The Case for Classical P.E.

The Case for Classical PE

Jenny Crockett

A more classical PE? Can we really apply the classical model that we use in the classroom to physical education?  Absolutely!  Children today need the “lost tools” of a physical education more than ever. Physical literacy, understanding how and why the human body works and how it was created to move, is a vital skill that has been lost.  PE classes and time have been drastically diminished for students as they get older.  The result has been a fourfold jump in the obesity rate among teens ages 12-19, from 5% in 1980 to 20.6% currently1.

The Problem

The health and fitness industry in our nation is larger and more diversified than ever; yet, we find that our children and teens are in worse shape than at any time in our history.  How can that be?

Part of the problem is a lack of physical literacy, a phrase coined by Dr. Margaret Whitehead.  According to her, physical literacy encompasses the “motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding required by participants that allows them to value and take responsibility for engaging in physical sport and activity for life.” To put it simply, students need to be trained to be competent to move before they can be confident to move and then motivated to move.

Students cannot value what they do not understand. They cannot confidently take control of their own health and fitness if they have not been given the tools to do so. Nor can they wade through the ever-changing landscape of fitness and nutrition trends.

Another contributing problem has been the content of PE classes at higher levels.  After WWII, the focus for physical education began to shift more toward sports, games, and sport-based skills/activities.  A sports-based curriculum at the high school level tends to isolate those who are not “athletic,” creating a competitive environment that is exclusionary.

Physical education should have something to offer to every student at every athletic level.  Even students who are athletically gifted need tools that allow them to continue adapting their fitness routines throughout their lives, especially when playing sports is no longer an option.

In the classical model, high school students begin to take more ownership of their education in the classroom.  The same can be true in the gym.  Students need to learn to be good stewards of the bodies God has given them. A brilliant mind can be trapped in a body that is rendered ineffective by improper treatment.  There is a better way.

A Brief History

So what are the “tools” of a physical education? How can physical education be more classical?  Looking across the landscape of PE curriculums, these are the questions I began asking several years ago.  In true classical fashion, I started with the ancient Greeks, who hailed “a sound mind in a sound body,” and made my way back through the centuries to see the evolution of physical education.

For most of our recorded human history, great emphasis was always placed on a healthy physique. Here are some voices from the past on the matter.

“No citizen has a right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training…what a disgrace it is for a man to grow old without ever seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” – Socrates

“It is not enough to fortify his soul; you must also make his muscles strong.  The mind will be oppressed if not assisted by the body….It is not the mind, it is not the body we are training; it is the man and we must not divide him into two parts.” – Michel de Montaigne, mid-1500s

“To learn to think, we must therefore exercise our limbs, our senses and our bodily organs, which are the tools of our intellect; and to get the best use out of these tools, the body which supplies them must be strong and healthy.” –Rousseau

Early models applied these thoughts to running, swimming, combat and military exercises, and gymnastics.  From the Greeks to the German Turners and Swedish systems of the 19thcentury that influenced an entire continent, gymnastic training remained a vital component of physical education. Gymnastics and military structure were even combined in countries like Czechoslovakia, where the famous Sokols originated2.

The 19thcentury brought a rise in the influence of game and sport in England; thus introducing the early debates about recreation and sport versus developmental exercise.  Eventually, the English system of interschool athletics made its way to Europe and gymnastic training programs made their way to England.  Both of these influences traveled across the sea to the United States.

In the United States, we experienced a “Golden Era of American Fitness” from roughly 1885-1920.  A gymnasium during that time would have had pommel horses, Indian clubs, parallel bars, ladders at various levels and heights, climbing ropes, monkey bars, mats, and even row machines.  It would have contained very little sport-specific equipment.


There was a clear understanding that exercise and corrective movement were a preparation for sport and not the other way around. Classical methods during this period could be categorized in 3 major content areas3:

  1. Restorative Arts (Structure, Posture, Orthopedic Gymnastics, Safety)
  2. Martial (Self/National Defense)
  3. Pedagogy (Sports, Theory, Games, Dance, Play)

This generation understood movement better than we do today. They were using tools that I definitely did not get in my education.

La Sierra High School and The Motivation Factor

In my research, I came across an article titled This 1960s High School Gym Class Would Ruin You, and I was intrigued.  It was my first introduction to a wildly successful PE program that was designed by Stan LeProtti at La Sierra High School.  People took notice of the kind of young men (and eventually young women) that this program was producing.  JFK was so impressed that he made this school the model for what he called “The Great National Effort,” eventually rolling it out to nearly 4000 schools across the U.S.

People from all over the world came to observe and learn the program LeProtti had created.  He went on be a part of the President’s Council of Fitness and Sports, writing The Motivation Factorto outline program. It was grounded in both military and classical methods.  Based on a color system, the program allowed students to earn the right to wear different colored shorts based on physical achievements as they progressed.

A few things struck me about this program as I read and watched more.  First, every single student was achieving a high rate of fitness. Every student.  Not just the athletically gifted ones.  In its nearly 27-year run at La Sierra High, not a single injury was reported.  These students were learning how to move their bodies and how to use them effectively before applying them to high level tests.  They used cadences, breathing techniques, off-the-ground training, running, gymnastics, swimming, and more.  Students took ownership, learned how to be leaders, and pushed each other to be better…all in a physical education class.

I was hooked, and I wanted to see how I could take what they did and apply it in my upper school classes. Resources and equipment would present a challenge, but I decided to show my students a 5-minute clipof the program and see what happened.  As they watched, I saw eyes light up.  I saw excitement, enthusiasm, and a desire to achieve more.  It was on!

The Solution at HRA

How have we applied these things to our upper school PE classes at Highland Rim Academy?  What tools have we adapted?  Classes are divided into PE I, which is grades 7-8, and PE II, which is grades 9-11. PE I is heavily focused on form and learning how to use self-assessments.  The basic class structure includes a warm upbased on the original La Sierra program, running and daily work outs.  For the first few weeks, we spend a lot of time on breathing and forms for squats, pushups, lunges, jumps, etc.  During the third week, we perform 6 baseline tests: timed mile run, pushups to failure, burpees in 1 minute, sit ups in 2 minutes, timed plank, and timed wall sit. These tests are performed again at the end of each quarter with the expectation of improvement.  Physical testing comprises 50% of their grade and participation is the other 50%.

PE I is built on more grammar and dialectic.  Students are introduced to a number of terms that will be used throughout their time in PE.  Terms like flexibility, cardiorespiratory endurance, speed, strength, etc.  Knowing how to define these terms has to come first.  Students also spend time learning the major muscle groups.  Once terms are established, students start to learn how to use them and how to put them together.  Physical activity, of course, is the method of reinforcing and applying this knowledge.

PE II students move into more of the rhetoric stage of physical education, learning how to set their own goals and put together their own programs.  Class each year begins with a review of the SMART goal-setting method.  Students are then responsible for setting two yearlong goals.  With approval from the instructor, those goals are then broken down into quarterly goals which essentially become the physical tests each quarter.  Students at this level also have specific standards to meet each quarter.  Goals and standards combine for test grades each quarter.  Grading is also 50% physical tests and 50% participation.

The La Sierra program4has also been adapted for this class.  Students keep logs that we work on throughout the year to attain higher levels of physical achievement.  The base that is built in PE I allows students to move beyond basic forms to perform more complex movements.

Reaching back to the definition of physical literacy given earlier, this system is designed to teach students a level of competence to be able to move.  Once that is gained, they can build confidence, which leads to a motivation to keep improving and trying new things.  There is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained from reaching a goal or standard that you did not believe you could.  Students get experience with this type of motivation through our PE program that will hopefully carry them well into adulthood.

A Note on Grades

Grades are the all-important measurement for student progress. This has long been a tricky situation for PE teachers.  There is no denying that grades are important, but people feel differently about grades in “academic” classes versus grades in physical education.

Students in a math class are all graded the same way.  Those who struggle with math simply have to work harder outside of class.  I feel strongly that PE must be graded the same way.  Some students are more athletically gifted than others just as some are more mathematically gifted than others.  As with all subjects in school, if a student struggles with a class, he/she must work harder outside of class.  Grading must be an objective measure of student progress that is all based on the same rubric.

Wrapping it Up

The goal for a physical education program should be to prepare students for a lifetime of health and fitness, just as the goal of a classical education is to prepare them for a lifetime of learning.  When students graduate from Highland Rim Academy, my goal for them is to know how to move, how to apply that movement to their goals, and how to put an exercise program together for themselves with a clear understanding of the “why” in terms of caring for the body God has given them.  They may not choose to use those tools right away, but they will have them in hand.


  2. History of Physical Education, C.W. Hackensmith, 1966
  4. The Motivation Factorbrief by Stan LeProtti

Other resources:

The Motivation Factor: Afilmabout the La Sierra program

Theleanberets.comwith Ron Jones

1946 War Department Field Manual On Physical Training



Jenny Crockett is currently serving in her eighth year at Highland Rim Academy (HRA) in Cookeville, TN. She began as a marketing/development director and has moved into other roles teaching earth science, physical science and physical education in the Upper School. As a coach for the middle school girls’ basketball team, Jenny has a passion for health and fitness and has been teaching upper school PE for seven years. She also teaches spin and FitX/Bootcamp classes at the local YMCA. Jenny has a Bachelor of Science in environmental agriscience and an MBA from Tennessee Tech University. Her desire to teach PE in a more classical fashion led her to develop methods based on historical models. She and her husband, Darrin, have three daughters at HRA, and are passionate about promoting the value of classical Christian education.


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