Hriday Kant Dewan
In recent times physical education has become an important topic in discussions on school educational programmes. These discussions are around the many forms of physical education that are focused on the purposes that they are supposed to serve. Several schools also have a physical training instructor for which the minimum requirement is a special degree in physical education. Given the fact that all the central policy documents for school education in India have talked about physical education, it is useful to examine the way they have done so and also how, in my experience, it plays out in the schools.
Why physical education
The reasons for the attitude to physical education being the way it is are manifold. One aspect that we want to build consensus on is why do we want it. This is essential as we think of ways to construct meaningful, engaging and interesting PE programmes. The responses to why we want to have it in schools may come from multiple perspectives. These can be as varied as the purpose of education and reasons for children coming to school. While these have been articulated differently in different documents, one focus that has always stayed has been to finding a vocation or a useful profession that takes you forward from the current status. There is also the unwritten emphasis on assessment to sustain the selection processes for our deeply stratified and divided society.
The policy and declarations have to contend with the glaring and growing inequalities that have risen to alarming proportions and a system that considers education as a means for choosing a few individuals who would be called successful at the expense of most others who would be termed as failures. Education currently is a mechanism largely for individual escape and individual salvation rather than a collective enterprise of learning and growing as a community. International and national policy documents, intent declarations and other such postures notwithstanding, education currently cannot challenge the separation and fragmentation of children from different communities and backgrounds. All this also affects the PE programmes and the thinking around them.
But we need to first construct the widest set of purposes as to why physical education is necessary in schools. It can be argued that physical education builds occasions for socialization across diverse groups of students, co-operation, team spirit, sense of sportsmanship and taking win and loss in one’s stride, a desire to succeed and excel as well as to support those needing it. We can also add to this, natural opportunities for sharing and bonding as well as contact. It also allows children the opportunity to relax, explore their body and understand their physical capabilities. Of course, this is apart from the idea of health, discipline and physical development through exercise and routine that is the more conventionally accepted part of the purpose of physical education. However the present understanding of ‘why physical education’ is far more restricted. Another neglected but important reason for physical education is the possibility and space for multiple capabilities, diverse modes of success, acceptance of all this as valid successes and hence increasing the zone of comfort for many students who may not excel in academics in the early stages.
The understanding of physical education today
The way physical education and in fact all sports (and/other disciplines) are seen shows a reluctance to allow a space for fun and games in the school and classroom, the underlying thought being that the children are anyway playing the whole day. Many parents would also argue that they send their children to school to study and become ‘somebody’; if they have to play and have fun, why should they not stay at home and help in the work? This attitude of school being a serious place also promotes yoga and such exercises in comparison to any other way of spending time allocated for physical education. In today’s time much more than before, yoga has a great advertising and acceptance advantage over any other form of physical activity. Even group games that require little or no cost get declared as impractical as they would require a ground and an interested adult for each bunch of children playing. Physical exercises, on the other hand, can be conducted by an adult or a senior child with all the other children copying and following the movements. It additionally just requires a few other adults and/or senior students to walk around the students standing in line and monitoring to ensure everyone does the exercises. This matches well with the general pedagogy for the school where all do the same thing, all copy and follow and everything is structured.
Physical education in policy
Regarding policy, the nature of emphasis and its implications have been largely the same in policy documents in different times, except for some minor shifting of emphasis. Among these there is not much difference in the real content and the intent that the system and the teachers would pick up from this articulation. By and large, the policy discourse on sports/physical education has been narrow and disappointing. Even though the Kothari Commission talked about the element of ‘sportsmanship’ and of games and sports for a variety of purposes and extended physical education to include more than yoga and exercises, the subsequent documents have successively narrowed it. The Commission considered this essential for not only those who were good in sports but for all. It also called for a playing field and other facilities as a priority for a nation-wide sports programme. Much of the above suggestions have been lost in the subsequent documents. The thrust in physical education has also been shifting away from its wider affective purpose.
The national curriculum for elementary and secondary education (NCESE 1988), talked about the harmonious development of body and mind as being essential for good health. It suggests, we quote “He/she should be helped to develop desirable understanding, attitudes and practices with regard to nutrition, health and sanitation so that the health status of the family and community is improved.” While the emphasis on health has continued and has been strengthened by inclusion of nutrition in the NCF 2005, which argues that physical education should be holistic and health education, yoga and physical education should be aligned, it also suggests that physical education is a cross-curricular subject and needs to be integrated with the different possibilities for participating in productive work that is socially useful. Like the previous documents it emphasizes physical well-being and the need of yoga for that. It however, specifically asks for flexibility in the time-table so that all children have a chance to participate in it. There is very little of anything else.
As it stands, the policy discourse on physical education has not constructed a coherent response to this. From the 1966 Kothari commission and the 1968 policy to the NCESE 1988, and even the national curriculum frameworks including the NCF 2005, reflect a mixed view on these questions and do not take a clear stance on what to include and emphasize in physical education. The NCF 2000 however, had a clearer stand and advocated the notion that physical education meant yoga. It further argued that physical training meant developing the mental attitude to do yoga. The construction of a meaningful yoga programme, given the hours of school functioning, was however, clearly an impossibility unless students could come to the school twice every day in different time slots.
The streak of physical development, self-discipline and also general discipline (in the sense of proper behaviour, listening to and following adult instruction, etc.) has remained in all the documents right up to the NCF 2005. The expectations from all these processes of physical education may be somewhat different for each of these documents but the common thread and the associated attitudes towards not just exercise and discipline but much else have been always there. In addition to this, the documents also mention sportspersonship, cooperation, fraternal bonding and similar things but all this in a very perfunctory manner. There is no elaboration on what they mean, reasons why these are important or even one or two examples that can help clarify the expectations.
This equivocality and the lack of recognition of the importance of bringing children together without considering their backgrounds and ensuring they learn, leads to just an ambivalent interest focused on physical development. The purposes of cognitive, affective and social/development get mostly ignored. The overwhelming sense is of looking at children as mini-adults to be constructed in the image of an ideal adult through processes that even adults accept for themselves reluctantly. So instead of analyzing why children do not accept discipline, the effort is to impose it on them from a very early age with the hope that this imposition would convert into an acceptable routine habit with them.
Where we need to go The agenda of physical education that needs to include not just physical activity and exercise but also relaxation, team spirit and cooperation, ability to absorb wins and losses, sharing mutual help, bonding across diverse backgrounds and much else just gets reduced at best to building discipline, getting in the mood for concentrated work and exercise of the muscles. The possibility of recognition for multiple merits for those not doing well in studies through games and supports of physical interactions and maintaining temper or the expression of intense passionate desire to succeed and win and then also appreciating the efforts of the opponents are important possible experiences. Even if we grant the argument that children get these opportunities in their own home and playground situations, the possibility of mixing backgrounds and adult supervision to balance the passionate encounters and accepting outcomes may not be available. While there are examples of schools that have sports that are genuinely inclusive and participative and where students learn to support those who struggle, these remain as exceptions outside the mainstream belief system.
One would expect a physical education programme to achieve some of its objectives and would be present in all schools particularly in the public schools. The situation from my experience of working with the government school system and many private schools of varied economic shades suggests however, that physical education and its teachers are primarily dedicated to ensuring discipline in the school. He/she doubles as a teacher or a teacher doubles up for both roles. In many states, the positions of the physical education teachers are vacant or do not exist. And in most cases, the physical education ‘teacher’ is not in the category of teachers, he is an instructor. Besides this, in most schools, there is no regular schedule or programme of physical education. In most serious private schools and in well-functioning government schools as well, particularly for the senior classes, the period meant for physical education is up for grabs for the subjects considered to be core and important. It is taken by subjects in which children require more attention and this period grab happens to other non-core areas as well. While the National Curriculum Framework 2005 has emphasized the rigorous and systematic inclusion of cocurricular or non-scholastic areas into the school programme, even its emphasis for physical education is on nutritional, physical including motor development leaving out the other aspects. In recent times there are emerging small groups and individuals who are attempting to widen the scope of physical education beyond exercise, health, physical development and discipline. They are attempting to create space for some physical education time regularly in the school programme and directed towards the other aspects of affective and ethical development.
The physical education programme has to be constructed keeping in mind the question ‘why’ and then the question ‘how best’. And within that, lies what it can focus on in the context of the school and the community, what would be the manner of its reaching to all children and how it should include everyone. In my view, the ‘why’ has to be such that reduces or does away with the premium on school as a place for competitive cognitive development for filtering and rejecting the large majority and replacing it by a focus on inclusion, participation, learning and respect for all.
To summarize, the current understanding of physical education remains as a dispensable and limited use activity, which is secondary to the main academic and curricular purpose of school. The broad vision of physical education as articulated in the first education policy of 1968 has only been narrowed and even that has not been converted into any significant point of action. In the current situation most educators who bother to even think of physical education consider it to be physical exercise (read yoga) for discipline and for concentration. Sports and games remain non-curricular, non-school, unrelated to cognitive development and hence useless activities that waste time. The inability to perceive the connection of sports and games to cognitive and affective growth, or to recognize the possible indirect but important support from affective growth to cognitive and curricular development leaves physical education shorn of its possibilities. The current trend of encouraging sports and play even for girls emerges from it being seen as an occupational possibility. The general effort thus is not towards building opportunities that are participative and inclusive but towards individual training and effort to become better than the others. The purpose is not of sharing, bonding, enjoying and learning to help those not as capable and accepting to play for being together rather than just for winning. The preparation to becoming a sportsperson such as developing a passion to play and participate, challenge oneself and taking wins and losses in one’s stride to lose the extremes of passion like unhappiness, anger or gloating and jeering others is entirely missing.
We can take heart from the changed form of sports in media. It is no longer aligned with the old adage, “Padhoge likhoge banoge nawab; kheloge kudoge to hoge kharab”. It now wants academics to adjust and accept play time and even allow children a bit of extra time for their sports activity. This is a radical shift but is yet triggered by the success of professional sports and building up a hope in sports as a career choice. It is yet not an emphasis that has emerged due to an understanding of the role that physical education and its associated activities can play in the development of children. This supplements the earlier purpose of adding certificates that help in various ways. The journey towards the goal of physical education for including diversity, social-interaction including body contact and touch, bonding, cooperation, team spirit and doing for a collective, sense of fair play, acceptance of win and loss, unwinding and relaxation, etc; is yet far off.
The author is currently with the Azim Premji University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.