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Social & Emotional Learning and the Power of Perspective

When we explore Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), there are many tools and strategies that are available for us to use and promote within our classroom. However, perspective-taking (or the ability to view a situation from different perspectives, and therefore make sense of others’ thoughts and feelings) is a hugely important step in developing empathy - a cornerstone of social and emotional learning.

In an article by educational psychologist, Hunter Gehlbach, social perspective-taking is described as the single-teachable capacity that anchors almost all of our social interaction:

“This capacity allows us to interpret the motivations and behaviors of our friends and neighbors, or to see situations from the point of view of strangers, or to understand and appreciate values and beliefs that diverge from our own. Without it, we cannot empathize, engage in moral reasoning, love, or even hold a normal conversation.”

We were lucky enough to work on an incredible project called We Are the Rangers – a collaborative effort between partners across diverse sectors such as the creative arts, the tech industry and the third sector. This project created 5 inter-related Minecraft Worlds in which students are able to take an exploratory expedition to a Wildlife Reserve in Africa to greater understand the issues of Wildlife Trafficking. While these lessons cover a variety of themes (ecosystem dynamics and sustainability, the role of a wild-life ranger and the threat of extinction for elephants and rhinos, as well as the way in which genetic scientists are using DNA to track – and stop - international wildlife crime), there is one lesson in particular that facilitates perspective-taking and the development of empathy, and which aims to drive home the importance of both of these things in any problem solving scenario. The lesson, Humans and Elephants explores the issue of human-wildlife conflict and is based on a real-world case study of villages is Botswana.

Human-Wildlife Conflict – The SEL Dimension

In the Okavango Delta region of Botswana, 15,000 elephants compete with 15,000 humans for their survival. The area is similar in size to Yellowstone National Park and is of importance because the Okavango River and Delta offer rich sources of food, water and habitat – for both humans and elephants.

In earlier lessons, students learn about the importance elephants as a Keystone Species in our ecosystem, how they are under threat and how Wildlife Rangers are battling to conserve them. Up until now, students have very much viewed humans as the threat in the ecosystem. In this lesson, the tables are turned and students are invited to explore Minecraft Village 1, listening carefully to the accounts of villagers describing the ways in which elephants are a threat to them, their farms, their livelihoods and their families.

What students come to learn from their investigations in Minecraft is that elephants are migratory. They move with the seasonal variations in water, wandering the same paths that their ancestors walked for generations before. These movements coincide with harvest time on farms, and take them through many villages; villages that were not there in their ancestors’ days. The rains in the Delta are unpredictable and the soils are poor, growing enough crops to feed a family is only just possible. In these circumstances, competition for resources is inevitable. Students come to understand that elephants will raid crops and farms, they will trample homes and destroy the only source of food people have – and people do die as a result. It is not surprising that people are afraid of elephants during this season, and will hunt and kill them when they get too close. We invite our students to consider the balance in the perspectives – can they peel away their initial assumptions and dig a little deeper to understand the reasons behind the behaviour – of both elephants and humans?

In Minecraft Village 2, students visit a village in Botswana where villagers have been educated about the needs of elephants, how this shapes their behaviour during the wet and dry seasons, and how valuable they are in the ecosystem. Without this keystone species, their farms would not be viable in the long-term. Students explore the solutions to human-wildlife conflict and meet villagers who share how they are diversifying their farms by developing products and services related to elephant eco-tourism.

The discussions that we have had with students after this lesson are incredibly rich and insightful, and demonstrate a developing respect for the underlying issues that lead to behaviours and choices that, at first glance, can seem dangerous or immoral. Students tell us that some of their favourite solutions to crop-raiding by elephants involve bee-keeping and cultivating chilli plant borders around field boundaries - especially since there are bonus products like honey and chillies that farmers can sell.

There are many ways to address Social and Emotional Learning in the classroom. Perspective-taking, the ability to perceive a situation from multiple viewpoints is crucial. In teaching our students to become aware of multiple perspectives, to consider that there may be more than one side to the story, we invite them to put judgement to one side in favour of exploration. This capacity may also encourage students to consider values and beliefs that are different from their own, and create a mindset that is open and able to approach problem-solving in a way that seeks to truly understand the underlying issues. These are students that will succeed not only in a 21st Century Classroom, but as Global Citizens in a world faced with complex, multi-dimensional challenges.

We Are the Rangers was developed through a creative collaboration between Adam Clark, Johan Kruger & Immersive Minds and funded by United for Wildlife and Microsoft. You can find out more about the project and access all of the resources here


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