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

Shaun Wilkinson, David Littlefair, Linda Barlow-Meade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Citations (Scopus)
4 Downloads (Pure)

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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)147-164
JournalEuropean Physical Education Review
Volume19
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013

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