I often think of sexuality education as a critical space for provoking social change. A comprehensive sexuality curriculum designed for younger folks typically emphasizes lesson plans on healthy relationships and interpersonal skills. In these classrooms, learners work on not only understanding but also practicing communication and respect. If a large part of sexuality education is to improve the ways we relate and interact with one another (and considering so many of the problems in the world are rooted in the way we perceive and treat each other), then the classroom can be a powerful tool for social change. While there are several instructional models that can be used to create a democratic learning environment, I would like to highlight cooperative learning as an example.
What is cooperative learning?
Cooperative learning is not necessarily the same thing as group work, although group work can be cooperative. So, what makes learning a “cooperative” effort?
“Most researchers agree that groups are cooperative when there is a common or closely related set of goals, equal distribution of labor in meeting the goals, and close contact as the goals are being pursued. Face-to-face interdependence and individual accountability are such as the hallmarks of cooperative learning.” (Estes, Mintz, & Gunter, 2011, p. 259).
So, how can an instructional model be useful from a social change or social justice perspective? The way I see it, a classroom can serve as a microcosm for the society we want to build outside the learning environment. This is especially true for sexuality education because so much of society at large is structured around aspects of human sexuality.
Unlike individual learning – which is largely competitive in nature – cooperative learning encourages students to share skills, resources, and ideas. They learn not only basic skills in communication but also negotiation, shared decision-making, and sometimes even conflict resolution. For students working collaboratively, notions of personal responsibility and accountability reach beyond concerns of grades. Instead, students must consider the needs of the entire group while striving to complete a given task. Estes, Mintz, & Gunter (2011) compare the passivity of a traditional classroom with a classroom that incorporates cooperative learning: “students listen, write, tell, paraphrase, read, assist others, and interact” (p. 275). In other words, learners are practicing critical thinking and interpersonal skills. This type of collaborative effort provides an environment in which students learn from each other and ultimately have the ability to learn more about themselves. Engaged, socially effective, and self-actualized students will make for more well-rounded participants in workplaces and in the world at large.
bell hooks (1994) argues that “as a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence” (p. 8). Basically, cooperative education has the power to not only create more effective people but also build a more cohesive momentum for learning. Imagine if the only perspective you learned about all day was your instructor’s. Not very exciting, right? As part of her articulation of an engaged pedagogy (influenced largely by Paulo Freire), hooks implies that this shared sense of excitement is critical for not only the students but also the teacher, who can also learn from the stories and perspectives of students.
My most memorable class to this day utilized cooperative learning in ways that were unimaginable to me before I walked into that classroom. It was my first year of college at a tiny liberal arts school. I enrolled in a fifteen-credit course that examined American identities through three different academic lenses: anthropology, literature, and documentary photography. Three professors, one from each discipline, co-taught the course. While as students we often broke into groups and worked cooperatively, we also had the model of our professors who were working together to reach a common goal and who were learning from each other in the process. While I did not appreciate it as much as an eighteen year old as I do now, this learning environment was both radicalizing and life-changing for me. I argue that through interpersonal skill-building and momentum-building, a greater emphasis on thoughtfully planned cooperative education can transform the ways we work together as people.
“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students” (hooks, 1994, p. 13).
Cooperative education in a sexuality classroom
Cooperative learning is clearly a vital component of instruction. It can be challenging, however, to effectively piece it into sexuality education. In the United States traditional classrooms are largely individualistic, and students often groan at the mention of group work. Especially in this context, I suggest activities that are lively, interactive, and generally fun. For instance, asking students to walk around the room and use colorful markers for a graffiti wall activity can energize the classroom. Learners can use this activity to brainstorm lists surrounding a wide range of topics such as aspects of the circles of sexuality or information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Role-playing is another example of a cooperative learning activity. Students might break into pairs or small groups to practice negotiating barrier use or navigating verbal consent, followed by reflecting on how this might feel to do with their partners. “Participation in dyads and triads help individuals feel included and can reduce performance anxiety,” which is crucial with sensitive topics (Hedgepeth & Helmich, 1996, p. 133). Incorporating this type of skill-building empowers learners to be healthier communicators not just sexually but in all aspects of their lives.
Estes, T., Mintz, S. & Gunter, M. (2011). Instruction: a models approach (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hedgepeth, E. & Helmich, J. (1996). Teaching about sexuality and HIV: principles and methods for effective education. New York, NY: New York University Press.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.