Learning (through) empathy: VR and Education

Imagine if you could experience the world from another person’s perspective. You could see what they see and learn what they learn. Virtual Reality (VR) allows for exactly that. We can now learn from the lived experiences of others
In a VR experience, the user moves through the virtual world with an avatar — a user’s digitized self — controlled in real-time. This first-person perspective allows the user to interpret themselves in relation to the virtual world in much the same way that they do narratives in the real world. The very same is true if that avatar does not represent you but, rather, represents another person.

In adopting a new outlook and experiencing a narrative through someone else’s eyes an immense amount can be learnt about each other and the greater nuances of human experience. Ultimately, it requires the user to practice empathy. In fact, it has been shown that virtual reality experiences presented from alternative perspectives are more effective in encouraging an empathetic response in the user than other non-immersive mediums such as reading a novel or watching a film which recounts an equally unfamiliar experience. This is particularly true for children who often need a greater degree of stimulus to sustain the engagement necessary to empathize with a character’s narrative.

Immersive experiences which give children the opportunity to dynamically encounter alternative perspectives should therefore be viewed as an important tool in providing children with an education in empathy.

Why is empathy important to children’s education?

To understand empathy in the context of children’s education it is helpful to think of it as a skill: something that can be taught as well as practiced. Firstly, through the opportunity to virtually place themselves in someone else’s shoes, a child begins to consider perspectives outside of their own. This helps to build prosocial habits as the child develops a better understanding of themself in relation to others. Undeniably, this foundational lesson has clear positive impacts on shaping the moral character of a child amongst countless other crucial developmental areas.

But, outside of these concrete examples of how a single experience of empathy can benefit a child, there is also likely a long-lasting empathetic effect. The child’s empathy ‘muscle’ is being trained. In a recent study by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab an investigation was completed which looked into whether a virtual experience of an event, already proven to produce an empathetic response in the user, might also lead to a general increase in empathy towards another completely unrelated event. In practical terms, they tested whether if someone virtually experiences a narrative on homelessness, they would be more likely to sign a petition to protect coral reefs. Basically, can we train an empathetic skill? Although the results of this study were inconclusive in whether this specific case of empathy transfer could be proven, it is likely because the two events (homelessness and ocean acidification) have such widely different natures, with one human and the other non-human. So, the author concludes that the findings of the study show that the transfer of empathy is definitely possible and that it is likely that an empathy producing virtual experience of a human event, such as homelessness, would result in a general increase in empathy towards other unrelated human events. Overall, this study aimed to prove how we already believe experiences of empathy to work: they can have a lasting impact outside of a single experience.

Empathy as access

We can also think about empathy in children’s education in a slightly different way. More than just an invaluable skill for an individual’s development, empathy allows a child access to a breadth of knowledge areas and subject matters usually restricted by geography, wealth and other obstacles. Through empathetic immersive experiences, a student can briefly inhabit the worlds described in their textbooks. The ways of knowing usually prohibited by the physical classroom are suddenly made available with captivating lessons in anything from historical events to foreign cultures. This is particularly true for subject areas which might not necessarily have facts and figures as their desired learning outcome. In these cases, an opportunity for a child to personally ‘experience’ a lesson would certainly be a more impactful teaching strategy.

Ultimately, VR experiences developed from multiple perspectives opens up the world of teaching to so many extraordinary possibilities and should be seriously considered by any institution or education department that aims to creatively engage its younger community.

In a moment in time in which technology so often results in a removal of empathy, educational immersive experiences provide a remarkable opportunity to build it back up in children.


-Effect of Virtual Reality Perspective-Taking on Related and Unrelated Contexts by Marijn Mado, Fernanda Herrera, Kristine Nowak, and Jeremy Bailenson.

-Developing Empathy in Children and Youth by Kathleen Cotton

-Social and Emotional Education: Core concepts and practices by Jonathan Cohen

-Empathy Development in Young Children Using Interactive VR Games by Ekaterina Muravevskaia