Physical Literacy and the Rose: What Would Shakespeare Say?

“What’s in a name?” Is physical literacy simply “a rose by any other name”? In a recent paper,1 we identified the similarity of the terms “physically literate” and “physically educated” and, from a definitional perspective, found little difference. According to most dictionaries, literacy is identified primarily as the ability to read and write. The term, however, is often used more broadly to refer to having knowledge or competence in an area (e.g., cultural or computer literacy).

Without widespread consultation within the physical education profession (e.g., debate at national conferences) or extensive marketing research, the term physically literate replaced physically educated in the 2013 U.S. national K-12 physical education content standards. The renowned playwright William Shakespeare frequently wrote cautionary tales, including King Lear, which is about the dangers of credulity. Perhaps, if writing today, Shakespeare would compose a tale about the potential negative effects of adopting the term ‘physical literacy.’ Our main point is that there is no evidence that adopting the new term, physical literacy, will be a viable solution to the physical inactivity problem. We would much prefer evidence-based action that directly addresses population level physical inactivity. We are fairly certain that whatever label is used, it alone won’t solve the global crisis of sedentary living.

In addition to preferring to focus on solutions rather than labels, we have other concerns. One is that adopting the term physically literate may produce a shift away from psychomotor outcomes to cognitive outcomes–thus leading to changes in the outcome expectations of physical education. A close comparison of the 2004 and the 2013 National standards suggests that physical education is to become a more academic, sedentary, and cognitive subject matter–akin to other K-12 subject matter counterparts.1 We are concerned students may come to believe that thinking and writing about physical activity is more important than actually engaging in it. We are also worried that physical education will no longer be expected to engage students in sufficient physical activity to improve their motor skills and physical fitness while helping them accrue enough minutes to meet the national physical activity recommendations of 60 minutes per day.

Meanwhile, there is lack of consensus among international physical activity/fitness experts regarding what constitutes physical literacy. If experts are uncertain about what physical literacy is, one can only imagine how confused the lay public and policy makers might be. Many already cannot discriminate among terms such as physical activity, physical fitness, and physical education, and adding yet another term (physical literacy) would only add to the confusion.

Perhaps physical literacy is not “much ado about nothing”? Nonetheless, reports of the widespread global use of the term are overestimated. Our review of the literature1 did not find physical literacy explicitly identified as the target goal of physical education in the national physical education standards of any country other than the U.S. This included Canada, although the term in that country seems to be taking a substantial foothold in schools and youth sports. Meanwhile, throughout our careers there has been constant debate over who we are (e.g., physical educators, kinesiologists) and what we should do as school practitioners (e.g., developmental education, fitness education, humanistic education, movement education, play education, sport education, games for understanding.) While the word “literacy” is now “trending” (e.g., health literacy, math literacy), we have seen many names and theories come and go. Will the term “physical literacy” have durability, or as a result of scientific advancements will it go by the wayside like many explanatory fictions such as the ancient Roman gods and more recently, the “id” and ‘super ego”?

While we hope “all’s well that ends well,’ we believe physical education will become a sustainable subject matter only when the general public perceives it to be of critical importance. Combined, we have spent over 60 years investigating ways to improve physical education, and we are fairly certain that adopting a new label will not address the barriers that hinder it.2 After all, a rose is still a rose, no matter what the name.

Thom McKenzie is Emeritus Professor of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University and former Adjunct Professor, Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego. A former school physical education teacher, coach, and administrator, his research focuses on designing and assessing physical activity programs for diverse populations. He is a fellow of four professional organizations, and the recipient of numerous SHAPE America awards as well as the Lifetime Achievement (2012) and Science Board Honor Awards (2014) from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sport, and Nutrition.

Monica A. F. Lounsbery, PhD, is Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs, School of Medicine, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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1Lounsbery MAF, McKenzie T L. Physically literate and physically educated: A rose by any other name? J Sport Health Sci. 2015;4:35-40.

2 McKenzie, TL, Lounsbery MAF. School physical education: The pill not taken. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2009;3:219-225.

Suggested Citation: McKenzie, T. & Lounsbery M. (2016). Physical Literacy and the Rose: What Would Shakespeare Say? Physical Activity Plan Alliance Commentaries on Physical Activity and Health, 2(2).

Oliver Bartzsch is an experienced medical professional with over 15 years of professional experience. With a passion for medicine, fitness, and personal growth, he is always willing to challenge himself to accomplish tasks and especially to provide accurate medical information to people. Oliver is a long-time medical editor for multiple sites. With more than 10 years of medical writing experience, he has completed over 350 projects with both individual and corporate clients.


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