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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The New PE Curriculum: An Innovative Approach to Teaching Physical Fitness

An Illinois high school employs state-of-the-art high tech to help students be fit and healthy.
By Roberta Furger

Every student at Madison Junior High completes a computer-based fitness test.

Credit: Bill Gommel

For most of us, PE class isn't exactly the first subject that comes to mind when we consider the benefits of integrating technology into the curriculum. But Phil Lawler, head of the Physical Education Department at Madison Junior High School, in Naperville, Illinois, has seen firsthand how high tech tools can help to bring a healthier, more balanced approach to physical education.

From the heart-rate monitors that students wear during their weekly twelve-minute run/walk (a healthier version of the traditional 1-mile run) to a comprehensive computer-based fitness station where students measure everything from strength and flexibility to cholesterol levels, Madison has embraced the use of state-of-the-art tools to support the physical health and education of its adolescent students. To date, the Naperville Community Unit School District has spent $450,000 on high-tech PE tools for secondary school students.

Included among Madison's unique PE facility is a complete fitness center (dubbed the Madison Health Club), which looks more like a neighborhood health club than a junior high school workout room. There's also a rock-climbing wall, and a series of computer-enabled fitness test stations, where students create a total health portfolio that will eventually follow them from sixth grade through high school graduation.

The fitness-testing system, which measures flexibility, blood pressure, body composition, upper-body strength, and cardiovascular health, is integral to Madison's commitment to emphasizing fitness over raw athletic ability -- long the emphasis in PE classes throughout the country.

Once in the fall and then again in the spring, students work their way through a series of smart workstations: One test measures flexibility, as students bend and stretch while holding a cord attached to a computer. As they stretch, the cord becomes more taut, and the computer records the results. At another station, students perform repetitions of biceps curls and watch as a graph on the computer monitor reflects their efforts. Beginning this fall, parents will be able to enter a PIN to access their child's fitness-test results from the school Web site.

A rock-climbing wall is among the many unique features of the Madison Junior High School PE facility.

Credit: Bill Gommel

Not Your Mother's -- or Father's -- PE

Lawler, who in addition to his job at Madison coordinates the PE program for Naperville's entire school district, has been advocating what you might call an enlightened approach to physical fitness for nearly thirteen years. He points to two seminal reports -- "Healthy People 2000" (now "Healthy People 2010") and "The Surgeon General's Report on Youth Fitness" -- as the impetus for his department's switch from an old-style PE curriculum -- where speed and ability were paramount -- to a program that emphasizes fitness and well-being, not athleticism.

"There's been a major paradigm shift in the teaching of PE," says Lawler, whose program has been highlighted in the state and national media and has been identified by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a national model. "The old-style PE met the needs of just 30 percent of our students." Everyone else, he adds with regret in his voice, was often left with a "lifetime of bad memories and demeaning experiences," like being picked last for basketball scrimmage or being ridiculed by teachers and fellow students for being too weak or too slow.

Today, PE classes at Madison are more about developing a healthy lifestyle than they are about learning to throw a baseball or make a jump shot.

As part of a statewide effort to encourage physical fitness, students at Madison (and in all secondary schools in the school district) attend PE classes five days a week. One day is devoted to using the state-of-the-art fitness center, another is spent participating in a cardiovascular run/walk, and the remaining three days are devoted to individual and team sports.

But if any of the activities sound familiar, think again. Classes at Naperville couldn't be more different from the PE classes you knew as a kid.

Data from heart-rate monitors can be printed out and then analyzed by students and teachers.

Credit: Bill Gommel

Monitoring Performance

Whether they're working out on the fitness machines or participating in the cardio run/walk, students wear heart-rate monitors, giving both themselves and their instructors an accurate picture of the intensity of their workout. Students routinely talk about being "in the target zone," signifying that they're maintaining a healthy heart rate while exercising.

"Every student now gets credit for what they do, not how fast or how far they run," says Lawler, who recalls one female student who was among the last in her class to complete a 1-mile run. "She was jogging very slowly," says Lawler, and an observer might have thought she wasn't "giving it her all." After the run ended, though, Lawler read the computer-generated printout from her heart monitor and realized that the girl had been working well above her target zone.

"In the old days, I might have told her to work harder, but with the heart-rate monitors, I was able to tell how hard she was working -- too hard, in fact."

Although he taught PE for years without the benefits of heart-rate monitors and other high tech equipment, Lawler is convinced these tools are not only beneficial to kids, they're also necessary.

"It's like driving a car without a speedometer," he says. "Without the heart-rate monitor, we just can't know how hard kids are really working. Not only is it unfair to some students, it can also be dangerous."

Students also wear the monitors when they're playing team sports, providing Lawler and his colleagues with a handy way of making sure everyone gets a good workout.

Madison students spend one day a week in the school's state-of-the-art fitness center, dubbed "the Madison Health Club."

Credit: Bill Gommel

Spreading the Word

None of the changes at Madison would have been possible, says Lawler, without the commitment of his staff and the school and district administrators to ongoing professional development. In addition to taking courses and attending local and national conferences, once a year Naperville PE instructors participate in a daylong physical education institute, complete with guest speakers, workshops, and product information.

When the program started fifteen years ago, eight speakers and one-hundred attendees showed up. Today, 1,500 PE instructors from throughout the county attend the annual event, a testament to what Lawler calls "a hunger to learn about the new PE."

But Lawler isn't content with just advocating change at the local level. Each year, he and his staff welcome visitors from schools throughout the country that, like Madison, are embracing the "new PE" concept.

Lawler and his Naperville colleagues also work to educate parents on the importance of a healthy, active lifestyle. Last year, for example, one of the high school PE instructors lent pedometers to several parents, encouraging them to keep track of how many steps they took in a day (the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General recommends an average of 10,000 steps a day for a healthy adult).

The experience was enlightening, to say the least. One parent returned the pedometer after having taken just 1,000 steps in a day. Few had taken more than 5,000 steps.

"What it all boils down to is information," says Lawler. "We want to provide students [and, he might add, their parents] with the tools and the information they need to live healthy, active lives."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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