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Conversation leads to understanding: influence of peer-educators on thoughts about LHBT persons

A peer educator intervention can give pupils more knowledge and awareness about their LGBT peers, and sometimes also a more positeve view. This is the subject of Marieke Kroneman's dissertation. Defence on 15 September.

Unfortunately not many Dutch schools integrate programs for discussing the topic of sexual and gender diversity in the curriculum. The Dutch Inspectorate of Education wrote a critical report in 2016 on the lack of structural attention to the theme of sexual and gender diversity and wrote another report in 2020 on how schools deal with morally controversial topics, such as sexual diversity, in civic education. In the meantime, articles are regularly published in serious media about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth who, in the best case, struggle and, in the worst case, are thwarted at school from openly speaking out about their sexual orientation and gender identity.

Citizenship education

In 2021, the Dutch parliament has tightened the requirements of citizenship education to ensure it becomes less non-committal. As a result, schools are now obliged to promote citizenship among their students (and not only to increase their knowledge about it), and citizenship education must deal with the themes of tolerance, equality and the rejection of discrimination, including discrimination of LGBT persons.

Peer Education as an opportunity for practicing respect for sexual and gender diversity

Peer educator intervention

Kroneman's dissertation’s general aim is to investigate how a peer educator intervention can promote social acceptance of LGBT in pre-vocational education and whether the activities in this intervention ensure that students learn to deal respectfully with LGBT people in school. During the peer educator intervention a variety of activities was carried out in a participatory style by adolescents who stand close to the target group because of their social status and background and who were therefore expected to be credible sources of information for the target group to achieve a positive change in their attitude towards LGBT.

'I just think they should know for themselves'

Kroneman expected to find a positive change in social acceptance of LGB peers and an increase in reflection about citizenship. But there were only limited and marginal effects in the outcome studies measuring the impact on attitudes towards sexual and gender diversity, class climate for LGB peers, attitudes towards the possibility of disclosing a non-heterosexual orientation in school and awareness of the relationship between reflections on citizenship and attitudes toward LGB people.

In contrast, the process evaluation with the pupilsshowed that they experienced impact related to gaining more knowledge, more awareness of LGBT in their environment and that their attitudes towards LGBT had sometimes become more positive. Pupils liked the lessons because they provided them new and lifelike information with the personal stories of the peer educators. For example, a male student said: 'I, um, actually thought it was weird. Now, yes, I don't know. I just think they should know for themselves'. Active teaching methods, the opportunity to express their opinion and an open atmosphere were also mentioned by the pupils as positive.

'Present a different image'

In the process evaluation with peer educators, is was found that they used their personal (coming out) stories, open discussions and several interactive activities to convey their message and encourage students to form an opinion. This also allowed them to create an open atmosphere where everything could be asked and every opinion could be shared. A female bisexual peer educator explained: 'Don’t say "You have to think this or that!". Don’t try to deny what the student thinks but present a different image.'

Respect for differences

Peer education about sexual and gender diversity offers students the opportunity to practice their citizenship skills while at the same time having input as fellow citizens about social acceptance of sexual and gender diversity. Students practice ways of deliberating about how people can live together when they have different views and learn about the several perspectives on that topic. However, because there was apparently no impact of a peer educator intervention on attitudes toward LGBT people and on perceptions of citizenship, a process evaluation of what students think about the connection between citizenship and social acceptance of LGBT people is necessary.

Furthermore, through contact and discussions, students became aware that other people have the same need for belonging and respect as they do. However, citizenship education not only concerns how people have similar needs: it also emphasizes the respect for differences between citizens. This implies that peer educators should not only emphasize similarities but also differences between heterosexual and LGBT people.

Thrilling stories

Last but not least, coming-out stories should become part of the standard repertoire of (read) stories in kindergarten, primary and secondary schools because personal coming-out stories make it very easy to gain empathy and understanding how people become who they are. Pupils can concentrate very well on coming-out stories for their personal touch, thrilling story line and eventually happy ending. Teachers and other educators and co-educators should be encouraged to tell these stories because they enrich children’s knowledge.

Research method

in two outcome studies and two process studies that were carried out at five schools, Kroneman investigated how a peer educator intervention can promote social acceptance of LGBT in pre-vocational education and whether the activities in this intervention ensure that students learn to respectfully deal with LGBT people in school.

Kroneman trained students of universities of applied sciences to become peer educators. The students implemented a series of five lessons. Before the lessons and after the lessons students that participated in the pre-vocational schools administered a questionnaire about their attitude towards lesbian, gay and bisexual peers. Also at two schools pre-test and posttest questionnaires were administered measuring  reflection about citizenship. In the process evaluations interviews were held with peer educators who implemented the lessons and with students of pre-vocational schools who participated in the lessons.

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