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Making physical education meaningful for young women:


Case study in educational change
Sandra L. Gibbons
University of Victoria
Catherine A. GanI
University of Victoria
Convincing female students lo enrol! in physical education once it becomes an elective
continues to challenge teachers and researchers. This paper discusses the experiences of
young women (N=24) in an elective Physical Education 11 course specifically designed
to meet their needs, interests, and abilities. Three ethnographic techniques including
journals, group discussions, and questionnaires were used to collect data. Three themes
emerged from the data: (a) respectful and supportive class environment, (b) choice and
variety of lifetime physical activities, and (c) personal accomplishment. A curriculum
development process that included the active involvement of students, teachers, and
researchers throughout all phases of the process from initial identification of the problem
through to curriculum evaluation was utilized in this project. Insights gained from this
study can provide guidance for designing future relevant and effective interventions for
potentially increasing the participation rates of females in secondary school physical
education. Such behaviours may lead to possible life long involvement in physical
activity.
Les enseignants et les chercheurs ont toujours de la difficulte a convaincre les jeunes
filles de suivre des cours d'education physique une fois que ces demiers deviennent
optionnels. Cette etude s 'interesse aux experiences de 24 jeunes filles inscrites a un
cours optionnel d'education physique de 11' annee con^u specifiquement pour repondre a
leurs besoins, leurs interets et leur niveau d'habiletes. Trois techniques ethnographiques
ont servi. soit un journal, des discussions de groupe et un questionnaire. Les donnees
recueillies ont fait ressortir trois themes : (a) un contexte de classe respectueux et
encourageant, (b) un hon choix d'activites physiques quipeuvent se pratiquer toute la vie,
(c) les realisations individuelles. Dans le cadre de ce projet, on a eu recours a un
processus d'elaboration de programme incluant la participation active des eleves, du
personnel enseignant et des chercheures a toutes les etapes du processus, de
I'identification initiale du probleme jusqu'a revaluation du programme. Les resultats
s'avereront utiles a la definition d'interventions pertinentes visant a accroitre le taux de
participation des filles aux cours d'education physique au secondaire De tels
comportements peuvent egalement engendrer un interet envers I 'activite physique qui
perdurera toute la vie.

Young Women in PE

Promotion of lifelong active living is the ascribed aim for physical education programs
in Canadian schools. However, convincing female students of the value of physical
education when offered as an elective continues to challenge teachers and researchers. In
British Columbia for example, approximately 10% of female students, compared to 22%
of male students, choose to enroll in physical education (PE) when it becomes an elective
in grade 11 {British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2000). Recent statistics show that
64% of female youth aged 12-19 in Canada are physically inactive (Candian Fitness and
Lifestyle Research Institute [CFLRl], 2001). In addition, the likelihood of being
physically active in adulthood is reduced considerably if young women are not physically
active during their childhood and adolescent years (Shephard & Tnideau, 2000; Trudeau,
Laurencelle, Tremblay, Rajic, & Shephard, 1999; Wallace, 2003). Considering the
evidence ofthe positive contribution of physical activity to health in both the short term
and long tenn, these are particularly disturbing statistics.
Female Students in Physical Education
Experts have identified school physical education as a critical area where interventions
can be employed to (a) halt the decline in physical activity, and (b) promote lifetime
physical activity beyond the high school years (Ernst & Pangrazi, 1999; McKenzie, 1999;
Stone, McKenzie, Welk, & Booth, 1998; Wechsler, Devereaux, Davis, & Collins, 2000).
Numerous researchers have suggested that the opportunities provided within many
physical education programs might not be meaningful to, or motivating for, female
students (Brown, 2000; Ennis, 1995; Flintoff & Scraton, 2001; Gibbons, Wharf Higgins,
Gaul, & Van Gyn, 1999; Humbert, 1995; Olafson, 2002; Park & Wright, 2000; Scantling,
Strand, Lackey, & McAleese, 1995; Schofield, Mummery, Schofield, & Walmsely, 2002;
Sleap & Wormald, 2001; Vertinsky, 1992; Wright, 1996).
The challenge of providing meaningful PE programs for young women is not unique to
Canadian schools. Park and Wright (2000) and Schofield et al. (2002) for example,
investigated the physical activity needs and interests of young women in Australia. The
resulting themes from the Park and Wright focus group interviews of 50 adolescent
females emphasized the "importance of fun, friends and fitness in order to make physical
activity more attractive to young women" (p. 17). Similarly, Schofield et al. suggested
strategies for increasing the physical activity of Australian adolescent females should
focus on "frm, health, and skill improvement outcomes" (p. 21). They suggest further
that activity options for older adolescent females should include noncompetitive sport
and exercise. Both groups of researchers suggested that current PE programs in
Australian secondary schools would have to make adjustments in both content and
structure to address these findings. Brown (2000) made a similar observation of PE in
New Zealand schools, suggesting specifically that a more diverse choice of physical
activities beyond the traditional sport focus, along with a wider range of student centered
pedagogical options were necessary to include more female students in a meaningful
way. Brown also commented on the status ofthe new physical education curriculum in
New Zealand indicating that despite significant policy changes within the curriculum
guide at the national level, which allow for more choice in both content and teaching
strategies, little had changed at the local school level.
Several researchers in Great Britain have also explored the physical activity needs and
perceptions of adolescent women. In their analysis of information from focus group
interviews with young women aged 16 and 17 years, Sleap and Wormald (2001) reported
that whereas the participants appeared to readily acknowledge the value of a physically
active lifestyle, many spoke in very negative terms about their experiences in PE
programs in schools. Similarly, as a result of interviews with 21, 15-year old females on
the nature, purpose, and experiences of their physical activity experiences in and out of
school, Flintoff and Scraton (2001) discovered that while the involvement of young
women in physical activity out of school seemed to be steadily increasing in Britain,
these same women found it difficult to find clear rationale and purpose for participating

Gibbons & Gaul

in school PE. These authors described the young women's perception of PE was "at best
a break from academic work; and at worse, an unnecessary imposition impacting
negatively on their academic studies, and one in which they rarely leamed new skills
useful for their out of school lives" (p. 11). Findings by both groups of British
researchers emphasized the limited choice of activities within the PE programs as a major
source of discontent. In addition, they suggested that many of the physical activities in
PE programs were insufficiently linked to the needs and interests of the women
interviewed. Flintoff and Scraton further highlighted the importance of local context,
including culture ofthe school, and quality of teacher-pupil relationships in the design of
a meaningful PE experience for young women.
Researchers of the adolescent female physical education experience in Canadian
schools have revealed findings similar to the Australian and British studies. In the
mid-1990's, Humbert (1995) examined the experiences of 50 young women (gr. 9-12) in
an urban Canadian secondary school. Her results highlighted the importance these
students place on the desire to "have fun" in physical education. The notion of fun
described by these students allowed for participation in nontraditional physical activities,
a leaming environment with a reduced emphasis on competition, and use of more
individualized assessment techniques. A second theme revealed the significance of a
respectful social environment in physical education, emphasizing the importance of
feeling safe and included.
Kilbom (1999) studied PE programs that successfully achieved a higher than average
enrolhnent of female students. Using focus group interviews, she gained insight from
young women (N=27) enrolled in two such senior elective PE programs in British
Columbia. Both programs attracted female students at a rate of more than twice the
provincial average. High enrollment was defined as percentage equal to or greater than
the average enrollment of male students (22%) in PE 11 in British Columbia secondary
schools. Three themes emerged from the focus group data: (a) fairness and equity, (b)
meaning and value, and (c) have fun and take a break. The first theme emphasized the
importance that fairness and equity played in several aspects of their PE course, which
included having the opportunity for choice and input in the course, assessment and
evaluation procedures, and respectful peer interactions. In the second theme, meaning
and value were primarily defined in terms of course content. The young women
identified as meaningful and valuable those physical activities that contributed to their
potential to be physically active in the future (e.g., golf, kayaking, skiing, beach
volleyball). The theme of have fun and take a break emphasized the opportunity that PE
provided to be with their friends and take a break from the academic pressures ofthe day.
More recently, Olafson (2002) utilized a variety of qualitative methods including 46
individual interviews and 3 focus group interviews to examine resistance to PE as
experienced by girls in grades 7 and 8. Two major themes emerged from the data:
institutional harriers and looking good/being popular. The first theme emphasized the
dislike participants had for both the content and structure of their PE classes. Described
as a multiactivity curriculum with an emphasis on team sports, the PE program these girls
experienced made many of them feel weak and incompetent. A second theme focused on
how the school culture appeared to reinforce dominant definitions of femininity and ways
of being female. The participants described the pressures they felt to look good and be
popular. These pressures were accentuated by tbe public nature of their PE class and
constant comparison the teacher made between the girls and their male classmates. In her
discussion of possible ways to reduce female resistance to PE, Olafson suggested the use
of learner-centered teaching sfrategies, and more choice and involvement in activities
included in the program, along with the possibility of gender segregated classes.
The findings from several of the preceding studies show consistency in results from
two different perspectives. Whereas the participants in the Humbert (1995), Flintoff and
Scraton (2001), Olafson (2002), and Sleap and Wormald (2001) studies identified factors
that turned them away from their respective PE programs, the young women in Kilbom's

Young Women in PE

(1999) investigation identified the aspects that drew them to the PE program. The latter
results provide promise that if the needs and interests of young women are met in PE,
they will indeed willingly enroll and participate.
Curriculum Change in Physical Education
Findings in the preceding studies emphasize the complex interplay of contextual,
pedagogical, and curricular factors that impact participation of young women in physical
education. These researchers suggest that if we want this impact on participation to be
positive rather than negative, then significant change in both content and structure of
physical education programs is necessary and inevitable. Fullan and Hargreaves (1996)
mention "successful change involves leaming to do something new" (p. 1). Different
curriculum models for physical education have shown promising results toward
improving the experiences of female students. For example, several researchers suggest
that moving from a sport-based curriculum model to one that focuses on health-related
fitness can better meet the needs of female students in physical education (Daie &
Corbin, 2000; Dale, Corbin, & Cuddihy, 1998; Daley & Buchanan, 1999). Active
involvement of students, teachers, and researchers in the design and implementation of
the PE curriculum for individual schools also shows promising results (Ennis, 1999;
Gibbons, Van Gyn, Wharf Higgins, & Gaul, 2000; Gibbons et al., 1999; Wright,
Patterson, & Cardinal, 2000).
The present project is grounded in several general conceptual underpinnings associated
with educational change. Fullan and Stiegelbauer (1991) contend that the likelihood of
successful educationai change increases when there is active participation of main
stakeholders. In this case, teachers and students are these stakeholders. Involvement of
teachers, at all stages of curriculum development, is viewed as a crucial factor for
increasing the potential success of new curricular initiatives (Fullan & Stiegelbauer).
This factor exemplifies the idea that teachers bring a knowledge of, and appreciation for,
the day-to-day relevance and practicalities of their subject and school context. In short,
active involvement by teachers in the educational change process increases the likelihood
of success because it addresses the most common criticism teachers have of new
curricular initiatives, namely, relevance and practicality (Fullan & Stiegelbauer).
To date, involvement of students in curriculum development has primarily taken the
form of participation in needs assessments and achievement tests. Typically, students are
viewed as the primary beneficiaries of change rather active participants in the process or
primary stakeholders. Fullan and Stiegelbauer (1991) emphasize the potential positive
impact of involving students in a more meaningful role in cuiricular change. They state
the following:
Effective educational change and effective education overlap in significant
ways. Involving students in consideration of the meaning and purpose of
specific changes and in new forms of day-to-day leaming directly addresses the
knowledge, skills, and behaviours necessary for all students to become engaged
in their own leaming. (p. 190)
Paying particular attention to physical education, Ennis (1999, 2000) recommends
Vygotsky's (1978) social constructvist approach as a productive path to curricular
change. According to Ennis (2000), social constructivists "emphasize the value of active
leaming within a viable social community as a critical component of student engagement
and motivation" (p. 122). Ennis (2000) further describes tfiis approach as one in which
the curriculum is "socially interactive by design and emphasizes the interdependent role
of individuals within a cooperative environment or community" (p. 122). Within the
constructivist approach, the role of the teacher is as designer and facilitator of authentic
situations in which students succeed in appropriately challenging tasks.
Social-constructivist curricula "focus on identifying meaningful situations or events
salient to students' lives and past experiences" (p. 123). Ennis (1999, 2000) suggests that
such an approach allows students to feel very real ownership of their leaming. The sense

Gibbons & Gaul

of ownership is accompanied by enhanced perceptions of success and motivation to


continue.
The concepts associated with active and meaningful involvement of teachers and
students in the process of educational change as just described provided the conceptual
framework for the present study. These concepts guided changes made in a school's PE
program in order to increase the participation of young women.
Background for Preseut Study
The present investigation follows a study (Gibbons et al., 1999) conducted to gain
insight into factors that may either discourage or encourage enrollment of adolescent
females in elective grade 11 and 12 PE programs. In the 1999 study, the authors engaged
a group of adolescent females (A'=50) fi^om 10 secondary schools in British Columbia in
a discussion about their physical activity including their preferences, the perceived
barriers to participation, their knowledge ofthe contribution of physical activity to health,
and their perceptions of school PE programs. The analysis of these discussions revealed
eight themes influencing students' decisions to enroll in elective PE programs. These
themes included (a) a need for improvement ofthe curriculum, delivery, and evaluation
mechanisms characteristic of PE 8 to 10, (b) more choice and control in the determination
of physical activities, (c) emphasis on participation/effort rather than on skill performance
in the determination of a student's grade, (d) creation of a positive social environment;
(e) increased accessibility in the timetable, (f) PE to be valued as an important pursuit by
school administrators and guidance counselors, (g) inclusion of more health-related
content, and (h) availability of timely information to make an informed decision about
enrollment in PE 11. Results from this study were subsequently used to guide the
development of curricular and administrative initiatives to address the needs, abilities,
and interests of female students in PE 11 and 12 in a number of schools (see Figure I).
The purpose of this paper is to discuss the experiences of female participants in one such
initiative implemented in an urban senior secondary school in British Columbia.
Vic High Physical Education Initiative
The aim of the BC Physical Education curriculum (British Columbia Ministry of
Education, 1997) is to "enable all students to enhance their quality of life through active
living" (p. 4). The prescribed leaming outcomes are designed to integrate the knowledge,
skills, and attitudes that students are expected to demonstrate in PE. The existing PE 11
program at Vic High had a high emphasis on the leaming outcomes associated with the
development of physical activity skills (primarily team sport skills), with significantly
less emphasis on knowledge and attitude leaming outcomes associated with physically
active living. Very few female students (2-3 per year) have been attracted to this
program. Therefore a PE 11 course was designed (Women's Only Physical Education 11
[WPE 11]) to better meet the needs, interests, and abilities of female students at Vic
High. Course structure and content was guided by four major factors including (a)
themes from Gibbons et al. (1999), (b) provincial PE 11 curriculum guidelines (British
Columbia Ministry of Education, 1997), (c) input from students in WPE 11 (N=24) as
determined through surveys and regular class discussions, and (d) feasibility (e.g., cost,
availability of facilities). The applicable themes from the Gibbons et al. (1999) study
included: more choice and control in the determination of physical activities, emphasis on
participation/effort rather than on skill performance; creation of a positive social
environment; increased accessibility in the timetable; and inclusion of more
health-related content. Compared to the existing co-ed PE 11 program, the WPE 11
course at Vic High has the following features:
1. It is identified as a women's only course.
2. Emphasis on lifetime physical activities including use of community
recreation facihties.
3. Emphasis on health-related knowledge associated with physical activity.

Young Wotnen in PE
4. Emphasis on personal physical activity goals and participation.
5. Social support strategies for encouraging of individual class members.
Figure 1
Collaborative Curriculum Development Process
Students
Teachers
Researchers

Goal:
Increase female student
participatin in PE

Curriculum
Implementation

WPEll
Women Only
Lifetime Physical
Activities
Health Related Physical
Activity
Personal Goals &
Participation

Coherent
Curriculum
Development

Students
Teachers
Researchers

Valued Themes:
Respectful & Supportive
Choice & Variety of
Lifetime Activities
Personal Accomplishments

The course included a blend of lessons in the classroom, gymnasium, and community
recreation facilities. The content of the classroom sessions focused on health-related

Gibbons & Gaul

concepts of fitness and physical activity (e.g., components of fitness, nutrition, stress
management), as well as behavioural skills such as goal setting, use of activity logs, and
program planning. In the gymnasium, laboratory sessions focused on personalized
fitness training and assessment, self-monitoring, and instmction in a variety of lifetime
physical activities designed to meet provincial curriculum guidelines. Community
fecilities were also used for instmction of select physical activities (e.g., rock climbing,
bowling, swimming). The overall design of course content was a collaborative process
between the teacher and students, with the teacher providing a master list of activities and
students making choices from this list. Students also used the opportunity to add to the
master list prior to selection.
The course was scheduled for the first block each day (75 minutes) in the spring
semester (February - June, 2002). Within this timetable stmcture, a multiple activity
block schedule (rotation of three or more activities in a 5-day cycle) was used to maintain
a high level of interest and motivation, provide a wide variety of activities, and allow for
flexible scheduling of the off-campus activities. An overview of the course activities is
presented in Table 1.
Table 1.
Categories of Course Activities
Personal &
social
responsibility
Lead a class
Lead a
warm-up
Bulletin boards
Service bonus
Breakfast club

Active health

Team activity

Individual or
dual activity

Outdoor
recreation

Nutrition (3)

Softball (2-3)

Badminton (3)

Personal fitness
evaluation (2)
Active health
project (3)
Women in sport
(2)
Body image &
media (2)

Field hockey
(2-3)
Volleyball (5)

Tennis (5)

Mt. Finlayson
hike(l)
Elk Lake (1)
walk/mn
Rowing (2)

Indoor soccer
(2-3)
Flag football
(2-3)

10 pin bowling
(3)
Boot camp (3)

Team
handball
(2-3)
Basketball
(2-3)

Weight training
(3-5)

Wallyball (2)

Golf (3)

Minor games
(2)

Boxercise (3)

Team player

Disordered
eating (2)

Mystery
Tours

Use of Heart
Rate
Monitors (2)

Yoga (3)

Squash (3)

Curling (3)
Dragon boat
paddling
(3)
Indoor rock
climbing (2)
Garden City
10 K walk/mn
(1)
Kayaking
(2-3)

Wrestling (3)
Note. The number in parentheses denotes the approximate number of classes designated
for each activity.
The personal and social responsibility category provided the opportunity for both
leadership and social support activities throughout the term. For example, the first four
activities in this category focused on leadership skills. Students were required to
complete two of the four leadership activities. The Breakfast Club and team player
emphasized social support. The Breakfast Club allowed students to participate in an

Young Women in PE

optional scheduled weight training circuit in an early morning session prior to regular
classes. As part of the team player, students were placed on participation teams. The
team was responsible for encouraging the regular attendance and participation of
individual team members.
The active health category included a variety of special topics selected by the students
and teacher at the beginning of the school term. The major intent of these activities was
to allow students to explore issues and gather information on topics that significantly
impact their potential to be physically active and healthy. The team and individual or
dual activity categories provided students with the opportunity to participate in a wide
variety of activities. These were selected for their potential participation opportunities in
the local community beyond high school (e.g., boxercise, tennis, yoga, curling). The
outdoor recreation category allowed students to explore some of the local outdoor
opportunities. Students were expected to participate in all activities that were scheduled
during regular class time. Activities scheduled outside class time (e.g., Garden City lOK)
were optional.
The major focus on student evaluation was based on active participation in class
activities. Each student was expected to participate in class activities to the best of her
ability. Students also completed a variety of leadership and active health assignments,
and several quizzes on the rules of game play (e.g., tennis scoring) as part of the
evaluation process. Skill assessment was not part of the evaluation scheme.
Data Collection
Participants
Participants included all female physical education students (N=24) enrolled in
Women's Only Physical Education 11 (WPE 11) at an urban senior secondary school
(gr. 11-12) in a city in western Canada. The majority of participants enrolled in WPE 11
during a course selection process that took place at the end of die preceding school year.
During this process, school counselors and the PE teacher provided an overview of the
different PE courses (including WPE 11) that were to be offered in the upcoming school
year. WPE 11 was advertised as a new course in a pamphlet provided to all students
prior to course selection. This pamphlet included a one-paragraph description of each
new course offered in the school. The office of research administration at the affiliated
university granted human ethics approval for this research. All participants completed an
informed consent form prior to the initiation of the study.
Ethnographic Techniques
Patton (2002) recommends the collection of data from multiple sources in order to
improve the trustworthiness and authenticity of the data. Glesne and Peskin (1992) also
suggest that "the more sources tapped for understanding, the more believable the
fmdings" (p. 24). Three ethnographic techniques including individual journals, group
discussions, and individual questionnaires were used to collect data in this investigation.
Individual Journals. The majority of the data in this investigation were obtained from
journals kept by each of the 24 participants. The purpose of the journals was to gain
insight into the daily experiences of each participant for the entire duration of the course.
Each student was provided with a journal that allowed her to record her thoughts and
feelings about experiences throughout the WPE 11 course. This process also encouraged
students to reflect upon their performance in, and attitudes about, the course. The journal
was organized in a calendar format with space to record for each day. The following
three opening lines were provided as headers in the recording space: "I learned...", "I
enjoyed/didn't enjoy...", and "Anything that comes to mind." Time was allocated for
students to write in their journal each class, however, they were not required to make
entries each day.
Group discussions. Group discussions were completed during the final week of the
course in order to allow participants to reflect upon and discuss different aspects of the
course with their classmates and investigators. The discussion questions related to the

Gibbons & Gaul

five major features ofthe course including: (a) identification as a women's only course,
(b) emphasis on lifetime physical activities including use of community recreation
facilities, (c) emphasis on health-related knowledge associated with physical activity, (d)
emphasis on personal physical activity goals and participation, and (e) social support
strategies for encouraging individual class members. As well, in small subgroups,
students were asked to recall the activities throughout the semester and record their five
most memorable experiences in the course.
Individual questionnaires. Also administered in the last week of the course, a
questionnaire asked students to record changes they would like to see in the course, one
of their most vivid memories fi^om the course, and their future physical activity plans.
The purpose of these questions was to allow individuals an opportunity to provide input
on personally meaningful aspects of the course that they may not have had opportunity or
willingness to share in the group discussions.
Collecting data fi'om these three sources afforded the participants several different
ways to tell about their experiences and facilitated triangulation of Ihe data. Typically,
triangulation involves "corroborating evidence from different sources to shed light on a
theme or perspective" (Creswell, 1998, p, 202).
Data Analysis
A content analysis was conducted on the data collected in this investigation. Patton
(2002) describes a content analysis as a strategy that allows the researcher to identify core
meanings in Iarge amounts of data. In the determination of core meanings, the researcher
first looks for pattems in the data. In order to provide meaning to these pattems they are
fiirther delineated into more all-encompassing and defmed themes. The transcripts fi-om
the three data sources were analyzed for content and theme using the qualitative software
entitled Q.S.R. NUD*IST (Non-numerical Unstructured Data Indexing Searching and
Theorizing). This program is designed to manage, organize, and code data. This type of
software program allows the researcher to manage large amounts of data while
minimizing distancefi-omthe data (Wharf Higgins, 1998),
The analysis began with pattem coding and classifying each data source independently
as part of the analysis (Morse, 1994). As multiple data sources were employed, data
source triangulation was used to examine the consistency of pattems across the data
sources. This procedure allowed for the tracing of each coded item back to its original
data source and the determination of whether pattems and themes were emerging across
the three data sources. As pattems and themes began to emerge across these data sources,
each one was revisited several times to make connections between them (Morse, 1994).
The project researchers, a research assistant, and data analyst were involved in the
preceding analysis process. Following this process, a draft report ofthe findings was sent
to the project participants for verification. To fiirther enhance the credibility of the
findings, an individual not directly associated with the project but knowledgeable in the
area of the female student experience in PE made an independent review of the
transcripts from the data sources, coding procedures, and the resulting pattems and
themes. Three distinct themes emerged from the journals, questionnaires, and group
discussions. These themes are described in the following results.
Results
Each of the three themes identifies notable aspects of the experiences of the female
students involved in the course and investigation. Information related to one or more of
the five features of this WPE 11 course are evident in each theme.
Theme 1: Respectful and Supportive Learning Environment
One aspect of this class that really stood out at me was the overall maturity of
the class. This is probably because we were treated like responsible adults. I

10

Young Women in PE

thought that was a great aspect of this class, I felt like a woman and not a kid.
This made me want to do better and improve.
This theme figured prominently in the data. The notion of respect highlighted the
importance ofthe students feeling that their input was valued. This was evident in the
following comments
We got to personalize our class, which made me actually want to come to class.
It didn't feel like a chore.
We were treated with a lot of respect! We got to choose what we wanted to do.
This class was left so wide open for our input and I felt so comfortable here. I
could express all of my opinions openly.
The notion of support was comprised of a blend of both social support from classmates
and the teacher, as well as what the participants perceived to be supportive evaluation
procedures. One student contended that she "felt encouraged to be fit" and exercising
"with a positive group of people can be tons of fun," Another student provided the
following example
The relaxed atmosphere pushed me to do my best even with the new activities.
I didn't need to worry about being graded on my skill or lack of skill. I believe
motivation (lack of) is my biggest obstacle in the way of my fitness and
exercise, if not my life. A lot of things that I used to enjoy I've lost interest in,
but I still go to Breakfast Club, This may be because 1 don't feel I'm being
judged or I have to live up to someone's view of you, or someone else's
standards. It is competitive in the way that I want to be there every time but it
is not the same kind of stressful competitiveness tbere is in team sports or with
fiiends.
Theme 2: Choice and Variety of Lifetime Physical Activities
I loved the variety and being able to vote on what to do. And being able to get
out ofthe gym and do things different fi-om all other PE classes.
The desire to have a wide variety of physical activities from which to choose, and input
into these choices framed this theme. The notion of choice was evident in comments such
as
Choice! Choice as to what WE wanted to do as a class. This definitely affected
participation. It made the class more fun with everyone enjoying wbat we were
doing.
Choice is not a part of regular PE classes and something that made this class
better and unique.
The importance of variety to the participants was evident from three perspectives. The
first focused on the simple realization that personal fitness can take many forms. One
student commented that she leamed "it can be so fun and that there is so much variety to
physical fitness." Another student explained that
Some of the activities were nice and leisurely, like curling and yoga. Other
activities were physically intense, but they were so much fun that I didn't feel
"the PAIN." The biggest reason that I like this class is because we explored
new things - new and almost exotic forms of sport and physical activity. That
was a huge attraction for me because I was so bored with all the mundane gym
activities. This class gave me a chance to explore different aspects of fitness.
Another attraction was that we weren't made to nm! This class proved to me
that it is possible to get a good workout and have a lot of fxm at the same time.
Secondly, the participants were most appreciative of the opportunity to try physical
activities that they would not have tried if left to their own devises. The following
comments are representative of this sense of appreciation.
I can see myself hiking and now that I bave an introduction to so many
activities, I think I'll be more likely to participate in them again (i.e., squash,
tennis).
Tbis was my first time curling; I hope it isn't my last.

Gibbons & Gaul

II

Without this course, rock climbing would have been too expensive for me to try
out and leam about - I would never have done it at all. Now rock climbing is
my favourite sport.
Yoga was not something I would not have tried by myself but something that I
now love.
I leamed many new sports and enjoyed many activities. I would mention to my
dad what we were doing and he always expressed his jealousy, I'm glad to be
in a program, which others envy. Thanks for letting us experience things I
wouldn't have otherwise done.
Finally, the preceding sentiments also extended into the participants' recognition ofthe
potential for lifetime participation in many of the physical activities. The following
comments demonstrate this awareness.
I enjoyed badminton more than I thought I would. I think I might try and
pursue some badminton as a way to keep active after graduation.
Rock climbing.,.I enjoyed for the week after and I improved vastly. I even
asked my parents to get me a membership.
My dad plays squash and now I can play with him.
Theme 3: Personal Accomplishment
The sense of accomplishment... a fit woman is a powerful woman.
Fitness really is an ingredient for success in whatever you do.
Theme 3 highlighted the sense of personal accomplishment many participants felt as a
result of their participation in the WPE 11 course. In some instances, it was expressed as
a memorable event. For example, a particularly memorable experience for several
participants was their participation in their first organized, community-wide 1 OK run.
Garden City 10K,..fell that I wanted to conquer and I did!
I still can't believe I did the Garden City lOK!! The whole thing!
lOK because I was SO proud of myself for doing it, and so thankful to have
that opportunity.
Today 1 ran my FIRST prep 2K for the Garden City lOK.
Participants in the Breakfast Club (the optional early morning weight training circuit)
expressed similar sentiments. One student commented Ihat, "I can feel myself getting
stronger after only two days of Breakfast Club."
Another student provided the following example:
Breakfast Club is somewhat competitive for me (not with others) and it keeps
me motivated. It boosts my confidence in that I know I can complete the
circuit and still have energy left after, even though I've worked very hard ...it's
like a little coffee or something in the moming that gets you jump started for
the rest ofthe day.
Finally, the sense of personal accomplishment was also evident in more general
statements such as
I found it very rewarding because at the end of the day I had worked very hard,
and there's the great feeling you get from knowing you gave your all.
When I put my effort in it became really fiin.
I played volleyball in grade 8, but wasn't very good I think I've grown into
my body or something because I'm better.
I improved in batting from concentration in yoga. And I'm not just saying that.
Discussion
The purpose of this investigation was to examine experiences of young women in an
elective PE 11 course specifically designed with their active input in both the
development and implementation phases of the course. The multiple sources of data
provided a rich base of information. We are confident that the daily journal coupled with
the group discussions and individual questionnaires gave us a consistent picture of

12

Young Women in PE

participant's thoughts and feelings throughout the course. Whereas the journals provided
information over the entire term, the otiier two tools helped students reflect upon and
share particular aspects of their experience in WPE 11, For future research we
recommend such a combination of etbnographic techniques because it allowed for
documentation of each individual's experiences across several months along with both
individual and group post course reftections and input. Our findings confirmed much of
the previous work on the factors that contribute to young women either resisting or
embracing participation in their physical education classes. In general, the findings are
consistent with the suggestion by Gibbons and Blacklock (1998) that in order for PE to
be a positive place for young women to leam they must "feel safe, find value, and feel
valued" (p. 3). Our fmdings also support the contention by Flintoff and Scraton (2001)
that
teachers who can provide safe and supportive environments, who recognize the
often different aspirations and motivations amongst their pupils, and who listen
to their pupils, are more likely to be successful than those who subscribe to
hierarchical, discipline-based relationships and traditional curricula and
pedagogies, (p. 12)
The results from the present study indicate that if these particular needs are met, then
young women will indeed participate willingly and enthusiastically in physical education
classes.
More specifically, the resulting themes from our investigation are consistent with
Kilbom's (1999) examination of several elective PE 11 courses with high enrollment of
female students. Prominent in both studies was the importance of both course content
and leaming environment. In terms of course content, participants emphasized the value
of experiencing a variety of physical activities, with a focus on those activities described
as having lifetime participation potential. In particular, the participants valued the
opportunity to begin to make measured choices toward their ftiture physical activity.
Similar to Kilbom, participants in the present investigation appreciated the opportunify to
provide input into the selection of activities in the course. This made them fbel that their
opinions were valued and respected. In both studies, this sense of respect and support
extended to the evaluation procedures and general class atmosphere. In our WPE 11,
evaluation procedures were grounded in the concept of active participation for a variety
of personal goals rather than emphasizing the development of particular skills. Similar
attention to evaluation procedures was also a predominant theme in Humbert (1995). The
sense of personal accomplishment mentioned by numerous participants was related to
both evaluation procedures and the supportive leaming atmosphere. Tbey did not appear
to feel constrained by extemal expectations, and appeared to welcome the opportionity to
pursue their own physical activity goals. A class atmosphere that values the social
aspects of participating in physical activity with fiiends was a strong theme in the results
of this investigation and has previously been well documented (e.g., Flintoff & Scraton,
2001; Gibbons et al,, 1999; Humbert, 1995; Olafson, 2002, Scantling et al. 1995;
Williams, Bedward, & Woodhouse, 2000), It appears that the social support provided by
classmates and teacher is as meaningful to many participants as the content ofthe course.
Our identification of the factors that may contribute to female resistance to
participation is consistent with descriptions by Brown (2000), Flintoff and Scraton,
(2001), Humbert (1995), and Olafson (2002), In particular, the PE programs described in
these studies were based on a multiactivity and sports curriculum model, Ennis (1995,
1999, 2000) describes such a curriculum as based on a European male, middle-class,
sporting model. She describes this particular model as characterized by "curricular
structures that produce multiple, short-duration units consisting of limited instruction and
numerous opportunities for highly skilled participants to engage in physical activity"
(Ennis, 1999, p. 2). Ennis (1999) suggests that such a structure promotes "inequality and
reproduces gender segregation and low-skill levels in both boys and girls" (p. 2).
Vertinsky (1992) fiorther describes the sport-based model as one where male-defined
standards of power and strength predominate. In the sport-based model, Vertinsky argues

Gibbons & Gaul

13

that female students regularly receive messages about being weak and unskilled. Brown
(2000) and Olafson (2002) both contend that by virtue of adopting a sport-based
curriculum model, the official curriculum in physical education may structure obstacles
to participation in PE for many female students. In our investigation, the other PE 11
course available at the same school utilized a sport-based curriculum. Very few female
students (2-3 each year) chose to enroll in this course. However, since this study
enrollment in WPE 11 continues to be strong and fully subscribed.
The curriculum the participants embraced in WPE 11 has many of the features of a
health-related personal fitness model rather than the preceding sport-based model. The
WPE 11 course is similar in structure and content to a conceptual PE program described
by Dale et al., (1998). These authors describe conceptual PE as physical activity sessions
designed to help students leam fitness self-assessment, personal program planning skills,
and a variety of lifelong physical activities, Tliese lessons are complemented by
classroom sessions designed to "teach students important concepts and facts about
physical activity and fitness as well as behavioural skills, such as journal writing, goal
setting, and program planning" (Dale, et, al., p. 99). Several features of WPE 11 reached
beyond those associated with the health-related personal fitness model including the
social supports strategies and the women's only nature ofthe course. These features
emphasize that meaningful participation for those students involved in WPE 11 included
more than choice of course content.
The results of our investigation provide valuable insight into strategies for increasing
the potential for successful educational change. This project involved the design and
implementation of a school-based initiative developed through active collaboration of
students, teachers, and researchers. While the investigators brought the research
expertise to the project, the teacher and students possessed the experiential knowledge
critical to the utility of applied research. Active involvement of students and teachers, at
all stages of curriculum development, is viewed as a crucial factor for increasing the
potential success of new curricular initiatives (Fullan & Stiegelbauer, 1991; Gibbons &
Van Gyn, 1996), We endeavoured to adhere to this factor throughout the WPE 11
project. Figure I provides a graphic of the process of curriculum development from
initial identification ofthe problem through to curriculum implementation and evaluation.
The portion of the graphic above the dotted line shows the part of the process, which
provided the initial background information for the WPE 11 course we have described.
The activities below the dotted line represent the process from curriculum development
through to implementation and evaluation phases described in this paper. The
predominant boxes in both halves of the graphic represent the active involvement of
students, teachers, and researchers with arrows pointing to all areas in wbich each made
important contributions.
As mentioned, Fullan and Stiegelbauer (1991) emphasize the potential positive impact
of involving students in a meaningful role in curricular change. In this project, if the
WPE 11 curriculum was to meet the needs of adolescent females it was crucial to solicit
input directly from them at all stages of the development process. This involvement
emphasizes the assertion by Fullan and Stiegelbauer that "students will participate in any
irmovation to the extent that they understand and are motivated to try what is expected"
(p. 183). Our project emphasized teacher involvement by affording a teacher the
opportunity to translate research results and hypotheses into specific practical action
within a school context. The teacher was able to utilize the results from the Gibbons et
al. (1999) project to tailor the WPE 11 course for her students. The five features of WPE
11 at Vic High translated the voices ofthe young women in the 1999 study into a specific
practical context. In essence, their voices were heard. In addition, the students enrolled
in WPE 11 were actively involved in course development in a way that was consistent
with Ennis' (2000) description of social-constructivist curricula. The active involvement
of students and the teacher as described in this project also allowed for the development
of a coherent curriculum.
Ennis (2003) suggests, "coherence or a sense of

14

Young Women in PE

interconnectedness is an essential element of an effective and worthwhile curriculum" (p.


122). She further suggests that coherence is achieved when course content, structure, and
learning environment "consistently reflects the local context and participants' values" (p.
122). Not only were the students involved in course development, but following the end
of term many participated in sharing their experiences with other women considering
course selection for the coming academic year. The young women were "engaged in the
curricular situation because it reflected current elements of their lived experience, while
simultaneously presenting tantalizing extensions they acknowledge as realistic future
possibilities" (p. 123).
Our findings support the assertion by Ennis (1995) that curriculum change will be
effective and benefit all if teachers and students "negotiate a shared vision in which both
groups contribute to an educational approach to physical education" (p. 456). Our
investigation expands this shared vision to include researchers. The active collaboration
between researchers, students, and teachers allowed research to be applied in a
meaningful way to a particular school context resulting in the creation of a PE program
that was inviting for young women and successful in increasing their performance,
participation, and potential for future involvement in physical activity.
Conclusions
Drawing directly on the experiences of young women, the results of this study suggest
that it is possible to design a physical education program that is responsive to their health
and physical activity needs, interests, and abilities. Documenting the experiences of the
young women in this course confirmed that they are willing to take responsibility for
their own physical activity in meaningful and productive ways. Insights gainedfi-omthis
study offer guidance for designing relevant and effective PE interventions and
innovation. Significant possibilities exist for increasing the participation rates of females
in secondary school physical education and possible lifelong involvement in physical
activity. We also identified the critical step of actively seeking and then incorporating
input from young high school women throughout a process of curriculum development.
Further research directed at enhancing PE programs will benefit from the inclusion of
young female students. Their role as primary stakeholders in program development has
been clearly demonstrated. This is as important as the activities themselves in the
promotion of a genuinely meaningful and nurturing curriculum; its impact should not be
underestimated.
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