What is different about the world our current teenagers are growing up in, compared to the one you did?
This was the question posed by The Rite Journey leader, Ben Squire, to Year 9 students and their families on a recent balmy Australian evening amongst the gum trees of Belair National Park.
No doubt your own answers to this question have popped into your mind, as advancements in technology, social movements, and major global events have had a rapid effect on our education system, even for those who haven’t been out of school for very long. When I reflect on this question, I also consider my role as a teacher in keeping up with these changes.
As the Head of Health & Personal Development, I am highly conscious of the ever-evolving needs of our young people.
I’m often thinking on the question of how we ensure every student gets the accurate, accessible, and engaging information they need to make informed and thoughtful decisions.
Some research into the history of Health curriculum shows that from the 1910s to the 1950s, information was largely delivered as “Health instructions”: a series of directives that were believed to contribute to a healthier lifestyle. The focus from the 1950s to the 1980s was primarily biological sexuality and nutrition, and it wasn’t until a series of interventions in the late eighties that the concept of more holistic health promotion began to be introduced.
Major world events and social progress has always had an impact on Health education. Until the abolishment of the White Australia Policy, instruction on relationships unfortunately had messaging around racial segregation. The AIDS outbreak of the 1980s led to increased instruction on the practice of safe sex. It is our duty as teachers to be aware of the way the world is changing, and be able to respond appropriately.
One area where you can see society’s attitudes changing is the way we talk about our bodies.
I am in awe of the way young people have become increasingly aware of the unrealistic expectations and double standards portrayed in the media of the way they are supposed to look. Movements that support body positivity, and the idea of being healthy at any size, continue to grow traction. Information about the limitations and inaccuracy of tools like the Body Mass Index (BMI) is becoming more public.
Along with this greater understanding, has come the knowledge that the way we have discussed issues in the space has not always been helpful.
For too many years, it seemed to be considered common knowledge that you could tell how healthy someone was by how they looked. Students may have been asked to keep food diaries, or record their weight and other measurements. What we now understand, is that these kinds of activities are at best, unhelpful, and at worst, actively harmful.
We need to do better.
It is estimated that 1 in 3 young people are dissatisfied with their bodies.
In the 2022 Mission Australia Youth Survey, in which our students participated, 34.5% respondents were extremely or very concerned about body image.
The number of people in Australia with an eating disorder at any given time is estimated to be around 1 million, or approximately 4% of the population (Deloitte Access Economics, 2015).
The results of these surveys give cause for significant concern, and shows this is an area where Health education needs to be doing its utmost.
Taryn Brumfitt, the director of the documentary Embrace, and an advocate for body positivity, was recently awarded the Australian of the Year. In her speech, she said that no one is born hating their bodies. It is something that we learn through the media we consume, the people we spend time with, and the society in which we live.
As much progress as we’ve made in this space, the world is often a harder place for those who do not meet certain arbitrary standards.
This could involve not being able to find clothes that fit, being unable to access particular buildings, or bullying.
A study in 2015 by Uconn found that in the United States, Canada, Iceland and Australia, body size was perceived to be the most prevalent reason that children are bullied.
We – myself and the entire Health and Personal Development department at St John’s Grammar – are dedicated to ensuring the ways we educate and discuss our bodies, our food and our habits, are based on the latest evidence on what is helpful. It is easy to rest on what we consider ‘common knowledge’, or the information we ourselves grew up with. But as the world changes, what we teach our students must change with it.
Ben Squire asked the question about how schooling has changed at our Calling and Departure ceremony, the official opening to our Rite Journey program here at St John’s. The Rite Journey is a signature experience for our students, as we formally acknowledge the unique stage their lives are at, teetering on the cusp of childhood to adulthood.
Our involvement with The Rite Journey is indicative of our desire at St John’s Grammar to not just meet students’ academic needs, but meet their personal and developmental needs as well. We don’t just care about their final results; we care about the people they are growing into.
I can’t help but imagine our current Year 9 students being posed that same question when they are parents. My greatest hope is that they can reflect on being taught in a way that saw them as a complete person. That they were talked to about health in individual terms, and not according to a set of outdated and unscientific assumptions. That they were taught to embrace themselves, as Taryn Brumfitt says, and not find new reasons to find flaws in how they are. These are concepts that will not feel obsolete in decades to come.
I don’t expect us to get it right all the time. We all have more to learn, and the world is not going to stop changing. We just need to change with it, and keep our focus on what gives our kids the best shot at being compassionate, healthy, and happy adults.
Head of Health & Personal Development