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Exploring Social Justice in Physical Education Teacher Education Programs | News | Hofstra University, New York
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Hofstra Horizons Research

Exploring Social Justice in Physical Education Teacher Education Programs

Sharon Phillips, PhD, Assistant Professor of Health Professions, Hofstra University
Community Health and Health Science Programs


Changes in politics, culture, and economics are roaring ahead in our present day. These changes have a significant influence on our education system, both here on Long Island and around the world. These shifts present new challenges to issues of social justice. Teacher educators and/or researchers have started to bring attention to the intensification of diversity that is now occurring both in and out of our schools. Unfortunately, education systems tend to grant privileges to a few students while marginalizing many others because of their social class, race, disability, and gender/sex. Magnifying that marginalization are powerful pedagogical outlets like popular culture and social media.

Physical Education Teacher Education (PETE) programs, both in the United States of America (US) and abroad, have responded and are working to prepare pre-service teachers (PSTs) to encounter diverse students in the gymnasium. Oftentimes PETE programs focus on sociocultural issues in some form. It could materialize as a field experience or “stand-alone” course, or as part of their overall mission statement. This is likely to be, partly, in response to professional standards and the need to meet accreditation requirements.

There is a set of literature that pushes for PETE students to develop a critical consciousness, appreciate multiple perspectives, and engage in actions to enhance social justice
(Hill et al., in press; Tinning, 2016). Researchers have followed suit and looked at the effectiveness of teaching sociocultural issues to PSTs, and the findings are quite mixed. Some researchers have suggested that PSTs are unaffected by courses addressing issues such as cultural diversity (Curtner-Smith, 2007; Devís-Devís & Sparkes, 1999; Evans & Penney, 2008; Mordal-Moen & Green, 2012), while other education experts have noted that a more individual approach to these issues – approaches that examine personal histories in relation to beliefs – results in change toward a higher level of acceptance (Cochran-Smith, 1995). Whatever way teacher educators in PETE programs have addressed these issues, as I have experienced, addressing sociocultural issues with PSTs can be challenging.

Purpose of the Research

My colleagues and I embarked upon an in-depth exploration of PETE programs to see if social justice is being taught at universities and colleges around the world. How do faculty explicitly teach PSTs about social justice within their program and classes, if they do indeed teach about these issues. Additionally, we wanted to investigate faculty perceptions of social justice. How do faculty define the term “social justice,” and what are their beliefs about social justice. While there is consensus on the importance of teaching social justice (Bialystok, 2014), the variation in definition is a potential issue (Randall & Robinson, 2016). Our goal was to help shed light on what is or is not happening in PETE programs globally regarding social justice.

A Team Effort

Before going any further, it is imperative to give credit where credit is due. This study was a team effort with several folks from around the globe.  Dr. Jennifer Walton-Fissette from Kent State University started work on this topic and pulled together an extraordinary team. Also representing America was Dr. Sue Sutherland of The Ohio State University and Dr. Sara Flory from the University of South Florida. From New Zealand (NZ)/Aotearoa (the Miori, the indigenous people of NZ, refer to the country as Aotearoa) were Drs. Rod Philpot and Alan Ovens from the University of Auckland, and from across the pond in the United Kingdom (UK) were Drs. Joanne Hill and Michelle Flemons from the University of Bedfordshire. It has been an incredible experience to work internationally on this project, and I am thankful for the opportunity.

As all of us want to better inform the field of PETE, we eagerly set out to collect data. The first step was to create our methodology, which included conducting a pilot study of our semi-structured interview process. Once the pilot study, which included 10 participants, concluded, our study began. Over 70 PETE professors from seven countries around the world participated in the interview process and submitted accompanying documents such as syllabi and plans of study. We analyzed the data and learned we had an incredibly rich database of information.

Seeking out opportunities for the dissemination of our research, we first organized the data into potential papers. While the research can lead us in endless directions, the first avenue we took brought us to writing papers that will be included in a special edition of the Journal of Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, which is based in the UK. From there we wanted to make connections with teacher educators at the local, state, national, and international levels. There have been a number of presentations given globally at all levels, and we look forward to two symposia coming up in 2018 at the SHAPE America National Convention and the International Association for Higher Education in Physical Education. The remainder of this article will discuss the findings of one of our papers, which looked at conceptualizing social justice in physical education pedagogy.

The Hidden Curriculum

An important concept that guides this research is the idea of a hidden curriculum (Bain, 1990). The hidden curriculum has existed in schools throughout the world in all areas, including physical education. The term “hidden curriculum” came to fruition in the early 1970s and can be seen often in educational research and literature. The hidden curriculum describes “what is taught to students by the institutional regularities, by the routines and rituals of teacher/student lives” (Weis, 1982, p. 3). In working toward uncovering the hidden curriculum, part of the goal of our study was to begin to unpack faculty perceptions. These perceptions guide social justice opinions, experiences, and behaviors. If PETE faculty are unaware of their own embodied identities, or if they struggle to deconstruct socially constructed messages that influence their social identities, it makes it far more challenging to educate PETE students about issues of social justice. It becomes impossible to revitalize the physical education social justice agenda and to create physical education teachers who can then act at the agents of social change in our schools (Hill et al., in press).

One example of our participants’ awareness of their own embodied identities and what that means for their role in society was Jeff, from the UK. He shared his view of himself and his place in society. Jeff discussed how his experiences are a result of the combination of his social identities. He defines himself as a white, cisgender, straight, middle-class male. He mentioned that this has provided him with privileges and that his perspective may affect and inform his social justice teaching (Hill et al., in press).

Conceptualizing Social Justice

We felt it was important to conceptualize what faculty perceive social justice to encompass. When asked to define sociocultural issues, PETE professors described them as the issues that create a need for social justice. These findings were organized into themes: (1) neoliberalist notion of individual responsibility; (2) humanist awareness of diversity; (3) critical or “post” perspectives, examining and challenging injustice, and taking action for justice; and (4) connections to social movements and national contexts. The most popular definitions of sociocultural issues included ethnicity/race/racism, gender, sexual orientation, class/socioeconomic status, and the body (disability and/or obesity). A few professors discussed home life, religion, political participation, education access, and bigotry in general as also being sociocultural issues (Hill et al., in press).

Regarding the neoliberalist notion of individual responsibility, there were participants who felt that while it was important to cover sociocultural issues, it was not paramount. These participants felt that society is fairly equal. Cliff from the United States even went as far as to say that some people are “way too sensitive.” While many did feel that it is important to “cover” sociocultural issues, they felt no need to challenge the status quo and would not feel comfortable doing so, nor did they think it would help. Yet others, in alliance with the humanist awareness of diversity, shared the thought that social justice requires the acceptance of diversity and difference, and a greater understanding of equality (Hill et al., in press).

In looking at critical perspectives, we found that some participants conceptualized social justice as an analysis of structural power, taking action for democracy and equity and critical self-reflection. Each of the following quotes are from Hill et al. (in press). Russ from the United States elaborates:

Understanding the different world views of different groups, for example, understanding history and current social context from the perspective of men and women, from people of different sexualities, races, ethnicities, nationalities … social justice also has to have a big component of equity and understanding historical forms of oppression and the ways in which power has leverage by certain groups over other groups.

Sarah, from New Zealand, suggested:

There are power relationships everywhere … who is advantaged, who is disadvantaged, who has a vested interest in maintaining power, who has a vested interest in trying to create change or who is marginalised.

As we continued to dig deeper, we found that, for a few participants, taking action was an explicit part of their understanding of social justice. Connor, an American living in NZ/Aotearoa, said that to him, social justice is action against injustices. He stated:

I don’t know if you could technically have one definition of [social justice]but I think that working to eradicate inequality for specific areas, such as gender, race, sexuality, colonialism and things like that … social justice education is actually trying to eradicate social inequalities.

Lastly, others related to social justice by connecting to social movements and national contexts. Interestingly, some issues were manifested in specific examples of activism or rights-based movements. For example, “race lenses from different countries were mentioned as informing positions on sociocultural issues: Black Lives Matter, institutional racism and civil rights in the US; anti-Islamophobia, immigrant rights and Brexit issues in the UK; and tackling socioeconomic disparities and attacks on cultural expressions for Máori and Pasifika students in NZ and for indigenous Australians” (Hill et al., in press).

The conclusions from our research continue on from the conceptualization of social justice, as discussed here. The topics range, for example, from looking at how standards affect the teaching of social justice in PETE to how PETE matters in the social justice education.


For the reader, this issue of Hofstra Horizons is dedicated to the School of Health Professions and Human Services, and I am a professor teaching in the Health Science and Community Health programs. How, then, does studying issues of social justice in PETE relate to health? The Theory of Reasoned Action suggests that if a person thinks (cognition) that something is important and feels (affect) that something is enjoyable, they will have a more positive attitude and are more likely to participate (behavior) (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). For instance, if a person feels that eating vegetables is important and enjoys doing so, they are more likely to have a positive attitude toward vegetables and to eat them. Research strongly suggests that a person’s attitude toward, and experience in, physical education class directly affects their physical activity levels outside of school; the more positive the experience in the gymnasium, the higher the likelihood of participation in physical activity outside of school (Phillips & Silverman, 2015; Solmon & Lee, 1996). These habits outside of school have been linked to activity habits into adulthood (Kohl & Hobbs, 1998; Phillips & Silverman, 2015). Therefore, students having a positive experience in physical education class – and not feeling marginalized by physical education teachers who not only embody teaching social justice but create safe spaces in class for students to flourish – creates the opportunity for the development of positive attitudes toward physical education. This positive attitude cycles into the system of having healthy physical activity habits outside of school, which then has a direct impact on personal health habits throughout life. Moreover, in looking at the larger picture of social justice, as it states in the mission statement for the Hofstra School of Health Professions and Human Services, two of the goals are for our students to become compassionate clinicians and to advocate for underserved populations. Hopefully, our research will help create space for our students to do just that.


  • Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1980). Understanding attitudes and predicting social behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Bain, L. (1990). A critical analysis of the hidden curriculum. In D. Kirk & R. Tinning (Eds.), Physical education, curriculum and culture: Critical issues in the contemporary crisis (23-42). London: The Falmer Press.
  • Bialystok, L. (2014). Politics without “brainwashing”: A philosophical defence of social justice education. Curriculum Inquiry, 44(3), 413-440.
  • Cochran-Smith, M. (1995). Color blindness and basket making are not the answers: Confronting the dilemmas of race, culture and the language diversity in teacher education. American Educational Research Journal, 32, 493–522.
  • Curtner-Smith, M. D. (2007). The impact of a critically oriented physical education teacher education course on preservice classroom teachers. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 26(1): 35-56.
  • Devís-Devís, J., & Sparkes, A. C. (1999). Burning the book: A biographical study of a pedagogically inspired identity crisis in physical education. European Physical Education Review, 5(2): 135-152.
  • Evans, J., & Penney, D. (2008). Levels on the playing field: The social construction of physical “ability” in the physical education curriculum. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 13(1): 31-47.
  • Hill, J., Philpot, R., Walton-Fisette, J. L., Sutherland, S., Flemons, M., Ovens, A., Phillips, S. R., & Flory, S. (in press). Conceptualising social justice and sociocultural issues within physical education teacher education: International perspectives. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy.
  • Kohl, H. W., & Hobbs, K. E. (1998). Development of physical activity behaviors among children and adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics, 101, 549-554.
  • Mordal-Moen , K., & Green, K. (2012). Neither shaking nor stirring: A case study of reflexivity in Norwegian physical education teacher education. Sport, Education and Society, 19(4): 415-434.
  • Phillips, S. R. & Silverman, S. (2015). Upper elementary school student attitudes toward physical education. Journal of Teaching in Physical Education, 34, 461-473.
  • Randall, L., & Robinson, D. B. (2016). An introduction. In D. B. Robinson & L. Randall (Eds.). Social justice in physical education: Critical reflections and pedagogies for change (1-14). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.
  • Solmon, M. A., & Lee, A. M. (1996). Research on social issues in elementary school physical education. The Elementary School Journal, 103, 229-239.
  • Tinning, R. (2016). Transformative pedagogies and physical education. In C. Ennis (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of physical education pedagogies (281-294). New York: Routledge.
  • Weis, L. (1982). Schooling and the reproduction of aspects of structure. Issues in education: Schooling and the reproduction of class and gender inequalities. Occasional Paper #10, SUNY at Buffalo, 1-16.

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