The contribution of physical education to the 

acquisition of key competences: establishing dimensions

La contribución de la educación física para la adquisición de competencias clave: estableciendo dimensiones


*Corresponding author. Ph.D. in Education (Physical Education)
University of Barcelona; Faculty of Education

**PhD. In Ciències de l'Activitat Física i de l'Esport

Universitat Ramon Llull ; Facultat de Psicologia

Ciències de l'Educació i de l'Esport Blanquerna

Teresa Lleixà*


Enric Sebastiani**








          Current trends in education, in line with various studies undertaken within the European Union and their associated proposals, advocate the design of ‘competency curricula’, where competences are understood as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context. As such, a number of key competences have been identified by the EU (European Union, 2006). Physical education constitutes a vital subject for the development of these key competences as it takes a holistic perspective of the education of the individual, thanks to a predisposition for interdisciplinarity and a concern for promoting useful learning for real life. The aim of this paper is to establish the dimensions of each of these key competences and to specify the way in which physical education can contribute to their development. The method used is that of the “literature survey”. The sources analyzed are classified into two groups: A) legal documents referring to European and Spanish curricula and curriculum guidelines; B) scientific papers drawn from the main educational databases. The study identifies the specific aspects of physical education that need to be focused on in order to ensure the effective development of the various dimensions that make up each competence.

          Keywords: Key competencies. School physical education. Curriculum.



          La tendencias educativas actuales, fundamentadas en diferentes estudios y propuestas desarrollas en el seno de la Unión Europea abogan por el diseño de currículos competenciales donde las competencias se entienden como una combinación de conocimientos, habilidades y actitudes apropiadas al contexto. En consecuencia, las competencias básicas son identificadas por la Unión Europea (European Union, 2006). La educación física constituye una materia potente en el desarrollo de las competencias básicas, porque persigue la educación de las personas desde una perspectiva integral, por su predisposición a la interdisciplinariedad y por su inquietud en desarrollar aprendizajes útiles para la vida real. El objetivo de esta comunicación es establecer las dimensiones propias de cada una de las competencias básicas y concretar la forma en que la educación física contribuye a su desarrollo. El método utilizado es la revisión y análisis bibliográfico y documental. Las fuentes analizadas se agrupan en dos bloques: A) Documentos legales relativos al currículum y a las orientaciones curriculares, tanto europeas como españolas; B) Artículos científicos recuperados de las principales bases de datos educativas. Los resultados de la investigación muestran los diferentes aspectos de la educación física que deben tratarse para cada una de las dimensiones de cada competencia con la finalidad contribuir efectivamente al desarrollo de las mismas.

          Palabras clave: Competencias clave. Educación física escolar. Curriculum.


                    El presente artículo es el resultado de la actualización de la comunicación presentada en el 9th FIEP European Congress, Sofia, Bulgaria, 9th – 11th of October 2014


Recepción: 27/11/2015 - Aceptación: 21/01/2016


EFDeportes.com, Revista Digital. Buenos Aires, Año 20, Nº 213, Febrero de 2016. http://www.efdeportes.com/

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    Following the Lisbon European Council of 2000, the EU began the long process by which proposals were made to define and develop citizens’ competences. Finally, in 2006, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union made the following recommendation on competences for lifelong learning.

    Competences are defined here as a combination of knowledge, skills and attitudes appropriate to the context. Key competences are those which all individuals need for personal fulfilment and development, active citizenship, social inclusion and employment. (European Union, 2006, L 394/13)

    If in other periods the onus had been on observable and measurable behavioural competences, the new curricular models reflected the institutional belief that young people’s competence would be better served by mobilising their practical skills, knowledge, motivation, ethical values, attitudes, emotions and other social and behavioural traits (Escamilla, 2008; European Commission, 2004; European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, 2012; Halász & Michel 2011; Marco, 2007; OCDE (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development), 2005; Rychen & Hersh, 2003; Zabala & Arnau, 2007). Most of the literature also emphasises the importance of combining the mobilisation and use of the resources available to the individual, which Le Boterf (2000) typifies as knowledge, information networks, social networks and know-how. Another key point in the literature is the applicability of learning outcomes in specific contexts. As Zabala & Arnau (2007) states, a person cannot be considered capable of demonstrating a level of competence until the moment he or she applies knowledge, skills and attitudes in the right context to effectively solve a specific problem. In this sense, competences are determined by context, meaning the moment when knowledge, skills and attitudes are applied to the tasks that individuals must complete.

    Harnessing the competences they have acquired, therefore, young people in education must be able to identify real-life demands and choose, under each set of circumstances, the knowledge and skills that serve them best. This makes particular sense in modern life, where the complexity of our versatile, globalised, technological and, above all, unpredictable world requires us to juggle the full range of our competences to successfully engage with a host of changing contexts.

    For the first time, Spain’s national school curriculum (Real Decreto 1513/2006 & Real Decreto 1631/2006) defines the key competences that young people must acquire in their education to complete their own personal process of growth, meet the challenges of the world at large and pursue a profession that benefits society. Further legislation passed in Spain in December 2013, the Ley Orgánica para la Mejora de la Calidad Educativa (The Improvement of the Quality of Education Act, known as LOMCE), also includes the European key competences as a component of the curriculum (Orden ECD/65/2015). These key competences must be useful in different contexts and reflect the students’ use of learning outcomes that resolve the problems encountered in everyday life. They must therefore be interdisciplinary and transversal, meaning that they combine learning outcomes from different subject areas (Buscà & Capllonch, 2008; Escamilla, 2008: Marco, 2007; Sarramona, 2004; Zabala & Arnau, 2007). Finally, if education systems are to foster equal opportunities amongst school leavers, these competences must also be within the reach of all students.

    Following EU guidelines (European Union, 2006) the key competences identified in the Spanish national curriculum are: Linguistic communication; Mathematical competence and basic competences in science and technology; Digital competence; Learning to learn; Social and civic competences; Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship; Cultural awareness and expression. Adopting this competence-based approach, educators will assign greater importance to the societal, family and educational dimensions of skills learning and help students acquire and apply such skills in their school setting and then transfer them to their experience of further or higher education, or to social and family settings. Most authors state that the process of the implementation of competencies at school requires not only the specification of these competencies in the curriculum, but also the development of appropriate teaching methods (Dąbrowski and Wiśniewski, 2011; Grayson, 2014). According to Blázquez & Bofill (2009) competence-based education is delivered using teaching methodologies that require students to address situations, conflicts and problems that are close to their experience of everyday life.

    Because of this, as these authors observe, in a competence-based model of education students are not expected to be competent per se but to demonstrate a greater or lesser degree of competence that will allow them to effectively address a problem in the future. In a competence-based approach, students gain skills to address problems by using previously acquired knowledge and abilities. In the teaching of physical education, therefore, a competence-based approach will be one that helps students acquire and integrate knowledge, skills and attitudes to act effectively in a specific social setting. It will put emphasis on the learning outcomes that motivate students to pursue physical activity as a rewarding part of a lifelong process and focus on the promotion and acquisition of an active and healthy life style. A curricular design based on key competences will also facilitate the decision making process by which learning objectives are selected and help define teaching content, strategies and assessment. It will ensure that when teachers teach motor skills, they focus on skills that are genuinely relevant and useful for learners, so that the learning processes that take place in a school setting or originate from that setting will be relevant and have practical value elsewhere. And the first step towards ensuring this is to establish the particular dimensions of the competences that are to be taught, and then relate these to the other elements in the school curriculum.

    As a school subject, physical education can be directly and clearly related to the attainment of key competences. As observed by Salmerón (2010), the human body is an essential element in the interrelation between people and their environment, and physical education is directly concerned with the acquisition of optimal physical, mental and social well-being in a healthy environment. But as well as helping people acquire instrumental skills or regular habits in the practice of physical activity, physical education can also be used to relate physical activity to a scale of values, attitudes and rules and to the knowledge of the effect this has on personal development. It can become a highly effective means of developing students’ key competences because it attempts to educate individuals in the round, because it is interdisciplinary and because it teaches useful life skills. This paper aims to establish the dimensions that characterise the Spanish national curriculum’s eight key competences and to identify the contributions that physical education can make to do these.


    The method used is that of the “literature survey”. The sources analyzed are classified into two groups: legal documents referring to European and Spanish curricula and curriculum guidelines; and scientific papers drawn from the main educational databases.

    The research was completed in the following stages:

  • Key competences were identified in the European reference framework document of 2006, the Spanish Organic Law on Education of 2006 and, from the same year, the two Spanish decrees on minimum teaching requirements in the national curriculum in compulsory primary and secondary education (ISCED 1–3) (Decree 1513 of 7 December 2006 and Decree 16131 of 29 December 2006).

  • The literature was reviewed to identify other proposals.

  • The dimensions for each competence were established according to the two decrees described above in (a).

  • The contribution made by physical education was identified for each dimension.

  • A workshop discussion was conducted, taking into account the new law on Education of 2013.

  • A document was prepared to describe the aspects of physical education (knowledge, skills and attitudes) that should be used to teach the dimensions of key competences.


    Our research results are described in the following tables.

Table 1. Contribution of physical education to Linguistic Communication




  • Communication through physical activity

  • Body language

  • Conflict resolution in the practice of physical activity

Communication in a foreign language

  • Comprehension of messages and their association with motor responses

  • Use of the foreign language in the practice of physical activity

Representation and interpretation of reality

  • Vocabulary associated with physical activity and sport (materials, installations, techniques, strategies and rules)

  • Interpretation of the rules of games and sports

Self-control of emotions and behaviour

  • Description of one’s physical actions and the physical actions of others


Table 2. Contribution of physical education to Mathematical competence



Use and association of numbers and basic numerical operations

  • Use of basic notions of mathematics in the practice of physical activity (measuring distances and frequencies, counting repetitions, calculating periods of duration and pauses)

Mathematical reasoning

  • Solving motor problems

Interpreting the spatial dimension of reality

  • Spatial awareness in physical activities


Table 3. Contribution of physical education to Basic competences in science and technology



Protection of individual and community health

  • Knowledge of one’s own body

  • Physical fitness

  • Safety in physical activity

Looking after the environment

  • Responsible approach to the natural environment in which physical activities take place

Reasonable use of material resources and responsible eating habits

  • Reasonable use of resources associated with physical activity (installations, equipment and sports kits) and responsible eating habits


Table 4. Contribution of physical education to Digital competence



Selection of information

  • Retrieving useful information

Information processing

  • Critical awareness of media stereotypes about the body

  • Critical analysis of information about sport

Use of ICT

  • Use of ICT in team projects in physical activity and sport

  • Understanding the risks of sedentary, ICT-related leisure activities


Table 5. Contribution of Physical Education to Learning to learn



Awareness of personal abilities

  • Knowledge of personal physical abilities and limits

Possession of learning strategies

  • Diversity of physical response

  • Teamwork

Sense of personal ability

  • Personal objectives in physical activity

  • Constructive management of physical effort

Application of learning outcomes

  • Physical activity in free time


Table 6. Contribution of physical education to Social and civic competences



Knowledge and understanding of social reality

  • Sport as a social phenomenon

  • Conflict resolution in physical education

Valuing multiculturalism

  • Games and activities to assist multicultural expression

Acquisition of social skills

  • Cooperation in physical activities

  • Negotiation

Creation of a personal values system

  • Resolution of problems in the practice of physical activity

Commitment to democratic participation

  • Participation in the organization of physical activities


Table 7. Contribution of Physical Education to Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship



Personal development

  • Overcoming adversity, diligence, and a positive attitude towards tasks

Personal criteria in selection processes

  • Decision making in the completion of tasks in physical activity and sport

  • Responsibility and honesty in the observation of rules

Turning ideas into action

  • Organization of physical and sports activities and activities of personal expression


Table 8. Contribution of Physical Education to Cultural awareness and expression



Appreciation and enjoyment of art and other expressions of culture

  • Physical activities as expressions of culture (traditional games, sports, physical theatre, dance)

Artistic creation

  • Physical expression

Discussion and conclusions

    Our results identify the aspects of physical education (knowledge, skills and attitudes) that should be used to teach the dimensions of the Spanish national curriculum’s key competences. They support the general consensus that education policy actors need to analyze the capabilities implicit in each of these competences and formulate these as dimensions and sub-dimensions (Escamilla, 2008; Marco, 2007). Our research also shows that where it addresses the physiological, social and cultural aspects of the body and of human movement, physical education can contribute substantially to the acquisition of the Basic competences in science and technology, Social and civic competence and Cultural awareness and expression. This is supported by most of the authors who analyze the contribution of physical education to key competences (Contreras & Cuevas, 2011; Díaz Barahona (et al.), 2008; García Cortés, 2010; López Pacheco, 2010; Lleixà, 2007, 2010; Vaca, 2008). More specifically and about the contribution physical education makes to Basic competences in science and technology, González Arévalo (2011) observes that PE becomes a core subject. When students conclude their compulsory education they should understand how their bodies work and what to do to keep fit and maintain the personal challenge of a series of healthy habits that can be practised during the rest of their lives

    Note that the remaining competences are also favoured by the practice of physical education insofar as this subject encourages learners to develop autonomy in learning and in the management of what should become a lifelong practice. The close ties between physical education and Sense of initiative and entrepreneurship have been observed in particular detail by Zagalaz, Lara & Cachón (2011), who argue that physical education contributes substantially to this competence. Cañabate & Zagalaz (2010) provide an exhaustive analysis of the contribution physical education can make to Learning to learn. On its contribution to Linguistic Communication, the reader should note the importance in physical education classes of body language; and we agree with Coral & Lleixà (2014) that when physical education is taught in a foreign language, the functional use of language forms part of the subject’s learning objectives. Finally, we also propose that physical education can contribute to the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes in Mathematical competence and digital competence, as indicated in our research results.


    We thank the Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad of Spain for providing funding for this research (Ref: DEP2012-33296).


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