What's in a name? Doing health education differently in primary schools

Year: 2012

Author: Burrows, Lisette, Petrie, Kirsten, Cosgriff, Marg

Type of paper: Abstract refereed



In this paper we draw on results of a project that seeks to collaboratively re-imagine health and physical education in primary schools to explore what happens to pedagogy and practice when we abandon the label 'health education'.


The project is ethnographic in flavour, comprising four teachers and three university researchers working collaboratively across two primary school contexts in New Zealand. Document analysis (e.g. teacher planning and journaling; student work; teacher/researcher collaborative meetings); interviews with teachers and students; and classroom observations are the key strategies deployed.  Our analysis of the aforementioned data is informed by socially critical work of health and physical education scholars together with resources drawn from broader social and educational theories.


Teachers' initial practice and pedagogy across both contexts would suggest that disciplinary boundaries inevitably shape what is known and can be known, by whom, and in what context.  Further, the notion that language both shapes and produces reality was evident in the foci of school programmes and in the minutiae of individual classroom practices. Primary school teachers, when afforded the time and agency to research, think, and engage with their students, are able to critically reflect on their own and others' practices to re-imagine and enact 'health education' in ways that are meaningful and relevant for their learners. Despite the ongoing institutional, cultural and structural constraints schools face contemporaneously, for the teachers in our study, moving beyond the label has generated a “freedom” to operationalize health education in ways that disrupt orthodox disciplinary and subject matter boundaries.


We conclude that the label 'health education' appears to inhibit teacher learning in a number ways.  First, sedimented subject boundaries appear to constrain the flexibility with which teachers may both think and do 'health education'.   Second, when the label 'health education' is jettisoned, teachers seem to be better positioned to explore and adopt content and pedagogies more specifically attuned to the diverse needs of their learners than is ordinarily the case. Furthermore, according to the teachers engaged in this project, the shifts in practice and pedagogy embraced have ripple effects in terms of their capacity to understand and meet the needs of their students.