My Ph.D. is in Educational Psychology.  My time in graduate school was relatively evenly split between researching, reading, and talking about (1) how teenagers grow and develop, particularly around issues of sex and sexuality, and (2) how people learn, and how to support their learning in the most effective ways possible.  This prepared me pretty well to be a sexuality educator.

One of the parents in one of my middle school sex ed classes recently commented on a post from last week.  The parent points out that one of my students left class with a mis-informed understanding of HIV/AIDS.  Going back over the class in my mind, I can pin-point almost exactly how and when this student (who remains anonymous in the comment, but I know who it is) integrated the mis-information into his/her cognitive structures.

(This sort of thing is fascinating to me!  I guess I’m just a learning geek.)

Here’s what happened:

We were talking about STDs.  The students brainstormed all the STDs they could think of, and I wrote them on our make-shift board as they brainstormed.  They each had an empty grid to fill out along with me.  After naming the STDs, we went through each one, listing the symptoms (far too often there are none!), the permanent damage that can be done to the body if left untreated, whether there is a cure or not, and how it is contracted (oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, and whether condoms prevent the transmission or not).

Now, when looking at how people learn, it is clear that students need to think concretely about their mental models of ideas and concepts (i.e., name their ideas or list them out) before they are able to hear the correct information and change their mental models.  If a student holds an incorrect mental model, but hasn’t acknowledged that model clearly, hearing or reading correct information generally just distorts their mental models even more, rather than correcting them.  However, if they are clearly aware of what their ideas are, when they are presented with the correct information, they are far more likely to actually change that incorrect model to the correct one.

This reality of best practices education, combined with the realities of a classroom where students tune in and out while they take notes, get distracted by another student, get a drink of water, and otherwise put their attention in so many other places (which is just a reality of learning – no person can keep their attention steady for an hour or more!), means that one student can hear another student say incorrect information when they brainstorming their initial understanding, and then miss the instructor’s correction.  This is what happened the other day with this particular student’s understanding of HIV/AIDS.

And this clear misunderstanding on the part of this one student is why it is critical that classrooms go over material more than once.  And it is also why, with a topic as critical to the healthy physical and emotional development of the human being as sex education is, students need to take more than one class.  Sex education needs to be done over and over again, and within each class, the really important information needs to be repeated over and over again.  This does not mean that the classes are being done poorly, or that students are not paying attention, rather it is the appropriate and necessary educational response to how people learn.

I will be going over HIV/AIDS again – with some good interaction, activities, movement, and anything else I feel will support the knowledge – next class.  I expect the students to learn more this time, but not to take in everything I give them.  This is simply the reality of the teacher.

Because of this reality, I encourage parents to have their kids in an intense year-long sex education program in middle school and then again in high school.  They can either provide this education themselves (along with on-going, continuous conversation before, between, and after the classes!), or they can make sure their children get the classes somewhere else (again, along side continuous conversation at home).  Sex education is just too important to do anything less.