How to Train Your Brain: Gathering Data Through All Senses

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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. 

If you’ve ever studied a diagram of the human brain and where the senses are located within it, you will understand why this Habit of Mind is so powerful in building intelligence; it, literally, causes you to use the whole brain!  As the learner experiences a learning event, the more sensory modalities we can engage, and the greater the chance that the learning will “stick”.  Our brains crave novelty and if we can provide that in our lessons, our young learners will benefit immeasurably!

If you have had children or have watched babies as they develop, you’ve seen that they are masters in learning about their environment.  My grandson, who just turned two, went through that phase where he couldn’t learn about an item unless he stuck it in his mouth.  He now believes French fries are a pretty important food group and he’s picked upon the sensory value of ketchup and ranch dressing.  His grandmother, my wife, has made certain he has had lots of toys to stimulate his auditory senses with things to blow into, rap upon, press buttons on and most other forms of making, mostly, irritating sounds.  But, he loves them!

We were standing in his yard one afternoon when a flock of honking geese flew over the house and he immediately looked up and identified “birdies” as he pointed at them; he was making the mental connection between the sound and the visual appearance of Canada geese.

Movement, our tactile sense, also helps us make connections while learning.  A kindergarten teacher-friend of mine once did a lesson on learning the alphabet using a sand pan.  As we experienced her lesson we used our fingers to trace the letters while also saying them and their phonetic pronunciation.  We were seeing the letter, feeling the letter as we drew it in the sand, and hearing it as we modeled her pronunciation of, in this case, the letter “A”.

From her demonstration, I knew that I had not learned the same construction of the letter “a” as a child. It felt unnatural to first draw the horizontal line and then the loop. I had learned a different method! Now, one has to ask, how was it that I knew I had learned another construction method for that letter “a” over 55 years ago?  I had put that learning into my brain using more than one of my senses and I was retrieving it these decades later!

I’ve always considered our sensory files much like those found in a filing cabinet or folders on your computer desktop. The more places you store those files, the better the likelihood that you will be able to retrieve them at a later date.  If you can create lessons that use two or more of the senses it is more likely that your students will keep that experience in their learning bank.

I am no lower grade level teacher but I’d think it would be a great experience to teach the letter “A” using an apple.  One could ask the learners to close their eyes and pass around an object and ask them what they feel and have them describe it. “Smooth, slick, stem, round (sort of)” might all be descriptors.  Now ask them what color the apple is!  Whoa!  They will probably open their eyes immediately unless one were to prompt them strongly not to do so!  With the variety of apples available you could go from Granny Smith green, golden delicious yellow to a myriad of shades of reds.

Now, let’s prompt the students to use other senses as you slice some of apples.  Ask them to smell the apple and describe the smell.  You could have them close their eyes and circulate some orange slices or pear wedges and ask them if they were apples to test their olfactory senses. Interestingly, our sense of smell is our strongest memory enhancer!

And, finally, how fun would it be to get to taste those apples?  The sweetness of a delicious apple to the tangy tartness of a Granny Smith would certainly provide some gustatory input for those young brains.

Wouldn’t this activity be a great introduction to our study of the letter “A”?  “A” is for apple, “A”. We can then model the letter and its pronunciation, “ay, ay, ay”.

So, a quick accounting indicates we’ve used our sense of touch, sight, smell, and taste as we created this learning experience; we enabled them to use most of their senses!

As I write this I’m looking at my grandson’s toy box and the toys that are in it.  I see a plastic horn, a drum, several sizes of balls of different textures and colors, a wooden flute and a couple of others, but the one I really want to talk about is the “corn popper” toy.  This is the one that the child pushes along the floor to make a number of colored balls “pop” as it moves.   The balls are of various sizes and colors, green, blue red, orange and purple.  The handle is blue and the wheels are red.

Does that “corn popper” meet our “collecting data with all the senses”?  Well, not quite all, but as they push the toy along the floor, they experience sound, sight, and touch. No wonder it has been a childhood favorite for decades!  I had one and I’m 63, so I share the same experience as my 2 year old grandson!

Using all of our senses is a powerful tool!  A teacher of the year friend of mine just shared a story on Facebook about how one of his chemistry students pointed out that he had two different shoes on his feet.  Being only a second-year teacher he said he was embarrassed instead of using it as an opportunity for a learning experience. He could have said, “Why, that’s correct!  That’s a great observation and means you are using your powers of observation.”

In closing, I’ll share a story of Walter Kent, III.  As we were talking about our senses in my class, we discussed unmistakable smells.  Baking bread, popcorn, cookies, a skunk– to which, Walter, a 7th grader, raised his hand: “Sir, I’ve never smelled a skunk.”  I was incredulous, “Walter, how is it you’ve never smelled a skunk” (an experience I was certain every student living in Nebraska has had to have had).  “Sir, I moved here from New Jersey.”  I took him at his word and found that New Jersey is 100% urbanized so, perhaps, Walter had never smelled that skunk!

Gathering data with all our senses is a powerful way to learn and evaluate our environment.  It is important to use those math manipulatives, hands-on science experiments, introduce new smells and, maybe, on those special occasions introduce new flavors as you read a new story. Each of our senses stimulates and is stored in a different region of that growing brain!


Bob Feurer spent 37 years teaching 7-12 science and coaching three sports at North Bend Central P.S. in North Bend, NE.  He retired from the classroom and has been elected to the local school board.  He considers himself as a blue color habits of mind practitioner as he is self-taught after reading Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum and Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind.  He recently received his certification as a HOM professional developer. Feurer is a third-generation teacher and his daughter the fourth.  He was the 2011 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

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