On Friday I had the honour of being invited to speak at University of Exeter about my experiences as a practitioner working on the Sex & History Project. (N.B. I co-wrote the FREE RSE lesson pack here and and lessons exploring gender and sexual diversity here for LGBT history month and beyond!) Unfortunately due to the snow I had to Skype in and not be there in person to run a workshop, so I also wanted to summarise my thoughts in a blog post.
The topic I chose to talk about was The Power of ‘Object-Based Learning’ for Relationships and Sex Education. For those of you who don’t know Object Based Learning is using an object (historical object/ 3D printed model or any physical solid 3D thing!) to spark a conversation and learn something new. (Or a more academic description: “Object-Based Learning (OBL) is a student-centred learning approach that uses objects to facilitate deep learning. Objects may take many forms, small or large, but the method typically involves students handling or working at close quarters with and interrogating physical artefacts.”. I first heard of it as a concept in a meeting with Melany Rose Education Manager at the British Museum. Then seeing the Ain Sakhri lovers on display there really bought it home to me the difference in learning between seeing the actual physical object is compared to learning from photo of the object (both have value but for some objects seeing them for yourselves gives a extra layer of understanding)
In Sex & History, we often have to use photographs of the objects rather than actual handling materials because these are rare museum pieces that are valuable and can’t be handled by a class of teenagers in case they are damaged! However, last year I was lucky enough to lead a teacher training workshop at Brighton and Hove Museum where they had a 3D printed Venus of Willendorf to handle alongside looking at actual objects from the museum’s collection. It was fascinating to watch the teachers engage with the piece in new and unexpected ways when physically able to handle the object rather than just look at it behind glass or in a photograph or image on a screen. At Sex and History we are gathering a small collection of handling objects (such as examples similar to these erotic fruits) and actively exploring 3D printing of replica objects in order to further utilise the opportunities and benefits of OBL.
For my workshop with practitioners and academics from UK and Germany I had been planning to provide a huge range of objects covered with a sheet and ask individuals to choose an object they were most interested in learning more about asking the questions: “what is it?” “how could it be used for relationships and sex education?” (whilst also making it very clear that any object chosen did not reflect anything personal about the participant choosing it!). Experiencing the value of object based learning for yourself is a powerful lesson in its value for sex education.
Although this concept may seem foreign to many teachers of RSE I think that many RSE teachers are doing OBL all the time anyway without realising. Condoms demonstrations and passing around different methods of contraception to have a much closer look at all count as OBL! Being able to see, touch, feel, handle, move and rotate an object relating to relationships and sex education can create discussions and questions that you would never get without the physical object being present.
The benefits of object based learning (as well as possible objects to use) can be set out as follows:
- Icebreakers– can help defuse tensions and create safer spaces by using certain objects like knitted uteruses/vulvas/penises/or cuddly STI toys. Crocheted body parts have been used with particular success in Brighton and Hove with an RSE project for young unaccompanied asylum seekers in single sex groups (that I have been supporting in the background), as a way of kick starting safe fun conversations about their bodies. These young people may come from cultures where such knowledge about their own bodies is sometimes seen as taboo and often not talked about, and cultural understandings of consent can be very different. The benign fun nature of knitted or crocheted objects provide such a safe space to start having conversations which can then over time lead into trickier conversations such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
- Starters- Start the conversation off by passing round an object “what is this” “what might it be used for” “how is it used?” “why does it exist” can create fascinating conversations. You could use things like wedding rings, engagement rings (non-valuable ones!!) to start conversations about marriage and relationships, gender, power and control (who wears the engagement ring- why?) and extend the conversation to explore the use of rings used for chastity (silver ring thing) or fidelity pledges or use of neck rings in marriage or sign of beauty. Something so simple as a small silver or gold band can start a conversation that could go on for a whole lesson if you plan it right and are skilled in your questioning and how you manage discussions.
- Investigators and Interrogators Supplying a range of objects can be used to explore and interrogate patterns and assumptions in society. For example , menstrual products, intimate washes, soaps, razors, make up. hair straighteners, Protein shakes, Pilates balls, gendered clothing or shoes. What objects make us feel good about ourselves, what make us feel bad, which are designed for men/women? what are essential? which are cultural? etc. Or you could do the fab The Sensual Star activity (from Jo Adams who developed the RU Ready? Program) where you supply a wide range of objects that can be used to stimulate the five senses: touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. eg. perfumes/scented candles/sound bowl/musical instruments for sound; chocolate/fruits/ massagers or objects with rough or smooth textures eg. silk scarves and have a conversation about sensuality and what are our favorite objects against each of the five senses. This can be drawn and decorated on a “Sensual Star” (a 5 pointed star with each sense allocated to a point).
- Confidence building Adolescence can be a tricky time with lots of new things to master that people often don’t talk in detail to you about. For example you can also use a range of disposable and reusable menstrual products or range of antiperspirants and deodorants to kick start conversations about puberty, hygiene and menstruation. Familiarity with some of the products they may need to use in their lives can build confidence about talking about, purchasing and using them.
- Reassurance about whats ‘normal’– exploring the range of variation in bodies by passing around objects of different sizes analogous to human bodies (E.g. as well as using knitted objects with some inner labia longer than outer labia etc, I also have a range of different sized condom demonstrators (and TheyFit is a great site to share). It also encourages young people to feel more comfortable talking about their bodies when I get out Lady Penelope it is fascinating (and really sad) to realise how many girls do not have any real understanding of how their own bodies work.
- Visualising how things work Until you have seen an actual IUD/IUS in the flesh and seen on a diagram or model of female reproductive tract how it works, then it can be quite hard to conceptualise. Likewise seeing the actual size of an implant (a matchstick can work here or small matchstick sized piece of ultra fine tubing), the contraceptive ring (the inner ring of an internal condom (femidom) works) then it can be hard to understanding or visualise how such methods work. Also Object based learning is also vital for visually impaired students if you can’t see then being able to handle and be talked through anatomy or using methods of contraception is very important.
- New directions for discussions Talking about STI testing can be a little dry sometimes but passing round a chlamydia testing kit and allowing a look at a urine testing pot, a swab kit, or passing round a speculum can help make the conversation more interesting. I’m also very interested in exploring how every day objects like a wire coat hanger could open up discussions on abortion, or egg white or flour paste or cottage cheese in petri dishes could open up conversations about normal vaginal discharge! A small Venus of Willendorf (I now have one of my own) could open up conversations about body image, breasts, weight, sexiness, fertility!
- Exploring new frontiers (knowledge, learning and technology!)- the 3D printed clitoris is my FAVE object for getting a conversation going about sexual pleasure and anatomy (and I still think it is outrageous that this wasn’t mapped until 1998). I now have a 3D printed uterus and I am hoping to get a vulva too. 3D printing for sex ed could be incredible!
- Consolidating learning. In youth group settings we sometimes use a “talking stick” or other object as a tool to signify who can talk and who needs to listen. We also sometimes pass an object round to close a session with each person holding the object says one thing they have learned about the session before passing it on to the next person. While I can see their might be potential for silliness if certain objects were used (!) I can also see there is potential in having a particular object close a session quite powerfully. I am thinking something like a small squishy heart stress toy to pass round and feedback on notions of romantic love and why the heart is seen as a symbol for love and how that can make people feel. The level of SQUEEZE could indicate how much the session was enjoyed or not!
How would you use object based learning in your setting and what do you think are the benefits? Please comment below!
This post is bought to you with thanks to Sex & History Project for funding me to do this work. Rhian Drinkwater for her expert knitting skills (the uteri were knitted by a sexual health campaign up north and to my horror I can’t remember who to thank them- if it was you please shout!), Lovehoney for supplying me with loads of kit. Ben O’Steen for 3D printing this file designed by Odile Filod for me and putting me in touch with Valeria Vitale from Institute of Classical Studies, Senate House who has also indulged my 3D printing whims and needs using the Odile Filod file and the Vulvacademy files (with thanks to @Gareth Cheeseman for sharing the link to Vulvacademy files)!