Progressivism (AKA Pragmatism) in Sexuality Education

What is Progressivism?pragmatism

Progressivism (aka Pragmatism) is an education philosophy established in America in the early twentieth century, the key proponents of which were Williams James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and American John Dewey.  John Dewey believed that school should improve the lives of both students and the citizens within the local community through a focus on a democratic learning process.

How is a Progressive Curriculum Developed?

The teacher develops curriculum based upon the interests and questions of the students.  The objective of which is to provide students with real life experience that is directly applicable within their daily lives.  Curriculum should vary depending upon various student sociodemographics and include activities that are active, such as role-playing effective communication in negotiating sexual behavior, writing a list of places within the local community to obtain free condoms, and collaborative problem solving in helping a friend to develop safer sex practices.  Learning should be encouraged both inside and outside of the classroom.

What is the Role of the Progressive Teacher?

The teacher creates an active classroom environment in which the students learn through real life experience.  The teacher makes suggestions of problems or real life situations to stimulate students to find their own solutions.  The teacher acts as a facilitator or guide to encourage students to take an active role in their learning.

What is the Role of the Progressive Student?

The student is an active learner in the classroom and participates not only in the learning process but also in the development of what is to be learned.  The learner utilizes his or her own personal experiences to make the material more relevant to their own situation and need for problem solving.  Students are responsible to share their own interests and questions in order to contribute to what is ideally a democratic process of curriculum development.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Progressive Approach

The greatest strength of this approach is that students are actively and directly practicing the acquired skills and information, which better prepares them for real life challenges related to sexuality, intimacy, and gender identity issues.  Students learn how to make learning applicable to their real lives and therefore can, in theory, more easily translate what is learned inside the classroom to their lives outside in the greater community. 

A potential weakness of such approach is that the defining of relevant concerns to students is still in the subjective hands of the teacher.  Therefore, the teacher may identify problems that he or she thinks are relevant to the students but may actually not be identified as such by the students.  Additionally, practical application of some sexually based scenarios is difficult to adapt to a classroom setting due to potential physical and ethical limits.  For example, the most progressive manner to teach about masturbation would be to have students masturbate in the classroom as the teacher demonstrates such activity, but this is often frowned upon by many educational institutions.

Additional Readings on Progressivism:

Progressivism in Sexuality Education: Example Lesson Plans

Make Your Voice Heard!

  • By Advocates for Youth
  • Purpose: To learn to choose the most appropriate communication style (assertive, aggressive, and passive) when confronting homophobia and transphobia

Negotiating Sexual Risk Reduction

  • By Advocates for Youth
  • Purpose: To practice communicating comfortably and effectively about sexual risk reduction

Condom Hunt

  • By Advocates for Youth
  • Purpose: To identify places to buy condoms and to become more comfortable obtaining them

Sex on TV: Teens and Parents Talk


  • By The Center for Family Life Education
  • Purpose: To develop skills to become a friend who can help others better avoid risky sexual behaviors, such as contracting a sexually transmitted infection and/or becoming pregnant unintentionally.  Note: This lesson plan would be even more pragmatic if the teacher asked for anonymous examples of times when sexuality issues arose among friends of individuals within the classroom and then used those examples for role-playing.

Delaying Tactics

Discussion of Ideological Dilemmas within Progressive Sexuality Education

Topic 1: Teaching Masturbation

Masturbation is a normal and healthy aspect of being a sexual person, but our culture sometimes labels it as a deviant or perverted behavior, especially for women.  The topic of masturbation is most often seen as a very private topic and most people are taught not to address such a subject with others.  Masturbation is fundamental for learning how to take control of our own pleasure in safe, healthy, and fulfilling ways, but this topic is so often neglected in sexuality education due to multiple ideological and philosophical challenges:

  • A teacher discussing the mechanics of masturbation might have concerns of being labeled or accused of being a pervert or even a child molester
  • Teaching masturbation techniques in a practical manner in which students can actively participate is impossible due to most education ethical guidelines
  • Because students are taught from a young age not to publically discuss masturbation, students are not likely to identify masturbation as a topic that should be addressed
  • Many times the focus of traditional sexuality education is sex negative and there is a lack of focus on pleasure, therefore masturbation is often a neglected subject
  • Teaching of masturbation may be linked to a promoting of it and other sexual behaviors, including penile-vaginal intercourse, because both are related to genital stimulation and pleasure
  • Various religious and spiritual ideologies have differing opinions on the act of masturbation and it is challenging to acknowledge and address all of these when teaching about this behavior
  • If the teacher views physical expressions of sexuality as socially harmful, he or she may opt to teach that repressing such drives or avoiding such behaviors is the most practical or pragmatic route

Topic 2: Teaching Alternative Love-Styles

            While the discussion of homosexuality is becoming more prevalent in some sexuality education curricula, the discussion of relationships other than a dyad is almost always neglected.  Romantic physical and/or emotional connections to others outside of this dyad are assumed to be deviant and both men and women, but particularly women, who engage in extra-dyadic relationships, are labeled as sluts.  Because the dyad is assumed as normal and/or morally correct, those who engage in alternative relationships or lifestyles, such as polyandry, polygyny, polyamory, polygamy, open marriages, etc. are assumed to be promiscuous, selfish, and/or non-committal.  Therefore, this discussion is so often neglected in sexuality education due to multiple ideological and philosophical challenges:

  • The concept of the dyad being the only right relationship style is so engrained in us from the beginning that teaching about alternative love-styles would most likely bring a lot of negative attention upon the teacher
  • Such teachings might put the teacher’s personal and professional lives at risk
  • Various religious and spiritual ideologies have differing opinions on alternative love-styles and it is challenging to acknowledge and address all of these when teaching this subject
  • Pragmatically speaking, students may be struggling with parents who are having marital discord due to perceived infidelity and this subject might be a very sensitive and difficult one for such students
  • If the teacher and/or community-at-large view non-traditional relationships as socially undesirable, then the teacher would choose to teach that such love-styles are inherently problematic in order to make them less desirable for students from a practical or pragmatic standpoint

By Stephanie Chando and Lorena Olvera Moreno

5 responses to “Progressivism (AKA Pragmatism) in Sexuality Education

  1. Great post. I really like the links and examples you included, which gives me a better idea of how this philosophy is used. Progressivism sounds much like my preferred teaching model. I guess I didn’t have the word for it, but I really like apply the real world to the classroom especially when working with adolescents, because it helps make the concepts more concrete. Thanks for your post!

  2. Lorena, great job with such an in depth description of pragmatism! I loved all of the lesson plan links as well. I also really liked how you talked about the educator’s personal views as being a potential weakness with pragmatism. I hadn’t really thought about that in depth. While consciously, I know there are certain things as an educator that might make me uncomfortable, I also know that keeping my personal feelings out of some topics is important. I hadn’t really thought about possible unconscious biases coming up during a lesson and that’s really what this made me reflect on.

  3. Progressivism sounds more like idealism. While this my ideal way of learning, it brings into play the socio-economic status that one must have in order to send their child to a school that would provide all this; while challenging students to do more.
    It serves as a further reminder to the investment that are being placed on youth.

  4. Pingback: Experimentalism | Teaching Sex Ed·

  5. Lorena, this was very detailed. I especially enjoyed the examples of how a progessivist would teach the topic of masturbation and alternative love styles. Your post allowed me to actually see the classroom model. I like the idea of an active classroom, but this does sound like an idealists perspective as Jessi was saying. Either way, i would love to adopt some of these practices in my classroom if this society learned to be a bit more progressive.

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