Of Personal Experience and Research Questions

Last December I posted an extract from my PhD thesis.

In this post I share my introduction to the thesis (written in 1989). I do so at a time when I am increasing the number of students I am supervising at Masters and PhD level.

The title of this Chapter is Of Personal Experience and Research Questions. My aim is to explore the process of framing of research questions and to provide an example for discussion.


In 1983, I registered for a higher degree in the Institute of Educational Development at the University of Surrey. My aim was to conduct research into the teaching of boys’ physical education in the secondary school.

Six years on, the thesis presented here is something of a quantum leap from my original intention.My plan was to research the teaching of physical education from a sociological perspective in order to improve the quality of courses and tutorial advice I was sharing with student teachers. It had been five years since I was a teacher in a physical education teacher in a comprehensive school and I was rapidly becoming the kind of Derby tipster that Roy Nash (1976) was critical of in his account of the practical training given to teachers.

I was, in fact, an innocent abroad on a number of counts. The Department of Education and Science’s Teaching Quality had not been published at that time. I had not thought through carefully exactly what kind of research I wanted to do and when asked about my intentions in this respect I used to mumble something about ‘qualitative research’.

My innocence did not extend to my language, however. At that time I used the most ridiculous jargon without turning a hair. An undergraduate social science course and a sociology Masters’ course had ill-prepared me for everyday life. What is even worse, I used the jargon to give myself bogus authority.

To carry on for a while in this confessional vein, I think I was hiding behind a missionary conception of qualitative research. Despite my emerging interest in constructivist approaches to education and glimpses of books like Peter Reason and John Rowan’s Human Inquiry (1981), I had not realised the significant difference between research with and research on teachers. I seemed to think that doing qualitative works was a virtue in its own right. I was bringing to the research process that matched Tony Hancock’s notion of being a blood donor!

Doing research was a perfect antidote. From 1986, when I started working with five teachers of physical education in two schools, my understanding of qualitative research was transformed. I found it comforting too that there were other researchers with similar qualitative interests in the sociology of physical education.

But I think I would have opted for a safe account of my own and others’ work, if I had not discovered some critical essays on the form of anthropological and ethnographic writing. The more I read, the more appealing it became to explore some of the issues raised by George Marcus and Dick Cushman (1982), Johannes Fabian (1983), Stephen Tyler (1987) and John Van Maanen (1988).

The upshot is that I am going to present an account of the teaching of physical education that celebrates the voices of the teachers with whom I researched. In doing so, I want to avoid the packaging that sometimes accompanies accounts of qualitative research. I take this to be quite a challenge for me as writer and you as reader. I have chosen not to use footnotes and have tried not to overburden the account with too many references to ‘the literature’.

Private Troubles and Public Issues: Firming Up Research Questions

Over the years I must have asked hundreds of undergraduate students to articulate a central research question in their write up of final year dissertations. In trying to sort out a central question for my thesis I initiated a process of introspection that took me back a long way. Perhaps why I have been moved to complete a doctoral submission has something to do with the rootedness of my present in my past.

I grew up in a small town in North Wales. From a very early age, I took an active part in games under the watchful eye of my grandfather. Although our family album has a number of photographs of me kicking footballs and holding cricket bats, my first real memory of sport is the day I got my first pair of football boots.

I can remember the boots being unwrapped and then being laced into them by my grandfather who had bought them. I have no idea how old I was but I do remember standing proudly on our scrubbed kitchen table and looking him eye to eye.

For many years, I was preoccupied by football and even into my early teens my sole reading matter was Football Monthly (the World’s first Football Magazine). I was a rabid supporter of one of the local football teams, Buckley Wanderers. They wore the same strip as Wolverhampton Wanderers and the goalkeeper, Fred, was well into his forties. He wore a rolled neck jersey and a flat cap. Whenever possible I snatched chances to kick into the nets before the game, at half-time and after the game. What luxury not to have to chase the ball after scoring!

Then, in 1962, the pinnacle of achievement … Buckley Wanderers got to the Welsh Amateur Cup Final. We beat Ferndale Athletic. I went to the game and it was my first experience of a ‘big’ match. By one of those coincidences of history the Wanderers’ left half that day was to be my physical education teacher at secondary school.

I ought to say that throughout my primary school years, my interest in sport was nourished and developed by teachers as well. In fact two teachers, Ivor Jones and Tommy Inglesfield, made sport particularly special. In lessons and school teams I learned a great deal about football and cricket. My memories of that time are important to me and have acted as a touchstone for my dealings with young children in my own teaching career.

Years later, experience of higher education and exposusure to social sciences initiated opportunities to reflect on such memories. The title for this section, for example, has been stimulated by my re-reading of C Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1967) occasioned by John Evans’ introduction to Physical Education, Sport and Schooling (1986).

My experience of higher education and my specific interest in sociological accounts of physical education have enabled me to link my experiences of physical education and sport with those of other people. In retrospect I would have liked o have worked harder at making sense of the intricate relations between biography and history.

Now that I am a little older and hopefully a little wiser, I have tried to escape from my preoccupation with the language of sociological discourse. I am much more concerned now with empowering and facilitating the professional development of teachers.

Comparatively late in my research, the relationship between personal experience and public issues moved to the foreground. This is in part due to the emergence of a number of significant contributions to the literature in the sociology of physical education and to changes in my own career path. “Escape’ from the stress of full-time employment in a college of education, the experience of parenthood and long-term contact with teachers of physical education have provided a distancing perspective.

In 1987, when I had the opportunity to set out research questions in my upgrading PhD document, I was still trying to find a way of relating private troubles to public issues. I felt strongly that whatever questions I identified were to be part of a research process designed to challenge the politics of knowledge in educational research. I argued that by researching physical education using qualitative methods I hoped to contribute to the debate about what counts as research.

In the Research Questions and Design section of the upgrade document I observed that:

I am fascinated by the transmission of knowledge. My own educational experience has been permeated by the notion of social mobility through examination success. ‘Education’ was deemed to be important. Only gradually did it become possible to reflect on the process of knowing. In the last fifteen years I have been exposed to critiques of the normative structure of education which have challenged and disturbed my taken-for-granted assumptions.

Research Questions

My research is an outcome of my biography. After teaching in a comprehensive school in a college of higher education, I wanted to take the opportunity to explore teaching and learning. Central to my original research idea was the question ‘Do children learn in spite of or because of the teacher?’

After some five years of reading and empirical research my research questions have developed, changed and emerged. My central question has become ‘How do teachers construct the contexts within which teaching and learning become possible?’ My focus has become the teachers of physical education specifically, with the pupils taking a place on the ‘back burner’.

An overarching problem for me has been the relationship between methods and evidence. I want to know what methods can be used to describe what happens within physical education in the secondary school. I do not wish to research teachers in isolation and I will require methods sensitive to teachers, curriculum models, evaluation and social relations. In short, research methods should be alive to the complexity of teaching.

There are research questions about teachers of physical education and their practice:

1. What salient biographical factors influence the way physical education is taught?

2. How do teachers deliver and evaluate lesson content?

3. Are teachers active curriculum researchers?

I am particularly interested in the extent to which teachers see their task in active and creative ways. Implicit in all three questions listed above are the constraints upon the practice of teaching.

Another set of research questions relates to the institutional and cultural contexts of physical education teaching. In particular:

4. What significance is attached to physical education by the school hierarchy?

5. What cultural expectations impinge upon the construction of the physical education curriculum?

I am interested here in the overdetermination of the physical education curriculum. Since the turn of the century there have been a number of ‘moral panics’ about male physical education. A present variation of this ‘panic’ is the concern over the inability of physical education to provide elite sportsmen (sic) in the ‘traditional’, culturally dominant games (football, rugby, cricket). In my research I would like to say something about agenda setting in physical education that is beyond the control of the individual teacher.

I have chosen to focus on teachers in my research but I would like to pose some questions about pupils:

6. What factors influence a child’s involvement in physical education?

7. How significant is physical education in a child’s experience of formal and extra-curricular education.

In this part of the research I wish to explore the ‘problems’ facing boys in participating in physical education. The ritual of undressing, performing, showering and dressing is a distinct marker in the school week. Performance in lessons is public and very visible. There are important psycho-social aspects of pupil involvement in physical education to be considered. At the methodological level, finding appropriate access points to pupil talk is a problem and one which I intend to discuss in my research.

The research questions identified in my upgrading document reflected work done up to that time and mapped out some of the developing issues in my work. The seven questions identified sat within a process of research that I saw as emergent, fallible and reflexive. I was determined that the questions themselves should be open to revision and replacement in order that I might explore creatively the links between biography and history.


Department of Education and Science, 1983. Teaching Quality. London: HMSO. Cmnd 8836.

Evans, J. ed., 1986. Physical Education, Sport and Schooling. Lewes: Falmer Press.

Fabian, J., 1983. Time and the Other. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marcus, G. and Cushman, D., 1982. Ethnographies as texts. Annual review of Anthropology, 11, pp.25-69.

Mills, C.W., 1967The Sociological Imagination. London: Oxford University Press.

Nash, R., 1976. Pupils’ expectations of their teachers. In M, Stubbs and S, Delamont, eds. Explorations in Classroom Observation. Chichester: Wiley and Sons.

Reason, P. and Rowan, J., eds., 1981.  Human Inquiry. Chichester: Wiley and Sons.

Tyler, S., 1987. The Unspeakable. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Van Maanen, J., 1988. Tales of the Field. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Do People Who Have Lost Their Voice Have To Do It?


I undertook three years of fieldwork in two schools in the mid 1980s as part of my part-time PhD studies in the teaching of boys’ physical education in the secondary school. Other than a chapter in a book of readings edited by Andrew Sparkes (1992) the only account of my work is in the thesis (1989).

The thesis raised some sensitive issues and with the agreement of those in my fieldwork I placed a voluntary embargo on publication. Twenty-one years on all those involved have moved from the fieldwork schools and I would like to share some of the contents of the thesis as a way of exploring qualitative enquiry in physical education.

Telling Tales From The Field

When I came to write up my thesis all those years ago I tried to explore the process of writing an ethnography too. I was fascinated by the debate going on in the discipline of anthropology at that time and was particularly interested in John Van Maanen’s approach in Tales From The Field (1988). His text has become a classic reference and I bought one of the first copies on sale in the United Kingdom.

I pointed out that John Van Maanen’s monograph is founded on the belief that:

The joining of fieldwork and culture in an ethnography entails far more than merely writing up the results culled from making friends, staying sane and healthy, worming one’s way into back regions and taking good notes in the field. (1988:6)

He challenged the persistent conviction among social scientists that “the problems of ethnography are merely those of access, intimacy, sharp ears and eyes, good habits of recording, and so forth” (1988:6). In making his case he argued that:

A culture or a cultural practice is as much created by the writing (i.e., it is intangible and can only be put into words) as it determines the writing itself. (1988:6)

In the thesis in my account of the teaching of physical education, I posed as problematic the documentary reality presented to the reader. My intention was to develop an account of the writing process that moved on the debate about qualitative research in the study of physical education. Like John Van Maanen I contended that not to pose ethnographic writing as problematic “reduces ethnography to method” (1988:6).

Emboldened by John Van Maanen and excited by writing I used insights gained from Elliot Eisner, Jeanne Favret-Saada, Wolfgang Iser, Miller Mair, Charles Olson, James Spradley and Willard Waller to re-present my fieldwork.

My PhD is based on five physical education teachers in two schools. Three teachers taught in a state secondary school (Bridgetown) and two taught in an independent school (Riverside). The schools were located in close proximity to each other and were separated by a chain link fence. Their proximity enabled me to explore Alan Tomlinson’s observation that:

Physical Education, if it is to be more than a set of taken-for-granted activities and values or a crude form of social control, must be studied and, if necessary, made and re-made as a significant element in our wider culture. The way forward, I believe, is to reject any notion of objective, value-free study of isolated ‘variables’, and to make connections between the different aspects of our social lives and cultural experience. (1982:53)

There are a total of two hundred and sixteen pages of tales from the field for the five teachers. I have a separate chapter for what I termed Noises Off (inspired by Michael Frayn) for the voices of pupils, headteachers and other teachers on the staff of the two schools. Here I share a story from one of the lessons taught by one of the teachers, Ed, at Bridgetown School.

Do People Who Have Lost Their Voice Have To Do It?

On a bright but cold Spring morning, I am sitting outside the changing rooms used by Bridgetown School for its games’ lessons. The changing rooms are off site and, depending on the motivation of teachers and pupils, are between five and twenty minutes’ walk from the main school site. During my fieldwork I have arrived usually first at the changing rooms and awaited the arrival of teachers and pupils. This is the case this morning. I am waiting for Ed and the second year boys for heir double lesson of rugby union.

The first pupils start to drift in some five minutes after my own arrival. From my seat outside the changing rooms, the postilions of the main group of boys are visible on the approach road to the playing fields. Shortly after this first sighting, two pupils arrive on the same bike (the kind made popular by the film E.T.). One is riding whilst the other (Ritchie) perches expertly on the rear spindle which seems customised for this kind of transport. As the bike is parked, two pedestrian pupils arrive and the four set about devising games to pass away the time until the arrival of other pupils and Ed. Such creative playful activity characterises much of the waiting time pupils have at the Bridgetown games’ field.

On this occasion the two walkers play a game of ‘splits’ with a penknife whilst the bike riders set about a game of pretend shooting and gun fights. As the boys play near me I take it that my presence is not intrusive and that the daily business of play can take its course.

Some five minutes after the ‘official’ start of the lesson (9.30 a.m.), the main group of boys in the class can be heard on the approach road. With the prevailing weather conditions conversations and some singing are audible. The second years are on their way!

Two minutes later they are at the changing rooms and some of the pupils, with whom I have a nodding acquaintance, greet me and I them. Small groups form and I assume that these cohere around friendship preferences developed inside and outside classrooms. It is a time for banter and informal game playing. Some boys decide to climb nearby trees and I am prompted to think about some of the ethological literature I have read about the social behaviour of primates. A grounded member of the troop tries to sell me a rather grubby Smurf sticker ‘for charity’. I decline his invitation because of implausibility (clearly marked on the sticker is advice on dental hygiene) and lack of ready cash. I make both these points to him and he moves off to try his sales pitch elsewhere.

Nearby, a pupil I recognise as a regular non-participant in the formal physical education curriculum, is chatting with a small group of friends. This pupil, Stuart, is small and bespectacled and is talking about his and others’ recent ‘escape’ from the top ability group in the second year games’ course. He opines that “The top group think they’re it” and this draws from one of the group the comment that “Yeah, if you miss the ball they tell you off”. As this conversation ends they start to offer me a variety of excuses for not taking part in today’s lesson. Ultimately, only Stuart sticks to his non-participant role.

Ed arrives sixteen minutes after the ‘official’ start of the lesson. He reports that he  has had to organise cover for another PE teacher who is away ill and adds “What a way to start the day.” He unlocks the changing room doors and encourages the boys to change quickly. As he does this the tree-climbers rush back to collect their discarded kit bags. Ever hopeful some of hem ask “Can we do football?”

One of the pupils tries to negotiate his non participation in the lesson by asking “Do people who have lost their voice have to do it?” Neither the pupil nor Ed seem aware of the paradox of this clearly audible question. Ed treat this question and others with a cultivated deafness that is the hallmark of a teaching tradition focused on a curriculum model that provides curriculum content regardless of consumer preference.

Meanwhile, other pupils are engaged in the variety of routines that mark one of the unique aspects of the physical education lesson: undressing in public. The changing room is cold and windowless. On this occasion the floor is clean as it is the first lesson of the day, and fairly pristine feet come into contact with the cold concrete floor. At this time of day hopping around is due mainly to the temperature of the flooring and the imperfect balance prompted by forcing feet into football socks. Later in he day, boys will be hopping around trying to shake off the chewing gum-like pieces of mud that will find their way into the changing room regardless of each teacher’s exhortation to remove boots at the door. (This exhortation leaves those pupils without football boots who contrive to slip and slide their way through outdoor PE lessons with a semantic escape.  They have no boots to take off.)

The ritual of public undressing proceeds at a variety of speeds. The first to change today are those enthusiastic to get started and those who have come to school with their PE kit on under their school uniform. The motive for this latter group appears to be a desire to participate although a small number of boys use it as a way of dealing with (not) undressing in public.

Ed gives a rugby ball to those who have changed quickly. They go outside and start an impromptu game. I pump up some rugby balls for the lesson and decide to observe from a distance today. As pupils change into their kit they go out onto the pitch and engage in varying forms of activity, some related to rugby others more to do with continuing conversations and news-swapping.

Twenty-four minutes after the ‘official’ start of the lesson, Ed leaves the changing room, calls the group into him, says a few words and sets of with them for a warm-up run. Two slow changers are left behind. Ritchie, who has given Ed a verbal excuse for non-participation ( a sprained ankle), runs after the group in his school uniform. Ed demonstrates exercises in the course of the run. The two slow changers, both wearing track suits, catch up with the group by careful orienteering.


I thought this account might be an interesting point to start a discussion about ethnographic accounts of teaching in general and physical education in particular. On this day, as with most days, I had a notebook with me to record events and to write down verbatim utterances. Throughout the fieldwork I did not take the role of a teacher and each PE teacher explained to the pupils that I was there because I was interested in PE.

I tried to get to lessons ahead of pupils as my own career as a PE teacher had made it clear that pupils’ enthusiasm for PE was measured very well by eagerness to get ready. The off-site fields created significant logistical problems for teachers at Bridgetown and I was keen to monitor the impact of this on pupil engagement in lessons.

I wrote this account a week after the lesson and continued to work on it throughout my fieldwork. I do not make any claims for this being a representative lesson for all PE teachers. As with much ethnographic writing I am interested in how it resonates with readers. It is a narrative that I hope offers moments of recognition whilst having within it some important issues to explore for teaching and learning in physical education.


Lyons, K 1992, ‘Telling Stories from the Field?: A Discussion of an Ethnographic Approach to Researching the Teaching of Physical Education’ in Research in physical education and sport: exploring alternative visions, ed A Sparkes, Falmer Press, London, pp. 248-270.

Lyons, K 1989, A Sociological Analysis of the Teaching of Boys’ Physical Education in the Secondary School. Ph.D thesis, University of Surrey.

Tomlinson, A 1982, ‘Physical Education, Sport and Sociology: The current state and the way forward’ in Physical Education, Sport and Leisure: sociological perspectives, ed I Glaister, Glaister, Milton-under-Wychwood, np.

Van Maanen, J 1988, Tales From The Field, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Photo Credits

LSE Sports Day

Two Boys Playing Leapfrog