The fifth session of the Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Adults seven-month course begins with the following activity: attendees bring their two hands together and pay close attention to any and all sensations. They may ask themselves the following questions: Which areas are moist or dry? Calloused or smooth? Hot or cold?
Now take a few moments to reflect on how this felt to you. Was it pleasurable? Awkward? Did it make you happy? Sad? All of the above? What memories or desires did this bring up for you?
Now take a few moments to connect your reflection to a larger concept about human sexuality. What could your experience indicate about the nature of a sexual being? Of sensuality? Of masturbation? Of skin hunger?
This form of classroom activity is known as experiential learning: A process in which learners may have a concrete experience, make observations and reflections about that experience, distill abstract concepts, and repeat (Kolb, 1999). Whether or not the learner begins with a concrete experience is irrelevant to the theory. But in sexuality education, beginning a lesson with a relevant (and age-appropriate) experiential activity broadens the categories of learning and teaches a skill.
Categories of learning
The above activity combines a physical action with an emotional reflection and a thoughtful extrapolation. This trifecta of learning categories – psychomotor, affective, and cognitive, respectively – corresponds to the three categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. An experiential activity allows students to absorb information in multiples ways simultaneously.
As a dance teacher, I cannot merely demonstrate a step, describe a step, explain the nuances of a step, or recite the history of the step if the ultimate goal is to get students to dance. I must instead work closely with students on all levels: impart cognitive information, negotiate with their emotional barriers, physically guide them through a new dance move, and repeat over and over until they get it.
So, how does this tie into to human sexuality?
Experiential learning activities challenge students to deeply and thoroughly encode that lesson’s focus, discover something about oneself, and acknowledge human sexual diversity. For example, a quiz following a lecture on skin hunger only tests a student’s cognitive understanding of skin hunger. An experiential learning activity, like the one above, challenges students to encode “skin hunger” on an affective and psychomotor scale, discover their relationship to skin hunger, and hear about differing relationships to skin hunger in a non-judgemental format. These activities convey more than information: they teach skills that can stick with us for the rest of our lives.
Teaches a skill
Try on the idea that every sex ed class is fundamentally a life-skills class. As human sexuality is an interdisciplinary field, and sexuality informs how people engage in the world, sex education would benefit from addressing the how as well as the what of sex.
For example, the ultimate goal of a sex ed lesson plan on the topic of body language could be to cultivate the student’s ability to read body language. The what of the lesson could be the definition of body language and naming the most expressive parts of the body, which could perhaps be useful in a psychology course. In a high-school sex ed course, this information is wasted unless educators incorporate how to read body language effectively. A lesson plan with an appropriate skills-based activity gives students something to apply directly to their lives.
In the world of adult sexuality education, experiential learning is all the rage. From local classes on sexual techniques to major international organizations, adults are signing up to have experiences, not to only absorb cognitive data. The popular Body Electric School markets itself based on the “unique experience” its workshops provide. Adult students want information coupled with practice experience.
When lesson-planning for adults, it may be easier to incorporate experiential learning than when lesson-planning for high-school students or younger. Legal regulations, school policies, and general anxiety about comprehensive sexuality education for young people has stifled mere dialogue about sex, let alone sexuality-related classroom activities. Educators must get creative as to how to incorporate experiential learning into sex ed curricula.
Kolb, D.A., Boyatzis, R.E., & Mainemelis, C. (1999). Experiential learning theory: previous research and new directions. In R.J. Sternberg & L. Zhang (Eds.) Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles. The educational psychology series (pp. 227-247). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.