Citation: Baines, L. A. (2008). Teacher’s guide to multisensory learning. Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), pp. x-xii.
Two of the greatest challenges for teachers in the years ahead will be student engagement and achievement.
Multisensory learning techniques provide an effective, highly adaptable method for addressing both. The premise of multisensory learning is simple. When students invoke more than one sense, simultaneously or over a period of time, they tend to interact with the material more intensely and thereby retain what they have learned for longer periods of time. In multisensory learning, a teacher engages students through hands-on, visual, auditory, and olfactory stimuli, then links the activity to relevant academic objectives. It is through the reciprocal relationship between sensory input and thinking that multisensory techniques gain their power.
Sensory input without thought yields only transitory sensations. If you notice a funny smell in the classroom one day but are too tired to bother identifying it, then a natural gas leak might go undetected for weeks. Without a reason to remember sensory input, the information communicated via the senses disappears. How many windows do you have in your classroom? How many floor tiles? Although you teach in your classroom every day, unless you have a reason to keep such information in your head, the sensory input is lost.
On the other hand, thought without sensory input is difficult to retain. Anyone who has tried to study for a mathematics exam by memorizing formulas or slogged through pages of abstruse musings in philosophy journals knows the difficulties of trying to learn through abstraction without the benefit of real, sensory experience. For purposes of illustration, assume that an academic objective is for students to learn the definition of the word mephitic (which means offensive smelling or noxious). A traditional approach for teaching new vocabulary has been for students to copy a word three times, write its definition, then use it in a sentence. "It was mephitic" is the kind of sentence that students in my classes used to write when I made such a request.
Teaching the meaning of mephitic through multisensory stimuli would constitute a dramatic departure for both teacher and learner. Instead of having students flip through the pages of a dictionary to find and record a formalized definition they might not comprehend, a teacher would ask students to picture in their minds a foul-smelling odor. After students discussed the images in their minds that related to a foul-smelling odor, the teacher would show a photo of a chicken farm, an outhouse, and a smokestack emitting black puffs of industrial waste—all visual representations of mephitic. At the appearance of each image, the teacher would point to the word mephitic, perhaps written on the board in a large font, and pronounce it. Students would repeat "Mephitic!" after hearing the pronunciation by the teacher. Finally, the teacher would walk students outside to a safe area on the school grounds—perhaps a grassy patch of land or a piece of empty asphalt. After students gathered around, the teacher would spray a fetid scent into the air. As students pinched their noses and complained about the smell, the teacher would say, "Mephitic."
Learning the meaning and pronunciation of mephitic through such a process would take approximately the same amount of time as using the "write three times/define/use in a sentence" approach. Yet, students who participated in the multisensory experience of mephitic would likely retain the word's meaning for the next 60 years, whereas students participating in the quiet seatwork lesson likely would not retain the meaning until the end of the class period.
The tenets of multisensory learning are already familiar to the handful of specialized doctors, psychiatrists, and educators who routinely work with individuals with severely impaired mental capacities. The research base that affirms the power of using multisensory approaches with learning-disabled children and adults is vast and growing—I cite only a fraction of the available studies in this book.
In reading descriptions of the quantum leaps in motivation and achievement experienced by participants in multisensory studies, I have marveled that the techniques were not co-opted by teachers years ago. Because multisensory approaches have been used effectively with populations of profoundly disabled students, it seems logical that similar techniques would work in classrooms of the nondisabled. Yet multisensory techniques remain relatively obscure in nontherapeutic settings such as classrooms.
Instead of focusing on making learning more engaging, relevant, and enduring, the emphasis in some schools seems to be on assigning and assessing. Often, the specter of the state standardized exam is the rationale used to justify a seemingly intractable assign-and-assess approach to learning. However, assign and assess has proven time and again that it can deliver, at best, mediocre academic results of limited duration, even when the sole unit of measurement is the test score. Indeed, how unsatisfying it must be to teach expressly to a narrow, predetermined curriculum for the purpose of documenting tiny, ephemeral increments in test scores.
When a student is asked to read a story silently from a textbook and answer the questions at the end of the story in complete sentences, what is being learned? Basically, such an exercise evaluates a student's ability to perform two tasks:
1. To independently extract meaning from dark squiggles on a page (words). 2. To communicate a précis of the meaning of the squiggles to an audience of one—the teacher.
In this scenario, the teacher is not doing anything to influence the understanding of words or the formulation of a written response. The teacher has merely assigned a task, then assessed the extent to which students can independently perform the task. There has been no discovery, no interaction, no risk, no negotiation, no learning. Of course, silent reading is an essential practice, but the point is that an assign-and-assess approach teaches little. Assigning and assessing do not alter the behaviors in which students already engage; this approach merely involves recording them. On the other hand, multisensory techniques have the power to be transformative—to change student behavior. In contrast to the somber routine of assign and assess, multisensory techniques can make learning enjoyable.
To download a free copy of chapters 1-2 from A Teacher's Guide to Multisensory Learning, click here. You can find copies of the book at B&N, Amazon, and other booksellers. Last time I checked, you could get a used copy for a couple bucks.