Sunday, February 20, 2011

It IS a Democracy: The Value of Participant Input in Program Planning

I write this blog as someone who believes strongly in the power of democracy as well as in creating a learning environment that feels empowering. I also write it as someone who has delivered and seen thousands of hours of sexuality education programs, many of which involved an educator (sometimes that educator was me) coming into a classroom with a canned curriculum or a series of lessons already planned out and ready to go before a single interaction happened with the participants. Perhaps the content was chosen arbitrarily by the educator or by whoever invited the educator in. Regardless, I think in many cases, this is a mistake. I am advocating that you, the sexuality educator, should be asking your students what they want and need to learn and using that data to plan your programming. This may cause a panic for you if you lean towards essentialism as your educational philosophy, but hear me out.

A wise human sexuality professor once taught me that “Good Education is manipulation.” In essence, as educators, we know where we want our students to get and we take them on the journey. So if good education is manipulation, you may be thinking “Why should I be asking youth to tell me what I should be teaching them?” By asking youth for their input into what they need and want to learn, we instantly create a higher level of buy-in than we would have previously had. They are invested in the program before we even begin to teach.  We avoid being another teacher who comes in and arbitrarily gives them “what they need to know” based on our perspective. And as Hedgepeth and Helmich note, we actually encourage the very skills we are trying to build in many sexuality education programs- empowerment and self-efficacy.

Now to clarify, I am advocating for youth input into topic/content selection, not necessarily actual activities or teaching style. I’m not asking for students to write our lesson plans for us. That piece is for you, the expert, to determine. While youth may not be experts in developmental theory or learning styles, there are some things they are the expert on- their own interests and needs. Since sexuality education varies so drastically from school district to school district and family to family, we cannot assume that a specific “basic” sexuality education program will meet the needs of all youth. Some are coming to you having spent an entire semester studying contraceptive methods; some don’t know what the word contraceptive means. By asking for and utilizing student input into topics, you can attempt to avoid teaching a painfully repetitive subject or one that they are missing the conceptual foundation for.

So how can you put this idea into action? In a multi-session program, plan for it in your introductory session- an icebreaker, ground rules, and an activity that incorporates student feedback into what the upcoming sessions should focus on. There a multitude of means by which you can gather this data, but the important piece of the equation is actually using the data to plan your programming. While you need to be clear that it might not be possible to cover every topic they suggest, let students know that you will make an attempt to address the interests they’ve expressed in some manner throughout the course of the program. If you collect the information and then decide it’s not content you want to focus on, you’ve already discredited yourself in the eyes of your audience. So, bottom line, don’t collect it if there is a chance you might not be able to use any of it.

An example of where I’ve seen this work incredibly well is with adjudicated youth or those in drug and alcohol treatment facilities.  If these youth have been through the traditional educational system and it has not worked for them, why would they believe your program will be any different? To them you are another person there to lecture to them and they will likely smile and nod and completely tune you out. By asking what they want to learn, you are empowering them and respecting their opinions. You are saying, “I trust you to give me relevant and serious input.” That may not be something they are used to. Youth in these settings (and sometimes youth in general) are accustomed to adults expecting very little from them and not valuing what they have to say.  It can be incredibly powerful to give youth the gift of expecting more from them. Often their reaction is to give you their respect in return. The added bonus is, if behavior becomes an issue during future sessions, you can remind students that you are trying to give them what they asked for. The sense of “Oh wait, we did ask for this” can be an effective means of getting participants back on task. I can say firsthand that I have seen this work in groups I’ve taught.

This can also work well with youth who have already been taught a comprehensive sexuality education curriculum. The basic STI lesson may be old hat for them, however, they may benefit from a quick STI overview and an entire session focused specifically on HPV. This is often information youth will willingly share if asked and will allow you to make better use of the time you have with them. This also an effective means for you to build your repertoire as an educator. Often we can get into the rut of teaching the same lessons because, let’s face it, it’s easier. Asking for youth input may require you to seek out new information and design new lesson plans. It may, at times, really challenge you. For example, recently a group I facilitate asked for a session on Transgender Identities. I had not done a Trans specific lesson for teens before and had to put some real work into. The end result? I now have happy students, increased information and another lesson plan in my pocket. Win, win, win.

I know some will argue that they have to teach what the site or grant asks them to, that there is no time to teach to the specific needs of the group. As a community health educator, I certainly can sympathize with these restrictions. If you truly are limited in time or flexibility, consider negotiating with the site to build in 1-2 sessions that you will use to address the topics youth are most interested in. Youth can anonymously suggest potential topics and then you can vote on which will be taught, the topics with the most votes win. Isn’t democracy grand?

Alison Bellavance


  1. Alison,

    I think you make a great point in incorporating democratic ideas in lesson planning for sexuality education. i think this is a great concept in general for all subjects. many times teachers and administrators make all the decision for students in what they learn, how they learn, and even about what they do and how they spend their free time in school, the reason for this is probably that they dont trust that kids and teens can make good decisions. this is simply untrue. i dont know if any of you are familiar with democratic schools, as they are not that popular in the US. the first democratic school was established in 1921 in Germany, and since then many democratic schools have opened around the world. in Israel democratic schools are VERY popular and there are a lot of them. when i was in middle school i really wanted to go to a democratic school, but my parents arent cool : ( the democratic schools have a very good reputation of very good and alternative learning and teaching styles. some of the classes are traditional lecture style classes, others are group work, experiential, many are kinesthetic, etc. the way these schools work is that EVERYONE has a vote; parents, kids and faculty, despite age. the schools go from K-12. a student can choose NOT to go to class if they dont want to, and ost people would assume that no one would go to class, but this is actually not the case, most students do go to class and most sudents make good choices about their own education. as a result, when kids graduate from these schools they are a lot more mature than kids graduating from typical schools. they ted to have a borader worldview, and make better choices, because they have been trusted to make good decisions for most of their lives.

    as an educator of sexuality, i think it is important to implement some democratic concepts in teaching, because i trust that kids can make good decisions about what they want to learn in sexuality based on what is interesting and relevant to them.

    if you want to read more about democratic schools, this is a website about researchers that went to israel and visited many (but not all, b/c there are a lot) of the democratic schools. they describe how each one works.


  2. Alison, I first would like to totally agree with the idea of giving students agency in shaping the learning environment. It relates to the idea that I spoke to in my earlier blog post about needing to role model democracy if we want our future students to truly understand what it means to be a democratic citizen. I think that it contributes both in the way that it really is the people that “show up to the party” who make a difference. I.e. If you ask a student their opinion and they say nothing, then what they want to learn won’t be included. Just like if students don’t show up to vote, or sign petitions, or lobby congress, or run for office then their opinion won’t be heard on a policy wide level either. Also, it shows the reality that in democracy, even when an opinion is heard, it doesn’t always bring about what one hopes to see [I.e. Anti-Prop 8 efforts that fell deaf on some Californian voter ears]. It also teaches the lesson of responsibility for what one says. I find myself thinking of a student jokingly asking to learn about something that causes them discomfort for quick gratification of a laugh, and then being mortified when that subject is actually taught.

    That being said, I definitely feel that an educator needs to be aware of the ‘what student’s don’t know they don’t know’ issue. That isn’t to say that an educator should just assume that teens don’t know things, but rather utilizing whatever data they collect from students as a framework to assess what student’s don’t know they don’t know … but could still possibly benefit from learning. It ties into your sentiment about educators needing to remain cognizant of their own expertise, while respecting the students’ ability to identify what is most relevant to their lives. I kind of think about it as “meeting students where they’re at, and helping them to move above and beyond it over time.”

    The final reason why I think that this conversation is so incredibly relevant and important is because of the following video (it’s 11 minutes, but I think worth every one, personally):

    I think that asking for student input is one of many ways that our education system can begin to undergo reform in such a way as to work for students, instead of against them.

  3. Alison,
    Great post! I think youth should be able to exercise some control over what they're taught. I think the only difficulty with your strategy may lie with with how to determine which students topic of interest you choose to teach. Democracy implies equal control over matters and if only a few of the kids topics get chosen, then not everyone in the class is represented. I absolutely understand not being able to cover every topic kids want to discuss or maybe not even wanting to, but then I think the instructor should have a very clear strategy for how to incorporate every single kid's interests into their lesson, because otherwise they may feel stupid or left out.
    From my own experience, I know that it can be frustrating for a teacher to favor one student over others and this method has the potential to reinforce those sentiments. I also wonder about how this has worked for you in the past in terms of how the kids express their topics of interest? Do they come right out and say it or do they submit in anonymously? I know in my high school that if a kid said he wanted to go over sexual orientation or gender identity, everyone would immediately think he was gay and/or make fun of him. Whilst this may speak to my horrendous formative years in upstate New York, I think it could also represent a lot of other teenagers insecurities and cruelty.
    Overall, I think this is an amazing concept and I totally agree with the idea that kids think its cool when teachers pay attention to them and make them feel like human beings. Like Hedgepeth and Helmich noted, building self-efficacy and empowerment with adolescents is crucial. I just think that in trying do this, if you weren't really careful or methodical in your planning, you could inadvertently hurt a couple of kids. Although, the majority rule is probably better than a dictatorship. :)

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  5. Hi Alison!
    I can echo your enthusiasm in giving students power and choices regarding their education. ☺ I am a firm believer in the idea of “Children learn what they want to know.” I can recall times where I was given the opportunity to provide input into my education, and I really appreciated this. It felt good to see a teacher ask the students what we wanted to learn and then actually teach about the topics in which we were most interested. We often wrote down what we wanted to learn and then handed these slips in or placed them in an anonymous box. Knowing that someone actually cares is unbelievably refreshing! However, I do agree with Gigi’s point that it is important that no one gets left out, or feelings of inadequacy may be experienced and the learner will shut down.

    In a classroom management course I took, we discussed the five basic human needs of William Glasser's Choice Theory: survival and security, love and belonging, power through cooperation and competency, freedom, and fun. By understanding and attending to these needs, teachers are able to customize and manage a classroom environment where students learn to motivate and monitor themselves. This may sound very touchy-feely, but many teachers have found success by giving students what they need, and this includes connecting the curriculum with individual interests.


    Levin, J. & J. Nolan (2010). Principles of classroom management: A professional decision-making model. Boston: Pearson Publishing.

  6. Thanks for all the comments! Gigi, to address your question about getting the topic suggestions and choosing which to focus on, I think you need to be as fair as possible or you may actually lose goodwill not gain it. I typically go with anonymous suggestions, on index cards, so I avoid anyone being "the kid who asked about _____." Then I typically list the suggested topics on newsprint and we do an eyes closed vote or I type them up on a ballot and we anonymously vote that way. In many cases I only have time to add in 1 or 2 extra sessions, so I always explain that majority rules on this. Hope that clarifies!

  7. Alison:
    I teach an eighth period child development class: It is always the last class of the day. It is a hard class as it is an elective with the student’s perception being: ‘It’s an elective - it should not be as much work as an academic class,” although I am not quite sure how child development qualifies as not academic but I veer from my path of discourse.

    It is also a hard class as it is the last class of the day and all the students can think about is ‘This is the last class of the day.’ It is constantly a challenge to acquire their attention for any type of instructional education even if that instruction is as an activity. If I did not allow for democracy, little to no learning would take place. I am in a constant state of negotiation with my students. For example today, at 2:17 p.m., my students told me ‘class is over,’ we have had a hard day (they are all taking statewide achievement tests at the moment) and our minds cannot absorb any more. So much for democracy - it is more like a dictatorship, a student dictatorship at that.

    However, it is these moments when I listen and agree to their needs, that allow me to connect and actually ‘manipulate’ their minds. Eighth period is always give a little, get a little. So my planning now takes place in “bytes.” By the time everyone settles in, I have checked homework or concluded whatever paperwork needs concluding, my students receive a child development “byte.” If I am on top of my game, it is usually an activity as they have ‘democratically’ offered up that they learn better this way. The first year I taught child development eighth period, I was a freaking mess because I never got done in that 42 minute period what I accomplished with ease in the other child development classes earlier in the day. Needless to say, the students were freaked out as well. (Reminds me of Jiná’s topic about the teacher as center stage!)

    Now, I am working in “bytes” and on days like today, “nano bytes.”

    And, I second Becca’s suggestion to view Ken Robinson. I first saw him in another talk - Do Schools Kill Creativity? - which can be found at:
    I think he is a brilliant speaker.

  8. Excellent post Allison! Democracy, variety and choice are all wonderful strategies to incorporate into lesson planning, especially when working with youth. There is a need for more youth voice and agency in education or organizational programming as in many cases, it is often the missing puzzle piece. Since empowerment and self-efficacy are typically the greatest needs of an adolescent population it would seem most logical to allow them the responsibility of choosing what information should be learned, what facts are irrelevant, and what lessons may appear to be remedial or repetitive.

    I also agree on the point you made about one "basic" sexuality program being ineffective at meeting the needs of youth. As Howard Gardener establisheded there are many different types of learners and intelligences that individuals utilize to process information. All educators can benefit from practicing alternative methods and a diverse range of activities in order to successfully transmit information to their students. Educators cannot expect that a one shot deal for a sexuality lesson will be effective at promoting behavior changes. The more opportunities or activities an educator can create for youth to process sexuality knowledge the better. However, in the same vain throwing too many lessons at students without purpose or intent could prove to be useless.

    In closing, props on the Transgender lesson plan! If you ever need more information, articles or video clips, especially for trans youth don't be afraid to ask. A few years back I did a TOT for transgender topics. I have a binder full of information and powerpoint presentation that I created for adolescents.

  9. Alison, great post! I think sometimes as educators we focus so much on our job and our goals that we forget to consider our audience has their own interests and goals. As you point out, it is important to be aware of our audience because if we are repeating information students already know or providing information they do not have the foundational knowledge or skills to understand, we are wasting everyone’s time.
    I appreciated Becca’s point of also being cognizant of knowing what students don’t know that they don’t know. To Gigi and Robin’s point of caution surrounding hurt feelings, I’d also like to point out that some students don’t feel comfortable to speak up in class. Speaking as a shy person, I can remember times when I didn’t know the instructor or other students and did not feel comfortable speaking up to share my interest. In the past, I really appreciated having the opportunity to write down what I wanted to learn about rather than having to share with the whole class (to Gigi’s point of fearing judgment/retribution for expressing an interest in a particular topic).
    Something else to consider is that sometimes when put on the spot it is difficult for people to think about what they’d really like to learn. Although it would be difficult in a single workshop situation, if a group met several times it could be beneficial to ask students in the first class what they’d like to learn and ask for their feedback in the second class so they have time to think it over. I think this principle is helpful to use throughout a lesson to continuously ensure that you and your students are on the same page.
    For my Community Partner project I found a lot of great research focusing specifically on adolescent and teen health clinics that advised clinics to utilize feedback from teens to understand service gaps and patient needs. These studies indicated that programs were most effective when they used teen input because the traditional medical model is restrictive and paternalistic in a way that this age group finds undesirable and has a tendency to rebel against. The studies promoted a “patient empowerment model” that relies on the opinions and motivations of teen patients in order to most effectively identify target areas of need and make effective changes in existing programs. I found this so interesting because much of this research can also be applied and related to teaching. I’ve listed the citations for the articles below.
    - Jiná

    Mandel, L.A. & Quazilbash, J. (2005). Youth voices as change agents: Moving beyond the medical model in school-based health center practice. Journal of School Health, 75 (7), 239-242.
    Pearrow, M.M., & Pollack, S. (2009). Youth empowerment in oppressive systems: Opportunities for school consultants. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 19, 45–60.
    Wong, N. T., Zimmerman, M.A., & Parker, E.A. (2010). A typology of youth participation and empowerment for child and adolescent health promotion. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 100–114.

  10. I often teach adults and the theories on which my lessons are based on are androgogy and experiential learning. Knowles’ (1984) theory of andragogy is based on four assumptions: that adults 1) need to know why they need to learn something and be involved in the planning, 2) need to learn experientially, 3) prefer problem-centered rather than content-oriented, and 4) learn best when the topic is of immediate value (Knowles, 1984). Experiential learning theory posits that learning is best achieved when the subject is relevant to the learner, that self-initiated learning is the most lasting, and that self-evaluation is essential for assessing learning progress (Rogers & Freiberg, 1994). In both of these theories, the concept that learners have some input on their learning is central.

    In my practicum, I conducted a needs assessment and analyzed the results for a department I've been teaching for. Since then, I have been facilitating stand-alone education sessions based on the results of that needs assessment. However, I still try to start out my lessons by asking my audience (medical providers) to give me feedback on what aspects of the topic will be most useful to their clinical practice. I also think that handing out cards or having a brainstorming session in the beginning of a lesson - even if it is a stand-alone lesson - can really help to make the content more relevant and the learners feel more invested.