Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) through virtual reality: is this the future of education?

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  • Cultural competence and emotional intelligence aren’t just nice features – they’re essential skills
  • Schools in Texas and Hawaii use VR to improve empathy
  • Stanford is experimenting with VR to fight racism

Increasingly, education isn’t all about maths, sciences, and languages. In fact, as forward-thinking educators know, the future of work will demand flexible, culturally fluent, emotionally intelligent workers. That trend is already being felt: for the last 20 years or so, the jobs that have grown the most, whether we consider wages or employment prospects, demand pretty advanced interpersonal skills to complement other talents.

Cultural competence and emotional intelligence aren’t just nice features – they’re essential skills

That’s because an increasingly borderless business world and the digital connectivity that drives it allow talent to come from anywhere. Cultural competence and emotional intelligence aren’t just nice features – they’re essential skills when your team might include people from Nigeria, China, Italy, and Canada! And as the tired hierarchies of the Mad Men era are dismantled, more people are working on small, flexible teams of equals, shifting authority as tasks require. To lead without a title, workers need to have sharpened their interpersonal skills to a fine edge, and savvy employers are looking for these talents when they think about retention and promotion. As Marsha Rideout, the director of admissions at Synapse, a school that actively teaches emotional intelligence, explains, “IQ will get you your job, but EQ will keep it.”

At the cutting-edge of education, we can already see innovative approaches to help children and young adults acquire and refine the key components of emotional intelligence – things like empathy, compassion, and understanding.

At the cutting-edge of education, we can already see innovative approaches to help children and young adults acquire and refine the key components of emotional intelligence – things like empathy, compassion, and understanding.

What teachers and researchers alike have discovered is that virtual reality (VR) is an ideal tool for building these emotional resources. Kids aren’t naturally empathic – these are skills that must be practiced and taught. Because VR can create an immersive experience, it’s invaluable for helping young learners feel emotions, navigate complex situations, and step into someone else’s shoes for a few minutes.

Schools in Texas and Hawaii use VR to improve empathy

For instance, at Chisholm Trail Middle School in Texas, the students in Chris Caldwell’s English classes aren’t just learning literature, though they start there. To better connect with the horrors of the Holocaust, Caldwell has them start by reading things like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and the play Anne Frank. In the past, his students found it too easy to distance themselves from the suffering these works portray, but now, when Caldwell has them don VR goggles, they’re immersed in the terrors of Nazi-occupied Europe in a way they never were before. While they initially see the VR experience as fun, that changes quickly. As Caldwell says, the “reality of the horror of what was in front of them” becomes far more vivid, and it’s not as easy to distance themselves from the suffering of others.

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