I sit writing this in Somerset and considering myself lucky that I live and work on the Mendip hills and not on the flooded levels. As I decide what to write about the effects of our senses on our learning, it occurs to me that those who hear about the floods on their radios have an awareness of what has happened and how difficult it is for those whose homes and livelihoods are under water. Those who have seen footage on the news or photos in the papers will have an even better understanding, will experience a stronger emotional reaction, and will have much stronger memories of these events. But those who visit the Somerset levels to clamber over the sandbags, wade through the water, and smell the sewage are the ones who will really have a powerful experience and will retain powerful memories of what this was like – probably for the rest of their lives. Let’s not even think about what may happen if we were to taste the water!
There is a large body of research that shows that stimulating all the senses has a profound effect on learning. If our senses are engaged to create a whole mind/body experience, we form long lasting memories and our learning is embedded into our very being so that we recall and use what we’ve learnt very quickly and easily. Our sensory organs are often referred to as “the window to the brain” and the more sensory stimulation we receive, the more neural connections are made and the organisation and functional activity of our brain is improved. By building on the plasticity of the brain in this way we can help people to learn better, do more, and access their true potential.
The use of visuals, textures, sounds and smells also helps to increase concentration, alertness, calmness, and general awareness of the surroundings, and people are happier, tend to speak more and are more focused on the task.
I always aim to build a range of sensory experiences into my training, and was keen to learn more about what other people do, so I did a little internet based research to find out. But almost all the available information was about using the senses when teaching children rather than adults, which led me to wonder why there is an acceptance that children learn best when engaging all the senses, but when it comes to adults this is overlooked. Often the use of sensory stimuli in training is seen as an add-on or a gimmick just to make training more “interesting” or “fun” rather than it being an integral part of the learning process. Is engaging all the senses deemed to be “childish” and not suitable for professional, responsible adults? As a baby or toddler, we learnt about the world by feeling and handling things and putting them in our mouths or throwing them around. Discouraged by adults from doing so, we began to learn more through looking and hearing, and as time goes on, our learning path is made increasingly narrow, to the point where, for many, learning experiences involve sitting in a windowless room being talked at for hours on end. Is this really what we want for our learners?
As trainers, most of us use scented marker pens, play music, provide fiddle toys and nibbles, get people moving around and use lots of images, but there is so much more we can and should be doing to build the use of all the senses into our learning activities and we should be much more innovative in the way we do it.
On March 21st I’ll be facilitating a workshop at the Brain Friendly Learning Group looking at Multi-sensory learning. I’m really looking forward to finding out what others are doing that really works, sharing my own ideas and experiences, and helping the group to generate lots of creative new ideas for making learning a truly multi-sensory experience. My plan is to collate the ideas and share them in my next blog so watch this space!