Changing Minds, Transforming Brains: The Future of Physical Education

October 02, 2013 | Written By:

How one superintendent became a strong PE advocate.

Superintendents are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable education advocates. No one understands the challenges of running a school more intimately — from the research behind education theory to the day-to-day realities of running a large facility. However, superintendents also experience the ongoing federal and state mandates placed on their schools. In fact, many have developed a mantra: “No more unfunded mandates!”

And it is from this perspective that Dr. Jean Sophie joined Illinois’s Enhanced Physical Education Task Force. This task force, where I served for eight months, was established by the legislature to recommend updates to Illinois’s PE learning standards and promotion strategies.

Dr. Sophie says: “After the first day [on the task force], I almost called the [Illinois Association of School Administrators] to tell them I didn’t want to do this. I thought no one in the room understood education. I was frustrated and concerned.”

However, to Dr. Sophie’s credit, she sought research (check out Spark— a great resource for readings around PE) and listened to presentations at each meeting. At some point during the third meeting, Dr. Sophie’s perspective shifted from that of a skeptic to that of an advocate.

Research/scan compliments of Dr. Chuck Hillman University of Illinois: Hillman, C.H., et al. (2009) The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience. 159(3):1044-54.

“I was listening to the research connecting physical activity to learning, and I realized that school districts can’t afford to not listen to this information. We have a moral responsibility to make sure our kids know how to read, write and do math so that they are college- and career-ready students. Educators lose sleep over this at night. And as I started listening to the data I thought… (Physical education) is a way to reach and benefit all kids.“

Dr. Sophie’s perspective shift has turned into real changes in her school district. Her team has implemented physical activity lessons into professional development days; they’ve asked teachers to bring those lessons back to the classroom; and they are doing physical activity breaks during classroom time. Dr. Sophie says teachers have embraced this and they’ve been great. And since making these changes, they are finding fewer student behavioral problems and have increased staff morale by sparking excitement about these changes. They even created and distributed t-shirts that read “PE is like Miracle-Gro for the Brain!”

The connection between PE and learning is powerful, and promoting that message will only create more advocates. Besides a few more Dr. Sophies, what we need is to keep promoting the successes of PE and the PE-learning connection.

Highlights of recommendations by the task force include :

  • Updated the IL learning standards for PE. We are recommending that standards include the latest research on the mind-body connection and further support PE that promotes lifelong health rather than competition.

  • Promote professional development and determine a “highly qualified” status for PE teachers.

  • Develop metrics to support PE. Metrics including standardized fitness tests and connecting those tests to data about student access to attendance, achievement and physical activity in schools.

If you want to learn more about the Task Force recommendations, our friends at the Illinois Public Health Institute are hosting a webinar on October 8 at 10am CST. Register here. Or you can read more below:

  • Background on the IL PE Task Force

  • IL PE Task Force final report press release

  • IL PE Task Force Report Executive Summary

  • IL PE Task Force Full Report

Also, Chicago friends, if you want to show your support for physical education in our schools, sign our petition which we’ll bring to the Chicago Board of Education on October 23, 2013.


Dr. Sophie extends special thanks to the Wellness Teachers who are making change happen in her district: Jeremy Corona; Brad De Jong; and Ryan Regan of Lake Bluff Elementary School, and Doreen Buksa; Allison Fink; and  Dan Williams of Lake Bluff Middle School!

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