Building empathy and respect amongst students through real-world immersive learning

Nicolas Walker, tutor and music teacher at Ibstock Place School, shares his top tips for engaging students

Ibstock Place School (IPS) is an independent co-educational day school in south-west London for pupils aged four to 18. As a school, we have a strong family ethos and provide a rich variety of opportunities in a friendly, supportive atmosphere.

We emphasise ambition and our students are encouraged to shape their own future. This environment means that students not only perform impressively in public examinations but leave IPS well prepared, in every sense, to meet the world around them.

We have a passionate belief in students receiving a challenging and inspirational education, including developing individuality and an understanding of tolerance, empathy and respect. As part of this, we are looking constantly for ways to take students on an emotional and holistic journey when learning.

The power of real-life storytelling

It was during an online DiverseEd conference that we came across immersive storytelling platform Lyfta. The resource enables students to easily access different perspectives and experiences from around the world through real-life stories and professional documentaries, helping them to enhance their understanding of global citizenship and cultural awareness.

The synergies between our teaching and learning and what the immersive stories convey were very apparent. Our year 10 and 11 students are currently using it as part of our Foundations programme, which aims to develop their academic skills beyond the core curriculum.

To help further their understanding, students at IPS are introduced to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and given a sense of perspective on what some global issues look like.

For example, in the UK, ‘improving healthcare’ might involve trying to reduce hospital waiting times, whereas in another country, the same aim might involve something much more fundamental. Discussing this, alongside using the Lyfta platform, and interacting first-hand with those who these issues affect, certainly seems to be giving students a more developed lens through which to view global news stories in the media.

immersive learning
Real-world stories can help to enhance students’ cultural awareness


Expanding horizons

Immersive storytelling has been particularly effective when having conversations around issues and challenges affecting us in the world today, for example, the conversations being had at COP26 or themes relating to the UN SDGs.

Using real-world stories and experiences, students are no longer considering the places they hear about in the abstract, and, as one teacher put it “they are putting faces to places”. This helps engender a sense of shared human experience. Our teachers have commented on how it has enabled students to be more outward-looking and “get out of their bubble”.

For example, the opportunity for students to virtually visit people’s homes has helped to challenge preconceptions about certain countries and has made them realise that they have more in common with many of the people they encounter than they might have otherwise assumed.

This was evidenced by both students and staff in one particular story in Afghanistan, which made them see the country in a different light compared to the way in which it’s typically portrayed in the media, with so much emphasis on the Taliban. Learning about a bakery in Afghanistan allowed students to appreciate that normal things, like running a business, making bread and renting a space etc, are still able to take place in politically unstable places. It was a humanising perspective.

Another story about a beekeeper in Berlin sparked one student’s fascination with how the beekeeper’s working conditions and health had improved significantly since taking on the job, certainly when compared to his previous life working in an office; simply put, he was now much happier. The student explored and discussed the environmental virtues of the beekeeper’s work and how consequently, he wanted to stay local.

These were interesting observations, both in terms of the thinking around the beekeeper’s health but also in terms of thinking about the nature of work and what the realities of different types of work are like day to day.

Developing empathy and critical thinking

The power of these videos lies in the ability to not only show individual lives, but also draw attention to bigger-picture issues too – providing a real purpose for their learning. Doing it in a way that immerses students in the story and encourages them to be part of it has certainly increased engagement during lessons.

While part of this can be attributed to the quality of resources, its effectiveness is also perhaps due to students’ familiarity with video, VR and the technologies with which they routinely engage.

As part of the Foundations programme, students have been asked to consider if the people within the documentaries are sometimes presenting a case and how they might be interacting with us as viewers in a persuasive way.

This has helped them to think critically, explore analytical skills and draw on inspiration for their own speeches for GCSE English spoken language and in their Higher Project Qualifications.

Providing students with real-world interactions and immersive stories has helped to challenge perceptions, make learning fun and enable them to connect the dots with the issues we currently face across the world. All of this learning is integral to their development, both academically and socially, and due to its success so far we are now looking at ways to roll this out further across the school to benefit every student.

At IPS, it is our responsibility to ensure that we provide our students with the opportunities and resources that will help them grow as individuals, so that they feel well-equipped to leave as creative, resilient and empathetic young people.

You might also like: How edtech can help independent schools deliver immersive, collaborative lessons

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