Globalisation and the commodification of sport as a product and as a business begs the question – is sport in contemporary society as significant as it has been for previous generations? A functional response sees claims that of course, “sport builds character”, “playing sport is good for our health”, or “sport builds team skills”. Many people take a narrow ideological stance claiming that PE should engage children in sporting activities, which in turn will make them fit and healthy. While this is problematic on a number of fronts – for example the limited amount of time allocated to PE in the school curriculum – PE is far more sophisticated than merely a site for physical activity accumulation. While claimed benefits to personal character formation and broader sociological assumptions about sport’s contributions are emotively appealing and often promoted through media and popular culture, becoming part of our culture vocabulary, the statements rarely hold up to critical scrutiny.

Sport does however play a significant role in contemporary society. Its influence exists in three areas: 1) Elite sport; 2) Community sport; and 3) School sport (including physical education). I have argued elsewhere that sport is a movement context capable of providing an educational justification for physical education in schools as it is capable of meeting two broad purposes of school – initiation into important bodies of knowledge and the guiding of individuals development as a functioning contributing member of society. The significance of an educational justification in schools has never been more important given global trends towards declining physical activity levels and at the same time concerns about the status of physical education and suggestions of the marginalisation of PE in curriculum time in many parts of the world and scepticism about the subjects’ future with provision of PE in many countries far from assured (Marshall & Hardman, 2000; Hardman, 2005; 2008; Marshall & Hardman, 2008; Hardman et al., 2013).

Sport has been variously suggested as integral to the meaning of PE, a major orientating discourse (Tinning et al. 2001) providing a justification and a legitimating curriculum feature for PE (Williams 1985 cited in Bailey & Kirk 2009, p. 3). Moreover, different sporting activities can contribute to the learning process, and enable participation in a broader spectrum of sport (Bailey 2005). This is significant for the development of the child and participation in physical activity through orientated learning beyond the school years. This learning process, however, is not an imbedded ‘automatic’ or a ‘taken for granted’ outcome that can be attributed to sporting experiences within PE, or the school setting more broadly (such as lunchtime sports competitions and school sport programs). PE, however, has often been used in ways that are inconsistent with an education framing. For example, Tinning et al. cite the use of PE in primary schools “as either a cathartic or “kick-start” for the day’s academic work, rather than as a worthwhile educational experience in itself”’ (1993, p. 9). Indeed a common perception for many people is that school PE provides the capacity to ‘blow away the cobwebs’, a ‘brain break’ or ‘energiser’ to allow the ‘real work’ occurring in other subjects to begin. I argue PE’s educative purpose is a matter of curriculum design and pedagogical emphasis.

Remaining true to Arnold’s (1979) definition of learning in physical education, sport teaching and learning I argue PE curriculum design and pedagogy can create a context for:

  • Learning in sport – sport skill acquisition enabling an individual to be able to move and make tactical decisions efficiently and effectively in game situations
  • Learning about sport – recognising that sport is structured in certain ways to bring about certain things and
  • Learning through sport – understanding the embodied experience of sport.

The vision for sport teaching and learning I promote is the functional use of sport knowledge for active and engaged citizenship (Pill, 2009, 2011, 2015). Known as sport literacy, four distinct understandings of knowledge are considered in the construction of sport within PE:

  • Sport is an applied, practised and situated set of skills
  • Sport creates embodied meaning, and meaning that can be communicated, interpreted, understood, imaged and used creatively
  • Sport creates a ‘text’, which can be read for understanding
  • Understanding sport requires a learning process

(Pill, 2009, 2011, 2015).

My explanation of sport literacy presents sport as a physical, cultural, personal, social and cognitive experience for the demonstration of the acquisition and use of knowledge. It has two themes for the PE curriculum:

  1. Sport in PE can enhance students access to practices and ideas that can enable them to make positive contributions to society; and
  2. Sport helps students to understand the self and the society in which they live.

There are examples of sport in PE constructed to promote participation in and beyond school that I argue are explicit in their intent to develop what I have described as the understanding of knowledge behind sport literacy and its two themes for strengths-based and educatively justifiable PE. The Sport Education curriculum model (Siedentop 1994; Siedentop et al. 2004, 2011) is one such example. The Sport for Peace curriculum model (Ennis, Solon, Loftus, Mensch & McCauley, 1999) and Positive Youth Development through sport model emphasising the five “C’s” of positive development – competence, confidence, character, connections and compassion/caring, are others.