At school, the unthought-of body

The place of the body in school, whether in motion or motionless, is a real issue for educational science researchers. What place should physical education and sports have in school curricula? And beyond that, how can we consider the body in an integral approach to education? Fabien Groeninger, researcher at the Laboratoire interdisciplinaire de recherche en didactique, éducation et formation1takes these questions head-on.

"Vive l'EPS! ". That's the tweet published on August 7, 2021 by the Minister of ive l'EPS! l'Éducation nationale, de la jeunesse et des sports to congratulate the medal-winning athletes at the Tokyo Olympics. " The success of our teams illustrates the quality of the teaching of these sports in schools," added Jean-Michel Blanquer, addressing the newly-titled basketball, handball and volleyball players.

Is the success of these athletes really attributable to those famous physical education and sports courses given in secondary school? At least, that's not always the opinion of these champions, who were quick to share it. " It wasn't the tiny two hours of PE per week in my middle school timetable that inspired me to play basketball", reacted basketball player Evan Fourrier in an article subsequently published on the Huffington Post.

Motionless hours

These two tiny hours for high school students are even "a regressive hourly volume in secondary education", adds Fabien Groeninger, researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Montpellier. And for the very youngest, 30 minutes of sport a day has been the rule since the end of 2020 and the post-Covid era. An injunction that Fabien Groeninger considers paradoxical, "because it means that some children could remain motionless for several hours a day", says the specialist in the history of the body at school, who is concerned about these immobile hours.

Remaining motionless at school is precisely one of the social constraints of the school system that the researcher points out. " It's an obedient, domesticated and standardized body that French schools have modeled through the shape of the classroom, where children sit all day long," explains Fabien Groeninger.

These are days when sport is still struggling to find its place, even though physical education has long been an integral part of schooling, in a form very different from today's practices. " The Third Republic assigned it civic, patriotic, hygienic and economic purposes", stresses the researcher. Gymnastics and shooting for boys, with the aim of training fighters, and "basket ball" for girls, an activity supposed to "strengthen bellies and prepare for motherhood".

Reaffirming your legitimacy

The sporting dimension was not taken into account until much later, and it wasn't until 1962 that the birth of the discipline was made official, although it still struggled to establish itself. Moreover, PE teachers, who were initially under the authority of the Ministry of Youth and Sport, were not integrated into the French Ministry of Education until 1981.

"Physical and sports education remains a subject that must constantly reassert its legitimacy in the face of so-called intellectual disciplines, and teachers sometimes suffer from a form of unconscious condescension on the part of the rest of the teaching staff, finding themselves too often reduced to the role of school entertainer." And when it comes to allocating teaching hours, the PE teacher is often stripped naked to put on the maths or history-geography teacher's clothes... For the researcher, this structuring by discipline "where each subject pulls its own weight" limits an overall vision, which is at the root of the divisions of which PE is one of the first victims.

Integral education

Beyond the sporting dimension, the question of the role of the body in learning remains. "The body-mind dualism that characterizes the French school system is reflected in the dichotomy between cognitive learning and bodily, manual and emotional learning. This hierarchization of body and mind reflects a lack of understanding of children's learning, motivation and interest mechanisms ," explains Fabien Groeninger, who deplores the fact that the body is ignored at school.

Research in the educational sciences has demonstrated the importance of taking the body into account, not only for well-being at school, but also for motivation. These mechanisms have also been highlighted by child psychology, and have been used by the new education pedagogy since the end of the 19th century with the concept of integral education, in which "the different facets of the human being are taken into account, without compartmentalizing cognitive, bodily and psychological development", explains the researcher.

In Finland, for example, we're seeing large-scale projects designed to integrate physical activity into the organization of the school day, without confining it to a single activity. The Finnish Schools on the Move project, for example, offers regularly scheduled breaks so that children do not sit for more than two hours, while relaxation exercises prepare pupils to concentrate on all school activities. More than 90% of Finnish schools participate on a voluntary basis.An inspiring initiative in the run-up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, which are sure to bring the issue of sport back into the spotlight. "The body cannot be reduced to program elements: it is an inherent part of any overall reflection on our education," concludes Fabien Groeninger.

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