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Oct 6, 2021

Why Games Make Powerful Social Emotional Learning Tools

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Amid a global pandemic, more students are struggling with social-emotional skills. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey from May 2021, more than 25% of high school students reported their social-emotional health has suffered. 

But how do teachers, in addition to curriculum, also teach social-emotional learning to teens who can sense insincerity from a mile away?

In this episode of EdTech Heroes, Nef talks with Susan Rivers, Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games, about how EdTech games can better teach social-emotional skills in a low-risk and more engaging way while still sticking to the curriculum map.


👋 Name: Susan Rivers

🖥 What she does: Susan serves as the Executive Director and Chief Scientist at iThrive Games.

🏫 Company: iThrive Games

✍️ Noteworthy: Susan started her career at Yale, where she researched how children learn to talk about emotions and realized that failure to understand our feelings leads to profound challenges later in life.

📱 Where to find Susan: LinkedIn | Twitter

Key insights

EdTech can tap into a teen's inherent penchant for risk-taking by providing risk-taking opportunities in a safe setting through games and other learning tools. According to Susan, the teen brain has some qualities that make it exceptionally open to learning. "[A teenager's] job is to understand how the world works and leave home, the family, explore, and take risks, but often we focus on the risk-taking behaviors of teens in a negative light [...] We need to think about the body and the brain of the teen as we're developing learning experiences that captivate and activate them and move them into their creative brains," she says.

Consult the students who will use your EdTech products, not just the teachers. Susan reveals that iThrive's first venture into games for teens was a “disaster” because they didn't ask teenagers to be a part of the design process. Now, iThrive has a successful collaboration with teens throughout the development and testing of new products. She is a self-professed cheerleader of collaboration. "If we're not creating something interesting or relevant or useful to them, there's no point. So we bring them early on, and we bring educators in early on. So if we're creating games or learning experiences for the classroom space, educators also have to be excited and interested and able to use it," she says.

Games have superpowers for engaging students in their learning, and EdTech companies need to utilize them to create powerful products that work. Susan tells Nef that teachers have reported great success with educational games and simulations. "When we approach a game, we expect that it's going to be fun and engaging. So we step into that creative part of our brain, where we're open to discovery, curious, ready to have fun. And that is a better space for you to be in, to learn and to engage and to be open, to connect," she says.

Episode highlights

🙋 Teens are hyper-focused on the concept of identity

"We kept coming back to this idea of identity. Teens are exploring who they are: who they are with their friends, with their family, who they want to be in the world. They're trying on different identities out there right now; they have a public presence [through social media]. That struggle of 'who am I?' and integrating their various perspectives of identity is a big task of adolescence. It's huge, and it's often not focused on in high school education.

[...] We love the idea of identity. We know that matters for adolescent development, and narrative storytelling is a core curricular standard learning goal for English language arts, so we smushed those things together to create a curriculum. So we have a multi-day curriculum [into which] we wove all of the social-emotional learning best practices that we know, and then this game.

Teachers [can use] the game as text and unpack it and weave into it conversations about identity and the world and how we make sense of who we are and what our public identity is and what our private identity is."

😎 EdTech can make learning more authentic by putting students in the driver's seat

"Years ago, I went to see the Situation Room Experience, a field trip-based simulation at the Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. Students walk into that space and are assigned roles in the president's cabinet and the press room and this fictionalized experience. For 75 minutes, you've never seen students more engaged in your entire life. And they're engaged in civics learning. They are debating; they are giving press reports; they're giving speeches. They could have stayed there all day. 

I noticed in that experience that there was no teacher doing anything in that space. There was tech to support the creation of this game, but the students had the power over what happened—so shifting that power dynamic, putting students in the driver's seat [was powerful]. They are capable, strong, creative, wise. They want to learn. 

Let's create spaces that embrace, support, and spark that."

💻 EdTech simulations provide low-risk yet authentic learning that is incredibly rich and powerful

"[Simulations create] a gym for practicing social-emotional skills, and you can't phone it in. You're stepping into this magic circle of 'I'm in this crisis,' or 'I'm in this space of wanting to uncover the story that I'm covering as a reporter,' and technology helps to make that come to life. 

Being face-to-face with your classmates while you're doing that, and them relying on you for information that only you have, and you needing to rely on them for information that only they have, creates that authenticity, but because it's a game, the risk of it goes away. So I'm playing a role. 

It creates a little more distance [for students to] be more self-protective because they're playing this role and are a little more free to play and have fun. So it creates that freedom to discover, experience, express, and you have this real connection, a memory you're building with your classmates. That's a peak experience, so it's going to be embedded deep in your memory, and you're connecting like you're having fun.

[...] It sets the stage for that deeper, authentic conversation that's happening in the moments that follow in that debrief and deepening understanding of whatever the policy or topic or media literacy, digital literacy that came up during the simulation."

💡 EdTech, more than traditional teaching methods, allows students to get on the ''learning highway''

"What's interesting about games and using tech to support learning, but not to replace face-to-face and human interaction, is that there are so many more opportunities for accessibility. 

Think about a student who's a struggling reader. They can't have conversations about a text they are supposed to have read and go deeper into character analysis and storytelling and the history of the time that's being talked about because they can't even read the text. It doesn't mean they're not capable of having those conversations at all. But if the text is English-based or hard to read, we've blocked that entire conversation and that deeper learning for them. 

What's fascinating about some of these narrative games or these simulations that we're creating is they're not always based on language. They're not based on reading. There are multiple places where you can access the story, so in some of these narrative games that we use, the color changes, the mood changes, the movement changes, the light changes, there's voiceover, there are video clips. You're getting the richness of narrative and character development [in a way] that's not reliant specifically on being able to read."

Highly quotable

  • [02:13] "When children don't learn to label their feelings, there's actually a whole host of challenges they experience from lack of connection to others to inability to ask for help or understand what help they need, and how to move forward. It really stymies action when we don't know what we're feeling and why."
  • [5:29] "What a magnificent organ the teen brain is in the bodies that those brains live in. It is an incredible moment for development. [...] The brain is sucking in new information at astonishing rates. Those neural networks that young people are practicing using are growing stronger, and the ones they're not using are beginning to disappear or sort of being pruned out of use. They're open to experience in ways that are just remarkable."
  • [18:54] ​​" I see sparks, and educators are like, wow, I didn't think I could do this. It's changing perspective on what's possible in the class."
  • [20:56] "My end goal is to create that transformation for educators, for students, so that the learning in the classroom is so deep, so engaged that it's really transformative."
  • [37:31] "Ask [students] interesting questions that you're genuinely curious about. And then listen to what your students have to say. Think about what they have to say and say, 'Hey, what would it be in this classroom to create an experience that addresses or takes into consideration things that you want to learn about? Let's make that happen because through design we learn.'"
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