A place for health in the PE curriculum

Krishna Kumar

If the term ‘physical education’ has a meaning, it resides in its relationship with other aspects of education. No one can deny that the body is both an interesting source of curiosity and an object of frequent concern during childhood. The body’s well-being is so obviously important that education cannot ignore it. The question is how physical education, as it is presently constituted, treats the body.

Let us move into a school. The PE teacher’s role is sharply carved out. The space where PE takes place is not confined the way the space for the teaching of other subjects is. Out in the open, where children have every reason to feel pleased, the PE teachers rule like no other teacher can. Their pedagogy hides nothing: it is aimed at regimenting the body in a collective setting, harmonizing individuals with the group and thereby creating a spectacle of discipline. In the history of modern education, physical education has served as a site for major debates over the place of the child’s body in the overall growth of the wherewithal for life. Both sides of the debate have scored vital points in different phases of history and in different sociopolitical settings. As a field, ‘physical education’ has received significant contributions, both from humanist holists and disciplinarian regimentalists.

In our country, the PE teacher carries an additional, crucial responsibility: that of health education, though the word ‘health’ itself is far from clear and carries many contested connotations. In a society where millions are malnourished, and remain so throughout the formative years of childhood, the PE teacher can hardly afford to ignore the body’s actual capacity to engage in physical exercise in order to profit from it and to enjoy it. Yet, the field seems to be reluctant to acknowledge that sociological awareness is necessary for the PE teachers’ training. Systemic awareness is similarly lacking. PE teachers are often called instructors, and rightly so, because many of them expect nothing but obedience. They are neither prepared for a discursive environment in the PE class, nor do they feel any need for it. Even the knowledge they impart in the context of nutrition and illnesses is like a cut out, offering little room for the child’s own voice, let alone voices like those of gender and class. The PE teacher behaves like a king who is also a sanyasi and has, therefore, little to do with contemporary concerns of our system. This must be attributed to the institutions where PE teachers get trained and to the curriculum of their specialized B.Ed., known as B.P.Ed.

The fact that health and sports both are under the purview of the PE teacher is worrisome. How exclusively physical is health? This matter was raised in the discussions of the National Focus Group on physical education, one of the 21 focus groups constituted under the auspices of the National Curriculum Framework 2005 exercise. The position paper of this group is seldom read, and it made little impact on the curriculum and pedagogy of the subject. Like art, it remains on the margin of school life because it cannot be examined in the conventional manner in which the core subjects are examined. However, the margin occupied by PE is less illumined and more fearsome for children than the margin where art resides and flourishes in some schools despite systemic neglect. The continuation of corporal punishment in PE is no secret. The PE teacher often acts like a friendly boss, a strong personality who knows how to handle things. Not surprisingly, many schools make sure that field trips, even the ones with a specific academic purpose, include the PE teacher.

Reform in the PE curriculum for schools as well as for teacher training is necessary if we want health to find a better-designed and higher place in both. It is a crucial area utterly neglected in our schools even though many schools now have a doctor and nurse on hand. Health is hardly about accidents and illness, nor about fitness alone. Many new concepts and appropriate material are available to infuse spirit and energy into the health curriculum. A new curricular design will constitute only an initial step in the long chain of reforms, and the going will be tough all the way. The PE turf is vigilantly guarded. No one from ‘outside’ can access the field and freely participate in its internal discussions. The only role available to an outsider, howsoever well meaning, is that of an impressed onlooker who enjoys watching mass drill and march-pasts.

Prof. Krishna Kumar is a former Director of NCERT and an author. His new book ‘Smaller Citizens’ will be published later this year. He can be reached at anhsirk.kumar@gmail.com.

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