Experimental Pedagogics: Empowering education innovators through critical experiential learning

This incredible story was written by Dr. Ginie Servant-Miklos

If you want to study education at a university in The Netherlands, you’ve got limited options: education sciences, pedagogics, or a combination of the two. In the first case, you’ll be mostly studying cognitive psychology, and in the second case, instructional design. These are interesting and relevant to a career in education, but what if you wanted to know why we do education? What if you wanted to reflect on the critical role of education as a socializing institution? What if you wanted to imagine a different kind of education for a future fraught with global challenges? Then you would need an approach to education that marries the latest advances in education psychology with a broad sweep of education philosophy and history. You’d also need an approach that doesn’t just tell you about education, but in which you experience the things you’re learning about firsthand, and in which you get a chance to experiment with your own education designs. Enter experimental pedagogics, a ground-breaking new approach to educating the education innovators of tomorrow.

The idea for experimental pedagogics had been brewing for some time. Starting in 2012, I wrote my PhD on the intellectual history education innovations from the 1970s, particularly problem-based learning and problem-oriented project work. My thesis offered perspectives on education innovation from a historical, psychological, and philosophical angle — as an interdisciplinary education thinker and doer, it was very difficult for me to find my place at the university. In applying for research grants, I was always stuck between the options of “education sciences” and “pedagogics”, feeling that neither was really appropriate. Dutch education scientists didn’t understand what I was doing because I apply theoretical frameworks from the humanities to produce in-depth qualitative analyses on questions of education and social and environmental justice. Pedagogics people were a bit baffled by the philosophical aspect of what I do, while critical pedagogues were skeptical of my interest in cognitive psychology and phenomenology.

As a result, over the last decade, I built up a broad collection of teacher training tools: training on problem- and project-based learning, on assessment, on reflection, on the history of education innovation, on constructive alignment, on internationalization, on critical pedagogy, on environmental education and so forth… But in 2020, I finally got the two-fold opportunity to bring all of this together. Firstly, I was invited as a visiting professor at Tyumen University to teach a course in “applied educational philosophy”. It was in discussions with Dr. Daniel Kontowski, the Educational Director of the School of Advanced Studies, that the term “experimental pedagogics” was born. And it was at SAS that the first iteration of this concept was piloted in November 2020. Secondly, I built out a full-scale 16-week experimental pedagogics programme in the spring semester of 2021 at Erasmus University, with the financial support of the CARE (Citizen Action-based Real-world Education) research consortium led by Prof. Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens, including the Diversity and Inclusion Office, ErasmusX, the Erasmus Trust Fund, Erasmus University College and the Erasmus School of Philosophy as partners. I’m particularly grateful for the contributions of my excellent colleague Lorenzo Duchi (ErasmusX) as co-constructor of this programme, as well as the teaching contributions of Ruby Knipscheer (ESPhil), Dr. Lisette Wijnia (EUC), Dr. Julien Kloeg (EUC), and Dr. Farshida Zafar (ErasmusX). I’d also like to thank Prof. Semiha Denktaş and Dr. Robin van den Akker for their support behind the scenes.

At the heart of experimental pedagogics lies the premise that education is by nature a transdisciplinary endeavour: from the top, it is borne from the multiple disciplines that constitute its contents, and the multidisciplinary angles that feed into its process. From the bottom, education gives meaning to our experience of the world, challenging us to make sense of the messy inputs of our unscripted reality. Experimental pedagogics provides a comprehensive structure for what would otherwise be an overwhelming whole: education’s relationship with existence is examined through five distinct “levels” of analysis.

1. The cognitive level: Students are invited to enter the experimental pedagogics journey from the cognitive psychology paradigm. At this level, students learn about what makes learning efficient, effective, and enjoyable based on the latest developments in instructional design and motivation theory.

2. The individual level: From here, students are challenged to consider the individual as an experiential unit. We introduce students to existential phenomenology and the idea of purpose and agency in education.

3. The group level: Wilfred Bion’s group dynamics are a seminal theory for understanding group learning processes. To understand Bion, students are provided with some background in Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalytics and their relevance for education. This level closes off with some more light-weight discussion of Karpman’s drama triangle and Emerald’s empowerment dynamic.

4. The societal level: There are several approaches that can be taken here: starting with Freire’s Pedagogy of the oppressed, we can either choose to go into critical pedagogy revisited in the light of critical race theory, and explore the works of bell hooks, take a psychosocietal approach, and examine the “exemplary learning” of Oskar Negt, or take an entirely different approach and consider Hannah Arendt’s contribution to education philosophy.

5. The global level: In this final level, students are asked to consider what it means to learn in a global, networked society that faces problems so “wicked” that they threaten human civilization.

Experimental pedagogics is experiential learning par excellence. There are three “tracks” in the programme: the education track, the project track, and the reflection track. Each of these tracks is designed to allow students to experience increasingly experimental approaches to education.

  • The education track does offer one lecture per level as a safe space for students to discover new theories and approaches with an expert who can answer their questions. However, the following experimental approaches are also offered at each level:
  1. Cognitive level: Problem-based learning.
  2. Group level: Jigsaw method.
  3. Societal level: Writing the implosion
  4. Global level: Design the Future workshop
  • The project track forms the backbone of the experimental pedagogics experience. This is an application of the Roskilde Model of project work, a method of problem-oriented project work steeped in critical pedagogy (I am grateful to my colleagues from Roskilde and Aalborg for the inspiration). Students are asked to analyse a real-world education problem in small groups through a team research effort with a methodological approach of their choosing, then to devise a relevant educational intervention that follows appropriate education design principles and offers an answer to their research problem at all five of the educational levels investigated. Students are encouraged to consider implementing their proposal with the communities in which they performed their research.
  • The reflection track is a unique feature of experimental pedagogics, designed specifically to accompany the project and education tracks in a step-by-step build-up. The track consists of the following activities:
  1. Intake and exit interviews with students
  2. Three reflection diaries handed in at strategic moments in the programme.
  3. Two reflection workshops: one on the cognitive and individual level, another at the group and societal level.
  4. A dynamic articulated learning reflection in which students are asked to draw a learning arc across the course based on their three diaries and what they have learned at all of the levels.

Fundamentally, experimental pedagogics breaks with the axiological neutrality of education sciences. Like critical pedagogy, our starting point is that learning is always for something, and with others. If you’re told otherwise (e.g. the “facts are facts are neutral” ideology), it means that the “for something” is “for the status quo”. Additionally, we bring on board approaches usually sidestepped by critical pedagogy, including the cognitive and individual layers into our build-up. Liesbeth and I have argued in the past that this approach could be improved by integrating insights from constructivist psychology. This year, I’m also arguing that by bringing Simone de Beauvoir’s existential phenomenology into play instead of Freire’s existentialist of choice (Jean-Paul Sartre), we are able to provide a solid foundation for critical concern about social and environmental injustice and their ramifications for education.

It’s such a joy to finally see ten years of work in critical education research and practice bloom into this beautiful project. I’ve enjoyed every minute of teaching experimental pedagogics for the past few months, and I think that after the initial shock and awe, so did the students. Experimental pedagogics has a bright future ahead: firstly, as it becomes integrated into the EUR as a minor, and then, as we extend this approach to other universities via our upcoming textbook. There’s an education revolution coming, and we want to lead the charge.

We are a team of crazy and passionate people, and the driving force behind educational disruptive innovation for the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).