitivity, awareness, and perception, in addition to power and skill. Students would benefit more if they were to work with these aspects too and see that there may be new ways of playing games. They may be helped, for example, to cultivate awareness of one’s action and response, while de-emphasizing the aspect of beating your opponent.

Teacher input and adult involvement: In all schools, physical activities suffer from a lack of teacher involvement. We assume that learning sports is a natural, self-directed and self-generating activity that does not require the same level of teacher guidance as academic subjects. If we accept the existing model then this assumption is, in fact, true. If, on the other hand, we question this model, and would like students to question it as well, then more teacher input will be necessary. Generally, only PE teachers are involved in physical activities with students. The lack of wider teacher involvement means that young people do not see many role models, even among their teachers, for a life of integrated physical activity. It sends the message that physical education is a specialized field, like sociology or bio-chemistry, rather than an essential component of all our lives, like eating or affection.

Many adults avoid engaging in physical activity with students because they do not feel sufficiently skilled or fit. But our limitations can in fact work to advantage in an educational setting. It is the sheer humanness of sweating together, feeling awkward, and committing blunders that causes a loosening of the more formal, authoritative relationship of the classroom.

Engaging in PE activities with students whom I do not otherwise teach seems to bring about a special kind of acquaintanceship, in which I become a trusted ‘outsider’. These PE students are more likely to come for advice about academics or personal matters, especially those related to adolescent development, than those whom I see in a more formal classroom setting. These interactions are often a springboard for real inquiry into questions about self, relationship, and behaviour—these being central themes of our schools.

II. Developing a broader approach to physical education

How can we better prepare for a healthy physical life in and after school? To my mind this needs a broader understanding of the role of the body in learning. Two notions that have emerged from creative brainstorming sessions with a range of teachers in the various Krishnamurti schools are those of ‘physical culture’ and ‘physical intelligence’. The first is outlined below and an initial sense of the second is presented. This is followed by some of the questions I have attempted to explore.

Physical culture: A few schools are attempting to redefine physical education as ‘physical culture’. This approach includes the harmonious development of all the parts and capacities of the body, as well as aspects such as nutrition, rest and posture. For instance, Kabir Jaithirtha, who directs the post -school programme at the Bangalore Education Centre, has proposed seven components for such a curriculum:

Attentiveness to the body: including posture, grace, control in ordinary daily activities, such as lifting, sitting, moving

Daily physical activities for health, such as jogging and playing games

Developing skill in games and dance

Periodic physical activity, such as treks, that require endurance and initiative

Attention to food, fasting, and rest

Awakening the senses

Yoga or Tai Chi, as meditative activities that involve the body and the mind, and lead to the integration of both.

Such an approach would strive to integrate various aspects of physical and mental health. The school would then need to provide a supportive environment within which students can examine their health needs, experiment with activities to address them, grapple with developing internal discipline and motivation, and craft their own relationship to the joy of movement. Unlike a regular PE programme, where students are required to follow a set timetable and choose at best between two games, in such a curriculum student exploration and discovery would be central.

Physical intelligence: At the 2004 Krishnamurti Schools Teacher’s Conference in Chennai, participants engaged in a group speculation about what physical ‘intelligence’ might be, and how we would recognize it in a student. The discussion was preceded by five minutes of silent observation of oneself. In the gentle, settled mood that followed, these very interesting lists of qualities was compiled by the groups:

What would a physically intelligent child be like?

Alert, Coordinated, Calm, Light, Joyful,

Uninhibited, Spontaneous, Instinctive, Responsive, Sensorial

Tenacious, Sportsmanly, Appreciative, Excellent, Efficient

Aware of self and surroundings, Accepting of differences,

Learns from watching, A highly-tuned instrument, Ready to meet challenges

In touch with reality

In comparison, here are some of the traditional attributes of an athlete that we seek to develop in PE classes: Strength, Flexibility, Stamina, Speed, Sportsmanship, Discipline

The lists are completely different, both in content and in feeling. The athletic list seems relatively easy to attain. But in terms of physical intelligence, a much more extensive kind of exposure is needed, and the role of the teacher appears to be fundamentally different. At the conference we were unable to go further with the exercise, but to me it is clear that this initial, rough attempt at conceptualizing the question of what physical intelligence might be points at something essential. I recognize in the list something of the beauty and freedom I’ve seen in some students. I also see that our current PE activities are of minimal use in helping to cultivate these qualities.

Some questions for exploration: These are some of the questions I have asked myself when designing student activities:

PE classes are based on team work and group learning. How does an individual learn differently, when alone? What kinds of learning are best achieved alone?

Intense attentiveness such as that required to focus on scoring in sports, is one kind of awareness to develop. What other flavours of awareness are there, and how can we shift into them during play?

Physical activity is generally seen as a language of expression. But could it also serve as a language of inquiry?

Activity means action and movement. What would the action be like that arises out of stillness? What action is born of silence?

Most games depend on speed. But what are the skills required in slowness? Is this also a useful capacity to develop?

Physical hardiness is developed through sports training. But can the rigours of the religious life - strength, discipline and sensitivity–also be cultivated?

I relate here an experiment that took place in Brockwood Park School.

The pitchfork workout: For several years I took PE classes in Brockwood with students who refused to play team sports. They were a motley and resistant bunch, the girls only willing to take walks, the boys preoccupied with lifting weights. I felt that the PE class should expose them to new, perhaps difficult or uncomfortable experiences that would develop the strength, agility, and grace of their bodies, and challenge their habits and fears.

One day in the early spring I hit upon the idea of the Pitchfork Workout. It was based on Circuit Training, a popular, gym-based series of weight-machine exercises. The initiative was a serious attempt to combine the diversity and aerobic effort of Circuit Training with the needs of the estate and the great pleasure of physical, outdoor work.

I assigned students to “stations” around the periphery of the walled, one-acre vegetable garden. For one minute they would engage in the activity of that station: conventional exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, and stretching. At the end of each minute they would sprint one lap around the garden and end at the next station. The day was beautiful, with soft warm sun on fresh spring greenery and a light breeze and the experiment was well received. At the end of the class students described what they had enjoyed or had difficulty with. We noted the difficulty of shifting gear from exciting speed-based exercises to those that require focus, concentration and control. We reviewed proper technique and discussed whether students were aware of their posture and position between exercises or only during them.

The following week I altered the station activities to include a number of physical tasks required by the season: digging the earth, hoeing weeds, carrying buckets of soil, and pulling up large bushy plants. Before starting we reviewed what we experienced the previous week regarding the types of awareness and expression appropriate to each activity. Our head gardener demonstrated the proper body positions. We each agreed to keep an eye on how our technique was affected by fatigue, and whether it could be overcome or not. Then we set off. The mood was different this time; less scattered, more purposeful, and over the period, a bit slower. Our discussion afterwards centered on what students had noticed about the ways in which they held and used their bodies.

After a few months, the workout lost its novelty and faded away. What remained, however, was a heightened pleasure and skill in outdoor work and, for some, a new sense of posture, grace and poise.

 

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