“Why are we learning about this?” The joys and frustrations of teaching comprehensive sexuality education to teenagers

By Magnus Blom, Science and Technology teacher, Gränbyskolan, Uppsala, Sweden

The prospect of engaging students in learning activities concerning sexual health and relations, often referred as comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), can be a daunting experience at the start.

During planning you might be uncertain about the scope and focus of your lessons. Looking back at memories of my own experience as a student in the 1990s, sexual education was primarily focused on anatomical aspects of sexuality and reproduction, and the associated risks, such as sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Subsequent updates in the Swedish curriculum have somewhat broadened the scope of the content. However, as the emphasis has shifted towards relationships, gender norms, consent and equality, teaching styles and practices have had to adapt as well. CSE has transformed from a science-heavy, ‘biology’ subject into a multidisciplinary subject with multiple facets that touch upon several school subjects, each with their own approach and focus.

In other words, teachers need to have a multidisciplinary mindset when planning learning activities in sexuality education. This calls for a degree of collaboration across the boundaries of school subjects so that students can engage in learning using the entire ‘pedagogical toolbox’. The work just completed by UNESCO and the Global Education Monitoring Report mapping countries’ policies and laws related to CSE shows that this is being taken into account; three out of four countries integrate sexuality education into various subjects, rather than treating it as a standalone issue.

From my experience, the most important factor to consider when you are planning and conducting CSE is how you prepare your ‘audience’ or, in my case, my students. In my classroom, my approach tends to focus mostly on open discussion and collective learning rather than lecturing. This calls for an open and permissive climate in the classroom. In other words, if the students feel safe and comfortable, they will engage in more discussions and consequently learn more and broaden their own perspectives.

This might sound trivial, but the process can be a lot more challenging depending on the composition of your class. At my school, our students come from diverse socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds . Factors such as differing norms and religious beliefs can sometimes form a hurdle that the teacher needs to overcome.

Sometimes students might express clear signs of reluctance to even participate in the activities at all. In my experience this is most common in younger students. It can often be explained by an uncertainty caused by lack of experience of similar discussions in the past, or by religious pressure from their parents and relatives. For example, I have had cases in the past, where some students systematically avoided attending classes because they were afraid that their parents would not approve.

Regardless of the reason, from my experience, the way to go is to gradually familiarize the students to the concept and format of the discussions by starting with relatively ‘safe’ concepts.

At our school, we usually start by discussing the meaning of ‘normal’ and the unwritten rules that determine what that word really implies. As soon as these reluctant students realize that normality is not a fixed term, they usually start engaging.

Once the students become more receptive towards the subject, their curiosity usually takes over and they dare to start asking questions. And this is when the magic starts happening. It is truly one of the greatest delights for a teacher, when silent or reluctant students start opening and give voice to their innate curiosity.

After crossing the first hurdle and getting your students into the discussions, the next obstacle is to maintain a climate where everyone dares to voice their opinions. A big issue in certain student groups is when a few students take up all the talking space. This can silence the other students who likely would have contributed if given the opportunity. To avoid this, I believe that you need to adopt a balanced approach where you moderate the students without silencing them: encourage them to share their opinions and invite others to join and partake in the discussion.

As a teacher, I often get the question “why are we learning about this?” from my students. Usually, I come up with various answers ranging from specific reasons to more general ones like “you might not realize it right now, but this can be useful later on and the process of learning this helps you learn complicated things in the future”. But when I get this question about CSE my answer is more precise. I tell my students that they are learning this because this knowledge will be useful to them as soon as they grasp it. On a physical and psychological level, it will help them to avoid harming themselves and others around them. With this knowledge they will know more about how to have healthy relations with other people, take care of themselves, and to be more open and considerate.

Watch Magnus’ intervention as a speaker in a webinar launching the 50 new country profiles by UNESCO and the Global Education Monitoring Report on the PEER website showing the policies that each country has in place on comprehensive sexuality education.



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