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Same, same but different:
(Re)understanding the place of context in Physical Education practice

Håkan Larsson et Mikael Quennerstedt
p. 69-86


Afin de comprendre et de discuter les différences de cultures entre les pays aussi bien dans l’école que dans les pratiques, il est important de prendre en compte le contexte de la situation didactique. Cet article s’ancre dans la tradition suédoise des recherches en didactique de l’éducation physique articulant le sens pratique de Bourdieu et l’idée de « ends-in-view » de Dewey afin d’analyser les points communs et les différences de cultures en éducation physique sans ignorer les aspects individuels et sociaux de l’apprentissage. Cet article s’appuie sur l’éducation physique suédoise comme un exemple montant que ce qui apparaitre identique peut être compris et discuter de manière radicalement différente.

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1Research on school physical education (PE) in different countries reveals that much of what happens in the gym is, as Tinning (2012, p. 116) states, “somewhat generalized across the globe” (cf. also Hardman, 2009; Kirk, 2010; Quennerstedt, 2013). Regardless of practice (sport, fitness, dance etc.), the idea of what PE is about is largely what Kirk (2010) calls PE-as-sport-techniques. Hence, superficially PE teachers in different countries seem to teach in more or less the same way and discussions about sport and fitness follow similar patterns (Pühse & Gerber, 2005; Tinning, 2012). Likewise, the activities that dominate are ball games, gymnastics, athletics and to some extent dance. For example, in Quennerstedt’s (2013) study of YouTube clips of PE practice from 285 lessons in 27 countries, one of the conclusions is that (with a few exceptions) the clips could come from any country. They all look quite the same and represent similar things. There thus appears to be a kind of world-wide multi-activity curriculum in PE and research has demonstrated many of the shortcomings of delivering PE in this way (Hardman, 2009; Kirk, 2010).
However, to a large extent these studies are conducted from perspectives where the analytical gaze regarding context is ‘zooming out’ from practice, i.e. where action is seen to represent overall structures. In other words, the framing of PE practice in different places looks more or less the same from a distance. There are good reasons for such an approach, some of which are related to power and domination or how students relate to these contexts. At the same time at least we, when we look at PE-practice (in our case the practice in Swedish schools), feel that what might look the same could, if we base our analysis on perspectives where the analytical gaze is ‘zooming in’ on the practice, be seen as something slightly different, or something particular that relates to the specific context of the practice (cf. Larsson & Karlefors, 2015). If we explore how students approach PE practice, with their different expectations and experiences, how teachers use different selective traditions in their teaching and how relations unfold in the practice of PE, can PE still be understood as universally the same? The phrase from the title of the paper: ‘same, same but different’ is accommodating the meaning of something that seems similar but is different in some ways:

Q : "Is this a real Rolex ?"
A: "Yes Sir, same same but different” (

2A danger, as we see it, with mainly zooming out from PE-practice, or with exclusively using analytical tools chiefly designed to identify similarities in content, is that there is, as Hodkinson and colleagues (2007) warn us, a disposition in research to focus on participation in different social activities and disregarding the importance of differences also on local and individual levels. Instead of discussing PE practice in terms of universal discourses of fitness or sport, in this paper we present a way of exploring and understanding the place of context in PE from a perspective where zooming in on the practice is key. In this way, the context is always in the process of becoming the context it is in the on-going practices of in this case PE. We use the case of Swedish PE to illustrate our approach. The specific purpose of the paper is to outline a perspective in which the analytical gaze primarily is zooming in on PE practice and where contextual issues in Swedish PE can be explored.


3In understanding the context of PE practice the field have to a large extent (but of course not exclusively) put a focus on the history, the curriculum, the content and the teaching of PE (cf. Kirk, Macdonald & O’Sullivan, 2006). Even when learning and the students are in focus many studies tend to explore and criticise similarities in context in relation to a quite homogenous Anglophone setting (cf. Rovegno & Dolly, 2006; Rovegno 2006). In this picture, the focus on how PE in a universal sense is about its activities (Penney & Chandler, 2000), multi-activity programs (Annerstedt, 2008; Siedentop, 1998; Tinning & Fitzclarence, 1992), fitness training (Cale, Harris & Chen, 2014; Tinning & Glasby, 2002) and a strong focus on sport techniques (Kirk, 2010; Ward, 2014) is foregrounded. According to Kirk (2010), what “teachers and pupils mainly do in the name of physical education is teaching and repetitious practice of the techniques of a wide range of individual and team games, aquatic activities such as swimming, gymnastics, athletics, exercise for fitness and various forms of dance” (p. 3). Tinning (2012) further argues that PE is remarkably similar across cultures (cf. Pühse & Gerber, 2005; Hardman & Marshall, 2009). Tinning maintains that the institutionalised practice of PE has been exported around the globe by colonial powers as a collection of supporting ideas – a memeplex – relating to games, sport techniques, health-based exercise, PE as an academic subject, the body as a machine, physical activity and obesity.
This important strand of research has revealed a universal and generalised picture of PE practice consisting of the teaching and learning of techniques in a short space of time (cf. Siedentop, 1998). As a consequence, the activities are repeated each year with very little progression. Some scholars talk critically about PE as a smorgasbord of activities (Annerstedt, 2008; Siedentop, 1998; Ward & Quennerstedt, 2014). This powerful critique has led Kirk (2010) to warn that PE as a subject could become extinct. In turn, Tinning (2012) warns about an upcoming memeplex, which he calls the obesity epidemic, as a new universal (and from his perspective, problematic) future for PE.
In this paper we argue that if we primarily ‘zoom out’ from PE and focus predominantly on the curriculum, the content and the teaching of the subject, as well as its relation to outside movement cultures, the picture of the context of PE tends to look the same. Even if there are differences in individual teachers’ and students’ actions, it is a universal picture of the PE context that becomes apparent. But what about the differences in context? What about the particularities of different countries, schools and how individual teachers and students co-create the context?
In a recently published article (Quennerstedt & Larsson, 2015) we suggest that a research approach that deals with the triadic relationships between student/learning, teacher/teaching and subject matter/curriculum could help us to unpack the similarities and differences in PE practice (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The expanded didactic triangle within a ‘didaktik tradition’ (Hudson & Meyer, 2011, p. 8)

4According to Klette (2007), and Gundem and Hopmann (1998), the continental and northern European didaktik tradition offers a useful way of thinking about and studying the complex relation between content, teaching and learning. Klette (2007) argues that the tradition differs from other curriculum traditions in its stronger focus on how “the relational nature between the three elements [are] constitutive of learning situations in school” (p. 149; our emphasis). It is thus a research tradition with an interest in the theories and practices of teaching and learning. In physical education research, scholars in countries like Sweden, Norway and France have been inspired by research in the didaktik tradition (cf. Quennerstedt & Larsson, 2015). In our experience, this tradition helps to approach issues of context as a relation between all three corners of the triangle. Questions that are often addressed in this tradition are:

“… what, how and why, in terms of what and how teachers teach, what and how students learn and why this content or teaching is taught or learned. Questions such as who is teaching, who is learning, when, and with whom are also relevant in this context.” (Quennerstedt & Larsson, 2015, p. 3)

5Klette (2007) refers to this as “… the who, how and what in classrooms” (p. 148). Importantly, the triadic relation is not only approached from the corners of the triangle (Figure 1). Research that approaches teaching and learning from the sides of the triangle, for example, the relationship between the student and the subject matter, or the relationship between the teacher and the student, is also of importance. However, again it is imperative to note that the third aspect of the triad is never excluded from the study.
In Sweden, the questions asked in a didaktik tradition have also often been combined with the sociological and educational theories of Bourdieu, Foucault and Dewey (Larsson, Fagrell & Redelius, 2009; Quennerstedt, 2013; Redelius, Fagrell & Larsson, 2009; Öhman, 2010). This ensures that teaching and learning are always considered in their cultural, institutional and historical contexts. Whereas the research discussed above is mainly concerned with the cultural, institutional and historical aspects of PE practice, we argue that if research is to understand the place of context in PE practice, it also (from a point of view of didaktik) needs to take selective teaching traditions, ways of teaching the subject and student learning and previous experience into account. In other words, it is important to explore how the context becomes the particular context it is by zooming in on the daily practices of PE.
In order to do this, theoretical approaches and research methods are needed that treat context as something that is in the process of becoming. A ‘zooming in’ perspective is thus proposed that includes a combination of Bourdieu’s logic of practice and Dewey’s ends-in-view, although other similar theoretical approaches may also be relevant. This perspective allows us to take the similarities and differences in PE cultures into account in order to explore something that seems similar but different in some ways – i.e. same, same but different.

Understanding the place of context in PE practice

6Each in our own way, we have used Dewey’s concept of ends-in-view (Quennerstedt, 2013; Ward & Quennerstedt, 2015) and Bourdieu’s concept of logic of practice (Fagrell, Larsson & Redelius, 2012; Larsson & Karlefors, 2015) to understand what is going on in PE practice. Our concern is that some of the important aspects of the practice have been overlooked, perhaps because they are taken for granted or because a certain practice might look like what has been reported elsewhere in research. It struck us that in many respects Dewey and Bourdieu deal with similar problems, such as understanding the relations between action and context, i.e. how human beings can – or cannot – guide action through logical reasoning and the extent to which action is conditioned by context-specific or more universal external forces. Such an approach is motivated by a need to go beyond studies in which participants are portrayed as logically reasoning autonomous individuals or subjected to external forces that they cannot affect. To us, Dewey’s and Bourdieu’s approaches lead beyond these divisions (see also Cutchin, et al., 2008; Hodkinson, et al., 2007). Blackmore (2010) argues that:

“By focusing on a social practice based philosophy, Bourdieu draws on and expands, both intentionally and unintentionally, from the traditions of Wittgenstein and the pragmatism of Dewey, key educational philosophers. For them, a focus on social practices allows one to analyse meaning within specific contexts. And, as Dewey, Bourdieu sees meaning emerging from both conscious and unconscious social practices or habits with their own genealogy producing a disposition to act in a particular way spontaneously, but not necessarily, with a predetermined causality. Equally important, practice is seen to be collective, relational, situated and undeniably social.” (Blackmore, 2010, p. 102-103).

7The approaches may be similar, but are they identical or interchangeable? We believe that each one in its own way has something special to offer an analysis of practice and the place of context. In the following sections we make suggestions as to how Dewey’s ends-in-view and Bourdieu’s logic of practice can be combined in order to develop a nuanced understanding of contextual issues zooming in on PE practice.


8Dewey’s writings stretched over seven decades, and it may seem ignorant to pay attention to only one of the rich flora of concepts and theoretical arguments that he presented over the years. However, the article genre prevents us from going in-depth into Dewey’s, as well as Bourdieu’s, entire oeuvre. Instead, we will pay particular attention to two concepts, one from each scholar, that we believe are useful in the exploration of PE-practice. Dewey developed his notions about ends-in-view in Human Nature and Conduct (Dewey, 1922). Here, he vigorously claims that:

“[t]he ends, objectives, of conduct are those foreseen consequences which influence present deliberation and which finally bring it to rest by furnishing an adequate stimulus to overt action. Consequently ends arise and function within action. They are not, as current theories too often imply, things lying beyond activity at which the latter is directed. They are not strictly speaking ends or termini of action at all. They are terminals of deliberation, and so turning points in activity.” (Dewey, 1922, p. 223).

9Unlike theories of logical reason, ends-in-view “arise out of natural effects of consequences which in the beginning are hit upon, stumbled upon so far as any purpose is concerned” (Dewey, 1922: p. 225) According to Doll (1989), this approach distinguishes between ‘ends-in-view’ and ‘ends-in-themselves’. The latter “assumes that ends are separate from, and both prior and superior to means. [… i.e.] that all aims or purposes are directed and controlled by the end, with only those aims that coincide with the end having any validity” (p. 19). In contrast to ends-in-themselves, ends-in-view can be seen as plans for action that are ‘grasped in the moment’, rather than plans that direct and redirect further action and allow participants in a certain event to act intelligibly, or as Garrison (1999) states: “allow us to see where we are going” (p. 293). But what does the distinction between ends-in-view and ends-in-themselves mean in practice?
Dewey’s ideas can be seen as “... a philosophy of the social factors that operate in the constitution of individual experience” (Dewey 1938: p. 21). At the centre of Dewey’s account lies a critique of a metaphysical division of inner – the mind and outer – the environment or ‘reality’ (Dewey, 1938; see also Biesta & Burbules, 2003). A certain practice should instead be regarded in terms of a dialectic process, where different participants are seen as mutually constitutive (see e.g. Dewey, 1938, Dewey & Bentley, 1949). An experience of practice is thus “always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his (sic) environment” (Dewey 1938: p. 43). In Dewey’s reasoning, habits take over the function of logical reasoning (purpose) as the driving force of action. Dewey regards habits as embodied and as acquired pre-dispositions to act in transactions with the sociocultural environment. So, by participating with other people in a social practice, for example in PE practice, the cultural norms that materialise as habits guide the participation and in consequence affect how members of that practice act and what they become. In this way, both the participants and the context are always in a process of becoming as a consequence of the embodied engagement and inquiry of the educational situation. This is where, we believe, Dewey’s work aligns with that of Bourdieu.

Logic of practice

10Bourdieu is first and foremost famous for his key concepts of capital, field and habitus. However, these are only a few of the analytical tools in Bourdieu’s ‘toolbox’. Another useful tool is the notion of logic of practice. Indeed, as Evens (1999) states in his otherwise quite critical review, “[t]here is much to learn from Bourdieu’s intellectually masterful and intricate constructions on practice. The importance of the focus of his notion of practice, on a (bodily) logic that is not ‘logical logic’ and is keyed to a principle of uncertainty, is capital and can hardly be overestimated” (p. 10). In The Logic of Practice Bourdieu (1990) boldly states that “[p]ractice has a logic which is not that of the logician” (p. 86). Looking at practice from the point of view of the logician would be to project a rational logic on practice, i.e. a logic that is external to practice and that, in much the same way as Dewey thought of ends-in-view, would mean that aims or purposes are directed and controlled by the ends-in-themselves, with only those aims coinciding with the end having any validity. In short, this view represents a categorical mistake. But what is the logic of practice?
Simply put, the logic of practice is practice understood in its own practical terms. In the world of practice, as opposed to the world of reason, time is essence. Or, as Bourdieu puts it:

“Practice unfolds in time and it has all the correlative properties, such as irreversibility, that synchronization destroys. Its temporal structure, that is, its rhythm, its tempo, and above all its directionality, is constitutive of its meaning.” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 81).

11Thus, a person participating in practice does not control his or her conduct in comparison to imagine ends-in-themselves. Rather, the conduct can be seen as the result of the intersection between the logic of practice and the particular dispositions that are enacted in that particular practice, or in Bourdieu’s terms, the habitus, i.e. the embodied dispositions for action that aperson has developed through the course of his or her life. It might be possible for a person to reflect on his or her actions relative to ends-in-themselves, but that would require a temporary withdrawal from practice. When participating in practice, people develop what Bourdieu calls a practical sense (sense pratique). In his writings, Bourdieu frequently uses sports metaphors to explain his arguments:

“A player who is involved and caught up in the game [in practice ; our note] adjusts not to what he sees but to what he fore-sees, sees in advance in the directly perceived present ; he passes the ball not to the spot where his team-mate is but to the spot he will reach – before his opponent – a moment later [...] The ‘feel’ (sens) for the game is the sense of the imminent future of the game, the sense of the direction (sens) of the history of the game that gives the game its sense.” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 81).

12Of course, attention should be paid to the fact that ‘players’ who are not caught up in the game and who cannot fore-see the effective actions – those who have not developed the necessary feel for the game – might anyway be present in the practice. This is about participants who have not developed a habitus that is appropriate to the dominating logic of practice. In relation to this, Bourdieu offers something to the analysis that is often lacking in Dewey’s analyses: the aspect of power.
The practical sense that is engendered by the intersection of habitus and the logic of practice is not exclusively based on skill, but also includes a symbolic power dimension. According to Bourdieu (1989), habitus includes a “sense of one’s place, and the affinities of habitus [are] experienced as sympathy or antipathy” (p. 17). This means that practical sense and the skills that are related to it also include a sense of who a person is and who he or she becomes by participating in practice. As a result of this affinity between skill and sympathy/antipathy, individuals experience practice as pleasant or unpleasant. All individuals cannot develop – and do not strive to develop – the same dispositions.

What does a combination offer?

13As stated above, we have noted that Dewey’s ends-in-view and Bourdieu’s logic of practice are epistemologically similar. Accordingly, they can be used in analyses for similar purposes. But are they interchangeable? We think not. In our view, Bourdieu’s approach offers a power dimension to the analysis that Dewey’s does not. By using logic of practice as an analytical tool, the analysis can highlight sociocultural power dimensions in which individuals do not necessarily participate in practice under the same conditions. Further, Bourdieu’s approach implies that the logic of practice will be dominated by groups having the appropriate symbolic capital in any given situation. In such situations, symbolic violence may be exerted, in the sense that subordinate groups could be cautioned for not being able to participate properly. As will be shown, this is a fruitful approach when scrutinising PE practice.
What does Dewey offer that Bourdieu does not? To some extent, Bourdieu has been criticised for failing to account for agency, i.e. to point to ways in which practice can change through deliberate action (Evens, 1999). According to Evens (1999), this is because Bourdieu fails to overcome the problem of subject-object dualism, which means that participants of a practice are unable to deliberate on the purpose of their practice. According to Garrison (2001), “’ends-in-view’ are teleological,” i.e. they are open for deliberation by the participants of the practice, “but they are fluid and morphological during the process of inquiry; they merely serve as guides, as means to the end” (p. 280). Accordingly, deliberation over ends-in-view is not the same as deliberation over ends-in-themselves. However, through this distinction, Dewey points to the possibility that practitioners can deliberate on their practice and increase the opportunities for agency.
In the following section we provide examples from our previous research on PE practice in which a combination of Dewey’s ends-in-view and Bourdieu’s logic of practice help to give a nuanced account of PE practice. Our ambition is to develop an account that does not lapse into determinism or has too strong a faith in the possibilities to deliberate over ends-in-themselves; an account that neither lapses into grand narratives nor inexhaustible difference. In short, this is an approach that attempts to pay nuanced attention to empirical evidence about practice but still be able to provide some insights into how more broadly to understand – and interrogate – this practice.

The context of PE practice in Sweden

14Three illustrations are presented: doing sports, hegemonic masculinity and fitness testing. They are selected somewhat arbitrarily based on the availability of Swedish research zooming in on practice. Further, they are used to show how something that may look the same if analysis is exclusively zooming out from the practice, can be understood as different in some ways if the analysis, using ends-in-view and logic of practice, is zooming in. It can thus be argued that, in order to understand both the universalities and the particularities of the place of context in PE practice, research needs to zoom in and out, back and forth, in order to unpack how the context becomes the context it is.

Doing sports: learning sport techniques or ‘trying out physical activities’

15According to Lawson (1988), PE has reached a state in which a certain way of doing things has to all intents and purposes become the way of doing things. Kirk (2010) calls this idea of doing things PE-as-sport techniques, i.e. where decontextualised sport techniques are taught to students in a molecuralised form based on the idea that students become able to participate in particular sports. Indeed, this way of viewing lessons is evident in Swedish PE. We maintain that although PE-as-sport-techniques is not the same everywhere, it is easy for a researcher to conclude that if it looks the same it is the same. ‘Zooming in’ on the practice of Swedish PE draws attention to that this may not be the case. Larsson and Karlefors (2015) note that a practice that initially looks like sport technique drills may, when studied more closely, be something quite different.

“Sports lessons are typically sequenced as training sessions : (1) technical drills, individually and in pairs (either as a cooperative event or as a minor competition), (2) small team games, e.g. teams of 2-4 players and (3) ‘the real game’ or ‘the real sport’ (often performed using pedagogical rules). Nevertheless, the activities during these lessons are frequently also changed by actions that express the message : ‘this is actually not about improving your skills’, ‘this is actually not a real game’. This message is manifested through the essentially non-competitive atmosphere in the gym and the cautious and playful way in which the drills and games/competitions are performed...” (Larsson & Karlefors, 2015, p. 10).

16In relation to this, in their interviews with teachers Larsson and Nyberg (2016) discovered that they frequently withdraw from the explicit task of developing students’ technical skills, despite being assigned to do just that by the national PE curriculum. Instead, they emphasise the ‘trying out’ of different sports and the importance, in itself, of being physically active. Rather than focusing on technique and, in the end, sport proficiency, Swedish PE teachers tend to emphasise the relationship between movement and the positive experience of moving, or the ‘joy of movement’ (Quennerstedt et al., 2008). Lundvall and Meckbach (2008) and Larsson et al. (2010) also note that while Swedish PE teachers agree that teaching students sport is not the most important issue in PE, helping them to develop self-esteem by experiencing joy of movement is. Larsson et al. (2010) and Larsson and Nyberg (2016) highlight how teachers put joy of movement before sport proficiency or competition in sport. This does not necessarily mean that Swedish PE teachers are experts on joy of movement, but it could help to explain why lessons that initially superficially look like being about learning sport techniques are partly also something else.
This also applies to the competitive aspects of sport in PE practice. In some countries the national curricula at least historically have stated that skills development and competitiveness are important goals to aim for in PE (cf. Pühse & Gerber, 2005), whereas in Sweden the emphasis have since long been on joy of movement and non-competitive cooperation. The following is a good illustration of this:

“During the lesson about 18 girls aged 16 are playing Lacrosse. There are two teams, goals, equipment etc., and the set up looks like a game of Lacrosse. The PE teacher is involved in the game and he runs around the field passing the ball and shouting ‘great job’ many times. It seems as though the PE teacher has taken on the role of making sure that everybody is involved in the game. It looks like a nice game of Lacrosse, flowing back and forth, where all players pass the ball in the team. […] At one point, one of the girls receives a perfect pass when standing in front of the goal with no-one from the other team between her and the goal. It is only 2 metres away and she just needs to put the ball into the net to score. Instead, the girl gets confused, looks around and does not seem to know what to do. Instead of scoring she turns around to look for someone to pass the ball to. Eventually she passes the ball back to one of her team mates and the game continues.” (Transcript from a study of PE practice presented in Quennerstedt, 2013).

17This illustrates how something that initially looks like a game of Lacrosse, with two competing teams trying to win the game, actually becomes something different, namely a game in which the end-in-view is to cooperate and pass the ball to a team mate.
In short, what might at first glance look like a lesson in sport techniques and competitive sport in our illustration is, on closer examination, something quite different. In the above example, developing skills or scoring goals and winning the game seem not to be the primary ends-in-view for the teacher or the students. The logic of practice that guides the lesson is trying out different activities, cooperating and enjoying being a participant.

Hegemonic masculinity: rampant or benevolent?

18PE is often depicted as a ‘bastion’ of masculinity and heteronormativity (e.g. Curtner-Smith, 2007; Hemphill & Symons, 2009). This description could also be applied to Swedish PE (Larsson, et al., 2011). Essentially, the co-educational PE practice is described as a bastion of masculinity and heteronormativity because boys, or rather certain boys (the ‘sporty’ ones), dominate. The playing of games gives (certain) boys the space and opportunity to dominate. The dominance of games in PE contributes to the perception that some boys are more skilled at and sympathetic to PE than girls and other boys. Introducing the theme of ‘benevolence’ in Swedish PE research was related to the need to change the image of the subject as a place of rampant sexism and homophobia; an image that is sometimes highlighted in the international literature (see e.g. Sykes, 2004). Rather, hegemonic masculinity (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) and heteronormativity are expressed through benevolence, by for instance “teachers wanting to ‘lift the burden off the shoulders of the girls’” (Larsson, et al., 2009, p. 12), i.e. to convince girls that they do not have to perform as well as boys.
The students themselves also express benevolence. According to Larsson et al. (2011), both male and female students prefer to interpret the ‘sexual game’ in the co-education setting, i.e. the occurrence of sexual innuendos, as ‘a bit of fun’ or even deny that ‘dirty jokes’ are actually about a ‘sexual game’. In fact, these sexual innuendos are almost always expressed by boys towards girls, although girls typically maintain that ‘it doesn’t bother me’. Benevolence is not only expressed by students in relation to sexual innuendos, but also to sporting abilities. The benevolent attitude includes a given perception that boys are more able in PE than girls. As this perception is shared by both girls and boys, the indication is that the practice should be ‘adapted’ to suit girls – an ‘adaptation’ which suggests that exercises should be simplified and requirements lowered (Larsson, et al., 2011).
In terms of practice, a benevolent attitude also means that boys and girls do not necessarily oppose the different attempts by the Swedish national curriculum to ‘counteract traditional gender patterns’. To the contrary, Larsson, et al. (2014) show how a group of students react benevolently towards an attempt by a teacher, as a result of a deliberation with a group of girls, to counteract traditional gender patterns. In this case, the attempt by the teacher to counteract traditional gender patterns is about changing the practice of folk dancing in mixed gender pairs to random mixing, which lead to that the boys and girls in the class sometimes dance with a peer of the same sex. This happens without any great resistance from the part of the students. In relation to learning to dance (or learning any other movement activity), benevolence means not only that the students are open to challenges of gender patterns. Their ends-in-view are not primarily learning to dance, but more broadly to do movement activities in a collaborative fashion. Also here, collaboration per se and to keep the activities going in an enjoyable way seems to constitute the logic of this practice.

Fitness testing: monitoring fitness or trying and experiencing different tests?

19In many countries, such as the UK, the US and Australia, physical fitness testing seems to be commonplace in school (Cale, Harris & Chen 2014, Alfrey & Gard 2014; Keating & Silverman, 2004). In the US, a number of states have introduced systematic state-wide school fitness monitoring (Gard 2011) and in the UK fitness testing is a compulsory component of many PE programmes (Cale & Harris, 2009). Alfrey and Gard (2014) report that in their study, teachers in Australia state that fitness tests are an important part of health education and that test scores should be recorded. Many teachers also believe that the scores should be reported back to parents.
Advocates of fitness testing in PE practice argue that it promotes physical activity and healthy lifestyles and motivates students (Cale et al., 2014, Alfrey & Gard 2014). However, critics question the validity of these tests for children and criticise the practice of fitness testing in itself as being demotivating, embarrassing and humiliating (Alfrey & Gard 2014; Cale & Harris, 2009). Problematic practices, such as weight or body composition monitoring, including skinfold measuring (Cale et al., 2014) and fitness testing in order to grade students are also strongly criticised (Cale et al., 2014).
In Sweden, however, fitness testing to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyles is uncommon and there are no government regulations for fitness testing in schools. This does not necessarily mean that fitness tests do not take place in PE in Sweden. They do. In many ways it is the same tests, and the practice looks the same. For example, in one of the lessons in our studies (Quennerstedt et al., 2014) fitness tests are activities that students can try out. In an interview that took place before a lesson, a teacher said:

“I want them to try [different tests]. Also the beep-test, which we do as warm up. It’s because I want them to try it out. It’s not for assessment in any way, how well they perform, no, it’s about trying different forms of tests … having fun and experiencing them. They get a form so that they can record their test-results and if they want to I can save the forms so that they can use them next year if we do the same thing then … and if they want they can take them home … or if they want they can throw them away.” (Teacher).

20At the beginning of the lesson the teacher told the students that the lesson was about trying out different physical tests and emphasised that it had nothing to do with results or grades. At the end of the lesson the teacher asked them what they thought about the tests and whether they thought it was fun. In the post-lesson interview the teacher said that he was rather surprised that the students wanted to do the beep-test again the following week:

“I didn’t force any of them to do the test … I said I hoped they’d try … but they wanted to do the beep-test, they wanted to do it again … I tried to say that this is something that we might do once a year, mostly for fun … it’s not important … and that they should not take it too seriously.” (Teacher).

21Also when we interviewed one of the students and asked what s/he had learned from doing beep-test, s/he said:

Student : Well … you learn to plan how quickly you are able to run … and you learn that you can check your aerobic capacity several times.
Interviewer: How do you know if your aerobic capacity improves?
Student: You’ll know how hard it is and how far you get.
Interviewer: And if you do well … is it important for your grades in PE?
Student: I don’t know really … perhaps he sees that I make an effort, kind of …
and that I’m kind of trying.

22In comparison to the studies of the use of fitness testing in the US, the UK and Australia (Cale, et al., 2014; Garrett & Wrench 2008; Keating & Silverman, 2004), this illustration shows that the tests used in PE practice in Sweden are quite similar. However, looking at the ends-in-view of both the teacher and the students, the tests can be understood in a different logic of practice. It is not that the teachers are supposed to record the results of the fitness testing in order to check whether the students are fulfilling any external public health goals related to fitness. Instead the context that is becoming through this logic of practice is one in which the results are aimed at the students so that they have an idea of what their aerobic capacities are. Physical fitness tests are thus regarded as any other activity in PE, which in a similar way to sport, are to be presented and experienced as enjoyable.


23At a glance, the illustrated Swedish PE lessons look very much the same as those reported in the PE research from other countries (e.g. Pühse & Gerber, 2005). However, a closer look reveals that some distinguishing features can be recognised, such as the relatively strong emphasis on cooperation and the mainly benevolent attitudes of students and teachers. One might suspect that the researchers perceive these differences because they are familiar with the Swedish context. However, since PE is a subject that a lot of people have opinions about, both the public debate about PE and school inspections foreground a far more stereotypical picture of Swedish PE where lessons emerge as fiercely competitive and masculinised. This discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that school inspections or media commentaries are not ‘zooming in’ on practice and that such accounts are prone to exaggeration, in the sense that what looks like sport in PE is essentially the same as sport outside PE. When zooming in, a different and more nuanced perspective emerges that takes contextual as well as individual aspects of the practice into consideration. Within a didaktik tradition, this means being able to unpack the whats, hows, whos and whys of PE-as-sport-techniques, PE-as-hegemonic-masculinity and PE-as-fitness-testing where specific and contextual features of the practice is highlighted.
We assume that zooming out too much from the practice shows as well as hides certain aspects of context. The illustrations show that zooming in on the complexities of PE practice could be useful in research as well as for teachers, curriculum writers and school inspectors. Importantly, it can offer a nuanced and concrete point of departure both for formulating new research questions and designing new research projects, and for professional development and subject development. Of course too much zooming-in can also narrow the scope in a way that render important structural aspects of the practice undetected. We instead believe that a systematic interplay between zooming in and zooming out on practice may allow a thick and nuanced picture of the continuously becoming of the complex relation between all three corners of the didactic triangle and the context within which the PE practice is taking place.
We suggest the combined use of Dewey’s ends-in-view and Bourdieu’s logic of practice as one fruitful approach because it pays close attention to individual deliberation about ends-in-view as well as sociocultural aspects of practice. In this way we can explore how the context is always in a process of becoming the context it is through participants’ actions-in-context, and not something we explore only by using fully zoomed-out perspectives and questions. As Klette (2007) and others have called for, an approach like this takes the particularities of different contexts, such as individual learning, ways of teaching and selective traditions, into account.
More generally, the approach outlined in this paper presents an alternative to perspectives where neither national curricula nor scientific perspectives on, for example, health, or moral or cognitive development constitute the framework. Such perspectives can be used in order to evaluate the role of PE in relation to health, etc., but not to understand PE-practice on its own terms and the teaching and learning that take place in PE-lessons. It should be noted that not all of the above referenced studies have explicitly been conducted based on Dewey’s and Bourdieu’s frameworks. Nevertheless, we contend that the latter studies were conducted in a way and within analytical frameworks that enable zooming in on the practice. These ambitions spring from a wish to be able to distinguish between what may superficially look the same can actually also be understood and discussed as something different.

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Håkan Larsson et Mikael Quennerstedt, « Same, same but different:
(Re)understanding the place of context in Physical Education practice
 », Recherches & éducations, 15 | 2016, 69-86.

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Håkan Larsson et Mikael Quennerstedt, « Same, same but different:
(Re)understanding the place of context in Physical Education practice
 », Recherches & éducations [En ligne], 15 | Juin 2016, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2017, consulté le 24 juillet 2017. URL :

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Håkan Larsson

Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, Sweden

Mikael Quennerstedt

Örebro University, Sweden

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