Richard Tinning

The Big Idea

The subject of this paper is what Richard Tinning calls “the idea of physical education.”  In one form or another Tinning argues, physical education is universally familiar.  As a cultural manifestation, we find it early on.  In ancient Greece, it was institutionalized for the all-around education of male citizens.  Since then, even if in fits and starts, wherever formal education in general is valued we find in one form or another a physical component attached to it.

The question Tinning asks is:  Why has physical education survived in recognizable forms around the world over the centuries?  But the big question behind this question is this:  What of its future?  Despite the 2009 international survey of physical education in 167 countries (Hardman and Marshall) showing consistent government support for physical education (although under resourced), there are concerns about its global vulnerability.


  • Physical education is an idea culturally transmitted and globally developed.
  • As an idea, physical education is self-propagating.
  • It can therefore be considered a meme.
  • A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene in the biological world.
  • Memes can be anything that can be imitated, such as fads, fashion, ideas, art, music, or language.
  • Tinning is using a memetic stance to view physical education as an idea.
  • It turns out that physical education is not simply a single meme, but is a collection of memes called a memeplex.
  • In other words, the cultural evolution of the idea of physical education over time has been represented as exercise, movement education, play and games, sport techniques, lifetime sports, among other variations.
  • But the idea of the idea of physical education is itself the organizing center of what physical education means.
  • If we want to nurture physical education’s future development, we should find ways that as a meme it fits institutionally, that it is compatible with the changing needs of the times, and that it is useful to contemporary cultures.
  • Historically there are essentially two big ideas representing physical education: educational gymnastics and sport-based physical education.
  • But this may be the time for a new meme given the changing needs of the times.
  • Tinning suggests that in the service of more modern institutional needs, physical education may better fit helping meet these needs if it becomes an instrument for combating the obesity epidemic through exercise.

The Research

Physical education as an idea

Tinning cites Joel Spring’s (2006) observation that the ideas of pedagogy and school organization spread by way of the global flow of ideas.  They become cultural practices transmitted by colonization and global development.  In a sense, physical education taken as an idea moves over time as a contagion.  It is communicable, not unlike a communicable disease.

Which brings us to seeing the history of physical education in education proper as a self-propagating idea.  In other words, it is a meme.  The study of memes in the academic world is called memetics.  Tinning believes that by taking up a mimetic perspective, we are in a better position to understand how the field of physical education itself is sustainable.

What is a meme?

We can either thank or blame evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) for the term, meme. He meant by it that much in the same way genes self-replicate and copy themselves, a meme is the cultural equivalent of the biological process.  Memes are how cultures are transmitted and are analogous to genetic inheritance.

Memes spread by imitation (or morph, or die off by disuse).  They evolve by natural selection in the spirit of genes, reproducing by catch-as-catch-can.  When Dawkins gave examples of meme replicators at the time, he pointed to most anything that can represent a culture, including fashion, buzz-words, tunes, food, fads, architectural styles, popular culture, gestures, music, art, language—anything that can be imitated.  Today memes have gone viral and surface in social media at the speed of light.

What is a mimetic stance?

Getting down to more serious business, Tinning attempts to imitate Dawkins’ idea—after all, his idea is a meme too—by taking up a mimetic stance to see the mimetic attributes of physical education.  This “stance” is a way of looking at the world; memeticians call this trying to see human behavior from a “meme’s-eye perspective.”

Meme’s propagate randomly, hither-and-yon.  They jump from mind-to-mind, living or dying or mutating as they are wont to.  While the meme’s-eye stance strives to discriminate, the meme’s play on.  That’s why critics of interpreting the world through meme-watching will argue that in the effort to nail down a meme we may have missed the actual event.  The meme distracts, they say, and figurately substitutes a blink for an eye-full.

Knowing physical education with a mimetic stance

So why has physical education remained fairly-well identifiable over centuries of cultural change?  If memes involve natural selection, Tinning asks, then how has physical education satisfied that selection?

Here is where things get complicated.  It turns out that physical education is not exactly a meme. It is a memeplex, kind of like the way the historical stand-alone movie house is today a movie-plex.  The collection of memes (ideas) composing physical education includes different theatres, for example:  systematic exercise, sport as games play, body as machine, obesity and exercise, and physical education as therapeutic, or as catharsis, or as academic subject.  Within each of these examples there are ever-smaller memes, such as the physiology of it all if physical education is memetically defined as exercise.  Hence, we can even have memes of a meme if we want to reduce ideas to ever-smaller units of cultural transmission.

The meme of the meme of physical education

The evolution of physical education is like the continuous thread of a story.  If the story is to continue, Tinning believes, we need to confront the very idea of the ideaof physical education.  This is how new perspectives are born.

As a helper on unpacking the idea of the idea of physical education, Tinning recruits David Kirk’s thinking in his book, Physical Education Futures (2010).  What Kirk and others argue is that there is in fact a sustaining idea of the idea of physical education—its Meme—endures no matter the historical meme representing it.

One way of pitching the physical education Meme—its big idea—is that it “has significant and distinctive contributions to make to children, schools, and to wider society,” writes Tinning.  And yet, as a field of knowledge there is no outstanding consensus among professionals about what these contributions are.

Institutional fit?

One way of moving forward, Tinning believes, is to look at the way in which physical education serves institutions—whether social, political, or economic.  To this end, Tinning discusses two distinct historical memetic versions of physical education serving institutions: educational gymnastics and sport-techniques.  These memes allow the discussion to focus on the relationship between physical education, physical culture, and cultural transmission.

Educational gymnastics

One way of seeing how a meme serves social institutions is to review the role of educational gymnastics in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, especially in Europe.  Versions of gymnastic exercises developed in Sweden, Denmark, Russia, and Germany were useful in serving nation-building, politics, military strength, and pedagogy.  While during these years there was a shift between what had been called Swedish gymnastics to educational gymnastics, the larger meme was still and essentially bodily oriented, whether instrumental or educative.

Sport-based physical education

By the mid-20th Century, the newest meme—sport-techniques—morphed into popularity.  It wasn’t so much performance-oriented sport emphasis as it was technique-oriented teaching.  And what was the institutional fit?  Well, there was government support; there was more of a subject-centered curriculum possibility in the schools; and given the game and sport playing histories of the teachers themselves, there was subject matter specialization opportunities.

The memes of this meme since then have included fundamental and lead-up motor skills; teaching games for understanding (TGfU); game sense; sport education; and lifetime leisure.  Given both the diversity of sports and cultural variations, the institutional fit for sport as physical education was a given.

Physical education futures?

It is Kirk’s opinion, Tinning notes, that we are in for another shift in physical education memes.

Remember that memes, like genes, replicate, mutate, or die-off.  With regard to physical education futures then, there are three possibilities: more of the same, including mutations; radical reform; or extinction.

For Tinning, what counts now is what the institutional fit for physical education will be in the future.  Based on the Western cultural climate and institutional fit for physical education, Tinning speculates that the context for the field is apt to become the memeplex, obesity.  He suggests we are at a point where a choice is likely necessary between seeing physical education as educational, or seeing it as instrumental.

Given the inherent nature of memes as related directly to their compatibility with specific cultural niches, Tinning points to the usefulness of the UK example.

The government is persuaded that physical education can deliver on instrumental outcomes related to sports talent identification, decreasing the incidents of obesity in children and adults, and creating a more courteous and better behaved citizenry.

Kirk has identified a predicament for seeing physical education as essentially obesity-prevention.  This because it will be difficult for physical education to ignore child health issues, especially since obesity is so often associated with cultural degeneration.  Ignoring the call for obesity/exercise meme makes physical education vulnerable; but faced with demonstrating that the field can achieve this goal also creates vulnerability.

Nonetheless, Tinning reiterates the insensibility of invoking old memes such as calling for the intrinsic value of physical activity as an educational activity.  The context for physical education is different today, he says, however lamentable that might be for many modern professionals.  From this mimetic stance, Tinning predicts that there is sensibility in the curricular meme for physical education as the use of exercise to reverse the cultural epidemic of obesity.

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