Personalized physical ed class

by Bruce Kasanoff on October 4, 2010

by Fred Strong, Dean of Faculty, Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences

High school PE class. Maybe you liked it, maybe you dreaded it. Did you have “lines” and “squads”?

Even if the teaching methods in your class were more enlightened than back in my day, the drills and games probably showed who could or couldn’t do what, day after day.

And when the course was over, were you better “physically educated?” Were you better prepared to live a healthy life? Maybe, maybe not.

Now add heart rate monitors, smart phones and websites, class database software, and a creative teacher at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. Individualized fitness routines suddenly become the heart of the curriculum. Instruction is truly diversified for each individual, and the occasional class game is a fun, social diversion. Most of all, students learn what it means to create independent workouts for themselves. They set a trajectory for their own lifelong fitness.

A 9th grade girl says that in the past, PE was always about Presidential Fitness goals and team-building skills. “You might be good at one thing and not good at something else. I was always comparing myself to everybody else, but there was no real way in the class to get better at things I wasn’t good at.”

Now everything is personalized for her. Mike Bernier, her teacher, bought a set of heart-rate monitors for his high school PE fitness curriculum in 2009. At the start of the year, he taught his students to use them, and that immediately set the mold for very dynamic and individualized instruction.

Students work out on weight-room and aerobic equipment and keep track of their heart rate. But it’s much more than just watching a number on a monitor. A 9th grade boy in the class says, “A single number isn’t that important. I look at the data of my workouts over time, look at graphs of that data, and set goals for myself.”

I asked him how he sets goals for himself, and he quickly started talking about researching different muscle groups, learning about fitness routines that supported different sports seasons, and then tracking his growth over time.

I asked him if he had always enjoyed PE classes in the past. “Yes,” he said, “but this class is different. Now we have the space to make our own goals. That’s really fun.” The investment and ownership he was expressing came through loud and clear.

Mike Bernier, the teacher and department head, describes how the pieces fit together. Students exercise with the heart-rate monitors. At the end of class, they wirelessly synch the data from their monitors to Mike’s pocket PC, and then later in the day, he downloads the data to a web-based class database (in our case, Moodle). All students in the school have accounts on Moodle, and they can access their data, work with charts and graphs, and communicate with the teacher (and each other).

Mike gives each student the option of either bringing in a workout they already have or working with him to research and design a workout. He directs them to certain websites as resources (all this information is on his course website), and he also encourages students to explore various workout apps on smartphones (if they have them). He helps them screen the apps to make sure they’re legitimate and tailored to the student’s needs.

As Mike says, “High school students are more into this than anything I’ve ever seen before. They learn about their physiology, they set target zones that are specific to them, and they set goals for themselves each day based on their circumstances.” In fact, when I observed a class recently, Mike was talking to a boy who wasn’t feeling well, so Mike was asking him how he would adjust his goals for that day. And the rest of the class wasn’t standing around waiting; they all had their workouts that they were starting in on.

I asked the girl why the Presidential Fitness program hadn’t worked for her in the way this did. “That program measured where I was, but it didn’t teach me how to improve.” I asked her how this program taught her to improve. “I used to reach my target heart-rate on the exercise bike, but now I’m at a fitness level that biking doesn’t get me there. So I switched to running, to develop other muscles and to create the workout that would get my heart rate where it needs to be. I used to be a terrible runner,” she concluded. “Now I run every day after school.”

And the 9th grade boy took his data with him to math class. He had an assignment to identify something important in his life, hypothesize about a correlation that helped to make it happen, and then collect data and graph it. He took his heart rate data and graphed it for math class. And got a good grade in both math and PE!

Mike Bernier’s class website and course syllabus can be found here. Please logon as a guest, then select “Course Categories” then “Upper School Classes” then “PE” and then “Upper School Fitness.”

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