Researchers explore how health education is taught to students and educators across Canada

SSHRC-funded project will form foundations for a pan-Canadian strategy to make a positive impact through improved curriculum and instruction

When asked what they’d like their children to absorb in school, parents often point to topics taught in health education such as their children’s well-being, social connections and perceptions of cultural and gender identities. However, U of A education researchers Lauren Sulz and Hayley Morrison have determined that only two to eight per cent of all instructional time in Canadian classrooms is allotted to these subjects.

“If you talk to parents and ask what’s important for their children, they mention things that are taught through health education,” says Sulz. “Health education is not being advocated for and our school systems put more focus on other subjects."

"This shows us that there is a lack of understanding of what health education is.” 

Sulz, Morrison and their collaborators were recently awarded a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to fund a three-year project, the goal of which is not only to challenge misconceptions surrounding what health education is — such as the perception that physical education is its only element — but also foster a unified approach to how the subject is taught in K-12 schools across Canada.

“There is a lack of consistency and coherency of what health education looks like across Canada because education is regional and housed within provincial jurisdictions. We see a strong need for a strategy across Canada to ensure health education is meaningful and relevant for students,” says Sulz. 

“We see so much go towards the physical education side of health with little attention paid to the curriculum outcomes that support the whole person throughout life,” says Morrison. “Our schools need a holistic approach to health education that includes mental, social and emotional components as well.”

As part of this partnership grant, the researchers are working with organizations and community groups, such as Physical and Health Education Canada, Ever Active Schools, UAlberta’s Healthy Schools Lab and the Counsel of Provinces and Territories (COPT), whose members possess a deep knowledge of what’s happening in each province’s classrooms and can help inform the researchers on how to build the blueprints for this pan-Canadian strategy.

“We are excited to work alongside these groups and come together to strategize and figure out what needs to happen and then implement these strategies,” says Morrison. 

Sulz is also excited to see the impacts the results of this project will have beyond the classroom.

“Our passion lies in schools because it reaches all children and youth and, ultimately, influences society as a whole,” she says. “I think not advocating for health education is a missed opportunity of impacting the health of everyone.”

Beyond K-12 Education

In addition to delving into how health education is taught in K-12 classrooms, the researchers are also taking a look at how pre-service teachers who will ultimately teach this important subject are trained — and it’s apparent that the need for comprehensive education extends into post-secondary institutions. 

Sulz notes that many pre-service teachers graduate from their programs with little to no health education in their background, and a large part of the problem lies in what’s being offered to them while they attend university. 

“We have heard from students first-hand that they want health education topics taught to them with some depth and clear understanding, but that’s not happening,” she says. “More courses and professional development needs to be offered to both pre-service and in-service educators.”

Morrison adds that she’s also noticed a lack of understanding while teaching courses such as EDEL 345: Introduction to Health Education in Schools, which she co-taught with Sulz.

“Through redesigning the course and seeing the assignments our students were providing us, it sparked a connection that more definitely needs to be offered,” she says. “There was also a long waitlist for this course, illustrating its demand.”

“We have always had a passion for health education and a little frustration around it,” adds Sulz. “Our goal is to find out how we get the information that is needed to our society through both our educators and their curriculum.”

Feature image: Health and physical education researcher Lauren Sulz (photo: Laura Sou)