Immersive learning: how all teachers can use its power

Creating lessons that use props, costumes and creativity may sound hard to plan but even the smallest tweak can have a big impact, says this teacher

Victoria Fenwick

Original English displays idea resource including lightbulb image

Immersive learning is enriching, brilliant, exciting – and instantly elicits eye-rolls from many overworked teachers, and understandably so.

It appears to epitomise the bells and whistles metaphor for showy, excessive lessons that are pulled out when being observed. It can be that, but immersive learning can also help teachers to create lessons that students really engage in and give teachers a buzz, too.

I’ve had lots of success running immersive learning lessons and feel it is an area of teaching that is too often overlooked because it takes up too much time or is too hard to organise.

Yet, sometimes, a simple prop is all you need. For example, during my newly qualified teacher year, I found myself at the end of term and in need of a “treat” lesson for my key stage 3 English class – so I used a colleague’s idea for a “lemon sherbet lesson”.

The idea is that a single lemon sherbet is placed in front of the student and they are not allowed to touch it under any circumstances. Step by step, they have to describe each aspect of the sweet through their senses.

All my students wanted to do was eat the sweet and, when they finally did, they were euphoric! As a result, they wrote a very imaginative, convincing piece of descriptive writing.

Since then, I’ve found ways to carry out numerous English-themed immersive lessons.

Orwell’s Animal Farm simulation

I told my class that they had overthrown me but they had to continue and flourish as a fully functioning English class, as well as devise a list of commandments and a motivational maxim.

I sat back and observed as they unwittingly turned into Boxers, Snowballs and Benjamins, then discussed my findings with the class at the end.

It was a fantastic way to show them an answer to their question “but how could they let this happen?” which they had been asking me throughout the entire unit.

A Great Expectations graffiti wall

I lined the walls outside my classroom with paper and told my students they could graffiti on it, but imagining that they were Miss Havisham from Great Expectations and had been trapped in the same room for decades.

This helped them to explore the voice and feelings of the character and deepened their interpretations; they were able to empathise with her as they began to see the wall as a character in itself: her only constant companion.

Shakespeare festival

To get Year 7 students enthused about A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I planned a mini festival on midsummer’s day, where they were taken outside for the lesson in their handmade paper flower crowns to take part in a traditional dance that I had learned and taught them.

Students were immersed in the Jacobean context and were able to see why and how midsummer’s eve was celebrated, and therefore had a stronger understanding of the features of the play.

These lessons were fun and memorable, of course, but I also saw increased engagement and a deeper, more robust understanding of the topics being discussed. It helped to unlock the creativity of the students who were able to see the texts being studied through a new angle.

Application to other subjects

Of course, these are English-specific examples but I have seen many former colleagues and teaching friends create truly immersive lessons that have had just as much impact in other subjects.

History

  • One of my coworkers would organise a First World War relay race in the corridor, where teams competed to see who could put on the heavy jackets, cumbersome boots and fit a gas mask the quickest. This meant students were given just a small sense of the experience of a gas attack, and also supporting their understanding of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, which we were studying.

Physics

  • My brother, a physics teacher, would create “one prop murder mystery lesson”. For example, he brought in a crystal decanter and claimed he suspected that the giver of this gift was trying to kill him. The class had to figure out whether it was lead based or not by calculating the density of an irregular solid.

Computer science

  • Students imitate the inside of a computer, pretending to be the CPU, hard drive and memory, so they can visualise and experience how it all fits together.

Primary teaching

  • For a travel-writing module, a colleague created boarding passes and passports for the students to fill in before exploring the destination within the classroom. Different parts of the room focused on different areas of the country, which allowed for visual and kinesthetic learning.

Of course, time is precious as a teacher and doing this in every lesson would be unworkable, but, to me, throwing these sorts of lessons into the mix can have huge benefits for learners and teachers as a way to bring creativity, variety and a bit of fun to the classroom.

So, if you want to give it a go, these are three golden rules to follow:

  • Make immersive lessons student led so that your role is that of a facilitator or an observer. Give them space and freedom, where possible, and watch what they do with it.
  • Outsource as much as possible, from resources to ideas. Many colleagues will be happy to help you develop your ideas and lend you resources.
  • A simple prop can go a long way in helping the students to stretch their imaginations and allowing you to simulate a new environment.

Victoria Fenwick is a teacher at Shrewsbury International School in Thailand

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