How Virtual Reality Impacts Conceptual Learning


January 28, 2020 | 6 min read

How Virtual Reality Impacts Conceptual Learning in Education

"Nothing can be loved or hated unless it is first understood."

– Leonardo da Vinci –

When was the last time you saw students awestruck in your classroom? How do we continue to stimulate curiosity and a zest for learning in our students? Virtual Reality has the ability to move classrooms beyond facts and figures to a place of discovery and contagious wonder.

When people lookup in the night sky and see the stars shine and twinkle they are struck with awe and wonder. Why does this experience make us contemplate our place in the universe and trigger such a powerful emotional response and connection? 

How We Educate is Slowly Shifting

Big ideas like this, which are often triggered through experience help shape our thinking. Do you remember your school days? Sitting in a classroom filled with desks lined up in rows. The teacher might explain where the state capitals were on a map. We would diligently take notes on this information in hopes that it will stay safely locked in our brains forever. We would finish the lesson by completing a worksheet that asked us to “spit” back this information. This static model of teaching and learning was how many of us experienced formal education.

How we educate our children in schools is slowly shifting in the 21st century to a model whereby learning is cradled in a more conceptual approach. Concepts are enduring “big ideas” that help organize and structure facts and knowledge into more accessible to remember and understand “bins.”


Some examples of concepts worthy of learning and understanding include; power, identity, systems, change, conflict, sustainability, rights and responsibilities.

Facts & Knowledge

Examples of facts and knowledge that are finite and may not spark curiosity and deep thinking might be: knowing the dates of major events, identifying the location of the various parts to the heart, and knowing the names of all the state capitals.

Making sense of facts through concepts enables students to develop more significant meaning and connection to the learning. “The art and science of teaching go beyond the presentation and extraction of information. Artful teachers engage students emotionally, creatively, and intellectually to instill deep and passionate curiosity in learning.”1

“The art and science of teaching go beyond the presentation and extraction of information. Artful teachers engage students emotionally, creatively, and intellectually to instill deep and passionate curiosity in learning.” 1

When concepts are an essential part of the curriculum, students have a heightened sense of wonder and inquiry. They are more apt to “lean in” to their learning and engage. We want students to think beyond the facts and look closely at their learning to critique it and discover new meanings and relationships instead of focusing on unrelated bits of information.

Case Study: How Schools are Embracing 21st Century Learning

For example, at UWCSEA School in Singapore, students embrace challenges and take responsibility for their actions through a concept-based curriculum. To do this, they must develop higher-order thinking in diverse situations like expeditions and service initiatives. Watch the video below to learn more about how UWCSEA is embracing 21st century learning:

Learning at UWCSEA is highly experiential and goes beyond the classroom (see their elements and principles that forms their approach to learning in the diagram below). Not all schools can provide this level of experience. 

Virtual Reality's Role in this Conceptual Model

Virtual reality has a significant role to play in this conceptual model. It has been described as a powerful immersive communication tool with incredible promise in the field of education. One promise of VR is its ability to generate strong emotional experiences. Due to the realism that is created by VR applications, participants feel a sense of “presence.” Presence can cause the user to suspend disbelief and believe they are in the virtual environment, reacting to stimuli as if they were in the real world.

When you put on a headset, you step into another world and the brain experiences it as reality. You can look under a table, or flip it over. You hear sound in three dimensions like it's all around you. Studies have shown that this creates a "real lived experience" and many call VR an "experience machine." It can be used to help bridge the gap between book knowledge and concepts.

Book Knowledge → Virtual Reality → Concepts

Connecting facts to essential concepts is a skillful art that requires teachers to provide compelling experiences to help students inquiry, think, and discover. “Students need to organize and use knowledge conceptually if we expect them to apply it beyond the classroom.”2 Presenting students with real-life experiences that connect them to relevant content and concepts helps cement their understanding.

“Students need to organize and use knowledge conceptually if we expect them to apply it beyond the classroom.” 2

Some of my fondest memories in school were field trips because they made the learning purposeful. I remember my physics field trip to an amusement park. We rode various rides, collected data, and interrogated the form and function of these machines. Since it was such a powerful learning experience, I still have fond memories of it 30 years later.

Conceptual Thinking VR Applications

Many well-designed VR applications can be magical modern-day field trips with the right conditions. Here are two examples of VR applications that are firmly anchored in conceptual thinking and challenge the users to consider more than just the facts:

1) Becoming Homeless

Stanford VR’s “Becoming Homeless” invites students to understand and empathize with the rights and responsibilities surrounding homelessness. This engaging narrative puts the participant in the shoes of a homeless person. The user learns first-hand what it is like to end up on the street.

Watch the trailer for Becoming Homeless below:

2) Fantastic Contraption

This highly addictive VR application focuses on how form is related to function. Participants can adapt, change and re-design structures. They learn that failure is part of the process, a vital engineering skill.

Watch the trailer for Fantastic Contraption below:

Virtual Reality for Education

We believe curiosity can lead to a lifetime of inquiry and opportunities for learning and self-discovery and the best way to do this is to invite students to experience VR through a conceptual lens. At SpringboardVR, we work hard to try and curate educational experiences that align with best practices in curriculum design. Our comprehensive lesson guides ensure that students are taken on a learning journey that is conceptual, engaging and hopefully memorable.

Learn more about our VR for Education product here.

Article written by Craig Frehlich. Craig Frehlich has been working in education for over 25 years and has his Masters Degree in Education with a focus on curriculum design. He is also an educational consultant and speaker on the topics of inquiry, design thinking, and the use of technology in education. Craig is currently an academic advisor for SpringboardVR. His main focus is to use contextual and conceptual thinking to translate VR experiences into lesson guides that help map successfully introspective journeys in virtual reality.

Erickson, H. L. "Chapter 1." Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, Corwin P, 2007.
Erickson, H. L. "Chapter 1." Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom, Corwin P, 2007.

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