physical exercise

What you should know about physical literacy

On Monday, we posted on the very real challenges facing those who teach PE on Zoom. Today we explore the meaning of physical literacy in the classroom.

The concept of physical literacy is not new but it has taken some time for key stakeholders here in Australia, such as Sport Australia,  to start using the term to promote physical activity engagement

Sport Australia has published the Australian Physical Literacy Framework (APLF) (2020). This document provide readers with examples of practice across five stages of (human) development. At no stage do these documents refer to school or curriculum programs. 

Instead another document the Physical Literacy Guide for Schools presents a holistic vision of the promotion of physical activity through the following macro-level areas: i. Culture, Organisation and Environment, ii. Curriculum Teaching and Learning, and iii. Partnerships. Even this latter document does little to explain how the concepts, domains or elements fit into health and physical education leaving Scott et al (2020) to write that the “…challenge is to find ways to appropriate integrate the APLF into HPE programmes.”

Physical literacy “…can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life” (Whitehead, 2019, p. 8). 

Our purpose for writing our article (see Brown & Whittle, 2021) was to explore this interest in the concept of physical literacy as it relates to the Victorian/Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education. 

While others have highlighted how the term and concept has gained traction internationally in the development of policy and the teaching during school physical education, we considered how physical literacy was likely to be taken up by teachers, if at all, and considered how it could be presented in the Victorian Curriculum and subsequently the Australian Curriculum should it be seen as worthwhile and meaningful. 

Our additional concern relates to how the concept of physical literacy from its intention to its enactment will occur with teachers. Research from educational policy sociology has suggested that teachers look towards implicit policy documents that are not formal in the curriculum sense (e.g. guidance materials produced by others not curriculum bodies, herein Sport Australia), placing teachers in “…uncharted territory, potentially feeling pressure to strengthen PL outcomes in their HPE programmes” (Scott et al. 2020, p. 6). We see that HPE teachers act as ‘policy actors’ and utilise materials to support their teaching but designed for a different purpose and in fact become ‘quasi-curriculum’.

Given the international and local contexts, we argue that there is perhaps a need to revisit how physical literacy is interpreted and enacted in the key learning area of HPE. 

Currently within the Victorian Curriculum there is no explicit reference to the concept of physical literacy, even though there are likely practitioners that discuss and engage with the concept in their schools and during their HPE classes. 

The contemporary pedagogical practices of primary and secondary health and physical education teachers are in line with the content descriptions and achievement standards of the curriculum. As an example, the teaching of movement skills, health-based physical activity/lifelong physical activity, movement concepts and teamwork and social capabilities are examples of content seen daily nationwide in health and physical education classes. All these content areas lead to the development of physical literacy. This then calls into question why physical literacy and why not physical education? 

Some have suggested that the concepts of physical literacy are more closely aligned to the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum. Unfortunately however, the general capabilities are not present within the Victorian Curriculum. Given these points that we have raised above, we considered whether the concept of physical literacy could be considered as the sixth proposition that informs the content of the curriculum. One argument for our justification relates to the abstract nature within the research and lay literature of physical literacy as a concept. Several reasons led us to this position that PL could act as the sixth proposition:

  • That PL is a contemporary and futures-focussed term that currently pervades to lexicon of teachers and academics within the physical education literature
  • That PL derives its content and disciplinary base from multiple different perspectives and these may be privileged or not in enactment
  • Aligns with a 21st century curriculum
  • That there is an exponential explosion of research related to this term in the development, practice and assessment associated with HPE
  • Most importantly, that the concept is esoteric in nature, is difficult to define and there is little consensus about how it should be enacted in physical education.

Our contention is that it is best placed to exist as an overarching concept, or proposition within the curriculum. We argue that the concept of physical literacy should standalone as a proposition, as opposed to being embedded in the valuing movement proposition as proposed in the ACARA review of the HPE curriculum (ACARA, 2021). Additionally, and is not often stated, teachers are explicitly involved in physical literacy work during the teaching of health and physical education. Promoting its virtues as a proposition within the curriculum could be seen as an acceptable ‘middle ground’ in that it philosophically and conceptually approves that is should be part of the developing curriculum language, whilst simultaneously suggesting that teachers do physical literacy work.

Trent Brown is a senior lecturer at Deakin University and a former president of the Australian Council for Health Physical Education and Recreation. He has been an active researcher in the areas of physical education curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. In 2018 he co-authored Examination Physical Education – Policy, Pedagogies and Possibilities (Routledge) with Professor Dawn Penney.

Rachael Whittle has authored a number of health and physical education text books for both 7-10 HPE and VCE Physical Education and delivers teacher professional learning both nationally and internationally. Rachael’s doctoral studies research focussed on influences on academic performance in senior-secondary physical education.

Image in header © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank

Why it’s a nightmare to use Zoom to get moving

Schools around Australia were forced into online delivery of physical education (PE) in Term 2, 2020, due to measures taken to suppress and restrict the spread of Covid-19. We looked at what really happened in classrooms. The results show us exactly how marginalised PE became.

What we found in our research, ‘Just do some physical activity’: Exploring experiences of teaching primary school physical education online during Covid-19, is that few guidelines were provided to teachers by education departments, and that teachers found out ‘what works’ by ‘trial and error’. Our study found PE teachers missed the face-to-face interaction with students, and that often new teaching skills needed to be cultivated to meet the challenge of online lesson delivery, whether by synchronous or asynchronous delivery.

Students in Tasmania where this research occurred were required to study online from home for approximately 10 weeks, with schools only being ‘open’ to families of essential workers who continued in the workforce while the rest of the population were under work from home requirements.

In Australia, physical education (PE) is an essential education provision that is central to the development of the skills, knowledge, and attitudes necessary for lifelong health and wellbeing. It is a part of the essential learning area called Health and Physical Education (HPE), which all Australian students within compulsory ages of schooling are required to take. While regular physical activity is recommended for students to meet the achievement standards of the Australian HPE Curriculum (AC:HPE), it is important to remember that the rationale and objectives of the AC:HPE clearly indicate that PE should have an educative focus and an inquiry emphasis.

Regular participation in school PE is an important foundation to ‘becoming’ physically educated and to the physical literacy that informs physical activity as an ongoing lifestyle choice. Research has also noted that participation in PE has numerous affective, social-emotional and cognitive benefits. Despite the holistic outcomes associated with PE, it is often not given the time and resources it requires to develop students into independent, self-regulated and self-motivated seekers of physical activity by the end of compulsory PE in Year 10. This is due to schools prioritising time to other learning areas deemed more ‘academic’ and therefore ‘important’ to the priorities of the school. It needs to be acknowledged, that often PE has not helped its own image as a worthwhile site of learning through provision of school curricula that provides little more than a series of physical activity experiences. This has been described as keeping students busy, happy, active, and good (well behaved).

The study

This study was undertaken by researchers from the University of Tasmania and Flinders University, Adelaide. The aim of this study was to investigate the effects on the educative intent of PE when primary school teachers were forced into an online delivery of the curriculum. It is important to know more about this phenomenon to inform future situations like that experienced by Covid-19 suppression measures as well as existing distance education by online delivery.

Data was obtained from eleven Tasmanian HPE specialist teachers who were forced to shift to online delivery of primary school PE during 2020. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with these teachers, who taught in co-educational primary schools across a variety of Tasmanian locations.

Key themes

Analysis of teachers’ experiences led to the emergence of three key themes:

1. PE did not happen, but, in most cases, was altered to physical activity/fitness or educatively marginalised to just being a movement break between other subjects with higher status and priority;

2. Online learning platforms are already used by schools, but not with consistency. Using them to teach PE can be a lot of additional work and teachers had varying levels of willingness to use these platforms;

3. Connection with students is an important part of teaching, teachers preferred to connect with their students face to face and had concerns about delivery of feedback and student engagement online.

PE did not happen

Declining rates of physical activity participation, increasingly sedentary behaviour of Australian children and reports on low attainment of fundamental movement skills (and the problem of this when they are possibly predictive in the choice to be physically active) were already an issue before Covid-19. A focus on educative purposes for the progressive development of movement competence and confidence is one of the five interrelated propositions that shaped the writing of the AC:HPE. Yet, the educative ‘E’ in PE largely did not occur, rather, PE had been marginalised and replaced with physical activity tasks and in some cases to participating in online fitness activities. Online fitness videos can be a great resource for young people wanting to increase their movement levels during isolation, to accumulate sufficient physical activity through the day for healthy growth and development. However, physical activity provision of itself is not PE and HPE teachers are not personal trainers. Despite indicating an awareness of the difference between PE and physical activity, teacher comments indicated that they were happy just if their students were outside and active every day during isolation.

While students being active outside should be encouraged, particularly in light of recent research noting physical activity decreases during Covid-19, this physical activity should be undertaken in addition to PE lessons, just as it is in a ‘normal’ school day where physical activity breaks and ‘active classrooms’ are encouraged.  The educative focus of PE plays an important role in children becoming ‘competent’ in being active and developing the skills and dispositions required for lifelong health and activity, and the self-efficacy required to continue to independently seek to be physically active. While substituting physical activity for PE long term is going to be highly detrimental to this aim, it is important to acknowledge that expectations on teachers during Covid-19 suppression measures were unprecedented in living memory. Teachers were given very little time or professional development to prepare online content and teach online, and many participants perceived online teaching to be a temporary move until suppression measures had eased and teaching returned to normal.

Online learning platforms

Most participants appeared to be confident users of technology, yet some were concerned about the amount of screen time students were experiencing while learning online. This concern might go some way to explaining why some teachers chose to prioritise movement accumulation by setting physical activity tasks that would require students to get off their laptops but doesn’t mitigate against the expectation of teachers of all subjects to continue to progress students towards attainment of the student achievement outcomes outlined in the curriculum.

Participants who did teach online noted an increased workload due to different platforms being used and the time required to provide feedback to students. As one participant noted; “I’m giving myself a lot of work because I’m uploading the video to the 15 classes I teach, so it goes out to over 300 children and I had over 100 children respond every day. So, I’ve been on my computer the whole time responding to the children and watching their videos”. Using videos is a sensible solution to the challenge of online PE delivery, but teachers do need to be aware of the time required to give feedback.


Perhaps a reason for the loss of educative intent was the loss of connection teachers felt with the students and becoming physical activity leaders was seen as providing an online connection. Participant comments indicated both a concern for students missing the social benefits of learning together and working within a team, and their personal feelings related to missing their students. The ‘learning with others’ and the intra and inter-personal social skills development possibilities that come from PE teachers who deliberately plan for personal and social skills learning in PE, connects with the education through movement dimension that frames the AC:HPE.

While participants predominantly detailed the challenges of adapting their PE program for online delivery, several participants shared anecdotes of positive experiences with student engagement that had emerged during the move to online delivery. These included successful virtual cross-country carnivals and increased physical activity for some families. Exercise was one of the few reasons that Tasmanians were permitted to leave their homes during isolation, so it is important to acknowledge that some families may have increased their physical activity levels due to boredom and ‘cabin fever’. Nevertheless, these teacher comments indicated that online delivery of PE did have some benefits for students and their families, which teachers may be able to build on in the future.


The results suggest that for these teachers, the influence of Covid-19 forcing school curricula delivery online was (further) marginalisation of expectations for PE. PE is already recognised in the literature as a valued but not necessarily priority focus of learning, especially in primary schools. It appeared that the significant degree of contradiction between the value of PE and the provision of PE as a vague notion of physical activity accumulation became accentuated during online delivery. The departure of the ‘education’ in physical education became acceptable as physical activity accumulation was pursued.

For those who want more:

A second paper focussed on the online teaching experiences of secondary HPE teachers during COVID-19 suppression measures is currently under review.

From left to right:

Vaughan Cruickshank is a Senior Lecturer in Health and Physical Education (HPE) at the University of Tasmania and is currently Program Director of the Bachelor of Education(HPE) and Bachelor of Education(Science/Maths) programs. His research interests are focussed on HPE, health literacy and how we can encourage people to be active and healthy for life.

Shane Pill is an associate professor in physical education and sport at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He researches using qualitative methodology in curriculum, pedagogy, school leadership, and sport coaching. Shane is an award winning teacher educator, including the Australian Award for University Teaching (2016 and 2020) and Life Membership of the Australian Council for Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Casey Mainsbridge is a Lecturer in Health and Physical education at the University of Tasmania, Australia. His research areas are in health, physical activity, sedentary behaviour, pedagogy, habits and behaviour change. Casey is the Director of Student Engagement in the School of Education at the University of Tasmania, and has also been a registered exercise professional for twenty three years.