Gathering Data Through All Senses: A Journey of Awareness

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This blog post is part of an ASCD partnership with Wonder Media. To see all blog posts from Wonder Media on the 16 Habits of Mind, you can click here. 

I’ve always enjoyed teaching the Habit of Mind: Gathering Data through All Senses because it offers so many opportunities to find joy in learning. Learning becomes a memorable event when it includes the beauty of music, the creativity of visual art, the intrigue of touch, the wonder of smell, and the delight of taste. As our learners have become more and more engaged with technology, I’ve seen both a shift in their awareness of their senses, and the importance of teaching this HOM. Each of the senses provide wonderful opportunities for learning – and when combined, can take our students ‘out’ of the classroom, and into experience- where we know authentic learning happens.

The 3-minute Wonder Grove instructional animation provides an excellent place to begin teaching this HOM to young learners, and I’ve used it in the following way with great success. I start by duplicating Mrs. Flowers ‘mystery’-  in my own way. I put a few handfuls of buttered popcorn into a large paper bag with a question mark on it. I rattle the bag for the kids and invite them to imagine what might be in it. I then place a piece on their flat palms and ask them to first smell, then touch, then taste. When they think they know what it is, they raise their hands. When all hands are raised I open the bag and invite them to look. It’s popcorn! Then we watch the brief animation together. The kids enjoy seeing the animated characters making guesses and references that are close to theirs, as well as sharing personal ideas.

Over the course of my teaching career I have taught all grades, K-12 and beyond. Regardless of age, the senses are central to how students learn and develop, and like every skill – awareness is everything! Gathering Data with All Senses can apply to skills that are necessary for success in every academic subject. Listening to music with a variety of objectives, for example, is a great way for students to work on the skill of attending. Counting measures, tracking instruments, following along with lyrics or spoken word are a few options to connect music with numeracy and literacy in an experiential way. Reflecting on the variety of feelings students experience while listening or describing why they identify with some music are ways of going ‘deeper’ into the experience of learning and can lower affective social filters, and teach empathy.

Over the years I have combined this HOM with Managing Impulsivity, and often use a listening activity to calm and connect students with the awareness of focus and returning to the present. Students sit straight with their eyes closed with arm bent at the elbow with a closed hand at shoulder height. I ring a temple bell and they listen carefully. They must wait until they can no longer hear any sound at all and the lift one finger to indicated ‘the end’ of the sound vibration. They must manage their impulse to raise a finger until there is no sound – which requires careful, intense, and focused listening. I observe their listening for the first few rounds, and whoever is closest is selected to be the “bell master” the next time we do the activity. The bell master must then add the sense of sight to watch for the peer who is closest in indicating the end of the bell tone – and who will be the next bell master. We discuss what it feels like to be present and aware, and how we can use our senses to manage our impulses.

Storytelling can be equally enhanced by calling on the senses – as an audience and as writers. For example, I listen to “Peter and the Wolf” with elementary students; as a way to both teach the instruments in an orchestra, and illustrate the ‘journey’ that can be a part of classical and symphonic music. In the same way, students identify passages in literature that include sensory details, and learn to add sensory description to their own narratives to brings them to life.

Science and health are excellent subjects to teach Gathering Data with all Senses as both often require the senses for observation and collection information. “A Slice of Life” is a fun science and health activity for young learners. Three slices of white bread are the subjects of the investigation – all placed in separate, sealed plastic baggies. The first is placed in the baggie using tongs – untouched. The second piece is passed around and handled and touched by all the students, the third passed around and breathed on by all the students. The bags are pinned to the board and observed over a period of time, and finally opened for the students to examine using their senses. Obviously, there is a dramatic difference between the untouched slice and the one handled by the students – a photo of this slice can be used as a reminder of the importance of washing our hands!

With older students, the investigation of the senses can go deeper, and beyond the major 5. Students are interested to learn about how the insect and animal world ‘sense’ danger, and the variety of unique ‘receptors’ that are used to this end. Students are equally fascinated by ESP, remote location, and paranormal human abilities to sense and ‘know’ things – and well as the importance of ‘hunches’, and the ability to ‘tune in’ to what is going on around them to inform their responses and behaviors.

Studying the lives of individuals who have experienced challenges with the senses can be very meaningful to students as well. I have often used the lives of Helen Keller and Ludwig von Beethoven to inspire both my SpEd and GenEd students – not only in the interest of valuing the senses we often take for granted, but being aware of the opportunity that challenge can present in our lives. Valuing our senses and using them is important and can add depth and meaning to both the joy of learning and living. Encourage your students to “stop and smell the roses”, “see the best in everything”, “listen with their hearts and minds” and “get in touch with the world around them” and lead by example!


Sandra Christensen Brace is Director of Education Partnerships for Wonder Media in Los Angeles, California. After nearly 30 years in the classroom, teaching all levels from Kindergarten to University, she is currently focused on expanding the reach of literacy technology and the Habits of Mind. A certified HOM PD Facilitator, Brace has presented internationally and contributed to multiple HOM publications and resources including: The Power of the Social Brain, Learning and Leading with the Habits of Mind, and Habits Center Stage: Using Drama.