Education is holistic. The brain processes information in a myriad of ways, and as individuals we unconsciously favour styles of learning that stimulate certain senses more heavily than others. Different things work for different people.
For example, let’s consider the four most common learner types:
- visual learners: prefer to visualise key information and concepts, through use of pictures, charts and so on.
- auditory learners: prefer to learn by listening to someone explain things to them.
- reading/writing learners: prefer to digest learning material in their own time and take plenty of notes to synthesise new knowledge and ideas.
- kinesthetic learners: prefer a more ‘hands-on’ experiential style of learning, by carrying out experiments, and participating in role-plays to make abstract concepts more concrete.
Obviously, a keen kinesthetic learner is going to feel like a bit of a fish out of water in a classroom environment that focuses heavily on listening to a teacher at the front of the room, and being instructed to take lots of notes. And vice versa, a student who loves nothing more than swotting up on a subject at their own pace and synthesising fresh knowledge in the form of note-taking, might feel a bit awkward participating in a course comprised of lots of collaborative experiments or role-play exercises.
The thing is, in years gone by traditional education has been a rigid one-size-fits all system that fails to flex around the immeasurable diversity of people’s preferred learning styles or abilities. As humans, we are an intricate mosaic of personality types, interests, and capability. Education should reflect this, but seldom has.
Fortunately, in recent years education has been evolving to meet these diverse needs.
The rise of multisensory learning methods, especially bolstered by digital technologies, have steadily expanded and evolved our understanding of what education means for different people, in different contexts.
Let’s take a look at what multisensory learning entails, how it’s improving delivery of meaningful education to people from all walks of life, and some leading examples of multisensory learning methods that are expanding our perceptions and expectations of what education means.
What is multisensory learning?
Dr Erica Warren, educational therapist and author whose website goodsensorylearning.com hosts a series of multisensory educational materials, explains:
“A multisensory approach to learning is a way of teaching that engages students by implementing lessons that activate more than one sense at a time. Multisensory ways of teaching have become more popular because they reach and engage greater numbers of students when compared to traditional teaching methods.”
Through multiple methods of engagement and stimulation, a multisensory approach plays to a learner’s relatives capabilities and preferred learning style, and therefore transcending one-dimensional teaching methods of old.
There a couple of clear benefits to the multisensory approach.
The first (and the most obvious) is accessibility. For those living with a disability or learning difficulty, multisensory learning offers a way-in to a world of knowledge and experiences, where in previous years they may simply have been left behind.
Let’s take literacy. For the visually impaired or dyslexic, multisensory methods harbour inclusivity. For example, through auditory or tactile means of communication, pupils less able to read printed text can participate in the same core material and concepts as everyone else.
But the benefits of multisensory learning aren’t just limited to those with special educational needs. Multisensory methods have opened up a far more expansive educational experience for everyone, period.
Dr Erica Warren sums up:
“Multisensory teaching can be particularly helpful for students with learning disabilities or special needs. But I think it’s a game changer for all students.
“The trick is to weave multiple ways of learning into one lesson or offer assignment options. For example, a lecture (auditory) can be enhanced with images (visual), discussions (interactive and verbal), written activities (tactile) and so forth. In addition, assignment options that tap into diverse ways of learning can allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in the most empowering and motivating ways.”
Reading, by nature, is a multisensory experience. When reading, our brains are constantly ‘decoding’ aural language into written text on a page (or screen). It’s a seamless, and for many of us, automatic interplay between sound, sight and touch that results in comprehension of words, ideas, concepts and stories that enrich our worlds.
But for some, traditional reading methods aren’t a walk in the park. For those with dyslexia or other special learning needs, a number of multisensory learning techniques and apps can significantly improve students’ ability to make meaningful connections between the sight of letters, their aural expression, and meaning.
For example, sand writing or sandpaper letter making, provide a tactile way for students to make connections between the look and sounds of letters and words.
Story sticks can also help students of all abilities to visualise the elements that make up a story, by engaging with different coloured cut out strips posing questions such as ‘Who are the characters?’ or ‘What is the setting?’.
Multisensory storytelling can also involve engaging students in different smells and textures that evoke a sense of place or emotion that reflects their perceptions of the plot, characters, and setting.
And of course, digital technology is pushing the envelope on the possibilities of literacy learning using multisensory techniques. Some stand-out mobile apps include:
- OG Card Deck: built on the Orton-Gillingham theory of literacy learning, the app uses multisensory flash cards to improve literacy.
- App Writer: comprised of text-to-speech software, context based word suggestions, and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to help with reading and writing.
- Sand Draw: providing a virtual version of the above-mentioned sand drawing technique, available for iPad.
Numicon’s mission is to ‘make maths real’. Based on a proven multisensory approach, Numicon encourages children to explore maths using structured imagery and tactile shapes, in order to understand mathematical concepts.
Dr Tony Wing, author and series editor at Numicon, explains: “Numbers don’t actually exist anywhere. But people talk as if they do. They’ve become such familiar objects to most adults.
“Parents talking to children will talk about numbers as if they exist. You can say, ‘Look there’s one on that bus’ — but actually, all you’ll see on a bus is a numeral. You don’t actually see a number itself. And that’s pretty confusing for children....because they meet this sort of thing very early on.”
Numicon sets out to change that. At the heart of the Numicon method is the use of colour-coded shapes designed to assist discussion and understanding of mathematical concepts. The shapes are simple and tactile. And crucially, they’re incredibly effective at translating the abstract concept of numbers, into something concrete and relatable.
On Numicon’s multisensory approach, Becki Bradshaw, publisher for Numicon at Oxford University Press, reflects:
“Mathematics is a great big developing conversation which involves a great deal more than just words. Actions, drawings, diagrams and pictures are involved, as well as lots of symbols. The heart of the Numicon approach is: action, imagery and conversation about relationships.”
TouchMath follows in a similar vein to Numicon, only more digital-based. Primarily delivered through a couple of mobile apps, TouchMath promises to ‘turn everyday math into an adventure’ for early learners of all abilities.
TouchMath’s Counting/TouchPoint Training app uses colours and patterns, related to everyday contexts such as sport, to help learners understand the association between numerals and their quantities.
And its Jungle Addition 1 app for iPad leads students on an adventure: unlocking the secrets of an ancient jungle mystery while mastering basic addition skills. It’s pure immersive play, where formal learning of mathematical concepts is secondary to the fun of playing any other game you might find in the app store.
Rapid evolution of digital tech has brought a cornucopia of multisensory products and apps that are fundamentally altering society’s expectations of how the world can be experienced.
Once one-dimensional objects and concepts are now the focus of a multi-faceted universe of sight, sounds, touch, movement, smell and taste. And perhaps in no other area of society is this having more of a positive impact, than in education.
Multisensory learning has immeasurably improved the quality of learning experience for students of all levels of ability.
It’s made knowledge and skills that were previously inaccessible to some, accessible. It’s made highly theoretical and abstract concepts, concrete and applicable to everyday life. And in encouraging learners to see the multiple possibilities for how a topic or problem can be approached, experienced and mastered, multisensory learning is providing future generations with invaluable skills in empathy, lateral thinking, and problem-solving that pave the way for type of creativity and innovation that the world now demands.