Faculty of Education


It is widely accepted that girls and women are less likely to participate in physical activity, have on average lower cardiovascular fitness and are more obese than boys and men. The response to this by the government and by those espousing a liberal femininist position has been to argue that such differences are the consequence of inequality of opportunity in regard to access to resources, skills and teaching time. This position takes for granted the value of sport and physical education as it is practised in western societies. It does not pose as problematic the contribution that such practices make to the (re)production of expressions of femininity which motivate girls' apparent reticence to participate in physical activity.

This study goes beyond an equity approach to investigate the ways in which the practices of teachers contribute to girls' alienation from physical activity. In particular it investigates how the linguistic choices made by teachers and students reproduced particular subjects and subjectivities in relation to patriarchal discourses of femininity and masculinity.

Although framed within a broad ethnographic approach, feminist, poststructuralist and linguistic theory has informed the methodology and analysis of the study. Teacher-pupil interactions were recorded by means of video and audio tape. Teacher language was analysed using methods developed from systemic functional linguistics. Non-verbal aspects of teacher and student behaviour were not central to the study but were important in providing both context and additional information about the social relations between teachers and their students and students with each other.

The cultural and historical contexts which contributed to the framing of the physical education lesson as genre and to the determination of teachers' and pupils' subjectivities were also investigated in order to interpret teacher-pupil interactions in the lessons. To this end the production and recontextualisation of discourses and practices affecting contemporary practices in Australian physical education were mapped from their beginnings in the male and female traditions of physical education operating in nineteenth century Britain.

An examination of media representations of women in sport together with an analysis of inteiviews conducted with teachers and students provided insights into the ways in which students were likely to be positioned in relation to the dominant values and beliefs about masculinity and femininity as these intersect with those discourses associated with sport in Australian society.

Results of the study indicated that girls and women were positioned and positioned themselves as marginal to sports discourse; that is, as passive, lacking in skill, strength and enthusiasm and as the antithesis of the male students who were constructed as skilled, enthusiastic, tough, competitive and knowledgeable. The female students and female teachers, however, exhibited a greater facility with interpersonal language.

The resistance of female students to male teaching practices usually drew on their expertise and power in the discourses and genres of heterosexual relations. In this study co-educational experiences appeared to provide very alienating contexts for girls in which they were unlikely to develop skill. However, the language of female and male teachers in single-sex classes was also found to contribute to the normative positioning of female and male students in relation to patriarchal discourses of femininity and masculinity.