At the start of each of my workshops, I begin by asking a question: "what does sexual health education mean to you?" Almost consistently, the first couple answers are "puberty" and "STIs" (sexually transmitted infections). These answers are not wrong; in fact, they're very essential components of holistic sexual health education, but these are just two pieces of a much larger puzzle.
There is a push for student-centred learning and critical thinking across North American schools and beyond. As the new school year approaches, I challenge teachers to re-evaluate their pedagogical approaches across all curricular areas, but especially in sexual health education.
Ontario has a new Health and Physical Education curriculum that lends itself to student-centred learning and critical thinking. Historically, sexual health education was very biological- (e.g. reproductive system) and risk-focused (e.g. STIs and unplanned pregnancy). Ontario, as well as other provinces across Canada, have realized that there is more to understanding sexuality and sexual health beyond the biological and risk scopes. But, how do teachers approach the new curriculum when they have spent decades developing lessons based on curricula that don’t go beyond much further than menstrual cycles, puberty, and chlamydia?
Before you implement the new curriculum, ask yourself: What is the purpose of me teaching this? What do I want my students to learn? The core of Health education, overall, is learning to live a healthy life and developing the skills and insight as to how to go about living healthily. Personally, I'm not very concerned with specific details like identifying the exact symptoms for each STI; we are not here to teach students how to be medical doctors and diagnose maladies. We are here to teach them strategies and skills to make healthy and informed choices – instead of memorizing a list of symptoms for STIs, teach students to recognize "if my body doesn't feel right, I have to decide how I am going to handle the situation in a healthy way. Contact my doctor, tell an adult I trust and with which feel comfortable discussing these matters, and be proactive about my health. Also, I need to be responsible enough to take care of my sexual health by regularly getting tested to be proactive about my health since STIs may be asymptomatic” (as per specific expectation C2.3, Grade 11).
We need to help students feel agency, to help them realize that they have the power to make choices. However, teachers have the responsibility to make sure that students are getting the information, resources and tools they need to exercise their agency in a responsible and healthy way.