Why Gym Class is Ineffective
School is starting up in the northern hemisphere. Fresh books, old friends, maybe some new clothes. Pencils, Chromebooks, markers, loose-leaf paper. And with all of that comes the class that for far too many is synonymous with dread: gym.
Physical education, or PE, has been part of education since ancient Greece, when it was seen as necessary for training soldiers. But it wasn’t until much later that people began worrying about the ills that supposedly plagued scholars due to their sedentary lifestyles. And it wasn’t until the Enlightenment and the writings of several late 18th-century scholars that physical education became part of a program designed to counterbalance scholars’ associated ailments.
In research about some of the early efforts at physical education in America, history professor Rebecca R. Noel wrote that:
“Educational reformers had in common a tendency toward ill health, so the dilemma of scholarly frailty particularly engaged them. Spinal curvature and pulmonary consumption added to the previous concerns for students and teachers. In addition to exercise, improving schoolhouse ventilation, heating, and desks could keep students healthier, and teaching physiology could train them to keep themselves healthier.”
These concerns have returned in a modern society that is increasingly sedentary — “like the Enlightenment,” notes a description of one of Noel’s talks, “a moment in history when suddenly many more people live the sedentary lives once limited to a few scholars.”
Given extensive research over the past two decades or so on children’s brain development and its connection to bodily systems like the inner-ear vestibular system, promoting more physical movement in school seems like a worthy goal. Schools that have experimented with “chair-release programs” and allow plenty of in-class active movement, for example, have found that kids not only learn better and retain information longer, but they are less anxious and tired at the end of the day.
And yet somehow we do PE itself very badly. Not just in the U.S., but in many countries. Too many kids dread it, and too few are actually getting the promised exercise.