Chula's new curriculum seeks to overturn
Story by WEENA NOPPAKUNTHONG
The problem is compounded by the fact that most parents avoid discussing sex education with their children. As a consequence, the job has been pushed onto teachers to educate youngsters about sex, notwithstanding Thai culture dictates that it is taboo to openly discuss sex in public.
Therefore, the government-imposed mandate that schools must teach sex education as part of the official curriculum clashes head on with the reluctance by many teachers to teach an uncomfortable subject and the shyness of students to actively participate in any meaningful discussion of the matter. When sex education is taught, most often it is taught ``strictly by the book''.
The result is that many people - including parents, teachers, students, and officials share a widespread skepticism on how effective sex education is in schools, and what is the best teaching method to use when exploring the topic in the classrooms.
The result is that teachers often do little more than engage in one-way, teacher-centered presentations to students about sexual anatomy, intercourse and rudimentary sexual behavior.
Such ``standard'' approaches often fail to evoke students' interest or participation in classroom discussions. They certainly do not encourage students to speak up about issues that particularly interest them. Students don't dare raise issues that specifically concern them the most. As a consequence, students are not being taught to think and to address sexual issues that are real to them for fear of being judged by their fellow students.
Ultimately, this lack of openness and candor may lead to a lack of meaningful understanding of sex-related issues and what constitutes risky sexual behavior. As a result, risky sexual behavior may not be sufficiently discouraged and students may risk contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including AIDS; unwanted pregnancies and other social and psychological problems that commonly result when people engage in activities without having a full appreciation for what the consequences are.
For example, a survey by Chulalongkorn University's Center for Research and Sexuality Development from 2002 to 2006 reports that more than half of Thai teenagers do not use condoms the first time they engage in sex.
Another reason teachers are hesitant to go beyond the textbooks and to initiate an open discussion with students is because many teachers lack the academic expertise or professional training to teach sex education. Accordingly, many teachers lack the confidence to give advice on issues not strictly addressed in the syllabus.
Moreover, sex education is not currently offered as a separate and distinct class in most Thai schools. Instead, teachers of Health Studies or Physical Education are charged with periodically addressing sex education. They just ``fit it in'' somewhere, an hour here, an hour there.
Thai students inevitably seek other sources for information, mostly from the Internet, videos and pornographic magazines, when they should be discussing such matters with their teachers, doctors, and parents, says Ajarn Pailin Srisookho, director of the Center for Research and Sexuality Development at Chulalongkorn University's Institute of Health Research.
Chula's method of teaching sex education
The Center for Research and Sexuality Development at Chula, with the help of Thai and foreign teachers at the University of Illinois, has designed a new curriculum that will ensure a more effective way to teach sex education. The new course provides teachers with the appropriate class materials and equipment to properly teach the subject.
Experts also train teachers to use a student-centered approach to teach sex education; how to give advice to students on issues of sex or sexuality; and how to address difficult or ``uncomfortable'' questions from students. The training program is called Thai Teens: Building Safer Sex Behavior. It is a two-year project, jointly sponsored by the government and the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA).
Currently only eight schools, located in Bangkok, Chachoengsao, Nakhon Nayok and Samut Prakan, have been trained and are using the curriculum. The course may be taught as a formal class or as an after school activity.
Students in control
This curriculum offers a student-centered learning approach, where the focus is on the student's needs and interests. Teachers mostly serve as facilitators in the classroom. In contrast to the old method, students now play active roles in the learning process. The emphasis of the Chula curriculum is for students to be able to think and analyze a situation involving sexual behavior.
Instead of the teacher merely espousing the text and contents of a staid syllabus to the class, students are now able to discuss, for example, teenage pregnancy, says Ajarn Sriwan Supyoo, a secondary school teacher from Mandanarumol School in Chachoengsao province. This allows the class to discuss the feelings of a pregnant teenager their age when she finds out she is pregnant, the consequences, and the couple's options. Ajarn Sriwan says one of the boys candidly said, `` If my girlfriend was pregnant, my first question would be whether it is my child.''
Such student-to-student discussions provide a realistic perspective of what students their age would say and do in that situation. Here, the male student's first reaction was to deny responsibility.
By placing the onus on the students to directly explore both problems and solutions, the teacher does not necessarily have to express an opinion about the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. Students instinctively find their own answers.
Even so, to bring about such meaningful discussions, the teacher must overcome his or her initial shyness, especially about difficult or controversial topics, because the perspective, attitude and behavior of the teacher is important in setting the stage as to how open students will become, says Ajarn Sriwan. When such barriers are overcome, the classroom is no longer a place for one-way communication, but rather the teacher and the students become actively involved in substantive discussions.
The curriculum of Chula's sex education program involves much more than a course on sex education. It includes modules on gender roles; society and culture; personal and interpersonal relationships; family planning, sexual behavior, human sexuality; and sexual development. One aim of the project is to discourage teenagers from having sex until later in life, to encourage abstinence and monogamy, and to reduce STDs among teenagers when abstinence is not possible.
The program also includes an activity called ``heart surprise''. It teaches that risky sexual behavior can lead to the contraction of STDs. To play, students are given folded paper hearts with a word or phrase written inside. Students may not open the heart until instructed to do so. Students may exchange their paper hearts with various classmates as many times as they want. Each exchange represents an imaginary sex act between the two.
At the end of the activity, students are instructed to open the paper heart to find the key word, which is usually the name of a sexually transmitted disease. The activity symbolizes that they have contracted a sexually transmitted disease from at least one of their partners.
If they are lucky, they get a heart labeled, ``monogamy'', which means they were less likely to contract a disease. The activity shows how easy it is to contract a disease and how difficult it is to know whether a sex partner is infected. The exercise is effective in teaching teens to be monogamous.
Students are also involved in role-plays, where they also learn negotiating skills when facing a sexual dilemma. Participating in such highly-structured role-plays gives students the confidence they need to ``Just say, No!'' to their partner if they really do not wish to have sex. ``We want to develop their skills in handling situations that may lead to risky sexual behavior,'' says Surangrat Kongsiri, a researcher at the Center for Research and Sexuality Development at Chula.
A student at Mandanarumol School recalls that she can still vividly remember discussions on sex, family planning, contraceptives and negotiating skills in her class, but doesn't recall much about her other classes. She used her knowledge recently to advise a friend about contraceptives.
Ajarn Sriwan, her teacher, agrees that what is important is that students remember and use what they learned in sex education classes for the rest of their lives, not just while they are students in a classroom.
Looking into the future
Ajarn Pailin hopes that ultimately sex education will be taught as a separate and distinct course, and not just addressed infrequently as part of a larger course, or taught only after school.
For more information on the project, call the Center for Research and Sexuality Development of Chulalongkorn University at 02-218-8154 or 02-218-8439.
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Last modified: August 31, 2007