The body at school: a forgotten dimension

At the end of November 2020, the French Ministry of Education launched the 30 minutes of sport a day at school operation to combat children's sedentary lifestyle. A significant problem even before the Covid-19 epidemic, and one that periods of widespread confinement have made even more glaring, as initial scientific studies have shown.

Sylvain Wagnon, University of Montpellier and Fabien Groeninger, University of Montpellier

At school, it's an obedient body shaped by the age-old shape of the classroom, where children sit all day. Shutterstock

Beyond this measure, and the awareness that it implies, the role of the body in learning remains an open question. Isn't it one of the great neglected areas of French school history? How, today, can we envisage an education that takes into account the whole child, in order to promote the development and emancipation of all?

Emergence of EPS

The Ministry's proposal to develop physical activity among pupils is in line with the international Daily mile initiative. Created in Scotland back in 2012, this operation involves children in all schools running a mile every day, i.e. over 1,500 m.

In France, the aim is to combat the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle, and physical activity is limited to motor skills. In Finland, the Finnish Schools on the Move project is much more far-reaching, aiming to integrate physical activity into the organization of the school day, without confining it to a single activity.

Over 90% of Finnish schools participate on a voluntary basis. Recesses are regularly scheduled so that children do not sit for more than two hours, while relaxation exercises prepare pupils to concentrate for all school activities.

Video promoting The Daily Mile initiative.

In France, physical education has long been an integral part of the school system, and the Third Republic even assigned civic, patriotic, hygienic and economic objectives to it. Gradually, the sporting dimension was taken into account - notably under the Front Populaire with Jean Zay, who saw it as a measure of social justice and equality. But it wasn't until 1962 that the discipline was officially born.

Nevertheless, physical and sports education remains a subject that must constantly reassert its legitimacy in the face of so-called "intellectual" disciplines. This turbulent history of the links between physical and intellectual education goes some way to explaining why PE teachers were not fully integrated administratively into the French Ministry of Education until 1981 - they were previously under the authority of the Ministry of Youth and Sport.

Historical taboo

Pioneering work by Pierre Arnaud, Georges Vigarello, Jacqueline Descarpentries and Bernard Andrieu has highlighted this hierarchical ranking of cognitive learning over that of the body, for largely religious and political reasons. The body, perceived as an obstacle and an object of disturbance, is excluded from the school setting. It is an obedient, domesticated and standardized body that the French school has modeled through the age-old form of the classroom, where children sit all day.

There's a real historical taboo about the body at school, about getting to know it and taking account of children's biological rhythms in learning.

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The recurring question is whether the body is part of the being to be educated, or simply accompanies it to school. The Science and Life of the Earth (SVT) curricula refer to this knowledge of the body, and to education in health, hygiene and sexuality. But it's a body that remains debated, misunderstood and the bearer of many stereotypes.

In a dossier published by the Institut français de l'éducation, Marie Gaussel highlights the many pedagogical and political aspects of the body's place at school, but above all its still marginal position.

Learning hierarchy

Body/mind dualism is a hallmark of French schools, with their dichotomy between cognitive learning and physical, manual and emotional learning. Yet this hierarchy of mind and body is a misunderstanding of the mechanisms of learning, motivation and interest in children that have been highlighted by child psychology and new education pedagogy since the end of the 19th century.

Specific activities, such as yoga, are beginning to be integrated into school curricula. However, it's also a question of offering activities that help develop the different facets of a personality.

Marianne Lenoir 's work in educational science underlines the importance of taking the body into account in understanding well-being at school, as well as motivation. This is also a key point in alternative pedagogies, whether Freinet, Decroly, Montessori or Steiner, which reminds us that the notion of integral education - i.e., taking into account the different facets of the human being and refusing to compartmentalize cognitive, bodily and psychological development - is an old one. As early as 1869, the anarchist pedagogue Paul Robin had made it an issue of individual and collective emancipation.

Could comprehensive education be the future of the French public education system? The body cannot be reduced to program elements: it's an inherent part of any overall reflection on our education. The current debates highlight the need to transform the practices and aims of our French education system and the need for a new approach. the need to break out of the compartmentalization of school disciplines. It's one step among others in rethinking a new kind of education that respects learners' personalities.The Conversation

Sylvain Wagnon, Professor of Education, Faculty of Education, University of Montpellier and Fabien Groeninger, Associate Researcher at Lirdef (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Research en Didactique, Éducation et Formation), University of Montpellier

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.