Beginning of physical education in schools
Prof. Dr. Eckart Balz / Sports Science
Photo: UniService Transfer

From strict gymnastics of order to versatile physical education

A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with sports educator Prof. Dr. Eckart Balz on the legal start of physical education in schools in 1921

On August 2, 1921, the Reich Committee for Physical Education worked out a draft law. According to this law sport had to be included in the curriculum in schools. This obliged young people to do physical exercises until they reached the age of majority. What did physical education look like back then?

Balz: The date 1921 is not a special one for us in sports science and sports education. For us, the subject of sport is much older than 100 years. I do not want to go back to the gymnastics of the Greeks, nor do we have to look at the philanthropists who only had boarding schools for well-heeled citizens and their children. But the actual starting signal with which we associate the beginning of a subject in school is in 1842. This date was only related to Prussia, because in Prussia the ban on gymnastics on public gymnastic grounds was lifted.  To the authoritarian state, this was very suspicious and it banned it for German nationalist reasons. At some point, the pressure and the political will were such that they were allowed. From 1842, gymnastics was allowed on the gymnastics field once again. For schools, the possibility to offer gymnastics as a subject also started at that time.
The very slow development process starts in Prussia and is followed by other states such as Württemberg or Baden. At first it was the secondary schools, but later the pupils of primary schools were also allowed to do gymnastics. It does not only affect boys. At the end of the imperial era, girls are also supposed to do gymnastics. And in the Weimar Republic it was not yet sport, but physical education: complex and contradictory, like the Weimar period as a whole. There were the first sports, such as football from England, there was gymnastics from the imperial era, the Wandervogel movement, which wanted to get out of the cities, there was swimming and also gymnastics and dance. All in all, there was a certain versatility, which was combined with a dispute about what exactly physical education should be in the 1920s.

Few people enjoyed sport at that time. Gymnastics father Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852), for example, was primarily concerned with defending German national interests with steely muscle power. Sport served to train for military service and to educate the people. The high art of high bar, parallel bars and horseback riding was not in demand. But running, jumping, throwing, climbing, wrestling, swimming and hiking. What changed after 1921 and, above all, who took over physical education?

Balz: Gymnastics had German nationalist interests and was then also used for purposes of military training at school . But ultimately it is a misunderstanding, because Jahn has little to do with school gymnastics. School gymnastics goes back to Karl Adolf Spieß. You know the name says it all, if you know Spieße (spears) of the German armed forces.
This was not gynamstics like Jahn's in public places with large wooden apparatuses from which one could jump, climb or swing. From this type of gymnastics today's gymnastics apparatuses have developed. Gymnastics according to Spieß was gmnastics of order. It was also vividly called manikin gymnastics. The pupils, usually still separated by gender, moved like puppets of the teacher. He lined them up on command and asked to do certain exercises. This was strict gymnastics of order. And, of course, this had also the purpose of making the boys fit for a colonial Wehrmacht endeavour  in the imperial era. There are two things: extracurricular gymnastics according to Jahn and school gymnastics according to Spieß. And there was more in the 1920s: gymnastics equipment like the parallel bars fwere introduced into the schools. Gymnastics of order still existed, but also small games. There was hiking, the first sports and dancing. The canon is clearly opening up.And who conducts or teaches it? At that time, training institutes already existed, not only in Berlin. At educational institutions, teachers are already being trained academically, also in the subject of sport. But of course, also teaching as a non-specialist was possible at that time.

One reads again and again in the sources, that the history of German school sport only ended with the Third Reich from a military point of view. How did physical education change after 1945?

Balz: When the subject was introduced, there was talk of the "seedy character" of the youth and the important argument of health. At that time, the military component was very dominant, but fortunately not any more. How should a sick youth do their service in our military? Running, swimming, holding the rifle, marching through. These were very important arguments for the introduction of gymnastics of course, in addition to colonial policy in the imperial era. In the Weimar period, people rowed back after the First World War. The military accents were hardly to be discovered in the versatility of physical education. Then came the worst period, when physical education became an ideological physical training under National Socialismat school: Volk, Wehr, Rasse und Führer. That is how physical education was supposed to work at school. There were baggage marches or small-bore shooting and boxing in the upper school. It was the physical training of the master race that was practised there.
And after 1945, there was initially no physical education at all. Germany was destroyed, sport was secondary. This changed with the emerging health argument. The children were undernourished, weak and flabby, and were now supposed to receive physical education in addition to adequate nutrition at school. This was very contradictory among the Allies because the subject had been ideologically abused during the Nazi era. Tthey did not want to reintroduce it in this way. It was only towards the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s that the subject was able to return to schools, also with political will. After that, in the 1960s, there were two directions: In the former GDR there was physical education, which was very strongly oriented towards a socialist image of man. And in the Federal Republic there was so-called physical education. This was not yet the sport of today. The children were supposed to learn to exercise, for example in gymnastics, in competitions, in athletics in the first sports, or they were supposed to shape movement as in dancing. These are the educational contents of physical education. Two different orientations, but they already came together before reunification in 1990. In the 1970s, the 1972 Olympic Games in Germany, that is when the great career of sports began. And then, I no longer have physical education, but rather sport education.

Today, sport has become an integral part of education at school. All social groups and political parties see sport as an important means of health and social education. What criteria are used to teach good physical education today?

Balz: Two important tasks in the broad spectrum of tasks and goals of the subject of physical education at school: Firstly, health promotion, which is about avoiding injuries and an active, health-conscious lifestyle with nutrition and exercise; and secondly, social education, in which fair play is promoted. These two objectives correspond to the basic concept of multi-perspective physical education. Today, sport is no longer taught in such a way that it is only about learning sports, but that one can get to know sport from certain perspectives, i.e. that one can get to know a sports game in such a way that as many people as possible can play along, play fairly and agree on rules. Another aspect is risk education, something like "No Risk - No Fun". Exciting adventurous undertakings like climbing, balancing, trying out nature sports, but at the same time practising them in a nature-friendly and sustainable way. Then, there is the perspective of movement design and aesthetics, which is often neglected, especially among male pupils. I.e. giving expression to a movement, developing composition and design together. Today, school sport should be addressed from different perspectives in such a way that we open up the culture of sport and movement to the pupils and they take something with them for their social and healthy development. I am not a missionary, because if students say from experience and insight that I have learned all this, but in my free time, I prefer to make music and ride my bike to work, I do not need sport, then that is also fine. 

On average, the curriculum is adapted every ten to 15 years. Also in sport?

Balz: Yes, that is true, also in sport. Here, in North Rhine-Westphalia, the State Institute for Schools in Soest used to be responsible for the curriculum work. It is organised and takes place there. Today, it is called QUA-LIS (Quality and Support Agency - State Institute for Schools) in Soest, where the curricula are made.  At the beginning of the 2000s, in the penultimate generation of curricula, also in the subject of sport, the curricula were more pedagogical, more strongly underpinned with an educational claim. Then came the new generation of curricula a good 10 years ago, which was the great turnaround in competence. We had done badly in Pisa, IGLU (International Primary School Reading Survey) etc. And therefore, we had to take a closer look at the output: What should the pupils be able to do at the end? What competences should they acquire in physical education? These curricula are still valid now, and for me it is not foreseeable what will follow, i.e. what the next big sports-related topic will be. For the curricula of all school types, i.e. from primary school sport to vocational college, the framework specifications for school sport are the shell of all the individual core curricula. And this idea of multi-perspectivity, of opening up sport and promoting development, is enshrined in them.

How much of an educator is there in a good sports teacher?

Balz: There is teacher research on this, and we know that physical education is, unfortunately, often taught in an evasive way, without any pedagogical claim. But that is not acceptable, because people are trained and well paid in Germany. As a rule, there is an one hundred per cent pedagogue in a physical education teacher. Four basic competencies pplies to teachers in schools across all subjects: they must teach, educate, assess and they must be able to innovate, i.e. develop the subject further.The subject of sport is often called the island of joy or deceleration, i.e. we represent a subject that many students also particularly love. It is a subject that is not associated with sitting and writing papers, but can promote community, if everyone has the opportunity to participate. This creates joy, which the subject can convey like no other, because it can also be felt physically. And then the educator's mission is fulfilled.

Uwe Blass (Interview on June 2, 2021)

Prof. Dr. Eckart Balz is head of the sports education department at the Institute of Sports Science in the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences at the University of Wuppertal. In 2017, he took over the office of Vice President for Education at the German Association for Sport Science. His research focuses include planning didactics, school sport research and sport development.
Beginning of physical education in schools

Prof. Dr. Eckart Balz / Sports Science
Photo: UniService Transfer

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