Friday, November 26, 2010

P.E. Has to Change, Part 1: The Problems

Photo by uwdigitalcollections'
The following is a dramatic reenactment of a key moment in Janet's (The Editor's) P.E. experience. Names have been changed to protect the sort-of-innocent.

Teacher:  Ok, kids, today we're going to play kickball.

Class (including Janet):  Yay!

Teacher:  Let's pick teams.  Ok, Timmy, you pick team one, and Sheila, you pick team two.

Class (everybody but Janet):  OK!

Janet:  Yay!  I'm going to be picked last.  Again.

Five minutes later, Janet has been picked last, even after the kid with two broken legs.  It is now Janet's turn to kick the ball.

Teacher:  Ok, Janet!  You're up.

Janet approaches the ball with trepidation, though still filled with the heady exhilaration that affects all elementary kids when it is his or her turn.

Janet:  (To herself)  Ok, just kick the ball.  Doesn't have to be far, doesn't have to be fast.  Just kick it and don't look like a douche...just don't look like a douche...

Pitcher:  I'd better do it slow so she can see it coming!  (Snickers with glee.)

He pitches the ball at a speed that may outpace a caterpillar, but not by much.  Jeers and cheers from the other kids about Janet's remarkable lack of coordination ensue.

Teacher:  Stop it.  That's not nice.  (Other kids point and laugh mockingly behind the teacher's back.)  Janet, just kick the ball.

Janet:  (To herself)  Ok, just gotta make like the Mighty Ducks and go from zero to hero.

Janet squares up to the ball, runs to kick it, but kicks too soon, bringing her foot down on top of the ball instead of the side.  It rolls from beneath her and she falls flat on her butt.  Hard.

Pitcher:  Ha!  She looks like a douche!  Laughter from the class washes over Janet's humiliated and very sore body.

Tinkly music brings us back to the present.  Doo-dee-doo-dooo!   Doo-dee-doo-dooo!

For those of us who were not blessed with the ability to avoid tripping over one's own feet, P.E was an hour of social mayhem.  P.E., especially in high school, taught us one thing:  that we were horrible at most organized sports.  Looking back now as an adults who have struggled with weight and fitness, we wish P.E had taught us more about how to actually succeed with physical skills and less about how to dodge bullies in the locker room.  From our perspective, the way that P.E. is traditionally structured only works for athletes, and it teaches those who aren't naturally gifted to hate, or at the least dislike, exercise.  We hate athletics, not because we're lazy or uncoordinated, but we just can't take the humiliation of failing in front of others and exposing ourselves to ridicule.

Aaron and Janet are far from the only ones who have had this sort of experience.  Rita Barry, the editor and creator of Fitblogger, says, "Oh, I don't know if there's enough words in the universe to communicate the terrible, horrible dismay that was P.E. for me.  I was heavy, uncool, tragically so, and it was really just a lesson in humiliation.  So much focus was put on sports and proficiency in them, as opposed to health and why this 'gym' thing was even important.  Gym for me became a lesson in avoidance, blending, and hiding more than it was about learning, challenging myself, or discovering a love of physical activity."  

A more subtle, but possibly even more damaging, effect of traditional P.E. instruction is the unsaid, but often implied, belief that athletics are the pinnacle of human achievement, and those who are not athletic therefore do not matter.  Think about Principal McGee's line in the movie, "Grease:"  "If you can't be an athlete, be an athletic supporter."  We believe that two problems result from this belief.  First, Janet figured if she couldn't be an athlete, then she wasn't anything, and she believed that for a very long time.  Second, in Aaron's experience, he found that that attitude turns kids off to anything physical.  With the thousands of non-physical activities available, like video games, movies, television,  Facebook, and BLOGGING, it is very easy for a kid with low self-esteem to throw themselves into activities that are unhealthy in long durations.  We should note that we, as Band Geeks, are perfectly aware of the damage this attitude can also do to our music programs, especially if it is held by those who hold the purse strings.

Many schools require health classes in addition to P.E., which we don't think is a bad thing in and of itself.  Though, in our experience, it was taught like life science.  Information was presented and tested.  You turned in your quizzes, you got your grades.  There was no teaching that pushed students to apply the information in the course.  (Janet would argue that this is the number one problem for every subject in education today.)

Both Aaron and Janet are music teachers, and we feel physical education has a whole lot more in common with music education than is apparent at first blush.  Both teach tricky and refined physical skills.  Both have social components that need to be addressed.  Both programs are being cut at many schools.  Finally, and sadly, we find that in many ways physical and music education fail us because certain factors are not being addressed en masse by educators.

A class doesn't have to involve humiliation in front of one's peers.  In music classes like choir and band, the possibility of public failure is just as high as in a P.E class, especially when we ask students to perform something in small groups or by themselves.  BUT, IT CAN BE ADDRESSED IN A POSITIVE MANNER.  By helping those students achieve and by creating a class culture of support, our students learn it's OK to take risks.  We believe that the use of Human Compatible Learning in physical education will work to everyone's benefit, including the athletes.

In our next post, we will explain how this method can be applied and its benefits.

In the comments, tell us about your experiences in P.E.  What did your teachers do that was effective for you and your health?  Or was your experience more like ours?  See what other Band Geek readers have said about theirs on another post.


  1. Great post guys! You know what`s funny is that Im actually really good at sports, lol, who knew but there were glimpses of it even when I was heavy but the way phys ed was set up, did NOT bring that out. Cant wait for the follow up.

  2. I was not a heavy kid in school, but totally inept at anything that involved a ball of any kind! I hated PE - I mean dreaded it every day! I hated dressing out and always hid or waited for everyone else to leave the locker room to change in and out of PE clothes. Shy with a total lack of confidence in anything except class work! This whole story just makes me shudder!

    I can't believe they still teach PE this way! Do they really? The whole concept needs to change - drastically!

  3. Thanks Rita,
    I find that comment very interesting, hopefully there are P.E teachers out there who do find a way to bring out the best in each kid. Not just the ones who are already in shape or are athletically inclined.

  4. We agree with you Tricia about the whole concept needing to change. In our next post on this subject we are going to explore some possibilities of making P.E approachable and a better experience for all. Thanks for you comments.

  5. This is a such an important issue, thank you for bringing it to discussion!
    With my experience in P.E. as a kid, I definitely remember the kids who didn't excel in sports or exercise...and most especially our teachers who weren't interested in turning kids onto learning something new that happened to involve exercise. Things like yoga for the more spiritual, or gardening for the green savvy, or dance for the more artistic. I wish our teachers provided more of this guidance instead of acting as "babysitters".

  6. Garick, I hope that better emphasis on how to be physical healthy over the course of a life time in P.E will become the norm rather than the exception. Thanks for you comments


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