Existentialism: A Philosophy of Education

Every educator has their own set of beliefs; what works for them, what they believe is most effective in the classroom, what research has shown works, or perhaps all of the above. Educational philosophies run the gamut from things like essentialism, which is pretty self explanatory (students learn a set of basic subjects through a very disciplined, systematic way) to existentialism.

I, myself, have a bit of a love affair with existentialism. Sometimes I think that this is because in a classroom, traditionally one does not have as much autonomy or say in what one learns. As I had a traditional public school education, this was very much true for me. When I discovered existentialism, I felt a little bit like this:


Existentialism, the educational philosophy, has been developed from the philosophical philosophy (ha!) that is often considered to be founded by Soren Kierkegaard. However, existentialism really took off, if you will in the 1940′s and 50′s with Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, among others. Existentialism as a culture/philosophy states that mind and body are not the only two categories to define oneself.  Sartre was famous for his quote “Experience precedes essence.” This means that there is no general definition for what it means to be human. What is essential to being human cannot be defined by one’s type, but by their experiences, by what they make of themselves in life.

So, you’re probably thinking “What does all this philosophical stuff MEAN, Hillary? How do I apply it to education?” Well, let me explain then! Existentialist educational curriculum’s primary aim is to help learner’s develop their own values and to understand themselves within their own cultural context.  This educational philosophy focuses on an individual and their relationships, rather than a set system of study each day like science followed by math followed by English.  Choice and freedom are fundamental to the way existentialism works in a classroom.

Classroom discussion facilitation is also important. Relationships with peers and the ability to discuss learning is also critical. “But how is this practical, Hillary? What does it LOOK like in action?” Glad you asked! Educators provide students with opportunities to choose what they learn, to choose projects that interest them, and opportunities to teach others. Questions are used to illicit discussion such as: evaluative or hypothetical questions.

Existential classrooms might look a lot of different ways; some could be around a round conference table, an empty room, outside or mobile even! (Think museums, a farm, an orchard!) Ideal settings are places that put the educator and the learner on equal footing. The classroom could include artwork that would evoke a response, this helps students form their own values. In these classrooms, educators would have one on one interactions with students. The curriculum is at the student’s pace and experiential learning is very important.

Two sample lesson plans might include:

Body Concerns: allows learners to consider their own feelings about their bodies from a variety of perspectives. Emphasis of the activity is on learners’ own thoughts and responses.
The Culture Connection: Learners generate information about their own culture’s values and messages around sexuality. Students are free to decide for themselves what values they consider negative and what they consider positive.

Teaching Sexuality Education

When I talk to people about what I want to do for a living, they have A LOT of questions, naturally. Usually after the first twenty odd  questions which usually start with “So I have this problem…” we get to some really interesting discussion about sexuality education and how we were all taught sex ed in schools.

A lot of people remember the kind of sexuality education they had in school for a few different reasons. 1) It was traumatic and hardly forgettable. Think the gym teacher with a basketball under each arm talking about ovaries and flagella. Ha!  2) It was abstinence only based. 3) It was not what they considered practical/informative/fun.

Often times, I hear about what peoples’ sexuality education was NOT. Contrary to these stories, however, sexuality education can be fun, educational, and can leave a positive lasting impression. Our education is only as good as the techniques used to teach and that’s really what is so important when discussing sexuality with various student populations.

When teaching any subject matter, it’s important to consider your audience. Think about your students, what types of learners are they? Are some more tactile? Do some learn more from lecture style? Do some have to write notes out multiple times? Do activities solidify key concepts for them? Ask yourself lots of questions and be prepared to allot time to really think about it. Educational planning takes time and with a subject like sexuality, you have to be willing to devote that time.


Once you’ve really analyzed your student population, start thinking about methodology. How can you reach a variety of learners in one lesson without overwhelming them with activities and videos or boring them with a 2 hour long lecture? You have to be intentional about using a variety of styles without doing too much. It can get tricky and really, it takes trial and error. Some educators don’t really like hearing that, but it’s the truth. There is not a perfect way to teach any subject. Every educator has their own style, their own favorite techniques, and they learn what works best for them and their audience by trial and error.

Today, I will talk about a few of my favorite instructional models that appeal to different types of learners.

For some of my more critical thinking/analytical type students, I enjoy posing a problem, having students form their own hypothesis and gather data to support their hypothesis. This kind of methodology is referred to as an inquiry inductive instructional model. It can be done in a variety of ways on a variety of subject matters.  For example, I could have each student come up with their own hypothesis or work in groups. I could use it when discussing something like STI’s for a basic middle school lesson plan or use this model when teaching college students human sexuality theory and development. Instructional Models can be used across a wide topic area as well as age range/grade level.

An example for use might be to pose a problem to college students such as: I have a woman, Nancy who is in her 40′s, grew up in an urban environment in the South and is overweight. Nancy now lives in the north and is dealing with infertility issues which subsequently has made her question her self worth and has effected her overall self esteem. What health behavior models might we use to help Nancy when considering an educational intervention?

For our middle school STI lesson we could use something like as follows: John is showing no symptoms of an STI, however he is contacted by  former partner, Suzanne. Suzanne thinks she has an STI because she is experiencing discharge and itching. What might Suzanne be experiencing? What advice would you give to John if he came to you to talk about it?

Both of these scenarios deal with a posed problem or question, both have open ended options as “solutions.” And depending on how students or groups view the situation, they might hypothesize different things. This helps students to solidify concepts as well as evaluate and analyze the data given thus helping to strengthen their critical thinking skills around sexuality.

Lastly, we’ll talk about an instructional model called Jigsaw. I really like this model because I enjoy having students take on the role of educator from time to time. I think it allows for them to feel like experts at something and creates a sense of autonomy. Jigsaw requires students to do research on a topic area and present it to the class in some form or another. This also can be done in a variety of ways. It can be through giving students reading assignments to present to the class, presenting in some form, creating a movie or performing a learned skill, the possibilities almost seem endless.  This kind of assignment can allow for creativity, it also builds a feeling of trust or interdependence upon each other in the classroom, in addition to it helping students to feel more comfortable presenting.

Currently, in a class that I am taking, I have been assigned a group and we are to present a lesson plan to our class. This is an example of a jigsaw assignment. We will be teaching the class a concept in sexuality of our choosing and the class will give us feedback as to our presentation style, methodology, speaking skills, etc. The assignment in itself is not so much about the content we teach, but rather how we are teaching and how effective our chosen methodology is.

There is research out there on jigsaw and other cooperative learning techniques and its effectiveness in teaching science. This could really assist in teaching biology as it relates to sexuality as well.

Colosi, J. C., & Zales, C. (1998). Jigsaw cooperative learning improves biology lab courses. Bioscience, 48(2), 118-124.

Slish, D. F. (2005). Assessment of the use of the Jigsaw Method and Active Learning in Non-majors, Introductory Biology. Bioscene, 31(4), 1-10.

There are many other styles of educating students, some I’ve found more useful than others when discussing sexuality. Perhaps a future post will be about sexuality education bloopers: what hasn’t worked so well. As important as it is to know what works, it’s just as important to have a blooper or two, otherwise how would we learn? I hope this has helped some of you out there in the blogosphere! Please feel free to write me with questions or your thoughts on educational methodology in teaching sexuality!


Thanks for stopping by my little corner of the blogosphere!


As the title states, my name is Hillary! I’m a PhD student in Human Sexuality and I am hoping that a blog will help me collect my thoughts, gain new insight from fellow bloggers and readers, and allow me to share some things I’m learning along my journey.

Some things you might want to know about me: I’m a second year student, I’ve earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree prior to starting my career in sexuality, body positivity is something that is important to me, I’m an ally, and this being the longest run on sentence really bothers me so I’m going to insert a period once I finish this statement.  I am a native Pennsylvanian and I live here with my roommates and my amazing dog, my partner is a regular in our apartment and life is pretty enjoyable. I call our apartment the Urban Farm because, between my roommates and I, we have a dog, a cat, three pet rats, more plants than a rainforest and we’re currently growing brussel sprouts, basil, potatoes, and whatever else one of my roommate’s desires. See why I say life is enjoyable? Between the pets, the roomies, and all the tasty food around this place, it really is an awesome place to live. My adoration of our hard wood floors, high ceilings, crown molding, and the balcony off my room might also play a part. Have I mentioned my love of architecture? Only our first date and you’re learning so much about me already. Lucky ducks 😉

I’m hoping to update once a week as I think that’s a pretty reasonable goal given my schedule and the general hectic life I lead. So hopefully you’ll all hold me to it and look forward to my blog as much as I look forward to writing!