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.

Engines Running: Reflecting on David Crawford's Review of Australian Sport


This has been a fascinating week for Australian sport. It started with Tiger Woods’ victory at the Australian Masters golf tournament and is ending with visceral debate about play, games, physical education and sport in Australian society. Although I have written two posts about the Independent Sport Panel’s Report I have been mindful of Todd Sieling‘s manifesto for slow blogging. He suggests that slow blogging is “an affirmation that not all things worth reading are written quickly, and that many thoughts are best served after being fully baked and worded in an even temperament”.

Slow blogging is an art at a time when the immediacy of the Internet offers the opportunity for “daily outrages and ecstasies that fill nothing more than single moments in time, switching between banality, crushing heartbreak and end-of-the-world psychotic glee in the mere space between headlines”.

David Crawford’s Review of Australian Sport has offered remarkable opportunities for comments and responses. I have taken some time to read the Report and in this post I would like to explore some of what I consider to be the important issues raised. Before I do so I need to declare some interests.

Personal Interests, Private Troubles

I have had a lifelong interest in sport and physical education. I have played, taught and coached a variety of sports and have been fortunate to have been involved in international sport since 1980. I qualified as a teacher of physical education in 1975. My own pathway in sport has been enriched by a profound sense of the educational value of physical activity and a passionate, personal, intrinsic commitment to sport from a very early age. I completed my PhD (a sociological account of teaching physical education) in the late 1980s in England at a time when teachers were withdrawing from after school activity in state schools. I witnessed at first hand the break of the umbilical connection between teachers and pupils. I believe this had immense implications for the organisation of sport and the loss of an educational ethos in physical activity. From 1978 to the present I have had a profound interest in the social and cultural aspects of sport and for over a decade taught courses in sociology and cultural studies.

My academic life gave me access to the work of Norbert Elias through Eric Dunning’s sociological approaches to sport. Elsewhere in this blog I have explored themes of play and playfulness and these aspects were nourished in me by Ione and Peter Opie‘s work as well as by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois. Some of the early sociologists of sport encouraged me to reflect on play, display and spectacle and I was particularly influenced by Gregory Stone, Allen Gutmann and Fred Inglis. Like any student in the 1970s and 1980s I had access to many of the writings of leading Marxist thinkers. I was fascinated by John Hoberman‘s work too and much more recently by Andy Miah.

This passion for sport has infused much of my life. I am a product of sport providing a social inclusion opportunity and I hope I have not forgotten the importance that sport can play in life changing experience. Whilst at the University of York (1973) I completed what I believe to be one of the first undergraduate studies in Apartheid and Sport. This fascination with the power of sport as a form of expression continues today with my enchantment with the possibilities midnight basketball holds.

I came to Australia in 2002 to join the staff at the Australian Institute of Sport and have had remarkable access to elite sporting environments and cultures in Australia. My sport journey started standing behind the goals at Buckley Wanderers trying to save the heavy leather laced balls missed by the goalkeeper, through thirteen years of school physical education to working with the Welsh rugby team to coaching on river banks in Australia. Recently I became a member of the Board of Australian Canoeing.

I am hopeful that these private troubles (as C Wright Mills called them) have some bearing on the public issues raised by David Crawford’s report.

Public Issues

Just before I read David Crawford‘s report I came across Nikolai Bohlke and Leigh Robinson’s (2009) paper Benchmarking of elite sport systems. I did not have access to the full paper but noted from the summary that their research “used semi-structured interviews and documentary analysis to investigate the elite sport services offered by two successful Scandinavian sports”. They found that “a number of the services that led to the success of the two investigated systems are strongly context dependent”. they propose that “benchmarking is only appropriate as a tool to further understanding of elite sport systems if it is approached as a way of learning, rather than copying”.

So as the Crawford Report was released I was thinking about within and between sport system comparisons and the kind of evidence (and time) one might need to understand a sporting culture. I liked in particular Nikolai and Leigh’s point about learning. I found Chapter 1.1 (Defining Our National Sports Vision) of Crawford particularly interesting in setting a context for me to read the report. I was drawn to some points made on page 8:

In all, we need to consider what we can afford to invest and how we appropriately balance this investment to support a broader definition of sporting success. This will mean more explicitly defining elite sporting success in the context of prioritising those sports which capture the country’s imagination and represent its spirit and culture. These are the sports where our performance on the national and world stage is important to our sense of success as a nation.

There should be debate about which sports carry the national ethos. Swimming, tennis, cricket, cycling, the football codes, netball, golf, hockey, basketball, surfing and surf lifesaving are among the most popular sports in Australia, a part of the national psyche. Many are team sports and are the sports we are introduced to as part of our earliest education and community involvement.

If more money is to be injected into the system then we must give serious consideration to where that money is spent. If we are truly interested in a preventative health agenda through sport, then much of it may be better spent on lifetime participants than almost all on a small group of elite athletes who will perform at that level for just a few years. (Emphasis is mine.)

These three small paragraphs are the essence of the debate for me and appear to have been a raw nerve for some people’s sense of the world whilst reaffirming others’ core values. I have tried to capture the range of responses to the Report in an earlier post (Engines Started …) This introductory section (1.1) led me to think about:

  • 21st century approaches to fitness and health
  • How a nation state defines priorities for the allocation of the public purse
  • Whether funding is a right or a privilege
  • Whether history is destiny
  • The imperatives for ethical sponsorship
  • The advantages of a common wealth approach to social capital

I have combined these into three themes: insatiability, connectedness and deference.


For some time I have been concerned that it is possible to have an insatiable appetite for funds to support elite sport. In fact my arrival in Australia in 2002 coincided with a major dilemma for the Australian sport system … how do you progress after a successful home Olympics that was the focus of enormous investment? I still wonder if 2000 was a justifiably proud high water mark for Australian Olympic endeavour. Thereafter we had to compete with the energy of new host nations and the growing presence of the United Kingdom with significant financial resources at its disposal. Australia shared its expertise with the United Kingdom post-Sydney Olympics and many other nations warmed to the Australian model of success. It seemed to me that the only way to compete with these nations was to assume all Olympics were home Olympics so that Australia could resource a small demographic with sufficient long-haul training and competition opportunities.

I believe the Crawford Report provides an opportunity to debate these issues in a transparent way. I think the Report makes a strong case for “a nationally agreed plan for sport which encompasses all relevant areas of government and engages all tiers of government” (Summary of Findings 2.1 point 6). What interests me in particular is the timescale is required to agree and operationalise a plan that impacts on our lived (rather than aspirational) experience of sport in Australia. The development of a national policy requires stability of political will. This is exactly the problem facing young scientists in the World Economic Forum … how do you develop an ecologically sound energy policy for 2030 when there will be multiple changes of government in that time scale?


I believe fervently in a sustainable sport system that is funded ethically and that has an educational vision. I believe that the essence of sustainability (as an alternative to insatiability) is the family and the local community. I live in a rural community near to Braidwood in New South Wales and am becoming more and more aware of how a community can include and support its members. Local communities have local heroes and these have enormous influence over behaviour.  Successful communities are connected and grounded.

I take another key message from the Crawford Report to be how Australia wide connections can be made. If we are to have a vision for a healthier Australia then it must start in the family and at school. Any policy must deal with rural and regional Australia as well as urban and metropolitan Australia. These issues were at the fore of the recent SEGRA Conference in Western Australia. I think there are very important messages in the Crawford report about capacity, educational policy, access and inclusiveness that should stimulate our discussions about connectedness.

There is enormous sense in having a national service for elite sport as there is for having a national approach to voluntary effort. I do believe that one of the major (unintended) consequences of resourcing full-time positions in sport has been for volunteers to think that paid staff can deal with all eventualities. This is a time, as Charles Leadbeater suggests, to think of working with one another and thinking of pebbles rather than boulders.

I think a connected system that has a scalable collaborative ethos can achieve remarkable outcomes. In a sustainable sport system it will be the aggregation of effort that makes optimum use of human and financial resources. This necessitates our whole sport system accepting that there is an alternative to zero sum models of sport success. This alternative goes beyond the social traps identified in the tragedy of the commons.


There are numerous descriptors for the behaviours of voracious individuals and groups. I believe the Crawford Report invites us to reflect on possessive individualism and to contemplate a non zero sum approach to the flourishing of the sport system. Robert Wright has written about non zero as the logic of human destiny. He shares insights into reciprocal altruism that resonate with ideas developed by Peter Singer.

This to me is the ultimate challenge in the Crawford Report and the Prisoner’s Dilemma for our sport system. What if we can transform all the energy we invest in sport to enable all Australians to flourish? What if we take this one step further and have a global approach to sport as an ethical domain in which activity flourishes and that our part in it is to contribute to sport as a form of mutual recognition. What if sport will be about the triumph of the human spirit and its continuation as a life choice possibility throughout the twenty first century when we will face much more important challenges than whether we win gold, silver or bronze. Some years ago, Bill Clinton observed that:

The more complex societies get and the more complex the networks of interdependence within and beyond community and national borders get, the more people are forced in their own interests to find non-zero-sum solutions. That is, win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions…. Because we find as our interdependence increases that, on the whole, we do better when other people do better as well – so we have to find ways that we can all win, we have to accommodate each other.


I have really enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on David Crawford’s Report. Over the last few days an editorial comment from The Age has kept intruding in my thoughts.

Australians will celebrate any gold medal won in 2012, even if it is in a sport they never think of between Olympics and even if it is won by someone they have not previously heard of and might never hear of again. Nor can anyone begrudge individual athletes their success. But, as the report notes, the present system funds such success at the rate of $15 million per gold medal. The nation’s self-esteem is surely neither so low nor so brittle as to require this level of investment, and it is money that in some instances could be more wisely spent. A shift to funding high-participation sports at grassroots levels might not result in the same surge of collective euphoria every four years, but it would contribute in a more sustained fashion to national wellbeing. (My emphasis)

I am hopeful that the educational possibilities contained in the Report, the suggestions about using existing facilities more effectively, and the valuing of local heroes are celebrated and ultimately accepted by the Government. Late in the evening here in Mongarlowe I am wondering if we have found something in the Crawford Report rather than lost something.

The aggregation of our efforts in Australia is possible and I do believe it is our pathway to sustainability. We can be a non zero sum sport system if we have the collective courage and the political will.