Experimentalism is another form of progressivism (pragmatism). Grounded in the work of American philosopher John Dewey, experimentalism touts that learning should be done through problem solving, that education should be related to the interests of the student, and that students should be taught how to think and make conclusions based on evidence so they can best adapt to the needs of an ever-changing world.
Dewey described his main basis for all education as the
reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experiences.
In other words, Dewey is saying that one must learn from their experiences and mistakes, so they can make informed decisions down the road so that they do not repeat these mistakes. Therefore, the process of learning is lifelong, as we continue to experience things and learn from them.
Given that the basis for Dewey’s philosophy is focused on social reform, this philosophy of learning makes sense, as it contextualizes problems into opportunities for learning and growth. Such knowledge is conceptualized by the changes in ones behavior, rather than the knowledge in ones mind. For example, one could know that having penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex without contraceptive protection increases their likelihood of becoming pregnant. This knowledge can be understood as knowledge in ones actions (one understands the risk and acts accordingly) – which is experimentalist, or as mindful knowledge, where one understands the risk but chooses to engage in such behavior anyway. In other words, students are not being taught what to think, but how to think. Therefore, there are not absolute truths (contrary to perennialism), as all truths are constantly being re-examined and evaluated based on individual experience and reality. This is very similar to the process of the scientific method.
What does a Experimentalist classroom look like?
- The instructor facilitates the lesson, rather than lecture
- Students are actively involved in the execution of the lesson
- Learning is done through a process of inquiry and discovery
- Lessons are tailored to the interests of the student
- Collaboration and cooperation are encouraged
- All “truths” are held up to ongoing inspection (counter to perennialism where truths are absolute).
- Responsive to existing conditions as well as changes in conditions, enabling students to adapt to an ever-changing society
- Teaches reflective thinking and inquiry skills, giving students the opportunity to draw their own conclusions after gathering all available evidence
- Encourages peer learning and provides exposure to different viewpoints
- Can be applicable for all types of learners
- Lack of structure can be frustrating for both the student and the instructor
- Emphasis on group collaboration can be alienating to those who prefer to work alone
- Can be limiting in teaching foundational knowledge
- May be best suited for social subjects
Application to sexuality education
Experimentalism would most successfully be applied in sexuality lessons where the foundations (reproductive anatomy, birth control methods, and STIs) have already been taught so students can apply these foundations to their own experience (so later in the curriculum or with late middle school/high school/college if in a school setting, but could also be used in workshops teaching adults), or where in lessons where students utilize and share their own lived experience. Lessons on consent, sex/gender, communication, healthy relationships, media literacy, and more are all examples of lessons that could strive in a experimentalist classroom.
For example, a lesson on media literacy could have various advertisements placed around the classroom and ask students to stand next to the ad they like the most. Within the groups, students are to brainstorm things they like about the ad and then share with the rest of the class. Students then are to brainstorm things they do not like the ad and again share with the rest of the class. This lesson could be used to discuss and process how race, gender, sex, violence, and various other things are represented in media, and could be tailored according the the goals and objectives of the specific lesson.
Another example could be a lesson on birth control, providing students with various scenarios and them having to find the best birth control method for each. Though this method would rely on foundational knowledge on the different types of birth control methods, it would illustrate decision-making when it comes to choosing a birth control method, and would provide students with another context to understand the different methods of birth control, making it relevant to their experience.
Lesson plan example – Intimately Speaking
- Define intimacy.
- Evaluate a variety of behaviors for degree of intimacy expressed.
- Examine the “Triangular Theory of Love” for changes in characteristics as people age.
- Identify common barriers to communication and intimacy.
- Utilize Transactional Analysis as a strategy for overcoming communication barriers to intimacy.
We are surrounded by a plethora of advertisements and images promoting “better sex for a lifetime,” but most focus on physical prowess and neglect what may be the most important component of sexuality, intimacy. Intimacy happens when two people truly connect with each other, listen to each other, understand and support each other. The barriers to this intimate connecting are many. This lesson promotes discussion of the issues and encourages exploration of ways to overcome the barriers to intimacy by learning to communicate honestly with a partner.