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Considerations for learning about the socio-ecological perspective and health promotion at levels 6–8 of the curriculum

Health education

Students who study health education at senior secondary levels are expected to achieve a high level of "health literacy" (Ubbes, Black, and Ausherman, 1999; Nutbeam, 2000). A health-literate person can be defined as an independent learner able to think for themselves, solve problems, and make informed decisions in order to promote and maintain health for themselves, others, and society.

In order to help students to achieve the goal of health literacy, it is important for health education teachers to understand the ways in which some key processes in health education are interrelated and interdependent. Such processes can involve:

  • development of resilience
  • development of empathy
  • use of the socio-ecological perspective
  • participation in health promotion processes.

At the personal level, the development of resilience (see 'Building resilience through health promotion' and Appendix - Resilience) is integral to the development of health literacy. All students need opportunities to strengthen their resilience. Everyone experiences difficult times in their lives and, when they have had opportunities to learn ways to support themselves and others, students' chances of responding positively to these challenges are greatly enhanced. Engaging in health promotion activities will help young people to feel connected, help them to develop a sense of belonging, and strengthen their sense of identity, their feelings of self-worth, and their self-efficacy.

At an interpersonal level, the development of empathy is essential to relationship building. Empathy can be described as the ability to understand another's feelings, thoughts, and experiences – to put oneself in the position of the other within a particular context. In order to act on the values of the curriculum, students need to develop empathy, which can provide the motivation to engage in health promotion.

Students extend their emotional literacy when they build their ability to empathise, because understanding the interrelationships between our emotions and our cognitive processes is central to understanding how we connect with other people and the wider society (Oatley, 1999). For example, students who empathise with those in marginalised groups can see the need to address social justice issues, such as discrimination, stereotyping, and 'victim blaming'. Empathy underlies many aspects of moral judgment and related actions and has been linked to socially competent behaviour (Nussbaum, 2001; Goleman, 1995). The development of empathy also fosters resilience.

At a broader community or societal level, students need to be able to think critically about determinants of health in relation to the health issues they study if they are to develop as health-literate citizens who are able to take action to enhance health for themselves and others. (See Appendix - Determinants of health.) When students adopt a socio-ecological perspective, they see the health of individuals, groups, and society as part of a broad social and economic framework. The more holistic a person's view of health becomes, the more they realise that their vision for health must include factors outside their own lives (Kawachi, quoted in Andrew, 2001). By actually taking part in group health promotion initiatives , students can develop into health-literate people and help to build a health-literate society.

The learning contexts suggested in Health and Physical Education in the New Zealand Curriculum (1999) (within the key areas of learning of mental health, sexuality education, and food and nutrition) provide a comprehensive range of opportunities for developing health literacy.

Diagram: Working towards health-literate people and a health-literate society

This diagram shows links between key processes of health education and attitudes and values needed for health literacy.

Physical education
Home economics