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
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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.

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Chris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too teach in SF and it was my first year in a middle school last year. The kids don't respect PE- they do the same thing year after year who can blame them. I shared with the kids that I also teach fitness classes to adults at a local gym. They were excited and wished they had a membership. So I decided this summer with the support of the other staff to create our own fitness center. I have gone on and asked the community who advertised fitness equipment if they would consider donating to the school if it didn't sell. So far I have 4 wts centers, 2 ab centers, 5 cardio centers and 2 yoga balls. I cleaned out a large storage room near the gym and painted, added music and mirrors. The kids are going to love it when they get back to school. Now I need to figure out how to get a grant for heart rate monitors, pedometers, hardware and software- suggestions. I am jealous of the schools with large fitness centers or adventure rooms. It is getting the school also to see why we need a classroom space to make this program even bigger! Great benefits for the staff too!

stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Try It is a website designed to link teachers with dreams of classroom improvement with donors who have the money or time to fund your grant. It is easy and I have been blessed to have a lot of success in my PE classroom. Sign up today!

Kevin Tougas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Katy,

I am not sure if you were ever able to obtain the grants for adding the high-tech tools to your PE classes as discussed in the article but I would like to offer a solution for your classes that is easy to implement and use, low cost and offers both the core development and a health and wellness focus. My wife and I have created an excellent, innovative activity product using sidewalk chalk called Coursing Around. It is a book filled with 15 structured obstacle based courses that includes the teaching of 20 different exercises, 10 different shapes and lots of Anatomy and Physiology based questions like "How many bones in the human body?" The premise is to use outdoors but we are also in the process of completing manufacturing of an indoor version. It is currently being used in a variety of educational systems, the most recent was the Anaheim School District who purchased for 5 of their schools.
If interested in hearing more please call us at 949-709-4403.

Tracy Eaton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Can anyone send me a fitness log that they use in their fitness room? I dont have computers for the kids to log into so this is my other choice.

Jeffrey Watts's picture

I too was extremely interested in adding tech to my phys ed classes. I teach at a middle school and my students were following a basic sport model. By the time they were in 8th grade, they were very bored with the whole thing so I thought how about something new like hr monitors, gamebikes, Wii and DDR. We received a grant and started out using this new stuff in our lessons. What I found out:
HR monitors from Polar were very nice and helped us do a better job of showing our students what level of intensity they should be exercising when trying to improve their cardiovascular system. The problem with them was that they were too big for our 6th graders; the sensors ended up in their arm pit. The other problem was they kept losing the elastic strap that you use for sanitary reasons - if you don't have the elastic strap, you can't use the watch.
There is a different company that also makes hr monitors. I would check it out first before buying a whole class set. Right now, I am interested in the watches you wear and just place your finger tips on it to check hr - no straps needed.
Gamebikes are a lot of fun. You hook them up to a playstation 2 and play a video game(usually a racing game) while riding the bike. You control the steering with the movable handle bars and speed by pedaling. Unfortunately, the bikes keep breaking down. Right now, 3 of the 4 "professional, club model" bikes I have are down for repairs and they are only 2 years old with very little use. The company I bought them from has dropped all contact with the supplier due to customer service issues.
Wii is also a lot of fun but I checked heart rates on my students while playing this and it was just a little above their pre-exercise hr.
DDR is a lot of fun and requires little dancing ability. I have had a lot of success with this, good heart rates and believe it or not, my hearing impaired students even enjoy the challenge.
So, tech can be fun and exciting but be careful that you don't spend a ton of money on stuff that doesn't enhance your students fitness level or requires excessive amounts of class time to set up. I'm still interested in exer-gaming and using tech in phys ed. Like Sony's upcoming release of Kinetic for xbox360 and the hr monitor system that saves & displays each students hr on a wall thru a projector sounds really cool. But I am going to make sure I research it thoroughly before spending the money.

Madison's picture

I have a child in Madison, the school from the article. I can tell you my child hates his PE class because of the heart rate monitors. He plays 3 sports a year and is in VERY good shape, yet the heart rate monitors, when they register, always show him to high or too low. We think part of the problem is he is so skinny the monitor keeps falling off. This results in the teacher cranking the harness so tight he can barely take a breath. Personally, I'd rather see this program started in high school instead of junior high.

Robert - 293921's picture

Im currently a senior attending Winnebago High and absolutely hate these heart rate monitors that are mandatory for me to graduate. We must get 20 minutes out of the 30 minutes of time we have left with changing and putting the nasty things on. I feel that a monitor measuring your beats per minute is not educational. Students should not be graded on how fit there body is and how many minutes they can stay in there zone but instead on if they paticipate in the activity. Many classmates will agree that they are ridiculous. If anything the monitors just made pe even more hated by students. They have no educational values and should not be made to wear.

SVS's picture

I currently teach Elementary Physical Education. My classes are 30 mins long which goes by extremely fast. Our district uses Fitnessgram so I use the technology for the fitness components. I also use the smart board to teach a 3 on 3 Volleyball activity. I really want to add more technology that will fit into the short class periods. Heart monitors are used at our MS and HS level and we use pedometers at the Elementary level. I am interested in any other ideas for using technology. Thanks!

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