Technology is our future. This is not, for many, a statement of hope but of fact. They write and talk as if the future of education is digital and offer no room for doubt or ambiguity.

This may well be the case. There certainly seems little that can be done to avoid such a future. It is the manner of that future that needs to be contested. I will make no bold statements about technology. I’m equally wowed and worried about what a future beholden to technology might mean. Doubly so when I consider the obvious place of the past mistakes and practices in that future. 

As a young teacher I didn’t really do health-related fitness (HRF) or health-related exercise (HRE). I’m sure my PGCE course covered it but I don’t remember. I’m sure there was plenty of help about, but I never went to find it. I dodged it. Doggedly. Perhaps that was because I had a strong dislike for the type of cardiovascular work I needed to do for my sport. I loved the glory but hated the slog. Maybe because I remember, with such distaste, the bile rising as I completed the latest of my teacher’s or rugby coach’s fitness sessions. Did I really want to put my pupils through that?

Call it laziness or trepidation or something else – I’ll leave that to you – but I never understood the need for fitness testing in school. I still don’t but this time that comes from a position of understanding. The thought, therefore, that fitness testing would be mandated seems inherently wrong. The thought that teacher performance could be measured by the percentage body fat your class lost in a school year when compared to other schools, districts or states seems at loggerheads to both the research and my own experiences. Surely not and yet I sometime wonder what planet I live on. And then I think “how is it even remotely possible to know what goes on around the world?” Perhaps, not, but the idea of using big data to make kids ‘be healthy’ [whatever mixed bag of confusion that terms holds in our world] seems ridiculous and yet complete feasible and inevitable in the same breath. And yet why am I actually surprised? We have many tens of thousands of teachers around the world who are required to work under edicts and mandates that go against some/much/everything [delete as appropriate] that they believe. We have many tens of thousands of teachers who are required to work in antiquated timetabling structures that lead kids, birthday after birthday, on the steady conveyor belt to exams, university and the workplace without considering what they need as individuals. We have many tens of thousands of teachers using broken pedagogies that don’t achieve what they desire and yet which they lack the time to change and update. 

Somehow, perhaps because I don’t occupy a health space in my research, Fitnessgram® has passed me by. Perhaps it has you too, but it seems to be the antithesis of the child-centred progressive pedagogies that we are working for. This is teacher proofing the curriculum in a way that bypasses the person and focus only on the statistics of the body. This is the quantified self-personified and yet it is endorsed by so many. The child, or the body of the child, becomes a unit of analysis and is something to be bettered and improved through education/physical education. I stand with Pluim and Gard on this, this is something that beggars’ belief and against which we should rally. Education is not about destination but journey and it should always remain so. 

The Paper

Pluim and Gard introduce us to Fitnessgram® as a means to “explore the actual and potential impact of ‘big data’ on physical education.” They position it as “the most widely utilised fitness software system, employed by tens of thousands of physical education teachers in schools both in the United States and worldwide.” The Cooper Institute, who designed and manage Fitnessgram® report that it was used, each year, to assess 10 million young people across 20,000 schools. 

The scale of Fitnessgram® can’t be overlooked and, as Pluim and Gard surmise, this may be the blueprint for the role in which ‘big data’ comes to shape the way we (collectively and individually) come to understand childhood and adolescence health. Such a shaping of understanding and perception goes against the body of evidence that “remains at best unclear whether fitness testing does anything to motivate those students that the tests are supposedly designed to help.” It does, however, track history which has seen a move away from the creativity and spontaneous play endorsed in the 1920s through the expectation that children should confirm to body norms and into a state of “anxiety about children’s fitness.” 

In taking the United States as their focus, Pluim and Gard reported on waves of federal and state legislation that increased schools’ responsibilities for solving childhood obesity. Such laws forced schools to seek the means to gather the data need to prove that they have done their bit and Fitnessgram® offered then a useable solution. In fact, the solution was such a good fit that “its use has spread to every American state and has been mandated in many school districts and even some entire states.”

Designed to assess young people against criterion-based standards in six fitness domains (aerobic capacity, abdominal strength and endurance, upper body strength and endurance, body composition, truck extensor strength and endurance, and flexibility) Fitnessgram® then produces a report that summaries the results and offers personalised recommendations to each child. Lacking from these tests are any measure of movement skills and as such this seems to indicate the importance of the body rather than the body in movement. 

Despite the objections of teachers and parents, big data test like this may well be here to stay. It is, surely, cheaper to train up a technician to run the test than it is to train a teacher. It is surely cheaper to offer up physical education to the highest bidder rather than keep the expense on the books of national and/or state government. It makes sense to big business to not only sell schools the assessment tool but also profit from high-tech and low-tech fitness solutions to the school’s needs. What doesn’t make sense however, at least not to Pluim and Gard (and now to me), is both the glut of “more than 800 scholarly publications” supporting Fitnessgram® and the dearth of such publications arguing the reverse. Or, indeed, just arguing. Teachers stand in large numbers against fitness testing and yet we have seen arguments that research needs to change their minds rather than hear their voices. 

In concluding their paper, Pluim and Gard warn that Fitnessgram® could become the Programme of International Student Assessment (or PISA) equivalent for physical education. It is already been marketed as “an indispensable component of a modern physical education program” and yet the Cooper Institute has (at the time of writing) no representation from people with school-education experience on its advertised Board of Trustees. Fitness testing is not the physical education that teachers want, or students need and yet politicians have bought into the promise of a quick and money-saving fix at the expense of young people. Such widespread approaches to physical education ruin “physical education’s educational mission to expand and enrich the ways in which young people might interact physically with the world.” Surely that can’t be the technological future that lies ahead of us. 

What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - ThinkActChange (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.


Pluim, C. & Gard, M. (2018). Physical Education’s grand convergence: Fitnessgram®, Big Data, and the digital commerce of children’s health. Critical Studies in Eduction, 29:3. 261-278.