What you should know about physical literacy

By Trent Brown and Rachael Whittle

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

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