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01.12.2018 | Debate | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2018

Ethical underpinnings for the development of health literacy in schools: ethical premises (‘why’), orientations (‘what’) and tone (‘how’)

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2018
Leena Paakkari, Shanti George



Schools are seen as crucial environments to influence and develop the health literacy of new generations, but without sufficient reflection on the ethical underpinnings of intentions and interventions around health literacy. In contrast, we argue here that ethics are fundamental to all education. The article adopts a ‘One world’ approach that generalizes broadly across the so-called Global North and Global South. It also generalizes across various age groups among school pupils, advocating age appropriate application of the arguments advanced.

Main text

Our analysis examines why health literacy should be promoted in schools and argues that the purpose should embrace the values of social justice and should not stop at individual and national cost benefit analysis. Discussion about the orientation of health literacy highlights meta-cognitive skills around critical thinking, self-awareness and citizenship rather than lists of practical skills. Finally, approaches to health literacy in classrooms are presented with an ethical tone that draws attention to the power relations responsible for health inequities and that does not assume that such power relations are the given framework for health literacy interventions and activities. These arguments are reinforced by urging that related debates address dynamic social realities such as international migration.


We reiterate the need for ethical questions to be consciously and systematically addressed from early on, beginning with intentions to promote health literacy even before these intentions are translated into action, within the political space where education meets public health and health promotion. We underline again the context of fluidity and dynamism, as new challenges emerge within pedagogies and curricula, especially in response to changing populations in the society around.
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