Besides politics, what’s in the new sexual education curriculum?

William Paul  – 2019-09-16

From the very beginning of his rise to power, Doug Ford has made good political use of sexual education. Like others, I watched him rail against the Health and Physical Education curriculum produced by the Wynne government in 2015, as though it epitomized everything decadent about both small and large “L” liberals. He used it to get the support of the social conservatives in the Conservative Party –  like Tanya Granic Allen, who was running against Mr. Ford for the leadership of the party, but came over to support him when she was knocked out of the  race. She was an ally until she was about to run in the 2018 provincial election but had remarked online that when she sees Croatia “trying to push radical sexualization on the young or gay marriage, I almost vomit in disbelief.” That was the end of the line for Ms. Granic Allen; she was dropped as a candidate.


Sex and Politics

This didn’t stop Doug Ford from turning the education of young people into a political cudgel. He went on ad nauseum about the Wynne government’s “sex curriculum” introduced in 2015, saying the Liberals had “introduced the sex curriculum based on ideology.” One of the first moves he made after he was elected, was to turn the clock back to the old sexual education curriculum introduced back in 1998. He forbade teachers to teach the newer curriculum and  warned them that they’d better go along with this edict. As he said in the summer of 2018: “Make no mistake, if we find someone failing to do their job, we will act.” Just to get the point across, Doug Ford set up a so-called “snitch line” so the public could call in and tell tales on recalcitrant teachers.

Yet, towards the end of August, just a year after it banned the old one, Doug Ford’s government introduced pretty much the same curriculum with 2019 version of the Health and Physical Education curriculum.

There were some lines changed here and there,  with a few nods to social conservatives. The idea that a fellow classmate might have two fathers or two mothers has been moved from grade 3 to grade 5; too bad for a child in grade 3 with two mothers who’ll have to wait a couple of years for that information to be authorized for teaching. On the other hand, sexual orientation has now been moved back from grade 6 to grade 5, while gender identity now has the green light to be taught in grade 8 rather than grade 6 as was the case with the 2015 curriculum.

Then there are a bunch of updates that might easily have been added to the 2015 curriculum, more information about opioids, mental health, concussions and bullying. The Ford government claims to be allowing teachers to teach about sexually transmitted infections in grade 8 though it was already in the 2015 curriculum. It claims to be introducing the idea of consent in grades 2 and 3. One of School’s contributors, sexual health educator Lyba Spring wrote in a recent article that it was there all along.

For the general public, it’s hard to compare the new curriculum with the last curriculum unless you happen to have a hard copy, because the Ministry of Education has removed it from the internet.


Appearances matter

So it’s done. Mr. Ford can be happy because he’s put out the appearance of taking strong decisive action against a former government so defeated it lost party status. He’s even managed to keep the support of

Charles McVety, President of Canada Christian College and Institute of Canadian Values. This is the same person who ran into trouble with the Canadian Broadcast Standards council when, as a televangelist, he suggested that gay and lesbian people prefer young and underage people. He’s opposed funding gay pride parades and discussing homosexuality in school. But he told the Ottawa Citizen that  bringing out the new curriculum was a “great day for children and parental authority” – because he thinks they can opt out of having their kids taught any of it.

Sam Hammond of Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) believes that teachers made a difference by pushing for a curriculum that was not set in the last century. He said that the opting out feature that makes Charles McVety so happy is a serious problem with the new curriculum. The government is saying that teaching about consent, gender orientation and the like is important enough to be in the official curriculum. It’s just not important enough for kids to have to learn about it. As far as he’s concerned: “You do not get to opt out of human rights.”


An exercise in bland hypocrisy

What was really the point of all of this? Why all the fuss? Essentially what’s happened here is that one dry curriculum has been replaced by another with a few changes.

At 317 pages, the new curriculum opens with bland assertions like its  Vision Statement: “The health and physical education curriculum is based on the vision that the knowledge and skills students acquire in the program will benefit them throughout their lives and enable them to thrive in an ever-changing world by helping them develop mental health and well-being, physical and health literacy, and the comprehension, capacity, and commitment they will need to lead healthy, active lives and promote healthy, active living.”

This is from a government that is cutting education funds everywhere, that is shorting cities on public health care funding as well as daycare spaces. If it was so concerned about students “thriving in an ever-changing world” it wouldn’t be forcing boards to close programs that offer jobs for young people in the summer time, cutting outdoor education programs, shuttering classrooms and laying off teachers.

The curriculum details the responsibilities of students, teachers and principals to support this vision. Parents have their roles prescribed too; they can attend teachers interviews or become a school council member and act as good role models, among other condescending options. There’s even a place for community partners like those public health units whose funds Mr. Ford is cutting.


Prescription for living

The Ministry role in all of this goes unmentioned. It appears that writing a curriculum was enough. Yet, the result is so prescriptive its writers surely must have believed that educators are a bunch of idiots who have no idea how to take general principles of a subject and find creative ways to teach them.

I appreciate that the Ministry of Education needs to lay out some basic principles as it does in the section about Healthy Living

“The focus of the learning in this strand is not merely on health knowledge but rather on higher-level thinking connected to the application of skills for healthy living. Students are learning about health broadly as a resource for living.” ( p.39)

That makes sense. The section goes to some lengths to explain to everyone using the curriculum, that it’s meant to apply to many different aspects of a young person’s life. It’s not just the mass of information and skills to be taught but how they fit into the world of kids and families.

That would have been enough. But Ministry curriculum writers perhaps fear that if everything worth teaching is not laid out in great detail, something unauthorized might slip – like the possibility that a student could have two mothers or fathers might be taught at a politically bad time. After all, the Ford government did make this a political document.

Just to make sure they get the message across, curriculum writers detail 36-39 expectations of what each child learn will learn for every grade. Each one of those is broken down even further as to precisely what bits of information students will be able to spout back to the teacher. The curriculum writers are so attentive to the possibility that teachers might miss a point, they’ve given them sample scripts. Look at this small section from the Grade 4:

By the end of grade 4, sudents will: “D1.3 – describe various types of bullying, abuse, and other non-consensual behaviour (e.g., social, emotional, physical, verbal), including cyberbullying (e.g., via social media, apps, e-mail, text messaging, chat rooms, websites), and identify the impacts they can have and appropriate ways of responding [A1.1 Emotions, 1.2 Coping]

Teacher prompt: “What is an example of social bullying? Physical bullying? Verbal bullying? Is one type of bullying any more or less hurtful than another?”

Student:“Social bullying could include leaving someone out of the group, refusing to be someone’s partner, spreading rumours in person or online, sharing someone’s personal information or photos without their consent, or totally ignoring someone. Physical bullying could include pushing someone, pulling their hair, or knocking them down. No one should touch another person without their consent. Verbal bullying could include name calling, mocking, teasing about ability or appearance, including weight, size, or clothing, and making sexist or racist comments in person or online. When any type of bullying is used to target someone because of who they are – their ethnocultural background, gender, abilities, or socio-economic status – then it is also an example of identity-based bullying. If a person tells someone to stop whatever they are doing, they should stop. Any of these kinds of bullying could cause emotional pain. Social or emotional bullying is more difficult to see but it can be just as hurtful, or even worse.”

You’d think people who wrote this passage were trying to satirize themselves. It reminds me of one of those stilted informercials from 1950’s TV that lamely describe the dangers of nuclear fallout or the new role of women in the work place. No  grade 4 students would give anything like that answer. Have any of the people who wrote this script ever laid eyes on one?


It wasn’t learned if you can’t measure it

The 2019 curriculum sets out an extensive evaluation scheme. Teachers must consider many and particular criteria for key categories: “Knowledge and Understanding”, “Thinking,” “Communication” and Application.” They must be clear about what “Levels of Achievement” to apply. Information that comes from this curriculum must be measured and reported. For instance, under the title “Thinking”, teachers must be on the lookout for measurable signs of: “planning skills (eg. identifying the problem, formulating questions and ideas, gathering and organizing information , developing fitness plans; selecting strategies)” along with “use of processing skills” and “use of critical/creative thinking” processes”.  

Something as intangible as grade 1’s “D3.3” expectation to “demonstrate an understanding that a person’s thoughts, emotions and actions can affect mental health” (connected to “A1.6 Thinking”) must be included as part of that measurement. But there aren’t criteria to evaluate a discussion that leads a young person to reconsider her ideas about the world or feel more like she belongs. And how does any teacher really know whether or not a boy in grade 1 has a clue about how “thoughts emotions and actions can affect mental health?” It’s ridiculous.


Where is the room for good teaching?

It’s a mystery to me where all the chatting about life and discussions about things on kids’ minds comes in. That happens when good teachers stray from what they plan to teach that day because something better and more relevant has come up. Often, just because it’s informal, the most authentic learning happens during these times. But in this world of politicized curricula, a grade 6 teacher for example, might think twice about discussing a character in a book who is searching for gender identity; that’s not covered until grade 8.

This curriculum, like the one before it, takes the view that children must be prepared for some vaguely understood “ever changing world”. What’s not vague, is that human activity in it is to be carefully monitored and measured. All learning must be accounted for. It must be measurable. So, good teaching is only good teaching if it meets measurable outcomes required by the government. There’s not a breath of life in this style of pedagogy.


The 2019 Health and Physical Education curriculum has lost the forest in the trees. Good ideas like making sure that students learn to say “no” in many difficult situations, understand ways in which families and the people in them are different, that they need to know how to be safe on computers and so much more are buried in hundreds of pages of directions. It would have been better to lay out concepts to be learned at each range of grades, offer guidance on how to do it and let teachers use their own judgement along with  the many curriculum guides available to develop lesson plans. It would have been better to involve parents in local school communities in all of this.  But that’s not bound to happen with a Ministry that has been centralizing all aspects of education for decades.

As always, it will take educators in schools to work around the strict prescriptions of this curriculum, to breathe some life into it, to start discussions that suit the needs of students rather than those of the curriculum. It started life as a political football and it remains one. But educators can humanize it.