Listening to students’ silences – a study examining students’ participation and non-participation in physical education

Mette Munk Jensen, Sine Agergaard

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Background: For years researchers have been engaged in revealing the
impact of the hidden curriculum in physical education (PE) on students’
participation and non-participation. The hidden PE curriculum
encompasses the knowledge, the relations, the assumptions, the norms
and the beliefs that students unconsciously and unintentionally learn
through the process of education. As the hidden curriculum reinforces
particular values and attitudes among students in a very subtle and
often unnoticed fashion, it limits students’ possibilities for becoming
aware of, and thus reporting, how the tacit messages communicated
through the hidden curriculum impact on their position of participation
and non-participation. Thus, in this article, we argue that examining
students’ silences, that is the things students do not voice, is significant
for the understanding of the impact of the hidden curriculum on
students’ participation and non-participation in PE.
Purposes: In this article, we aim to develop insight into students’ silences
in order to elucidate how aspects of the hidden curriculum serve to
reinforce some students’ non-participation in PE. Much attention has
been devoted to particular values and attitudes unintentionally
transmitted by teachers in PE. However, in this article, we examine how
the everyday exchanges between the students themselves may also
convey a hidden set of meanings, that impact on students’ actual
experiences of the PE curriculum, and thus mitigate the intended effects
of students’ participation.
Research design: The backdrop for this article is a single-case study carried
out in a multi-ethnic and co-educational secondary school in Denmark
from January to December 2014. The article draws on material collected
through focus group interviews with 7th grade students (including
participant-diagrams filled out by students) along with observations of
their PE classes. The observations took place once a week throughout
the whole calendar year.
Findings: In the article, we point to students’ intentional silences that are
highly reflective of the normative expectations negotiated within the
peer group. In addition, we show that the pressures toward social
conformity have a direct impact on the positions of non-participation
intentionally taken up by some of the less socially respected students in
PE. These students were highly aware that how they behaved in PE and
what they voiced in the interviews might have consequences for their
peer group connections within PE and for their social reputation among
peers outside of PE. In addition, we add to the current literature on
student silence by pointing to a category of non-privileged silences.
These silences revealed that a minor group of students were not aware of or had not recognized their position as non-participants in PE. Moreover,
they appeared unable to imagine that things could be different and to
voice a desire for change.
Conclusions: We argue that our findings reveal critical aspects of students’
non-participation that would be difficult to access if we did not listen to,
hear and attempt to understand students’ silences. In order to extend
the knowledge base on students’ participation and non-participation in
PE, we hope that this article may also encourage other researchers to let
students’ silences breathe and speak.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPhysical Education and Sport Pedagogy
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)371-386
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • learning, educational science and teaching
  • inclusion
  • physical education
  • student participation

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