Jan. 13, 2017

Human experience in health education

Werklund School academics and students explore whether new health program truly connects to holistic wellness

With a new design of Alberta Education’s K-12 Health and CALM (Career and Life Management) program of studies in the works, understanding the changes in the philosophy and practice implicated in the new approach is essential to transforming teaching. The new curriculum is intended to align the health education program with a more holistic approach to wellbeing. With the support of her supervisor Dr. Dianne Gereluk, Werklund PURE award winner Erica Kunimoto aimed to analyze these claims. Through the applied philosophy of Martha Nussbaum, Erica investigated whether or not the province’s new curriculum and policy documents have responded sufficiently to these more holistic accounts of wellness.

A New Approach?

Changes in the language of the curriculum are particularly important to framing the philosophical underpinnings and practical application of the new documents. According to Erica’s analysis, while the new documents make use of some language that connects with a more compassionate and holistic approach, the text still resonates with a more clinical style.

Drawing upon Nussbaum’s philosophy, Erica found that promoting language related to “embracing,” “exploring,” “valuing,” and “appreciating” the body and emotions is critical to helping students appreciate themselves as a whole. Centering a ‘human’ experience foremost in the wellness framework can help students avoid feeling shamed or reticent about their emotions and their bodies. Changing how students conceptualize and think about themselves, and shifting to a more positive and open approach, is deeply connected to Nussbaum’s concepts.

As with most topics related to personal values, health education also includes controversial topics, such as human sexuality, that teachers must navigate with sensitivity. Erica’s analysis found there is still a lack of guidance for teachers in engaging these topics. Erica hopes other documents will provide supports for developing an approach to these ideas that is relatable and engaging for students, reducing the stigma associated with these often-avoided topics.

Wellness in the Arts

Erica’s analysis also found support for using the arts and the humanities to foster a holistic conception of health, wellness, and the emotional development of students. Through these disciplines, students can participate in tasks which may provide meaningful ways for them to engage with the embodied experience of wellbeing. The arts play a central role in Nussbaum’s philosophy – helping students to understand to their own experience, and recognize the importance of compassion in relating to themselves, as well as others, on a human level. Erica plans to use the knowledge she’s gained through her PURE award research to cultivate a compassionate and caring classroom for her future students.