Ensuring Moral Development in Physical Education

Benjamin Schwamberger, Zachary Wahl-Alexander and James Ressler

The often-heard adage “sport builds character” is generalized by the belief that children who participate in sport develop psychosocial skills — and in particular, sportsmanship. From a physical educator’s perspective, one needs to ask the question, “Does physical education build sportsmanship?” Th e physical education setting off ers a unique opportunity to educate the whole student. Th e key to educating the whole student is moral development (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995). Participation in physical education can support aspects of moral development (Gibbons, Ebbeck, & Weiss, 1995; Wandzilak, 1985); in fact, Shields and Bredemeier (1995) indicated that “Physical education is probably the most significant physical activity context for developing moral character” (p. 199). A majority of what students learn and value from a moral perspective is shaped by those closest to them, which ties into social-learning theory (Bandura, 1977). Students come to understand what is morally right and wrong based on those intimate interactions with key figures such as parents, teachers and coaches. Previous research findings have been mixed when the focus is placed on moral development within the physical education setting (Brock & Hastie, 2007; Gibbons et al., 1995; Hastie & Sharpe, 1999). So, another key question to ask is, “If students are not developing morally, are we as physical educators to blame?”

Physical educators should attempt to emphasize moral development and character building in the classroom even though it is a challenging task. Curricula taught in traditional physical education programs focus strongly on sport, which can foster as many immoral acts as it can foster moral ones (Brock & Hastie, 2007; Vidoni & Ward, 2009). Common examples within the physical education setting may include arguing with fellow classmates, team members or opponents during gameplay, as well as with student officials. Incorporating team sports on a regular basis within a physical education curriculum, especially at the upper elementary and middle school levels, can cause an overly competitive atmosphere (Brock & Hastie, 2007; Vidoni & Ward, 2009). The value that society has placed on sport and winning has provided both positive and negative examples of moral and immoral behavior, further causing students to want to emulate those behaviors.

Multiple pedagogical models currently exist focusing on developing moral behavior in children. Sport education is one model that aims to promote positive experiences within sport by producing an authentic sport experience that mimics professional sport (i.e., preseason, regular season, playoffs, championship match). The primary objective of sport education is to help students to become literate, enthusiastic and competent sportspeople (Siedentop, Hastie, & van der Mars, 2011). Due to the similarities with professional sport, it is vital to structure seasons correctly, while placing equal emphasis on sportsmanship and winning. If there is a strong emphasis on winning, teachers run the risk of promoting ideals of immoral behavior (Brock & Hastie, 2007; Vidoni & Ward, 2009), thus going against the overarching objectives of the model.

The unique context of the physical education setting provides the perfect venue in which to incorporate the concept of social and moral development. If physical education teachers truly value developing the whole student within the gymnasium, proper steps must be taken to promote the ideals of sportsmanship and moral development. The following components can be easily incorporated into any physical education curriculum and can offer unique ways to foster an enhanced approach to moral development.

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