Learning occurs in multisensory environments

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Why does research about how children learn best often ignore the fact that learning always occurs in environments where information stimulates many senses? And that children’s age and experience affect how they react to multisensory learning information? Instead of being ignored, these insights should be carefully used to inform practice and create appropriate learning environments, while helping teachers understand how best to promote the learning of each individual child.

Let’s imagine a typical day in kindergarten. Ms. Brewer tells her students that today they will be working on the alphabet. She starts by explaining that the sound “a” is represented by the visual symbol she writes on the board: the letter A.

Marie, who is often quicker than her classmates to comprehend a new concept, easily grasps the connection between the vowel sound and the written letter, despite the fact that this association seems rather arbitrary to her at first. Her classmate Natalia is quite sensitive to audio-visual information, so making the connection between the sound and the visual symbol helps her memorize what the letter A represents.

But Peter finds it difficult to process all of this new information so quickly. During the next few minutes, he confuses the letter A and the sound it represents with other letters the teacher introduces. He fails to keep in mind the connection between the specific written letter shape and the sound. Noticing his confusion, Ms. Brewer explains, “Just think of a stepladder. Before you set it up, it looks like a straight line. Then, when you open it up, it forms an A shape. You can imagine it making a sound like an open mouth: “aaaaaa.” Now Peter gets it.

This is one example of how stimulating multiple senses – using a multisensory approach – can support learning.

“This unisensory focus limits our understanding of how children process information in classroom environments.”

Classrooms are cluttered, busy, social environments. As in other everyday settings, information in a classroom is typically multisensory – whether it is relevant to the learning task at hand (sound-letter, number word-quantity pairings, etc.) or quite irrelevant (classmates misbehaving, noise outside, etc.). However, nearly all explanations of the mechanisms that control attention in children (and adults) have focused on the presentation of either visual or auditory information, rather than both together. This unisensory focus limits our understanding of how children process information in classroom environments.

Several decades of research have shown that we are able to recognize people, symbols and everyday objects faster and more accurately when available information stimulates multiple senses rather than just one, such as vision or hearing. Studies that have recorded activity from brain areas that process even the simplest bits of visual or auditory information (for example, the orientation of visual lines or frequency of sounds) have shown that these areas integrate the stimuli from different senses.

“Our memories are stronger when the information is presented across multiple senses.”

These findings contradict the traditional view of how processing of information is organized in our brains. In fact, information is exchanged and integrated across the areas of the cortex that process stimuli much more than previously thought. For example, our group as well as others have shown that our memories are stronger when the information is presented across multiple senses. As in Peter’s case, it can be helpful to engage more than one sense in the learning process. These findings have far-reaching implications for learning and development.

Are children who benefit most from multisensory information also distracted more easily?

Our work has shown that children’s attention differs in response to unisensory and multisensory stimuli. Younger children, for example, may be protected against multisensory distraction when they are engaged in a demanding visual task; for older children and adults, in contrast, distraction is independent of task demands.

The involuntary effects of multisensory processes on attention can be positive if it is the education-relevant object, such as a letter or number, that is presented in a multisensory fashion. This promotes attention and the learning of important new information, as in Natalia’s case.

However, the effects can be negative if a person – like Natalia – is very sensitive to multisensory information and tends to be more distracted by (multisensory) noise both within and outside of the classroom. Indeed, a person who benefits greatly from multisensory information might traditionally have been considered to have attention deficits!

“A person who benefits greatly from multisensory information might traditionally have been considered to have attention deficits.”

Perhaps the best way to understand learning as it occurs in everyday environments is to conduct research that extends traditional task paradigms, which are designed to investigate attention, learning and memory that are either solely visual or solely auditory. These extensions should take into account the demands of everyday environments – that is, investigate how children’s attention is influenced by relevant multi-sensory information, as well as by multi-sensory distractions. Over the past several years, my collaborators and I have been carefully integrating traditional models of attention, memory and cognitive development and what is known about multisensory processing.

Teachers may notice that different children attend differently to visual and multisensory information. My team and other researchers are now more systematically investigating to what extent our findings concerning adult attention and learning also apply to children. However, the study of multisensory attention processes is still in its infancy.

It is crucial to understand the different ways in which multisensory processes can affect children’s learning and attention

And what happened in our kindergarten classroom? It seems likely that Maria, with her ability to create representations of relevant (multisensory) bits of information, was one of the first in the group to learn to read fluently. Natalia, who finds it easy to integrate audiovisual information, learned to read at about the same time as most of the group. The same mechanisms that enabled her to attend to multisensory cues from Ms. Brewer also allowed her to be distracted by classmates and by events outside the window.

And Peter? In the end, Peter did not lag behind the rest of the group in learning to read and do basic arithmetic. Why? Because of Ms. Brewer’s keen eye and continual efforts to adjust her explanations to Peter’s apparent need to relate new concepts to familiar objects and ideas, a need shared by some of his classmates.

“Less experienced teachers, or teachers with large classes, would greatly benefit from the insights of research on multisensory attention and learning.”

As an experienced and insightful teacher, Ms. Brewer sensed how she could best help her students learn. Less experienced teachers, or teachers with large classes, would greatly benefit from the insights of research on multisensory attention and learning – especially when they are based on education-relevant material.

It is important to focus specifically on the role of the neurocognitive processes that underlie multisensory attention in shaping educational outcomes. As chair of a symposium at the 2018 IMBES Conference in Los Angeles, I plan to present some of our exciting initial findings regarding such links.

It is my hope that near-future collaborations among visual and auditory (neuro)scientists, multisensory researchers and educators will provide more insight into how children learn in everyday, multisensory environments. This will help shape education policies and promote more effective in-classroom practices.
 
 
Author’s note

In this blog post, I have ascribed certain known multisensory processes to different pupils in an effort to help the reader understand the different ways in which distinct multisensory processes can influence human learning. I am not, however, referring to what are commonly called “learning styles,” a concept which – despite widespread use – is not supported by evidence.

The purpose of the biannual IMBES Conference is to facilitate cross-cultural collaborations in biology, education and the cognitive and developmental sciences. Our objectives are to improve the state of knowledge in and dialogue between education, biology, and the developmental and cognitive sciences; create and develop resources for scientists, practitioners, public policy makers, and the public; and create and identify useful information, research directions, and promising educational practices. The 2018 conference took place in Los Angeles, California.

The author of this blog post, Paul Matusz, chaired the symposium “The elephant in the (class)room: Learning occurs in multisensory environment”.

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