Gender Issues in Physical Education:
Female Students’ Perspectives and Experiences
David W Chorney and Cameron Weitz
Something that has remained fairly constant in high schools over the last few decades is the low enrolment of female students in postcompulsory physical education courses. As physical educators, we need to gain an understanding as to why girls are choosing not to participate in physical education after it is no longer compulsory. Often, those students are less physically active after graduation and into their adult lives. If we can understand why many girls are leaving high school with negative feelings about physical education, wecan implement strategies to deal with the trend accordingly.
This article is intended to provide an in-depth understanding as to why girls are opting not to take physical education beyond the compulsory levels. Also, the question of segregated or coeducational physical education classes will be discussed. The bulk of the article is dedicated to understanding why girls have negative feelings toward physical education and what we as educators can do to change their perspectives.
Living in an overly obese society, we must do our best as physical educators to promote lifelong physical activity to our students. We must do everything in our power to improve female students’ perspectives on and experiences in physical education and to encourage them to pursue a healthy, physically activelifestyle.
In a study conducted in Saskatchewan, Avery, Girolami and Humbert (1998, 4) state, “In the school selected for our study, over 80% of the young women who participated in physical education when it was compulsory did not enroll in optional physical education classes.” Another study focusing on participation in physical education (King and Coles 1992) determined that “young females participate less often in physical activities than young males and also consider themselves less fit and less likely to be physically active at age 20” (p 3). If girls are turned off by physical education in high school, they are much less likely to remainactive as adults.
In North America, health issues related to being inactive are overwhelming. Research indicates that physical inactivity leads to obesity, cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease (Canadian Associationfor Health, Physical Education and Recreation 1993). On the other end of the spectrum, those who remain active have decreased occurrence of depression, colon and reproductive cancers, and all other forms of hypokinetic disease (Australian Sports Commission 1993). The psychosocial benefits include improved social skills, improved leadership skills and increased self-esteem.
In a research study by the Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute (see Craig et al 2001), 3,334 parents of school-aged children were surveyed, and only 20 per cent indicated that their child received daily physical education. The majority of parents indicated that their child received physical education one or two days per week, and 10 per cent of parents indicated that their child received no physical education at all. At the secondary level, 20 per cent of parents surveyed across Canada indicated that their adolescent child received no physical education at all, and this percentage increased as students advanced throughthe secondary grades.
Once physical education becomes optional, enrolment tends to decrease significantly, with the decrease more noticeable with adolescent girls than with adolescent boys (Craig and Cameron 2004; Deacon 2001; Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, Department of Education 1996; Grunbaum et al 2004; Spence et al 2001). In addition, data from the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey demonstrated that adolescent girls in Grades 6–10 spent less time than adolescent boys participating in vigorous physicalactivity during class time (Boyce 2004).
The physical education class should be an environment that promotes enjoyable lifelong physical activity, not one that makes female students feel ashamed, embarrassed or unworthy. The current Alberta physical education curriculum has a specific emphasis on student understanding of the benefits of health and the importance of cooperation that results from participating in physical activity, either as an individual or with others. Flintoff (1996) stresses that physical education programs are an important gateway for encouraging young people to develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary for active, healthy living. The issue for many girls is that these noted benefits are rarely, if ever, realized during the high school years, since theyare not enrolling in the physical education classes that are offered.
Why Are Girls Turned Off by Physical Education?
Research indicates that previous negative experiences in physical education, particularly during elementary school, are the number one reason girls dislike physical education (Avery, Girolami and Humbert 1998). Many girls have found previous physical education classes to be too competitive, and they feel that teachers show gender bias and make students engage in intense activity (such as running laps or doing pushups) as a form of punishment. They also feel that student athletes are favoured and that teachers have minimalexpectations for almost all girls.
Another concern often mentioned by girls is their not being able to participate in physical education without wearing proper gym attire. Avery, Girolami and Humbert (1998, 19) highlight the comment of one participant, who said, “We didn’t bring our stuff so we just sat against the side of the gym, about ten of us. Our teacher put us there and we weren’t allowed to do gym, it was a guy. He called us the vegetable garden.” Many girls are discouraged by harassing comments and critical remarks from classmates about their performance. Male classmates, who often feel secure in the physical education environment, make many of these derogatory comments. They also do little to include girls in the planned activities and to create amore cohesive and friendly classroom environment (Avery, Girolami and Humbert 1998).
As physical educators, should we not be held accountable for our classroom environment, as well as for how we attempt to accomplish the outcomes of the curriculum? Who is to blame for female students’ unwillingness to participate in or even register for elective physical education classes? The “old school” teachers who are too set in their ways to even realize what is going on? The unqualified physical education teachers who are oblivious to these subtle issues? Or are there more compelling sources of blame? These are questions that we as educators (and, specifically, professionals with an interest in and passion for physical education) need to consider if we are to change the perspectives and experiences of girls in physical education. The provincial curriculum has been developed to decrease the emphasis on competition and sport-specific drill and practice, while increasing the emphasis on cooperating, understanding the benefits of physical activity and engaging in daily physical activity for life. It is encouraging that the curriculum has taken this approach to guiding the teaching of physical education, but are physical education teachersthemselves aware of this shift in curricular focus?
Segregated or Coeducational Physical Education Classes?
Most researchers believe that segregated physical education classes are much more beneficial than coeducationalclasses, particularly for girls and especially at the high school level.
Research by Myrick (1996) indicates that when high school students convene for physical education, the skill level of both girls and boys declines. The competitive nature of the boys subdues the girls: “the girls willavoid play while the boys control the activity” (p 6).
The research also reveals how much girls seem to prefer segregated physical education classes. The following statement from a female participant in research by Avery, Girolami and Humbert (1998, 11) emphasizes her genuine feelings of relief and enjoyment: “I’m more confident now, I don’t feel like everyone is watching me.” Clearly, girls gain a level of comfort when physical education classes are segregated. According to Myrick (1996), girls feel more comfortable, feel less pressure and reap more benefits from single-sex physicaleducation classes.
Generally speaking, as students increase in age, operating a coeducational physical education class becomes increasingly difficult. The influence of peers and the media is substantial in middle schools and high schools today. According to Myrick (1996, 7), “many other issues come into play, including sexual harassment, body image, self-esteem, major physical changes, and a more severe degree of gender bias when dealing with coeducational physical education.” As physical educators, we need to be aware of theseconcerns and deal with them accordingly.
Another reason segregation is recommended over coeducational classes is the fact that girls and boys usually like or dislike physical education for different reasons. Boys are generally interested in competing, developing skills and striving for success. Girls are generally more interested in being with friends, having fun and participating in activities in which everyone is involved. Girls also tend to enjoy playing more recreational games that require a low skill level and are easy to learn, as researched by Vertinsky (1992). Vertinsky also states, “Girls often value the fun and friendship of sport and activity more than competition and achievements” (p 376), and notes that “a decrease in girls’ activity levels is especially seen in programs emphasizing highly structured and competitive sports and physical activities as opposed to recreational or cooperative activity” (p 375). The provincial curriculum has decreased the emphasis on competition and highlystructured sports, and increased the emphasis on recreational activities.
Dealing with the Issues
Physical education teachers should provide a positive learning environment that motivates all students to want to be present and to learn, but perhaps more concern and attention should be given to the femalestudents in our classes.
Research indicates that punishment does not result in long-lasting changes in student behaviour, while effective reinforcement does (Downing, Keating and Bennett 2005). This is perhaps the most importantconsideration when teaching physical education to all students.
Promoting classroom community and establishing a safe and caring learning environment are other key components in ensuring that all students feel welcome and wanted in every physical education setting. Greeting students at the door with a friendly smile can put them in a positive frame of mind, and it also conveys that you care and that you are happy they have come to your class. It is important that you get to know all the students in your class, not just the athletically skilled students or those who participate on the schoolsports teams.
Perhaps the greatest way to build classroom community and motivate students to be engaged in their own learning is to ask them for their opinions many times during the semester and to make it clear that their input is valued. When students have input into the activities in which they will be participating, and when they are made to feel part of the assessment and evaluation aspects of the class, their intrinsic motivation is increased. Provide students with choices and guide their decisions, rather than leaving it completely up to them. Aicinena (1991) states that “the prudent teacher would seem to be one who allows some input into classroom decision making, yet maintains control of the processes involved in instruction. Such actions would seem most likely to affect positive attitudes toward physical education.” Students want to know that their teacher cares and values their opinion. Lettingtheir voices be heard gives them some ownership and responsibility.
Providing students with some choice with regard to activities is also important in increasing their motivation. Teachers can lead by example by providing students with innovative activities and by being enthusiastic, inspiring and joyful while teaching them. Budris (1993, 21) found that new activities can positively affect the atmosphere in physical education classes: “You can improve the psychological atmosphere of your classes with new activities, and you can improve the physical environment even more easily.” Girls, in particular, prefer to try new activities, rather than repeating the same activities and sports year after year. Whether in a segregated or coeducational physical education class, new activities level the playing field for everyone involved. Avery, Girolami and Humbert (1998, 25) found that “young women stressed that they wanted activities that offered most of the students in the class an equal playing field.” Girls also prefer to have units of instruction spread out throughout the semester or term, rather than concentrating on one activity, sportor skill set for a prescribed time frame (such as one or two full weeks).
Girls choose not to take physical education classes beyond compulsory grade levels primarily because of their past experiences in physical education. Research indicates that segregated classes are more beneficial to both genders at the high school level. Is this true in elementary and junior high school, as well? Are allschools capable of running segregated physical education classes?
As physical education teachers, we need to reflect on our teaching practices, to see if we are providing girls with positive perspectives on and experiences in physical education. Physical activity has many benefits, including health, psychosocial and spiritual benefits, while inactivity can lead to numerous hypokinetic diseases. We may need to change our expectations, teaching practices and activities to promote positive perspectives on physical education among the female students enrolled in our mandatory physical education classes. If not, the situation will continue to compound itself, and female students will increasingly tend not to register for elective physical education classes and will, thus, miss out on the numerous benefits of physicalactivity.
It’s true that all students should be valued, respected and individually challenged. But when it comes to physical education, the female student population is unique, and we should remember that as we continueour planning and teaching in the days ahead.
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