Stuck in the Sixties


By Dr. Thom McKenzie

Forty-three years ago this week (1966) I received my first degree, a Bachelors of Physical Education. I had mastered a very excellent program, and I had wonderful teachers. They ensured that I was physically fit, physically skilled, current academically on exercise physiology, kinesiology, and other subjects, and that I had practice and feedback on managing and instructing students. I was ready for my first job as a high school teacher and coach, and I did well at it.

My teacher preparation program taught me nothing at all about promoting physical activity or changing human behavior (Skinner was still being entertained by rodents in his laboratory). But that was OK because it was the sixties and sedentary living was not yet a problem. There were no global obesity and diabetes crises and the term diabesity had not yet been coined. I was not at all concerned with getting my students active outside the gym, because they did this automatically. Most walked to school, many did physical labor at home, and the only screen time to worry about was during fly season in the summer.

In my current job as a researcher I spend more time observing what happens in gyms than directing what goes on there. Teachers are still doing pretty much what I did over 40 years ago, although they now face much larger classes and more disruptive students. I find most are pretty well prepared. Unfortunately their preparation has been aimed primarily at facing the challenges that I encountered long ago, not the challenges of today.

In a scientific study using direct observation we found that PE teachers in six states spent only about 20 seconds of each class prompting or encouraging their middle school students to be active outside of class (McKenzie et al., 2006). In addition at AAHPERD this spring, I conducted a very unscientific poll of physical educators and teacher educators. Of the over 40 higher education institutions represented, only two offered current physical education majors courses in behavior analysis/behavior modification and none provided coursework in social marketing.

Even when offered daily, PE provides only a small proportion of the 60 minutes per day recommended by health authorities. According to NASPE Standard 3, a physically educated person “participates regularly in physical activity.” PE teachers cannot help students meet this objective unless they have been prepared to promote physical activity beyond their gym walls. It is time for PETE (Physical Education Teacher Education) programs to become unstuck from the sixties. In the interim, it is up to district staff development programs to help teachers acquire the new skills that are needed to assist students to avoid a lifetime of sedentary living.


McKenzie, T. L. (2007). The preparation of physical educators: A public health perspective. Quest, 59, 346-357.

McKenzie, T. L., Catellier, D. J., Conway, T., Lytle, L. A., Grieser, M., Webber, L. A., Pratt, C. A, & Elder, J. P. (2006). Girls’ activity levels and lesson contexts during middle school PE: TAAG baseline. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 38(7), 1229-1235.