Don’t Call it ‘Gym’

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user pfüll
CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user pfüll

There’s this thing my friend Andrea Haefele says which I love. My paraphrasing is as follows.

We shouldn’t call it ‘gym’ because it implies the wrong paradigm of pedagogy. Would we call math class a ‘room’? Calling physical education ‘gym’ makes it hard to break free of old, tiresome connotations of mean, bellowing, whistle blowing teachers; period cramps; and getting picked last. Stuff that should be relegated to an 80s John Hughes movie.

In my efforts to explain to my students why we again wouldn’t be playing full court games of basketball in phys. ed. this year (it is exclusionary, inequitable, and makes us focus on esoteric rules rather than physical play, development, and exertion), and would, instead, be using a games for understanding model of learning to dribble, shoot, and pass a basketball, I had that moment of lingering doubt which all teachers feel when they’re attempting to swim against the proverbial tide.

Am I just ranting here, I sometimes wonder, imposing a pedagogical discussion on a bunch of kids that just wanna play a game of hoops?

But then I had another moment which made my tummy feel all warm inside, as my son would say. I overheard the following conversation in my classroom:

Student 1: What is it? Gym class?

Student 2: Ya, but don’t call it gym class. It’s physical education.

Student 1: Huh? Wha…?

Student 2: Because, remember what Mr. Lee said? Calling it gym class is like calling science class ‘Room 118’. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s too old school.

At that point, I couldn’t help looking at Student 2 and smiling. I cracked up laughing when she reciprocated by giving me a thumbs up and a wink, like ‘I got your back!’

OK, it’s pretty obvious I’m blogging right now about a child who complied with a dogmatic lecture I once told. It would most certainly be better if we attained the stage where simply doing it superseded saying it. But I admit it was awesome. Let’s not be afraid to concede that it’s sometimes nice to hear our students parrot some of our occasional diatribes.

What about you? Are your students/staff swimming against the tide with you? Have you got any similar stories?


  1. I agree fully, and just had a very similar conversation with my students two weeks ago when I said we were beginning a unit on gymnastics. They’ve only ever experienced team sports in “gym” class. I explained that our goal was to work on our stability, flexibility, and balance and that we would be completing a series of circuits to accomplish that task. One of my students responded, “Oh, you mean we’re going to learn something?”.

  2. Now that schools are doing away with Computer Labs, it will be more difficult to maintain the notion that what happens with them/there can be called “Computers.”

    However, the definition and association of “what” we are learning with the place and characteristics of where and how we are learning must not ignore the unique characteristics of either the learnings or the spaces.

    Physical education embodies many characteristics that motivate and engage learners. But so does Musical education. And Visual Arts education. And Dramatic Arts education. And Dance.

    One can argue that these programs can be delivered within a regular “classroom setting,” and that they can be just as engaging and motivating as the programs offered “in the gym.”

    I would counter, however, that there are unique characteristics that learners experience in the gym (much more space, movement, noise, tools associated with gross motor skills, heightened attention) that are difficult to fully replicate within the confines of a normal classroom.

    Perhaps that “large space” should undergo a re-definition to accompany the focus shift from “gym” to physical education, and in doing so, fully share its characteristics (and timetable scheduling) with other program areas that may have lost some of their unique characteristics and degree of engagement when they lost their “room” distinction and were collapsed into the confines of a regular classroom.

    1. Wow, these points you bring up are making me think hard. I never thought of the fact that it was the only subject left with its own room. It’s so true that its a sign of marginalization of these learning areas.

      I normally don’t like getting into semantics like this ‘gym’ argument, but I do want to be part of making phys. ed. a safe place where as many students as possible feel included. I just want my ALL my students to have fun and run around, not just a few rep hockey players. I’ve really loved the games for understanding model for this.

  3. Hey Ryan! For 20 years as a PE teacher and Teacher Educator – I’ve agreed and held the same opinion as Andrea…but now I’m not so sure. I’m less concerned about the political (or pedagogical) correctness of ‘Gym vs PE’ and more concerned with why we’re the only one with “education” in the title. “What do you teach?” is always answered with, “I teach Physical Education.” But ask any other teacher that same question and you get much more sensible responses like “Art”, “History”, “Math”, and even “Health”. I think we’ve short-ended ourselves all these years by insisting on calling it “Physical Education” and not embraced the larger health, fitness, and wellness perspective for a lifetime.

    1. Very interesting. Perhaps it’s because we don’t see PE as including content? For me, the main issue with ‘gym’ is that it serves as a euphemism for ‘sport’ too often. As in, learn to play a professional sport, a very specialized, instantly exclusive concept. Maybe we should just call it Health class?

  4. I fear that the same disatisfaction you’re experiencing with the word ‘gym’ is the same I’ll experience as I start rebranding my ‘library’. The cool thing would be to change it to “The learning commons” but will I spend my time frustrated trying to get everyone to change their speech patterns? I live in a place where when you ask directions people reply saying “Staples? oh you know, it’s where the old Zehrs used to be”. I’d like everyone to get with the program realizing that ‘library’ stuff is ALL the stuff involving reading, writing, digital fluency and information literacy, and there is definitely confusion among the administration who assume that I come with the space (when actually I teach those ‘library’ lessons everywhere in the school) , but I’m not sure that’s the battle I want to pick to fight.

    1. I totally understand what you mean. How long can you survive when people give you the thousand yard stare at ‘learning commons’? You can’t fight tides that are actually tsunamis. At least not by yourself.

  5. A rose by any other name …… What role does ‘branding’ play in our s’s ability to effectively learn P.E.? Surely what is done in the learning environment is more important than what it is called? I appreciate your concerted effort to explain the ‘why’ behind how your class is conducted (this will go a long way to facilitate student growth & learning) – I think your student you overheard has been more affected by how you teach PE than by any dogmatic diatribe. If your actions didn’t match your words you would have lost them. Keep up the good work!

    1. LOL I totally agree that fretting over the name of the class is probably ridiculous. Actions speak louder than class names:)

  6. I totally agree with you on the name. The word ‘gym’ does have a stigma with it that leads one to think of never ending basketball games and a snoozing teacher. Physical education is about learning, not just pointless playtime. The fact that your student realized what you were trying to accomplish and that it wasn’t just ‘gym’ class anymore is a success in itself!

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