In a recent article on Buzzfeed, Dr. John Medina, Affiliate Professor of Bio-engineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of the popular book Brain Rules, talked about some of the types of content the human brain prefers to process. In the article, one point Medina made was that the human brain pays special attention to moving and three-dimensional objects. When discussing the implications of this fact for education, Medina says, “One maturing technology that is extremely brain-friendly, and in the right hands, could easily be part of a future blockbuster platform, involves holograms, virtual reality, and any adaptive three-dimensional projections of information” (Bazadona, 2016).
Some of you may have even dabbled with this cutting-edge technology in your schools. I haven’t personally used it or seen it used in a classroom setting yet, but I’ve been reading a bit about some schools who have started down this road. For example, in a recent article on Fortune.com, I read about how students in the San Francisco Unified School District and students in the Polk County Public Schools in Florida received free Nearpod VR curriculum and Google Cardboard VR viewers through a grant program from Nearpod. Using the Google Cardboards, students view lessons that are made up of 20% to 50% virtual reality content, along with lesson materials and assessments. The grant program is set to expand to another 30 to 40 schools this year (Gaudiosi, 2016).
The Promise of Virtual Reality in Education
Why does virtual reality hold such promise for education? Well, first of all, because many students are already big fans of immersive video games and technology in general, so there’s little doubt that they will be eager to try out the curriculum–and a little intrinsic motivation is nothing to sneeze at.
But even more importantly, as Medina pointed out, VR better matches the way the brain is designed to learn naturally–from our moving around in and responding to the world around us. One of the biggest problems teachers have always had is that the classroom is a very artificial, sterile, sensory-poor environment that does not provide much in the way of realistic, real-world learning opportunities. Traditional teaching techniques like lecture and textbook reading are also about as far from real-world experiential learning as possible. In fact, it’s a real testament to the brain that we can learn at all in such an environment, since it is so far removed from the way the brain is designed to learn naturally.
As technology gets closer and closer to delivering on high quality, low-cost virtual reality devices and curriculum, however, educators will have more options about how to match the brain’s natural learning tendencies with their lessons. We are just at the beginning of this movement, but the promise is mind-boggling!
What If You Don’t Have Access to Virtual Reality Hardware and Curriculum?
Alright, I know that 99% of the teachers reading this are thinking right now, “Well, all of that’s nice, but I don’t have VR. What am I supposed to do?” First of all, don’t stress about it. The fact is that, while VR technology is cool, while it would certainly be an improvement on traditional teaching methodology, and while it’s a good match to how the brain learns naturally, it’s still a long way off for most teachers. But more importantly, even when VR technology and curriculum have matured and are available to everyone, it still won’t be the best way to teach–and you already have access to the best way.
Want to know what the best way to teach is? I’ll give you one guess.
OK, time’s up. If you guessed “actual reality,” you win! That’s right, if you can find ways to actually get students up and moving, using their bodies in the 3-D space of your classroom, or (even better) outside of your classroom, and if you can get students to simulate real world conditions and problems, you can take advantage of the brain’s preference for moving, 3-D learning without having to spend a cent on VR technology. And the best part of it is, there are a thousand ways to do this. Let’s look at just one example for today.
An Example: Tableaux and Enacted Tableaux/Slide Shows
One powerful 3-D teaching tool that is radically under-utilized is drama. Now don’t get scared by the word “drama.” You won’t have to convince your students to do any full-blown acting to take advantage of the power of drama activities for learning. There are many simple activities that fit under the big umbrella term of “drama” that are not scary at all; in fact, they’re a lot of fun. One such activity is called tableaux, and it could be used with a variety of material in any content area. Here’s how tableaux work:
Students read a text–whether it’s fiction, poetry, a nonfiction article, the textbook, whatever–and respond to the text in groups by creating a tableau (singular) or tableaux (plural) to visually and kinesthetically represent something in or about that text. The purpose, as Jeffrey Wilhelm, in his excellent book, Action Strategies for Deepening Comprehension, says, is to represent “a frozen scene or pose that captures a physical, psychological, or emotional relationship,” and can be composed of a single tableau, or students can represent several scenes (tableaux) which can be strung together as a series of scenes to become a “slide show, flip card animation, or hypertext of the mind” (Wilhelm, 2002).
For example, I’m currently reading the riveting book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. The book tells the story of a poor African-American woman who developed an aggressive case of cervical cancer and died in the early 1950’s. When she died, doctors at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore took cells from her tumors and grew them in culture. The cancer cells not only lived, but multiplied faster than any cells ever kept alive in culture before–and they’re still living and being used all over the word today by scientists conducting thousands of different kinds of experiments. The cell line that developed from Henrietta, called HeLa (from the first two letters of Henrietta’s first name and last name and pronounced “Hee-La”) has become the most famous and most used cell line in the world.
But the book is not just about the cells and how they have been used by science over the years. It’s also about how the family was never told that the cells had been taken from Henrietta and how they were being used. The book goes into a lot of interesting side tangents about the slow-to-develop idea of doctors having to get informed consent from patients before using their tissues, as well as several almost unbelievable cases of doctors selling patient tissues and profiting to the tune of millions of dollars while their patients never received a cent.
This book is being used in high school classes in many school districts across the United States today, both in English classes (as an example of well-written nonfiction) and science classes (as a book about scientific advancement and ethical issues). If I were an English teacher, and I wanted to have students work through the moral/ethical issues in the book, I might assign groups to different sections of the book and have them create a “slide show” of the 4-5 events from their sections that they feel are most important. The students then decide how to create a tableau of each scene, using group members to represent the people from the book. They decide how to stage the scene, what positions they will “freeze” in, what emotions will be on their faces, etc. They then practice “melting” from one scene to the next for their slide show while one group member “narrates” what’s taking place in their scenes. Once they have had time to practice a few times, they present their scenes for the rest of the class.
As you can see, the enacted tableaux/slide show activity in a challenging cognitive tasks, as it forces students to comprehend the text deeply, make evaluations about the relative importance of different events, make artistic choices about how to portray the events, and use their writing skills to create their narration. But it’s more than that, too. The recreation part of the activity forces students to visualize the scenes in a more detailed way than they probably did when initially reading the text. Plus, it literally puts students “in the place” of the people from the book, embodying their actions and often leading students to more deeply feel the situations (empathy) in which the characters found themselves. This takes something read from a 2-D page and imagined superficially and turns it into a real-life event in the classroom that is deeply imagined and deeply felt by both the student actors and their classmates who watch the performance. And since the other groups in the class are also performing their slide shows from different sections of the book, all of the key events from the book can be acted out in this way.
In my experience, students have a lot of fun doing drama activities such as this, but they also do a lot of challenging cognitive work and experience the text at a much deeper level (both cognitively and emotionally) than they would if they just read the book. To circle back to our original discussion of the brain’s preference for processing material that is 3-D and moving, you can see how such activities can make a text more like a real-life experience. And while virtual reality visual effects are the next best thing to the real thing, acting something from a text out actually turns it into a real experience. With a little thought and ingenuity, you can use drama activities such as tableaux in any content area and any grade level to make the material you teach “come alive.” So, until you get virtual reality curriculum in your school (and even after you do), don’t forget that “actual reality” is available to your students already. Make use of it frequently to make your classroom come alive. Your students will thank you!
If you have thoughts, ideas, questions, or comments about today’s topic, I’d love to hear them. Just e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you.
Bazadona, D. (March 22, 2016). The science of snackable: 6 scientific reasons your brain loves listicles. BuzzFeed. www.huffingtonpost.com/damian-bazadona/the-science-of-snackable-_b_9518162.html.
Gaudiosi, J. (February 25, 2016). These two school districts are teaching through virtual reality. Fortune. http://fortune.com/2016/02/25/school-districts-teaching-through-virtual-reality/
Wilhelm, J. (2002). Action strategies for deepening comprehension. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.