Teaching Strategies to Make Your Lesson Multisensory


"Oh my god, I literally love the way this stores smells.  I literally have to go in" screams every teenager as they pass Abercrombie & Fitch.  A & F approaches sales like most retail stores do: using image, sex, and stereotypes.  However, they also take advantage of psychology and hack into the systems that control our behavior.

A & F uses a multisensory approach to make shopping an enjoyable experience.  Walk into an A & F store and you're bombarded with the typical good looking, stereotypical model.  I want to look like them, I'll buy the clothes.  But you are also side-slapped with an overwhelming fragrance and lung thumping music.

Why?  There is science behind it.  And further, there are implications for education.


"Loud volume leads to sensory overload, which weakens self-control."  Few people want to part with their money.  By weakening self-control, A & F makes parting with money a bit easier.
In short, self control regulates spending; A & F plays loud music to modify their customers behavior.

But the scent!
"the olfactory cortex is embedded within the brain’s limbic system and amygdala, where emotions are born and emotional memories stored."
In other words, the same part of your brain that processes emotions processes smells.  Smell and mood are linked neurologically.  Have you ever heard of aroma therapy...?

A & F uses scent to induce an emotional experience.  Emotional experiences are remembered.  A & F attempts to embed the positive experience of spending money into their customer's memory.

In summary A & F uses a multisensory approach to control the behavior of their customers, and it works.

What can educators learn from them?  Can we use a multisensory behavior control approach in education?

Yes we can, with amazing results.

In the post below we'll answer three questions:
Does the brain combine senses when making a memory?
What implications does multisensory exposure have in schools?
How can we make an activity more multisensory?

Does the brain combine senses when making a memory?
Music Conductors received audio and visual information which resulted in more of the brain being used (that's a good thing!)
Neuroimaging is unlocking the secret workings of the brain.  Seeing is believing, and we are able to take pictures of the brain processing multisensory interactions.  It was once largely accepted that senses were processed separate and independent of one another and that multisensory processes were the (negative) exception.  What was once considered to be an exception is now know to be the rule: the brain processes information from all of the sense together.


We also know that unisensory processing is not the case from an illness.
"On a drive back from New York City this spring, Deven Westland felt the chain link fences along the highway rush into his mouth, leaving a metallic taste.
In conversation, Westland saw spoken words hang in the wire, each printed on a differently colored background.  As he brushed his teeth, the water poured red from the faucet."
Devin has an unusual disorder called synesthesia.  His brain combines sensory inputs in unique ways.  A syesthetes can taste sights and hear colors.  (He is also an artist, support him here).

He is not alone in his creative expression.  It turns out many "creatives" suffer from synesthesia, Nikola Tesla being one of them.

John Medina, in Brain Rules, discusses how synesthesia highlights the brain's process of combining multiple sensory inputs to create a memory.  It is evidence that the brain perceives and learns about the world using all of its senses.  However, a syesthetes' brain combines the inputs in inappropriate ways leading to unique and uncomfortable experiences.

What implications does multisensory exposure have in schools?
In short, instructors are teaching the wrong way.

A traditional view of education is modularity: teach a skill using one sense-unisensory.  You lecture your students.  You have them do a worksheet.  You then have them work on the chalkboard.  This point of view assumes that the brain evolved in a unisensory environment, one where the brain perceived senses independent of one another, and is wrong.  

We evolved in a multisensory environment:
"unisensory-training protocols used for skill acquisition in adults can provide unnatural settings and do not tap into multisensory learning mechanism that have evolved to produce optimal behavior in the naturally multisensory environment.
John Medina writes:
"Knowing that the brain cut its developmental teeth in an overwhelmingly multisensory environment, you might hypothesize that its learning abilities are increasingly optimized the more multisensory the environment becomes.  You might further hypothesize that the opposite is true: Learning is less effective in a unisensory environment."
Learning Styles Theory involves identifying a student's learning style and designing activities that cater to it.  For example, a student has a visual learning style: in response the instructor exposes the child to visual information.

A multisensory approach to education is related to a student's learning style.  Students perceive their environment using all of their senses, not just the preferred "learning" sense.  By incorporating a variety of senses during an activity, you can address all dominant learning styles in each individual in your classroom AND address weaker learning styles in the same individuals.
"This (multisensory) approach doesn't single out a specific learning style for a specific student.  A multisensory approach is an eclectic approach that teaches all children regardless of their preferred learning sytle."
 How can we make an activity more multisensory?
Though difficult, you want to include as many sensory inputs as possible during a teaching session.  As methods of sensory input increase, learning seems to increase.  More is better.

To make sense of this information and to incorporate this into our teaching, let's combine it with an already established practice: repetition.  The following idea again comes from John Medina and his Book Brain Rules.

Assuming that your prioritize repetition and incorporate into your lessons: try exposing your students to the same concepts but utilizing different senses.  The first time you teach a concept, taking advice from psychologist and learning theorist Richard Mayer, you read a word description accompanied by a picture (audio and visual).  After a predetermined elapsed period of time, you re-expose your students to the same concept but utilize different senses and the second time you have a physical, tactile example accompanied by a verbal explanation (touch and audio).

In general, you want to keep the sensory stimuli simple, relatively passive, and related to the topic.  Further, they don't need to be complicated.  For example: subvocalization is a verbal stimuli and highlighting is tactile.  Combine them together to create a powerful multisensory experience.


To summarize:
  • It is no longer thought that the brain deals with sensory information independent of one another.  It is now accepted that the brain processes sensory information together.
  • As educators, we need to be more cognizant of our overwhelmingly unisensory environment.  To make learning more effective, we need to be proactive about creating lessons that are multisensory.
  • Multisensory lessons are easier to develop than they sound.  Be thoughtful and start small: start by subvocalization, vivid visualizations, and active reading.
Thanks for reading.

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