blogs -- Who hates PE classes


Who hates PE classes and the outdated, whistle-wielding militia still barking orders in B.C.'s public school gyms?

LOTS of us, apparently, and now some lucky Vancouver high school students and their parents will get a chance to say so and give reasons. View the letter one parent sent researchers at UBC's School of Human Kinetics, who are gathering student narrative to help them come up with a better way of promoting long-term fitness in PE class and beyond. Happily, the project is NOT motivated by the obesity hysteria currently played up in the media despite yawning gaps in scientific evidence. More about the obesity myth, project and why we hope it succeeds.

Our letter exchange:

From: Churchill Secondary School Parent
Sent: March 17, 2008 5:54 PM
To: UBC Researchers
Subject: Re: Churchill PE survey - one parent's view

Hello high school PE surveyors,

I am writing today in the high (maybe too high) hope that your research will radically (right to the root!) improve the abusive, elitist and most of all anti-fitness PE classes still embraced by public high school authorities no matter how many students get hurt. It's tempting to feel that if education authorities only knew how very much PE classes are hated and why, they'd fix it. This is often not the way it goes with public services, but I'm an optimist, so I'll share with you a few observations as a parent and one-time PE victim.

Fundamental problem with PE classes, in my view: Chasm between fitness options in the real adult world, which often cost nothing, and expensive MANDATORY PE classes, which lack any activity options. Why is the PE scope STILL so narrow? Technology is easily available today to provide options to students disinclined to join loud groups of aggressors squabbling over some expensive ball or other while wearing some type of expensive equipment or other. The unhappy, unjust truth is that neither a competent dancer nor martial arts student - among our culture's fittest athletes - has any opportunity in PE to demonstrate physical prowess. Even worse, competent dancers and decorated martial arts students, to name just two examples, may never achieve more than a grade of C- in a typical PE class.

Compromised grading system in PE: Like typing classes these days, PE classes typically have students at wildly different skill levels. Today's introductory keyboarding session probably has some students who type 85 wpm along with others who have no experience touch-typing. The performance assessment is then necessarily based on how much each student IMPROVES during the course. How has PE managed to avoid similarly equitable and reasonable assessment procedures? And, again, although competent dancers and martial arts students may be adding significantly to their skills in those areas as well as increasing their overall fitness throughout the year, PE provides no way to credit this or even take it into account. Really, why grade PE at all?

No choice and no way to avoid or limit reasonably foreseeable perils in PE without penalty: PE classes typically have students at wildly different skill levels, yet there is STILL no escape from activities that may force some students to ignore reasonable fears of injury either to self or to another. Big strong people are RIGHT to fear that their lack of control over some expensive ball or other might injure a classmate but they are powerless to act. Big strong people who don't see well are RIGHT to fear a fall from the balance beam during mandatory gymnastics. They're far more likely to hurt themselves and far worse than a student with a smaller body, which is no doubt why so many successful gymnasts are anorexic teenage girls with careers that span about eleven minutes.

PE teachers are mysteriously immune to prohibitions against verbal abuse and physical punishment: PE curriculum is limited not only to group activities but to those group activities that are determined by PE teacher - NOT participants. Nevertheless, PE teachers freely hurl insults, including the military favorite, "Come ON, you ladies," even in mixed classes. It's a painful admonishment to both genders that would rightly get anyone but a PE teacher fired. That's got to stop. Also, quite often, when PE teacher's game requires two teams, classmates on the losing side are given an extra set of push-ups or table-tops. It's yet another military approach that pits students against one another, finally defeating any illusions however few and fleeting about the importance of sportsmanship.

PE teachers so far have not been required to explain their reasons for embracing the obesity myth fuelling a multi-billion-dollar diet industry despite ANY scientific evidence to show that weight is a good indicator of health. Here's how Colorado law professor Paul Campos describes this wrong and frequently very harmful position in an interview after his book was published:

What is 'The Obesity Myth'?

Well, the myth actually has three parts. The first is that weight is a good indicator of health and that you can tell a lot about whether a person is likely to be healthy and to have good life expectancy by just looking at their weight. The second is that significant long-term weight loss is medically beneficial. And the third is that we have some method of producing this result - significant long-term weight loss - that is worth the costs that are incurred in attempting to produce this effect. All three of these assumptions, or, really, more acts of faith on the part of our culture, are false. This is just not the case.

What kind of evidence have you found in examining these myths? Obesity is a pervasive topic now.

It is pretty interesting. One of the more shocking aspects of this is that when you actually go looking at the data, when you actually look at the medical literature, you discover the fact that there isn't a very good correlation at all between weight and health and that this correlation disappears completely when you start taking other variables into account. So, for instance, ask the question: 'If you compare thin sedentary people to fat active people, who is healthier'? The answer is that fat active people are much healthier than the thin sedentary people, and they are just as healthy as thin active people, indicating that activity levels are very important to health but that weight really isn't. So as an initial matter, you discover that by looking at the medical literature a lot of the claims and certainly the main, central claim that fuels the obesity media, are not supported by the medical data.

Furthermore, the next thing you discover, and I think this is perhaps the most shocking single aspect of the whole obesity hysteria in our culture, is that there really isn't any good evidence for the proposition that significant, long-term weight loss is medically beneficial. Given the hysteria we have on the subject, and given all the messages that we're getting from government authorities that people ought to be trying to lose weight, you would assume that it had simply been more or less conclusively demonstrated that weight loss is medically beneficial. But in fact it hasn't been demonstrated at all and indeed it hasn't even been tested.

The reason the proposition that significant long-term weight loss is beneficial hasn't been demonstrated as a matter of medicine and science is that we do not know how to produce significant long-term weight loss, and so, therefore, it's not even possible to set up the kind of experimental data that would test this hypothesis. We don't know how to make fat people thin. So when you consider that it appears that things other than weight are vastly more important to health than weight itself, that we don't know if being thinner would actually be good for them, and that we don't know how produce these results, even if it was a good thing to produce, it simply is not rational to have a public health policy that's constructed around the idea of making heavier people thinner. (emphasis added)

More of this interview with Prof. Campos and his tirelessly-researched and fully-annotated book here.

Until I see evidence as compelling as the professor's to counter his findings, PE teachers would be well advised to restrict comments and hypotheses about obesity and health. Period.

The goal of PE in high school is now either misguided or just plain lost. Surely what we hope to achieve with PE is two-fold: pleasant respite from so much sitting and criticism AND information to show kids how to plan and modify an individual fitness program throughout adult life. The real question should be, are students learning ANYthing in PE that might be helpful in real life? The answer right now is almost always NO!

In conclusion: Neither obesity nor the fact that very few of us enjoy organized sports is an indicator of poor fitness or of a reluctance to pursue physical activity. It just means that the militaristic games and teaching style still very much in practice today even at Churchill are outdated. Taxpayers would get a better, fitter, happier bang for our buck if we replaced high school PE teachers with the type of fitness equipment found in most community centres AND if we allowed kids to select INDEPENDENT activities during PE periods, which might include forming their own unsupervised teams for games of their choice.

I write this on behalf of every boyfriend of decades past who survived some post-war neo-Nazi PE teacher on a mission to convince a shy boy that his body was somehow unattractive or unmasculine. I write it for the deceased beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, who describes his own bitter PE experience here. And I write it for those who might be spared these excesses by its submission.

Here's hoping,

Churchill parent and proud member of
Guerilla Parents for PE that Teaches Reality-based Fitness

Date: Mon, 17 Mar 2008 18:28:02 -0700
From: UBC Researchers
Subject: RE: Churchill PE survey - one parent's view
To: Churchill Secondary School parent

Many thanks for your letter. You make a number of astute points. Let me start by stating that our study has nothing to do with weight-loss promotion – what we are looking to do is develop a conceptually-sound evidence-based framework that centres around promoting long-term involvement in physical activity (both inside schools and beyond). In our study we are drawing from a paradigm of health promotion that is new to education settings (and draws heavily from behavioral medicine and organizational psychology). You raise a number of important points about choice, self-determination, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration (among other aspects) that are central to our model.

If your son/daughter has a negative experience of physical education then we would be delighted to hear from him/her, and hope that s/he would decide to take part in our study. In short, we need to hear from students across the spectrum, and in particular, those with negative experiences of the subject.

Many thanks for your considered thoughts!

Best wishes,

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