Scrapping the new sex ed curriculum a giant leap backwards, experts say

School systems have long been described, often critically, as guardians of society’s status quo. But rarely have they been asked to prepare students for a bygone era, experts argue.

On Wednesday, education minister Lisa Thompson announced that schools in September would go back to teaching the 1998 curriculum, fulfilling a pledge made by Ford during the election campaign. By doing so he appeased part of his electoral base, including social conservatives who considered the 2015 curriculum as inappropriate for children.

But educators are concerned that the old curriculum is out of touch with today’s reality.

The 1998 health and physical education curriculum describes a society that few elementary school students would recognize. It never once mentions the words cyber-bullying, social media, race, lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It only once mentions the word Internet, and only to say that kids can use computers to surf the “World Wide Web” for information.

It was, decidedly, a very different time, one that was silent about issues that children deal with daily, says Chris Markham, executive director of Ophea, a non-profit group that develops lesson plans and teaching materials for schools. The 2015 curriculum instead deals with sensitive topics head-on.

“We don’t think the 1998 curriculum is appropriate for teachers to be teaching from, and we don’t think it will serve the needs of today’s students,” Markham says.

“Issues around consent, issues around the importance of appreciating visible and invisible differences between people, the different family structures that kids may reside in these days, self-esteem, body confidence, the fact that it’s supportive of basic human rights and challenges stereotypes – there’s a whole host of reasons why the 2015 curriculum is appropriate for a 21st century world versus the 1998 curriculum,” he adds.

Markham notes that Ontario’s elementary school teachers are responsible for running safe and inclusive classrooms. He wonders how some teachers could possibly avoid discussing certain topics, including those some parents consider out of bounds.

“You can’t put some of this stuff back in the box,” he says. “Are teachers no longer going to teach about consent, about respecting differences? Certain things, like respect for different family types, are embedded within the human rights code. Are teachers no longer going to teach about that?”

Thompson said her ministry would launch consultations for a new curriculum that might be introduced in 2019-20 school year.

The 2015 health and physical education curriculum was developed after almost a decade of consultations. It is 239 pages long. The 1998 health and physical ed curriculum is 42 pages long. Here are some of the key differences in the two:

Grade 1

The 1998 curriculum, under a section called “healthy living,” expects children to be able to identify “major body parts by their proper names.” The 2015 curriculum goes further, adding that the body parts should include “genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology.” Markham notes Manitoba requires that students identify those body parts in Kindergarten. Knowing these proper names could protect children from potential abuse, he adds.

As an example, the 2015 curriculum suggests students might respond this way when asked why they should know the proper names of body parts: “All parts of my body are a part of me. If I’m hurt or need help, and I know the right words, other people will know what I’m talking about.”

Grade 3

The 2015 curriculum expects children to learn about “visible and invisible differences” between people. For invisible differences, it mentions “learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, personal preferences, allergies and sensitivities.” The goal is to recognize how visible and invisible differences make people unique, and to respect those differences.

The 1998 curriculum has children learning about “basic changes in growth and development from birth to childhood (e.g., changes to teeth, hair, feet and height).” It says nothing about visible or invisible differences.

The 1998 curriculum also teaches children about the “basic human and animal reproductive process (i.e, the union of egg and sperm). The 2015 version is silent about this.

Grade 4

The 2015 curriculum teaches students about “the risks associated with communications technology,” including the Internet, cellphones, the use of texting and participating in online games and communities. It encourages children to let an adult know what they’re doing online, to keep passwords or personal information private, and to “be aware that people are not always who they say they are online.” It also warns students about cyber-bullying through various types of social media.

The 1998 curriclum says nothing about communication technology, social media or cyber-bullying.

The 2015 curriculum also teaches the physical changes that occur in males and females at puberty — from breast development to producing body odour — and the emotional and social impacts that may result. The 1998 curriculum doesn’t do so until Grade 5. (Markham says the 2015 change was based on scientific evidence suggesting children are hitting puberty earlier.)

Grade 5

Students learn about the reproductive system at this level in the 2015 curriculum, including changes to the male and female reproductive organs during puberty. The 1998 curriculum teaches this in Grade 6. Both curriculums teach about menstruation and sperm production at Grade 5.

Grade 6

The 2015 curriculum asks students to assess how people’s concept of themselves is influenced by homophobia, “assumptions regarding gender roles,” gender expression, race, ethnicity and mental health. It discusses different types of families, including those made up of same-sex couples. “We need to make sure that we don’t assume that all couples are of the opposite sex, and show this by the words we use,” it says. “We need to be inclusive and welcoming.”

The 1998 curriculum says nothing about social inclusion, self-concept or stereotypes.

Grade 7

The 1998 curriculum goes into greater depth about how reproduction and fertilization occurs, describes how sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented. It also describes how abstinence “applies to healthy sexuality.”

The 2015 curriculum instead talks about “delaying sexual activity,” and how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It asks teachers to prompt students by noting that infections could be obtained through sexual activities such as “oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and anal intercourse.”

Grade 8

The 1998 curriculum asks teachers to further explain “the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents.” It identifies methods to avoid pregnancy and further explains the transmission and prevention of STDs. It asks students to understand the physical, emotional and “spiritual” aspects of healthy sexuality, including “respect for life” and “ethical questions raised in relationships.”

The 2015 curriculum asks students to understand gender identity, including “two-spirited, transgender, transexual, (and) intersex,” along with different types of sexual orientation. It explains different types of intimate behaviours, from holding hands to sexual intercourse. It notes that “consent to one activity doesn’t imply consent to all sexual activity.”

TORONTO STAR

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